Composer/vocalist/pianist Kate Soper teams up with longtime Wet Ink Ensemble colleague composer/electronic musician Sam Pluta in this bracing collection that explores the ever shifting hierarchy between text driven and music dominated vocal work. Soper's distinct musical voice and characteristically clever approach to setting text in three original works is balanced by Pluta's ever inventive and sensitive marshaling of his unique arsenal of electronic textures as he joins Soper in two improvisations.
|01||The Understanding of All Things|
The Understanding of All Things
|Kate Soper, voice and fixed media||7:53|
|Kate Soper, voice, Sam Pluta, live electronics||11:06|
|03||The Fragments of Parmenides|
The Fragments of Parmenides
|Kate Soper, voice, piano, and fixed media||19:44|
|Kate Soper, voice and piano, Sam Pluta, live electronics||9:53|
|05||So Dawn Chromatically Descends to Day|
So Dawn Chromatically Descends to Day
|Kate Soper, voice and piano||3:44|
Philosophical inquiry is at the heart of Kate Soper and Sam Pluta’s The Understanding of All Things. Exploring the fluidity between text and wordless vocalizing, semantic meaning and abstraction, pitch and gesture, and sureness versus ambiguity, the two longtime Wet Ink Ensemble colleagues invite us into a discourse which ponders weighty, unanswerable questions. Drawing on texts by Kafka, Parmenides, Yeats, Berkeley, Frost, and Fred Lerdahl, Soper’s three through-composed works interspersed with two duo improvisations with Pluta expertly conjure a musical environment which facilitates contemplation of the ineffable.
Soper’s opening title track, for voice and fixed media, sets a Franz Kafka text in which a philosopher is fixated on a children’s spinning top as a microcosm of the nature of things. Her presentation captures the philosopher’s wonder, moving seamlessly back and forth between spoken and sung text, her voice opening up a portal to another expressive world as her diction freezes on an airborne syllable. Fragments of text show up in the electronics track, punctuating the texture from different sides of the stereo field, as if to mimic nervous synapses in our brain as we revolve around a complex topic. Soper turns to the electronics when words prove insufficient – filling in glitchy noises for consonants or distorting them through effects. At moments in the piece, the text recedes altogether into floating sustained vocal pitches and an ethereal background.Read More
The centerpiece of the recording is Soper’s The Fragments of Parmenides for voice, piano, and fixed media. Dichotomies abound as Soper sets texts by Parmenides and Yeats and draws parallels and distinctions between their philosophical frames. The coquettish Yeats poem, “For Anne Gregory,” is set as a sentimental parlor song, while the Parmenides selection is set as a tempestuous fantasy, featuring swooping vocal lines and spacious piano voicings. In a nostalgic gesture, Soper brings back the opening Yeats parlor song towards the piece’s end, played through a speaker inside the piano, and detuned microtonally from the keyboard pitch.
Interspersed between Soper’s through-composed works are two improvisations, Dialogues I and II, with Sam Pluta. The first features a text by 18th century Irish philosopher George Berkeley in which he explores the nature of sensory perception through a conversation between friends. Soper begins narrating the track in an expository manner, as Pluta’s electronics color and punctuate the text respectfully. The civil discourse is eventually degraded as the improvisation begins to reflect the existential anxiety that lies behind metaphysical inquiry. Dialogue II remains wordless throughout, as Pluta’s arsenal of otherworldly sounds, Soper’s fragile, tactile vocal techniques, and the reappearance of the acoustic piano enter a freely expressive space that lies beyond cerebral rhetoric.
Taking the meta-awareness one step further, Soper closes the collection with a short work that tips its hat to her dissertation advisor at Columbia University, Fred Lerdahl. So Dawn Chromatically Descends to Day draws from Lerdahl essay on the complex relationship between text, music, and expression, before closing with a voice and piano setting of a Robert Frost poem, unadorned by either electronics or interstitial philosophical asides. After four works that stretch the boundaries of semantic musical meaning to make room for abstract inquiry, Soper examines the nature of text in music itself, before reaffirming its power with a wistful song.
– Dan Lippel
Recorded by Sam Pluta, August 13-15, 2021, Sweeney Concert Hall, Northampton, MA
Mixed by Sam Pluta
Mastered by Ryan Streber
Cover image: Toby Sisson, River Stories (2007)
Back cover and artist photos: Gretchen Robinette for Resonant Bodies Festival
Design & layout: Marc Wolf, marcjwolf.com
Kate Soper is a composer, performer, and writer whose work explores the integration of drama and rhetoric into musical structure, the slippery continuums of expressivity, intelligibility and sense, and the wonderfully treacherous landscape of the human voice. She has been hailed by The Boston Globe as "a composer of trenchant, sometimes discomfiting, power" and by The New Yorker for her "limpid, exacting vocalism, impetuous theatricality, and...mastery of modernist style." Soper has received awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, the American Academy of Arts and Letters (The Virgil Thomson and Goddard Lieberson awards and the Charles Ives Scholarship), the Koussevitzky Foundation, Chamber Music America, the Lili Boulanger Memorial Fund, the Music Theory Society of New York State, and ASCAP, and has been commissioned by ensembles including the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the American Composers Orchestra, Carnegie Hall, the Tanglewood Music Center/BUTI, the MIVOS string quartet, and Yarn/Wire. She has received residencies and fellowships from the Civitella Raineri Foundation, the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, the Camargo Foundation, the Macdowell Colony, Tanglewood, Royaumont, and Domaine Forget, among others. Praised by the New York Times for her "lithe voice and riveting presence," Soper performs frequently as a new music soprano. As a singer and performer with experience in Western Classical and Indian Carnatic music, songwriting, improvisation, and experimental theatre, she has sung in U.S. and world premieres of works by composers such as Peter Ablinger, Beat Furrer, George Lewis, Matthias Spahlinger, and Katharina Rosenberger, and has appeared with groups such as the Morningside Opera Company, the Theatre of a Two-Headed
Sam Pluta is a composer and electronics performer whose work explores the intersections between instrumental forces, reactive computerized sound worlds, traditionally notated scores, and improvisation. Since 2009, Sam has served as Technical Director, electronics performer, and composing member of Wet Ink Ensemble. Laptop improvisation is a core part of Pluta’s artistic practice. Performing on his custom software instrument, he has toured internationally with groups like Wet Ink, Rocket Science, and the Peter Evans Ensemble. Sam appears as a composer and performer on over thirty albums of new music and jazz, many of which are released on the label he co-runs, Carrier Records.http://www.sampluta.com/
Kate Soper’s opera “The Romance of the Rose” was one of the most anticipated premieres of 2020 until it was canceled because of the pandemic. Her latest album, “The Understanding of All Things,” should help tide fans over until the opera is rescheduled. And it can also serve as a compelling introduction to the inimitable style of this composer, singer and pianist.
Soper is best known for threading sumptuous song forms together with spoken-word discourses. Appropriately, the new album starts with her treatment of a work by Kafka. The second track, “Dialogue I,” is a musical improvisation between Soper and the live-electronics virtuoso Sam Pluta. But one of the texts Soper quotes, from the philosopher George Berkeley, is part of a grander design, as Berkeley’s name comes up again during the album’s centerpiece, “The Fragments of Parmenides” (which also includes text from Yeats).
When auditing this album’s nimble, engaging humanities lectures, you’ll probably want Soper’s libretto in front of you. (A PDF booklet comes with every digital purchase on the Bandcamp platform.) But the sublimity of Soper’s songful material needs no great explication — just check out her setting of Yeats’s “For Anne Gregory” in “Fragments.”
— Seth Colter Walls, 3.10.2022
“It probably isn’t very logical or efficient to use music to investigate the true nature of being and the human condition,” Kate Soper writes in the notes for her loftily titled new album. “But it sure is fun to try.”
As a composer and performer, Soper has made an art of that fun, and of interrogating the impossible. Her masterly “Ipsa Dixit” began with the question “What is art?” And in this new recording, of works and improvisations spanning years yet gaining the cohesion of a cyclic suite, she seems to be asking “What is reality?”
Soper has some thoughts in essayistic texts performed in the elevated speaking style of Robert Ashley and Laurie Anderson. The Kafka story of the title track is recounted in stunted fragments over the sound of a spinning top, arriving at “Once the smallest thing is truly known, are all things known,” a sentence made mysterious by having the intonation of a statement but the syntax of a question.
The subsequent works are no more resolved: two recent improvisations with Sam Pluta on electronics, the first a text-heavy journey from the lucid to unruly, the second a wordless dialogue that could go on forever; and, later, “So Dawn Chromatically Descends the Day” (2018), a searching blend of declamation and art song.
At the center is “The Fragments of Parmenides” (2018-19), a rhapsodic colloquy of disarming elegance: Yeats set with moving lyricism, interrupted with cabaret-like asides; piano deployed for tone painting and clustery punctuation; provocative questions answered with more questions. The inquiry is its own conclusion, she concludes. Why care about day and night, life and death and love, if “everything we see and hear and taste and touch and feel is nothing but empirical noise”?
Soper offers: “Because it’s beautiful? Because it’s all we have?”
— Joshua Barone, 3.31.2022
There is more speaking than singing on Kate Soper’s new album, “The Understanding of All Things,” which takes the form of philosophical soliloquies and dialogues about the nature of truth, existence, and perception. Soper, a composer and soprano, adapts texts by Parmenides, Franz Kafka, George Berkeley, and Fred Lerdahl and poems by W. B. Yeats and Robert Frost; her collaborator, Sam Pluta, an electronics performer and improviser, mixes the sound into a mechanical vortex. Despite the heady nature of the project, Soper has a gift for clarity. She sets Yeats’s “For Anne Gregory” as a gentle, traditional ballad, but there are flashes of broken harmonies that reveal wit and melancholy. On the album’s final track, “So Dawn Chromatically Descends to Day,” Soper deploys Lerdahl to explore the formal principles that give music its impact—how certain chords or phrases elicit an emotional reaction—but she has already proved that she knows how to use them.
— Oussama Zahr, 3.16.2022
When the line ‘Here is a central source of musical emotion’ sounds like poetry, you’ve fallen under the spell of composer/pianist/soprano Kate Soper’s unblinking exploration with Wet Ink’s electronics virtuoso Sam Pluta of the boundaries between words and music, between hearing and silence. ‘I love leaping off the plane of rational thought into free-wheeling improvisation’, Soper writes, and so her three Cage-like lectures and two improvised Dialogues, set to poetic and philosophical texts both spoken and sung by Kafka, Berkeley and Frost, among others, unfold with a romantic sweep of sensory events, both delightful and horrible. And even if you are not familiar with Hylas and Philonous, by the end of the album you will have encountered their thoughts so intimately that you will begin to wonder whether words are the music or vice versa.
The heart of the suite might have been called ‘Brush up your Parmenides’ for its way-off-Broadway inclinations, where philosophy is best when it’s intoxicating. The narrative is brilliantly constructed to set up key moments such as ‘Night-shiner, shining in alien light’, with wonderfully florid harp-like flourishes on the piano stretching the limits of the form, childlike scamperings alternating with Pluta’s deep, sonorous electronic gong strokes, and vocalises floating off into mirrors by Vermeer.
The musical experience takes place amid digital clicks like mutant insects in 1950s sci fi flicks. The professorial spoken parts keep you waiting for punchlines which, like New Yorker short stories, never come. Drew Daniel’s intensely descriptive booklet notes make an excellent guide.
— Laurence Vittes, 4.25.2022
Kate Soper is a serious artist with a deep bent for rigorous philosophy and avant-garde abstraction, yet she puts everything together with a lighter touch than one would expect from the ingredients. Los Angeles got a taste of her style when Long Beach Opera produced her theater piece Voices From the Killing Jar last summer, pairing it with a revolutionary antecedent, Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire.
With that in mind, here comes another Soper project with a title suggesting a short course on the ways of the world, The Understanding of All Things (New Focus). It isn’t as elaborately cast as Voices, consisting of just Soper, her voice and piano, and her electronic music collaborator Sam Pluta. But like Voices and her chamber opera, Ipsa Dixit, it comes packed with a selection of distinguished literary and historical figures like Franz Kafka, George Berkeley, Parmenides, William Butler Yeats, Fred Lerdahl, and Robert Frost providing a good deal of the texts.
The title piece starts with the grinding, jiggling sounds of an electronic tape imitating a berserk spinning top. The words of the Kafka text (taken from his Der Kriesel) spoken by Soper are broken up, scattered, underpinned by a drone. It’s a surreal piece as befitting the librettist whose name almost defines the word “surreal.”
In the first joint improvisation. Soper speaks with a Laurie Anderson-like archness; her voice is often electronically altered and coated with reverb. Now and then she sings, both in a strong, lyrical, pop/Broadway voice occasionally diverted toward weird extended techniques, her voice catapulting upward into unreal ranges. The alluring electronics seem to comment on the words, sweeping and beeping free of defined pitch, a throwback to an earlier predigital era of electronic music.
The Fragments of Parmenides, the central focus of the album, is a narrative interspersed with short songs set to shards of poems from Parmenides and Yeats. Soper’s vocal lines are often atonal and angular with occasional deliberately drifting pitch. She slides her fingers up and down the keyboard, pounds on the bass piano strings with the damper released to create thunder-like booms, repeats single notes over and over obsessively.
The second improvisation has no text, only extended vocal noises engaging in a zany dialogue with Pluta’s electronics, with the piano providing punctuations at first, becoming more involved toward the close of the piece. The finale So Dawn Chromatically Descends to Day is very brief, an ode by Lerdahl to poetry as the bridge between music and language, with a placid setting of a Frost poem illustrating the point at the close.
There is trenchant philosophy in much of this, I’m sure, but I would ignore the ponderous booklet notes that try to explain it. The notes ask “Can we trust our senses?” and I say, when it means enjoying the vast vocabulary of Pluta’s electronic imagination and Soper’s acrobatic manipulation of her voice, the answer is yes!
— Richard S. Ginell, 5.09.2022
In many of her works, composer and vocalist Kate Soper negotiates and defies genre. She lets us consider the relationship between theatricality and music in a new way, her works often untethered to conventions of opera but more detailed and elaborate than art song. Out March 4, 2022 on New Focus Recordings, The Understanding of All Things is a work of re-imagined sonic theatre produced collaboratively with Soper’s Wet Ink Ensemble colleague, Sam Pluta. Soper, whose vocal music is largely written for herself, provides voice and piano, and weaves her own text together with philosophical and poetic writings of Franz Kafka, George Berkeley, Parmenides, William Butler Yeats, Robert Frost, and Fred Lerdahl. Together, Soper and Pluta ask the listeners: How do we know that we know?
The Understanding of All Things is a collection of three new works by Soper, with two improvised interjections in which she and Pluta join musical forces. In the titular piece, Soper sets Kafka’s philosophical text for voice and fixed electronics. Beginning with electronics that evoke a metallic spinning, mirroring the mention of a child’s top in the text, Soper quickly enters, combining theatrical speech with singing and extended vocal techniques. The music manipulates the listener’s sense of time and space with sustained vocal gestures layered with continued speech and at times, an audible distance between singer and listener. Throughout, electronics imitate the playing of a metal prayer bowl, possibly suggesting that music, or humanity, both withstand time and impact ways of being. The piece ends with Soper speaking Kafka’s text, “Once the smallest detail is truly known, are all things known?”
Pluta then joins Soper for Dialogue I, which seems to be a demonstration of the closing Kafka quotation: the improvisation is full of fine, nuanced musical details. Pluta gradually inserts his live electronics to punctuate and mirror ideas in the text by George Berkeley. Soon, the dramatic reading turns to dense musical enactment with a timbral focus. Soper’s hallmark melodic extremes and extended vocal techniques such as vocal fry, glottal trills, and ultra-breathiness stand up to Pluta’s distinct live electronics style that highlights the interplay between noise and pitch. At times, Pluta mimics Soper’s vocal improvisations and at others, the two argue.
The Fragments of Parmenides begins with Soper singing her own setting of William Butler Yeats’ “For Anne Gregory” after a brief, dramatic, spoken introduction. The song establishes and then straddles a line between lounge song and folk ballade. The nostalgia brings a sense of familiarity, old knowledge, and comfort, but Soper purposefully sings microtonal discrepancies to show cracks in the saccharine poem. Soper then moves to text by Parmenides and expands the song into a musical exploration of philosophical ideas. The piano accompaniment almost mirrors the text painting of a Schubert lied, sonically constructing horses galloping, bright and high collections for the concept of light, and low pitches for darkness. Soper moves along the continuum of dissonance and diatonicism with microtonality in piano and voice to reveal a further fracturing of what is “known.”
Dialogue II also tests ideas brought about in the previous piece, exploring the “empirical noise” mentioned in Parmenides. Pluta and Soper give a sense of pressure with vocal glottal stops and grunting and their electronic counterparts. The piece is not rooted in text, but exhibits Soper’s wide breadth of extended techniques with less melodic, yet still sung, gestures. The two composers improvise, oscillating between congruity and incongruity.
Closing with So Dawn Chromatically Descends to Day, Soper combines Robert Frost’s poem “Nothing Gold Can Stay” and Fred Lerdahl’s ideas about mapping emotion onto musical sounds to extract meaning. Again beginning with a theatrical spoken reading of Lerdahl’s text, Soper seamlessly transitions to an almost sweet, almost sad song using the Frost poem. The album ends by challenging the ideas from the first piece: reluctantly accepting impermanence while using the image of metal.
On The Understanding of All Things, Soper expertly and carefully blends ideas of philosophy with music, old texts and new, and classical techniques and styles with popular music. We can hear influences in Soper’s work from the spectralists and experimental composers like Meredith Monk and Laurie Anderson, but we still hear new, challenging musical ideas. Both Soper and Pluta perform with sensitivity, elegance, and skill — they extend the boundaries of ideas of new music while also setting incomparable examples as performers. Together, they ask the listener questions of knowability and helps us explore the answers in the music.
— Tracy Monaghan, 3.09.2022
The opening of Kate Soper’s “The Understanding of All Things” falls somewhere in between the prelude to “Pelléas” and the opening of “Ceux à qui.” It’s the sound of metal spinning, like a steel roulette ball decelerating into rest while a wave of sound rings out against the metal. Added texture comes in from what sounds like a wet finger tracing the mouth of a crystal wine glass, at once full of Lazkano’s shadows and Debussy’s mists.Then, there’s a break as Soper’s voice breaks in with all the brightness of an NPR host: “Once there was a philosopher—”
Soper’s translation and setting of Kakfa’s “The Top” forms the text for the eight-minute work, a supernova of text that glitches in and out with the continuous loop of crystalline tones, spaceship echoes of Soper’s speaking voice, and the sort of dings and chimes that would sound at home on an early ’90s Macintosh. As phrases phase in and out, one line sticks: “Once the smallest detail is truly known, are all things known.”
Like Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium, Soper’s album (also named “The Understanding of All Things”) feels like a series of lectures, the sort that are meant to be about art but become microcosms for larger questions about life, the mind, and our place in the universe. “You can’t go through life,” Soper writes in her liner notes, “without occasionally indulging in that most basic of inquiries: What does it all mean?” It just happens that these lectures are musical; Soper’s high-octane vocals highlight and underline key ideas and interrogations from the texts she’s assembled like a philosophical magpie. Kafka cozies alongside George Berkeley, Parmenides, Yeats, and Frost, though in Soper’s delivery, the texts are denuded of their academic headiness, posited as subway announcements. In asking “Are not the fields covered with a delightful verdure? Is there not something in the woods and groves, in the rivers and clear springs, that soothes, that delights, that transports the soul?,” Soper may as well be advising us to “Stand clear of the closing doors.”
This gives the ideas she explores not a sense of reduction, but a greater spaciousness. We’re welcomed into them, bright rooms with nothing but potential, like airport lounges: Neither a beginning nor a destination, but simply a stop along the way.
— Olivia Giovetti, 3.24.2022
Potentially every release in New Music could be something truly in its own world. One needs to take such things seriously because we are talking about somebody's long-term grappling with self-expression. A review may have some bearing on that life, at least ideally, so that it behooves us to approach it all earnestly and attentively.
So today it is such a thing, an album put together with a lot of care and creative thrust. It consists of three compositions of Kate Soper and two improvisations by Kate Soper and Sam Pluta. The album is entitled The Understanding of All Things (New Focus Recordings FCR 322), which is in fact also the title of the first work we encounter in the program's sequence.
The title work, "The Fragments of Parmenides," and "So Dawn Chromatically Descends to Day" are Soper compositions that feature Kate on piano and vocals along with Sam Pluta on live electronics. Then there are two works ("Dialogue I" and "Dialogue II"). They are improvisations by Soper and Pluta with the same lineup as the compositions. more specifically it features text by George Berkeley and Kate Soper, which Kate presents while Pluta creates a live electronics backdrop. The second Dialogues features wordless vocals and piano by Kate and live electronics by Sam.
The Soper-composed works feature absorbing texts--"The Understanding of All Things" (2013-15) by Kafka with deliberate fragmentation initially by Kate and a vital ultra-Modern expressivity of piano and electronics. Kate is her own impressive self on vocals--these are decidedly something more than "composer vocals"--she has an excellent voice that she uses not so much with typical operatic training so much as natural unpretentiousness and precise declamation as called for. The vocal parts are generally in the foreground with modernistic sound color complexities from piano and electronics.
The texts are either poetic or philosophical and so justify their existence by presenting thoughts and feelings worthy of our attention, and make a musical centrality that perfectly opens up to the instrumental and electronic movements in spatio-temporal synchronicity and soundscaping, or in the case of Yeats, song weaving.
It is all distinctive, haunting, dramatic and absorbing, deep and quite sincere. I sometimes dislike recitation in the contemporary music world, because if the words do not work in themselves, the music cannot save them. This is the opposite--everything works together well and originally. And the words are quite worthy in themselves.
I recommend this one highly. Kate Soper is a new brilliance. Bravo!
— Grego Applegate Edwards, 2.21.2022
Kate Soper and Sam Pluta’s The Understanding of All Things is something of a scaled-down version of Soper’s Ipsa Dixit of 2018. The latter was a two-disc set presenting Soper’s six-movement work of music, text, and theater for soprano, flute, percussion, and violin; this new release is a five-part suite consisting of three through-composed works for voice, piano, and electronics, and two improvised interludes for voice, piano, and electronics that she shares with Pluta. As she did with Ipsa Dixit, Soper chooses an eclectic set of texts to put to music or to narrate. The authors range from the Eleatic philosopher Parmenides to Irish philosopher George Berkeley to William Butler Yeats, Franz Kafka, and Soper’s teacher, composer Fred Lehrdahl. Supplementing the texts are Soper’s introductions and commentaries. The material’s eclecticism isn’t just a matter of the individual texts chosen but also of their settings; for example, on the long central piece Soper juxtaposes the surviving fragments of Parmenides’ poem with a poem by Yeats that she arranges as a sentimental song for voice and piano. Soper has a beautiful, crystalline voice whether speaking or singing or even being processed into fragments as it is on the opening track or on the first dialogue with Pluta; Pluta’s interventions are managed with a sensitivity that brings out the instrumental qualities of Soper’s voice while maintaining a keenly intelligent sense of structure.
— Daniel Barbiero, 3.16.2022
Kate Soper and Sam Pluta are two young US American composers on the interface of electronics and contemporary classical music. Pluta has quite a back catalogue dating back to 2008, amongst others regularly playing with the Wet Ink Ensemble, a modern classical group that is a small orchestra in itself. Soper has previously performed and recorded her work with Wet Ink in the past few years, and thus it is unsurprising that she got help from Pluta on this release.
Soper's main interest - besides the piano and electronics - is the (her) voice and the integration of narratives into music, or 'musical structures' as she puts it. The five pieces on this release are therefore based on poetry and texts by Franz Kafka, W.B. Yeats, Parmenides (a Greek philosopher), and others.
The opening piece plays with a text of Franz Kafka on a philosopher contemplating children's spinning tops. With the danger of over-charging declaimed text with drama looming, Soper does manage to complement Pluta's electronics with a musically meaningful counterpart. The sounds interpret the text, with many 'spinning' sounds, as the text is presented three times, first in an electronically modified version, then increasingly without processing. At the third time, you wish the composer had acknowledged that you know the text nearly by heart by now. Still, at least the piece ends in a very tight interplay of sound, voice and content, cleverly avoiding the threat of drama with no meaning, similarly in 'The Fragments of Parmenides', where her voice interacts closely with the piano. She moves between explanatory text on a poem of Yeats, texts by the Greek philosopher, and George Berkeley (an Irish philosopher) and sings the Yeats poem. Thankfully, she again avoids drama and expertly navigates the possibilities text, voice, and instrument offer. The discussion of the text adds a meta-level that kills off the over-emphasis on meaning-laden content we find too often in US American (and sometimes European) contemporary music, be it classical or industrial.
The last piece is based on a text by one of her college teachers that converts into a song based on a text by poet Robert Frost, intrinsically interpreting the last line of the academic text. The end of this piece perfectly sets a stop to the music and the release. Finally, two improvised tracks are duets between Soper and Pluta. The first uses text/voice, and the second is an instrument only. The former discusses the concept of 'dialogue' in text and music. Soper is good at this, as she does not unnecessarily add emphasis to the text just for the sake of dramatic effect. Nevertheless, this is one of the weaker pieces. 'Dialogue II' is pure music, using her voice as an instrument and not offering any texts.
Things I did not like: thinking it is necessary to have liner notes to explain the music on three pages (either it explains itself, or the artist has missed the point); using foreign language texts but misspelling the words (Kriesel i.p.o. Kreisel); singing a Yeats text with an American accent.
Things I liked very much: this release quite deservedly sits on the verge between electronic/industrial and contemporary classical music. Soper is a clever composer using her instrument(s) and her concepts with care and thought, not primarily going for effects alone and actually offering a bit of humour in selecting and presenting her material.
— Robert Steinberger, 3.01.2022
On this fantastic and fantastical collection, Soper shoulders her way into a small but elite group that includes Scott Johnson and Laurie Anderson. Using her voice to convey content that is both informational and musical, all with a wry wit that seems to say, "Can you believe I'm getting away with this?" she takes us on a thrill ride grounded in her piano and Pluta's electronics. At times her voice is a ghost in the machine, getting pulled like taffy or chopped into bits, while never losing sight of the thoughts she wishes to explore. Pulling texts as wide-ranging as Kafka, Parmenides, and W.B. Yeats, to explore the meaning of existence, this is like hippest philosophy class - or Ted Talk - ever, and one you can play over and over again. To be honest, however, I wasn't feeling it much on my first go round. But then I listened to Season Two of the Miller Theatre's Mission Commission podcast, on which Soper is a featured composer, and something clicked. Whatever journey you take to find this, get started now. You don't want to be late for class.
— Jeremy Shatan, 9.13.2022
There is also plenty that is self-limited in audience appeal on a (+++) New Focus Recordings release featuring music and performances by Kate Soper. Here the types of personalization inherent in composition and performance are joined, with Soper effectively putting across her own musical visions by performing pretty much everything herself (although Sam Pluta also contributes when it comes to electronics). The performances deserve to be considered definitive, but to what end? That is what it is up to potential audiences to decide. As in EBENBILD, this is a recording mixing music and text, but the way in which this is done is quite different – and not only because all the Soper pieces here date to the 21st century. The Understanding of All Things (2013/2015) uses words by Franz Kafka – or misuses them, listeners familiar with Kafka will think, since the words are dissected, changed into meaningless or only partially meaningful syllabification, and modified in ways both intelligible and unintelligible as Soper speaks them and performs on fixed media. Dialogues I and II (both 2021) feature Soper’s voice and Pluta on live electronics; the verbiage is quite clearly declaimed in the first, altered to a series of moans and sighs and yells and groans and the like in the second. The Fragments of Parmenides (2018-2019), centrally placed on the CD and the longest work on it, mixes a clear narrative with some straightforwardly tonal vocal settings (highly surprising in this context); it juxtaposes a rather naïve poem by William Butler Yeats with comments by the ancient Greek pre-Socratic philosopher Parmenides (flourished ca. 475 BC). Although this piece is overlong and makes its points rather too obviously, it contains a variety of interesting elements, in particular because here Soper is not self-consciously “contemporary” but is willing to write aurally pleasant, lyrical material as well as unsurprising-for-modern-times tone clusters and multi-note smashes. So Dawn Chromatically Descends to Day, the last and shortest piece on the disc, has Soper declaiming a portion of an academic treatise while playing bits of this-and-that on the piano. A worthwhile question for this piece – and, to an extent, for all the works here – is for whom they are written. That is, with whom are they intended to communicate? The Fragments of Parmenides does raise some interesting (if rather overdone) philosophical questions through its textual contrasts, although it is a matter of opinion whether the musical material enhances or elucidates the words. The purpose of the other pieces is harder to discern: clearly they all have personal meaning for Soper, but it is not clear that they reach out in any significant way to others – or that she intends them to do so.
So what do you get when you try to use music to explore The Ultimate Question of Life the Universe and Everything or at least that part of it that deals with epistemology and metaphysics and the relationship between music and text? Maybe you get something like Kate Soper’s The Understanding of All Things which consists of three works separated by two improvisatory passages.
The first (and title) track sets an English translation of Franz Kafka’s “Der Kriesel”; a poem about a philosopher who annoys children by stealing their spinning tops. Soper performs the text in. variety of styles ranging from speech to all kinds of vocalisation set against an electronic backdrop. This is followed by the first improvisation where Soper has fun with extracts from George Berkeley’s“Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous” while her co-conspirator Sam Pluta manipulates her voice electronically and adds additional effects.
The longest piece is The Fragments of Parmenides which mashes up Parmenides’ “On Nature”; which features a dialogue between a young man and a goddess on the nature of reality and perception, with WB Yeats’ “For Anne Gregory” in which a young woman tries to persuade her suitor that loving her yellow hair is not loving her à cause de hair dye which the young man refutes with theological certainty. The poem is sung twice; firstly in a simple , undemonstrative style and then it’s played back on a tinny speaker inside the resonance chamber of the piano. Again, varied vocals and lots of electronics.
The second dialogue has no text and is simply Soper vocalising while Pluta adds electronic effects. And so we come to So Dawn Chromatically Descends to Day which gets straight to the point with Fred Lerdahl’s “Two Ways in Which Music Relates to the World” but that would be too simple so it’s combined with Robert Frost’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay”. Ultimately it’s like a very weird philosophy lecture cum multi-media exploration of core concepts of Perception and Reality done with a fair amount of humour and a dazzling array of technique. It’s probably not everyone’s cup of tea (or Brownian motion generator) but it’s quite unlike anything else I’ve ever listened to and I’m glad I did.
It was recorded in Sweeney Concert Hall, Northampton MA last year and the mixing and engineering was done by Sam Pluta so, at least, there’s no philosophical issue about whether the recording is an accurate reflection of the performance. The messenger is the medium.
The documentation on this one is a bit special with full texts and lots of interesting explanatory material. It’s available as a physical CD or as a digital release with MP3 and FLAC (both 44.1kHz/16bit and 96kHz/24bit) options.
— John Gilks, 6.01.2022
I’ve been following the work of Kate Soper (b. 1981) with deep attention for the past few years. She’s the sort of composer who we’re seeing returning to prominence, i.e., a virtuosic performer with a real creative voice. That’s something of a pun too, since she’s a singer, and has a formidable instrument, with a huge range, crystalline tone, enviable projection, and dead-on intonation. I reviewed her remarkable cycle Ipsa Dixit in Fanfare 42:4, where she collaborated with performers from the group she co-directs, Wet Ink. In this disc she is in partnership with Sam Pluta, a laptop composer/performer who’s also part of the ensemble.
Aside from her obvious musicianship, Soper has a focus that’s unusual for this era; indeed, I think it’s remarkable she’s been able to carve out a following with her approach. By this I mean she is deeply interested in issues of philosophy, rhetoric, and Western classics. Her work is headily intellectual. All this could be arid were it not for her creative spark, and her genuine humor. She has a deadpan delivery, especially when speaking texts, that suggests a favorite professor, loved for her dry asides. As one follows the philosophical thread through a piece of hers, one keeps listening both for the pleasure of the music itself, and also for wanting to know “how it turns out.”
The works on this disc make a cohesive/connected program. Three are these “philosophic entertainments”—The Understanding of All Things (2013/15, text by Kafka), The Fragments of Parmenides (2018–19, texts by W. B. Yeats, Parmenides, and the composer) and So Drawn Chromatically Descends to Day (2018, texts by Fred Lerdahl and Robert Frost). The other two Dialogues are largely improvisations by Soper and Pluta, though the first begins as a discourse upon the nature of reality guided by the work of the 18th-century philosopher George Berkeley. One starts to see how heady the atmosphere is here.
The Understanding of All Things (which gives the album its title as well) is for live voice with fixed media (created by the composer). Kafka’s story is of a philosopher who wanted to understand the simplest phenomena, such as child’s spinning top, so as to create a ground for comprehending all other more complex phenomena. The electronic part is focused on the metallic ringing of the top, and is expertly blended with the voice, itself chopped and slightly deranged with extended techniques.
The Fragments of Parmenides is the largest piece on the program, an uncategorizable mix of singing (the Yeats setting, which is a sort of art/folk song), and accompanied narration, where Soper underlines her argument with the piano, which she plays confidently and fearlessly. Some of the keyboard part seems notated, but other portions appear improvised, or at least follow more general performative directions. At the end the song returns, but as a wistful memory, coming from a small speaker embedded within the piano.
So Drawn Chromatically Descends to Day opens with a text by the composer-theorist Fred Lerdahl (also Soper’s teacher at Columbia) that posits the connection of musical gestures to expressive tropes. After tentative pianistic representations, the piece delivers its message concretely with a song setting Robert Frost’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay.” The interaction and blending of the prosaic and poetic are cinched in the result.
The two Dialogues highlight Soper’s collaboration with Pluta (who also produced the album). Both are improvisations with various degrees of structure. The first begins rather like a lecture and moves into increasingly abstract musical realms; the second seems to shoot out of the gate like a racehorse and rarely pauses for breath. It seems much more free than the first, with the performers almost daring one another with their sounds and gestures.
While it appears all these pieces were written before our current plague, this still feels a bit like a pandemic project. That comes from the DIY quality of the musicians relying only on their fundamental abilities and access to the most basic performing technologies (voice, laptop, piano). Whether intentional or not, the whole thing is a great tribute to their imagination and resourcefulness.
At the same time I must admit that I don’t respond as strongly to these works as I have to earlier ones of Soper (not only Ipsa Dixit, but her marvelous chamber opera Here Be Sirens). Strange to say, there is a much higher level of sustained intensity in this work, which is not leavened by as much humor as I’ve felt in the past.
But I also want to put this criticism in context. Soper is fantastically talented, and fully deserves to explore forms in media of expression the challenge her and don’t always produce a familiar result.
— Robert Carl, 8.30.2022