Thanks for joining me to talk about all things Resonant Bodies, Lucy! As I was brainstorming questions for our interview, I was playfully referring to it as the ResBods Empire and it got me thinking that you truly are the preeminent hub for contemporary vocal music. Your work on the festivals (in NYC, Sydney, and Chicago), the vocal music database, the podcast, your social media pages, your new summer festival at Banff (SINGERS: APPLY NOW), and more, are not only impressive but incredibly important. I know that none of this happened overnight and has taken a lot of effort and long-term commitment. To support that effort and commitment you’re currently running a Kickstarter campaign through December 31st which I highly encourage our dear readers to heartily pledge and back!
So, let’s get to the questions…
Can you describe your major milestones in thinking of yourself as a multifaceted singer, administrator, and thought-leader in the field of contemporary vocal music?
LD: ResBods began because as a young singer I wanted there to be a place where I could meet and hear other vocalists, put on a concert myself, discuss the work, and share resources that I myself needed—essentially, I wanted a community. When I created the festival in 2013, there were a huge number of vocalists whose work I was totally obsessed with. I admired their voices and performances, and I was intrigued by how they thought about programming. I also wanted all of these vocalists to meet each other and see each others’ work. I was fairly new to NYC and I wanted to make a statement about who I was as a singer, since I sensed I was getting pigeonholed for certain kinds of repertoire.
I have a knack for being bossy (no apologies, it’s who I am) and for intuiting how to organize things, so making the festival was just the next logical step. I didn’t set out to build an empire at all, though I am glad we are doing so much: I simply was passionate about the work. I love performers of all kinds—especially (and obviously) vocalists—and I truly love and am interested in the art.
I have an immense amount of passion and energy for this field, so I spend my time building it and sharing it with others. I think that’s something people sometimes forget: how much love has to fuel the work.
I had several experiences as a young singer that totally horrified me. I found the sexism and hierarchy of the opera world—and really the traditional classical music world in general— to be a complete turn-off. In undergrad I experienced and saw that singers were constantly belittled by pretty much everyone: we were the school bimbos—men, too. There was an expectation that we couldn’t read music, had no personal artistry, knew nothing of music history, and for all of these reasons we didn’t deserve the respect of our colleagues.
Often the mode of teaching was completely top-down: everyone else was an expert except you, even when it came to your own voice. I spent a long time trying to please others, trying to orient myself towards what I thought others wanted. My voice never fit into the classical world either: I was never going to be loud enough for American opera, and as far as voice type, I never easily fit into mezzo or soprano, and certainly not into a type (fach) within one of those. So what I have created now is very much in reaction to what I didn’t like about being a singer back then.
The essence of good teaching is to empower, to strengthen natural inquiry, and I was very fortunate to have some amazing teachers and mentors along the way who did that for me. And those experiences when I was encouraged to trust myself taught me the essence of being an artist: someone who is constantly looking inside, someone who knows how to listen to themselves. Knowing how you feel and being in touch with that is not part of the “imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy” (thanks, bell hooks!!) that we live in, but it is the most important skill to being a vocalist, and more generally, to being an artist.
So that’s what ResBods is all about: empowerment, inquiry, self-discovery.
We want to see who you are as an artist and we want to get as broad of a picture as we can. In the podcast we get to talk about that in detail: Why this repertoire? Why this style of singing? How did you get here? And then in someone’s set on the festival we get to see what they do with curatorial freedom. I find it thrilling to witness as a festival director/audience member, and as a singer (on the other side), it can feel terrifying yet empowering.
What are your guiding principles when programming for the festivals? Does it differ for each location?
LD: It definitely differs for each location. There are two very important parts of our mission that relate to this: first, to showcase what is happening in a “scene,” whether that is in NYC, Chicago, Sydney, LA, etc. So first and foremost, I am picking vocalists who are local to that area or vocalists who have a presence in that scene even if they don’t live there. The second part of our mission is to create a global network of contemporary vocalists, which means bringing non-local artists into the mix, for the benefit of the audience and the other festival artists.
Guiding principle number one for programming (beyond location) is that I have to think someone is going to be an amazing performer.
I find that no matter the medium, if the performance is riveting, I’m in. I’m sold. I love it. Even if it’s a style of music or theatre or dance that I didn’t think I would like. And it’s not that someone has to be a charismatic performer and that means they are super outgoing and jumping all around the stage: every performer has their super power, their magic. Some vocalists cast spells slowly and quietly on stage and I find their performances just as enriching as when someone wows me with their energy.
The second guiding principle—well that gets more complicated! On one hand we have to sell tickets, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing to keep in mind. This goes back to having local artists and giving them artistic freedom so that they are genuinely excited to perform on the festival.
I don’t want to represent one kind of vocalism across the whole festival, so I am thinking about how different performers approach the voice.
For example, does everyone on a particular night have a background in classical training? Do they identify chiefly as composers? As cheesy as it sounds, our logo is a gem, which represents to me the multifaceted world of contemporary vocal music. We can’t possibly offer a 360-degree view of what that is, but we try to offer different (metaphorical) facets.
How did the vocal music database come about and what are your goals for it in the future? How can singers and composers help contribute to the database?
LD: I love lists, spreadsheets, and sharing resources, so the Contemporary Vocal Music Database (CVMD) came out of those things and a personal effort to catalog repertoire and include links to listen to/watch it. Jeff Gavett already had his own spreadsheet of repertoire (which he used to collect programming ideas for Ekmeles, I believe) which he shared with me, so I merged his spreadsheet with my existing one, and then invited as many composers and singers as I knew to edit the spreadsheet—meaning, for them to add new information. We have a goal at ResBods to make it an *actual* database that is easy to search (like IRCAM’s Brahms database, or even the AriaDatabase) and that would require someone with programming knowledge. We also would like to have a Contemporary Vocal Music Database intern: someone whose only job is to input pieces and to share it with others. (So, if you know anyone who is a programmer or who is looking to be an intern….!!).
We would LOVE LOVE LOVE to have others add pieces to the list, and all you have to do is email me at resbods [at] gmail [dot] com saying you’d like to edit the database. I add you as an editor (you have to have a gmail-compatible email), and then you go in and add the pieces. We don’t have time right now to add pieces ourselves if you send us a list so we ask that you don’t do that.
One other thing I always like to mention too is that ResBods does not program pieces, so sometimes composers will send me their pieces hoping that I include them in the festival, and of course we leave that job to our featured festival artists. BUT! We did make a list recently which we called “150 Days of Vocal Music” where we asked for piece submissions, many of which we included in this list. I find myself using this list so often now: with singers who are new to contemporary music, audience members who want to do more listening, and composers who are looking for seminal contemporary works for the voice.
Why is it important for you and how do you communicate the value of raising the visibility of contemporary vocal music through the podcast, festivals, and social media?
LD: New music is SUCH an isolated, in-crowd scene, and the podcast, CVMD, our audio/video archive (collectively we call all these resources “Music Resource and Media Room” [MRMR]), are an effort to make it easier to enter this world and not be so intimidated by a knowledge gap. I am married to a composer and without his initial “insider” knowledge and advice, I’m not really sure how I would have found repertoire or have known whom to contact for scores and so on.
In general in contemporary music we don’t feel any obligation to make what we do “popular” but that can be interpreted as entitled, classist, and exclusive.
I love the music I am a part of making and I love the work of my colleagues: I want to at least attempt to share it with a wider audience than just other composers and vocalists in NYC.
Actually I was just on a grant panel and what I noticed was that for projects of relatively the same overall budget size, the classical music groups had a publicity budget of about $300 whereas every other genre of music had a MUCH larger publicity budget—more like $3000-$6000. I think this illustrates my point!
Your upcoming one-week program at Banff will have participants exploring topics like improvisation, extended techniques, live electronics, movement practices, and others. How do you feel like these competencies serve the 21st century vocalist?
LD: Singing is a creative field where there are advancements in the art form (electronics of all kinds being a basic one!). Our festivals serve as a kind of annual meeting for vocal scientists to come together and share their creative work. Without these kinds of meetings where we see what others are working on, we are simply working in isolation, which—as a performer—does not have a very interesting result.
As a 21st-century vocalist, you have to know what is going on and who is making advancements in what. You have to know Pamela Z’s work. You have to know Jennifer Walshe’s work. You have to know Sofia Jernberg’s work.
So at Banff, we hope to give not only vocalists but also instrumentalists and composers (and those who wear multiple hats as instrumentalist-vocalist, vocalist-composer, and so on) exposure to and initial training in a variety of current practices. The more you know, the more ideas you have, the more creative you can be, the more our field flourishes and grows. I am really looking forward to the forum aspect of Banff and the discussions that we will share—I will always be part vocalist, part philosopher, and that aspect (discussion) is really important to me.
What are three hard and/or soft skills that you have purposefully cultivated that you never envisioned being as important as they have been in your work?
- Promo skills.
- Writing a press release; photoshop; video editing. These skills have been CRUCIAL!! I am still using my Photoshop and layout skills ca. 2002 high school newspaper to do most of the visual design for ResBods (what the fabulous David Bird doesn’t design for us, anyhoo!).
- Goddammit it’s hard, and I am not good at it, but it is a skill I have really had to work on (webinars, classes, books, lots of generous advice from others!) and basically the future of ResBods depends on my ability to raise money for it. So while it’s not fun at all, it’s extremely important.
- Strategizing my schedule: how I use my time and energy.
- Working efficiently is key, whether it’s by myself or with others. Since everything I do right now is self-directed, I have to make sure I don’t get sidetracked by fun (easy) tasks or get too bogged down in more difficult ones—I really have to cover a lot of territory in one work session. Coming up with ways to stay on top of all the moving parts has been a fun challenge. I also have a tendency to run around with my non-scheduled time, and there are endless numbers of things one can do in NYC, but if I try to do them all then I don’t have any energy and I don’t get any work done! So it’s balancing the work I have to do with my desire to constantly be out at performances and being social (which is also part of my job, as I see it.)
“Vocal versatility and an omnivorous curiosity” (New York Times) are the hallmarks of Lucy Dhegrae, a passionate vocalist with a flexible technique that fits a variety of styles. She has performed with the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), Talea Ensemble, the Albany Symphony, among others, at such venues as Miller Theatre, Lincoln Center, and the Kennedy Center. Dhegrae, who is “everywhere new music is being sung” (New York Classical Review) regularly premieres new vocal works and operas, and has worked closely with such composers as Unsuk Chin, Jason Eckardt, Anthony Braxton, Alexandra Vrebalov, and Sky Macklay. As “soprano and raconteur” (The New Yorker) she directs Resonant Bodies Festival, which she founded in 2013.
Photo Credit: Ariadne Greif