Kate Soper seems this season to be especially concerned with the rights of fictional women. Her wonderful opera Here Be Sirens (which is scheduled to return to New York’s Dixon Place Theater in the fall) was an inventive and appealing look at the plight of sirens stranded, perhaps eternally, on an island, luring men to their death. Soper’s smart libretto referenced political theory, psychoanalysis and gender studies to inform the three monsters, one inquisitive, one cute and one haunting – quite literally, as their island was littered with books.
Only a few days after the opera’s premiere, Soper’s Voices From the Killing Jar was released on Carrier Records, the label run by electronicist Sam Pluta, her bandmate in the wonderful Wet Ink Ensemble. The set of eight songs – she composed and sings all of them – is another examination into the ways women are portrayed in storytelling, with characters borrowed from sources as diverse as Shakespeare, Flaubert, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Haruki Murakami.
Soper borrows convincingly from her heroine’s respective eras, managing to suggest some baroque and even a bit of subtle jazz balladry, not to mention the delusional and paranoid overtones that some of her characters call for. But the music is by and large of the present, sometimes sparse, occasionally abrupt or dissonant and often tacked to the melody lines, almost all of which are delivered by her (along with clarinet and piano on a couple of tracks). Soper is a remarkably lithe vocalist, as able to move as convincingly between moods as she is quickly between octaves. Completing the equation, she has at her disposal the excellent musicians of Wet Ink, notably Alex Mincek’s reeds and Eric Wubbles’ piano and Sam Pluta’s masterful electronic processing.
Haruki Murakami’s heroine in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles’ gets fairly traditional art-song treatment in “Prelude: May Kasahara,” exhibiting Soper’s fantastic octave-hopping precision. That’s followed by a monologue borrowed from Robert Browning (“Isabel Archer: My Last Duchess,” with Browning himself borrowing from James’ The Portrait of a Lady), driven by emphatic narration and persistent clarinet, her voices tripping from one line to the next through a briar of electronic manipulations. The layers of texture and noise build until abruptly being interrupted by a moment of dialogue that speaks to the moral quandaries posed throughout the record. A male voice (presumably the duke) says plainly, “You’re going to be put in a cage,” to which Soper (as Isabel) responds, “If I like my cage, that needn’t trouble you.”
While the storytelling is compelling throughout, it’s on the third track (“Palilalia: Iphigenia,” from Agamemnon) that the music starts to get exciting. A slow pulse alternating between Wubbels’ piano and Mincek’s clarinet is undermined by screeches and whispers from the rest of the ensemble while Soper walks determinedly through the middle in pitched, monotone lines, relating Clytemnestra’s sacrifice of her daughter. The pulses shift dizzyingly as the killing grows nearer. “Midnight’s Telling: Lucile Duplessis” continues to play with pulse, setting quick, steady percussion against slower reed and string swells to set the moments before the execution of a French revolutionary, with text taken from her prison diary. The descent continues with a delusional Madame Bovary at the opera, nicely interpolated with Mozart’s La Nozze di Figaro, whereupon the climactic first half ends. After the exhilarating build of the last 20 minutes, an intermission may be in order.
The lights go down again on a lovely, sombre piece for Asta Solilja from Haldor Laxness’ 1934-35 Independent People. It’s a brief song about sheep, almost a recalibration before we go headlong into Lady Macduff and a fantastic baroque song with piano and recorder undermined by more vocal processing and an intrusive saxophone. The 43-minute disc ends quite fittingly with Daisy Buchanan, whose voice Fitzgerald describes as “a singing compulsion,” “an exhilarating ripple,” “a deathless song” and “full of money.” Soper touches on all of these traits, embodying the character in a sorrowful song extolling her claims to happiness.
There is, needless to say, a strong feminist drive behind Soper’s sirens and her visitations of fictional characters. But more than that – at least by appearances – the work seems driven by curiosity, by a yearning to understand. Certainly her protagonists end up in situations they don’t deserve, but her compositions aren’t strident. Her characters are generally wondering how they got to where they’re at rather than lashing out against the patriarchy. Of course, Soper is in some sense lashing out. But the tales she (re)tells tend less toward protest than remorse, making for better – and no less effective – stories. It’s an absolutely compelling recording.
Voices From the Killing Jar, Kate Soper (Carrier, 2014)