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14 August 2018

They Find Their Way In

An analysis of my experimental voice practice

Sonya Holowell Image: Sonya Holowell  
© Josef Goding

Improviser and experimental vocalist Sonya Holowell is one of the artists involved with the Resonant Bodies Festival at Carriageworks, Sydney, on 31 August - 1 September 2018, as well as the Soft Centre event at Casula Powerhouse in Western Sydney on 22 September. In this article, she explains and demonstrates some of her techniques and influences by analysing a recent solo improvised performance. Read also: Jane Sheldon's article (16 May 2017) about the background of the international Resonant Bodies Festival.

I have been a vocalist for about six years, specialising mostly in new and early music. In recent times I have steered away from pre-composed repertoire to pursue the compositional freedom of improvising. I consider my current improvising practice to be a culmination of my diverse backgrounds in a broad range of musical styles. My improvising is not a rejection of past learnt conventions but the ultimate expression of all my influences and latent creative urges, embracing the unknown and remaining open to outcome. The 'rules' I have learnt are now tools for my practice and past conventions now function as research.

As a musician I draw many parallels with extra-musical and trans-disciplinary terminology. Many of the elements inherent to the visual arts are features of my work's aesthetic, objectives and mechanisms, such as my frequent use of visual or tactile definitions of 'texture'. I've felt it best to discuss these and other aspects of my work through the analysis of a recent solo improvised performance (link to Soundcloud - see also embedded below). While each improvisation of mine is different, there are some common aspects which are well represented in the performance I have chosen to exemplify. I will identify key features of some sections, sharing insights into pertinent aspects of my technique, aesthetic and influences.

Impetus and influence

The opening of the improvisation is a great example of the way in which I bring all available contributors, whether from external sources or from within myself, to participate in the liminal act of improvising. A motorbike from the street can be heard in the space, which absorbs into the performance through my vocal 'mirroring'. It functions as an impetus for sounding, planting seed material that I proceed to work into patterns.

Sonya Holowell: solo improvised voice performance
at the 2018 EMUS Presents festival, Sydney.

Over the years, my musical preferences have included a diverse array of music, from early sacred chant to electronica, the latter of which I continually revisit. I particularly enjoy the rhythmic and textural glitch aspects of IDM, and enjoy incorporating these rather inhuman, mechanical attributes into the unlikely medium of the organic, acoustic solo voice. Later on in the improvisation is a great example of the influence of electronic music on my own. My treatment of rhythm in this section I would liken to the skipping of a record, or quantised repeated electronic material, while this sudden drop and slide upwards is reminiscent of a vinyl beginning to spin.

My background in electronic music production has also informed an interest in different types of psychoacoustic phenomena. I repeated the high notes here because I loved the decay effect they produced in the space. It lent a metallic, electronic sort of aspect to the music by provoking resonant room frequencies, where the space resonated back its own metallic sound. I recently explored the idea of the space as collaborator in performances of Oliver Beer's Composition for Tuning an Architectural Space in a stairwell of the Sydney Opera House.

Cultural influences also manifest in my improvising. In this section I can hear the influence of Yidaki (didjeridu) on my musical aesthetic, noticing its unique sense of dialogue and contrast through the insertion of 'interruptions' into a primary or fundamental voice. Similarly, in this section here I introduce variation through forceful staccato interruptions, which not only provides contrast (a fundamental artistic consideration of mine), but also sets up a sense of dialogue, despite there being only one performer. This is important as it allows for a sense of provocation and response to exist in a solo work, which ultimately allows for vital tensions, like the tension between the restrained and the strident as demonstrated here.

There are also moments, during this performance, where I can hear the influence of specific repertoire in my playing. At this point I kind of 'fall into' material resembling a piece called Lotófagos by Beat Furrer, which I never actually performed but had looked at with the intention of one day adding to my repertoire. I have always loved the contrast of Furrer's chromatic gestures against the longer, stratospherically high notes. I think I recall becoming aware of this resemblance during the performance and trying to gracefully 'move away' from it! I subsequently began to make a feature of the slides towards the high notes; another example of my interest in sonic phenomena (this time as attack rather than decay), demonstrating the way I like to make something of techniques themselves, rather than using them solely as means to an end.

Sonya Holowell's performance of Kurtág's Attila József Fragments (Youtube)

I have also been quite influenced by a piece I performed a few years ago by György Kurtág called Attila József Fragments. I think it has influenced my tendency to form the architecture of my performances into 'movements', like statements ranging from passing thoughts to deeper contemplations that maintain a freedom to be 'songs' in their own right. These movements result from patterns of material that form micro and macro structures, or worlds within worlds. Because I can't predict the nature of the patterns I will make in an improvisation, I don't try to impose a predetermined structure on to the performance, other than to be mindful of when I need to be offstage. One of my favourite aspects of improvising is this structural unknown; it means I won't know the shape of the 'beast' until I've performed it. As also occurs in Kurtág's work, spontaneous recapitulations often arise in my improvisations as echoes or developments of past material, binding the work into a cohesive whole.

My melodic tendencies include the use of modes, chromaticism, extremes of register, repetition and sufficient dissonance. I live by Charles Ives's statement, 'stand up and take your dissonance like a man', though I don't need much encouragement. This range of inclinations explains my love for minimalism, Morton Feldman, progressive genres, Kurtág's intervals, atonality, microtonality (heard here) and early and Eastern music. I have been quite impacted by the melodies and treatment of line, the vocal tone colours, rhythms and general expressive sensibilities in Eastern cultures' musics.

This sectional transition depicts an aspect of minimalism denoted by repetition of the material in the octave above. I often utilise octaves because of the potential to create contrast while simultaneously reiterating an idea. It is essentially both repetition and variation in one gesture, which can help to connect sections together while differentiating them. I think there's also a nice 'virtuosity' in repeating material, particularly in different octaves; it implies intention, focus, restraint, control, accuracy and a command of the instrument.

The understated delivery of the text here could also be seen as a function of minimalism, with a focus on phonetics rather than narrative or emotion. This keeps it outside of expressionism and, while intense, avoids connotations of the 'mad woman'; a trope which is commonly seen in contemporary female vocal composition. I have a natural disinclination towards overt or explicit dramatisation and theatrics in my own performances, but don't mind it in others'.

The influence of my background in early and classical music comes through techniques, such as trills and vibrato, to shape the vocal line, and also through tone. This section generally exemplifies my preference for a wide variety of tone colours, of which a pure 'classical' tone is one. Tone offers me an enormous capacity for expression and is probably as close as I come to considerations of emotion. I think of tone more as a tool to express sensations rather than emotions; sensations in the body, psyche and imagination.

One such sensation that I often explore is the sensation of weight, demonstrated here. In considering weight, I am considering my own sense of mass as an object in the space, with an awareness of my physicality and sensations of my relationship with gravity. I use tone, register, dynamics and line as tools to elicit a sense of weight and incorporate guttural utterances to 'ground' the material.

Gestural painting

I consider myself to be marking line on a canvas when I cast my voice into the space. I further develop a sense of 'weight' in this section through increasingly emboldened projections or gestures which I liken to the gestural painting of abstract expressionist painters such as Jackson Pollock. Similarly to me, Pollock's impulses and gestures were simultaneous, spontaneous, reflexive, responsive, intuitive, communicative and highly improvised, but also highly intentional and controlled. Likewise, there is a great sense of intention and control in my improvising, despite this automatism. This is most evident in my sensitivity and concern for interval, pattern, repetition and variation, exemplified in this section through the placement of pitches.

Towards the end of the work the sense of weight shifts, remaining grounded while lifting off with the ethereal lightness of a helium balloon that is floating up while tied to the ground.

The influences on my work are diverse, welcome and necessary. Anything can indeed find its way in, but I must always have the freedom to choose it. It is through that freedom of choice that I make my best artistic decisions and where my experiences and identities find their truest expression.

In my current practice I am exploring preconception in improvisation, including the use of predetermined compositional parameters and extra-musical provocations for sound such as gesture and visualisation. I am also continuing to investigate spatial and design aspects in performance through parallel composition which will feature in my upcoming performance for Resonant Bodies Festival.


Thomas, M. T (2008) 'Charles Ives' Rambunctious "Fourth Of July"'. NPR Music, accessed 11 July 2018.

Jackson Pollock, 1987 [film]. Directed by Kim EVANS. UK: RM Arts.

Further links

Sonya Holowell - homepage (https://sonyaholowell.com/)

Resonant Bodies Festival 31 August - 1 September at Carriageworks, Sydney (AMC Calendar) - see also Carriageworks website.

Sonya’s practice in experimental and improvised vocal music is informed by her diverse background in music spanning centuries, genres and cultural contexts. Her award-winning performances have featured at many of the leading festivals for classical, new and experimental music. Upcoming performances include Resonant Bodies Festival at Carriageworks and Soft Centre at Casula Powerhouse, both in September of this year.


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