Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

Arts & Culture

Songs without words

3 min read

Erin Gee’s vocal compositions trade language for simpler sounds

Anyone wandering by the Radcliffe Gymnasium on Wednesday (Feb. 17) would have wondered at the sounds emanating from the vaulted hall, and likely stopped to investigate. There they would have found a young woman with a microphone in each hand performing a curious and captivating symphony of sound and song.

Erin E. Gee’s compositions are as whimsical as they are hard to define.

Gee, a trained pianist and composer, grew unhappy with her works for voice and changed direction with her vocal compositions in the late 1990s, eliminating any comprehensible words in her text. She decided instead to rely on the International Phonetic Alphabet to structure the vocal sounds in her work, which range from buzzes and whirs to whistles and pops, all created with the human voice. The textual elements are arranged with a melodic line for a “vocalist,” and often include a line for instruments that frequently mimic the voice’s sounds.

Gee discussed the genesis of her Mouthpiece series, a group of 19 works for solo voice and ensemble, during a lecture and mini-performance. While at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Gee, the 2009-10 Rieman and Baketel Fellow for Music, is working on “‘SU-O’ for Voices and Orchestra,” an extension of her Mouthpiece compositions.

Her first Mouthpiece work was based on a text from the Rigveda, a collection of Vedic Sanskrit hymns. The musician, who currently lives in Graz, Austria, explained that her aim was to transform the text to something unrecognizable.

“I tried to keep the structure of the order of the sounds of the text the same, but I changed them past intelligibility so they become something else,” said Gee of her work “Mouthpiece I” from 1999.

For the composer, the ultimate goal is to create pieces that remove the element of the ego-based performance and the “heightened emotion” and “strong attachment to the meaning of the words” that is often found in vocal literature. Instead, Gee said she aims in her work to “move away from the vocal performer as a person … and “move as much as possible toward instrumental use of the voice.”

“It just seemed natural on some level to move toward sound.”

Gee later drew inspiration from traditional Japanese vocal styles as a guest artist in 2005 at the Akiyoshidai International Art Village in Japan. Other inspirations for her compositions include the scat singing of jazz great Ella Fitzgerald, tongue twisters, and a Pygmy tribe from the African rainforest.

While her work may be hard to define or describe, the crowd didn’t find it hard to enjoy. Many attendees were smiling during Gee’s brief performances. Audience members peppered the composer with questions following her talk, calling her compositions “beautiful” and “fantastic.”

One critic compared the experience of listening to Gee’s works to a ride on the back of a beautiful butterfly, said Judith Vichniac, the institute’s associate dean of the fellowship program, and to “learning a whole new language, one that, simply by hearing, not even understanding, elevates your being.”