How to Become Omniscient

Astonishing record by Kate Soper here called The Understanding Of All Things (NEW FOCUS RECORDINGS FCR322), realised with the help of Sam Pluta.

American composer and performer Soper has come our way before as part of Wet Ink Ensemble (she’s a co-director of the group), where on Relay (noted by us in 2014) she performed her soprano vocals to great dramatic effect, and had a showcase for her own composition ‘Only the Words Themselves Mean What They Say’. She’s in demand as a soprano vocalist for new music in many forms, but she also has her own ideas, as amply demonstrated on today’s disc. We could attempt to summarise it as a blend of highly theatrical performance, focussing on the voice declaiming in a stylised and very “rhetorical” style, but with particular attention paid to the text – the selection of the text in the first place, and then a very thoughtful (and dramatic) manner of presenting it. On top of all this, her performances are often interrupted, undercut and distorted by use of electronic effects, and the interventions of Pluta, whose live electronics appear on two tracks; and the flow of each piece keeps changing midway, through the versatile skills of Soper and her restless, protean style of attacking the texts. The album amounts to an exhausting, dense listen; I am left with the same drained feelings as I usually get with hearing a powerful Wet Ink Ensemble release.

The whole set is strong, but the pieces that have worked particularly well for this listener are ‘Dialogue I’ and ‘Dialogue II’, and the opening tour de force ‘The Understanding Of All Things’. The two ‘Dialogue’ pieces include the electronics of Pluta, and are billed as improvisations by Soper and Pluta; the second one allows to enjoy the “uncut” delights of Soper’s wordless vocalising mingled with sighs, groans, and breathy murmurings, plus her unpredictable piano stabs sitting alongside the untamed abrasive buzzery from Pluta’s mixing table. The first ‘Dialogue’ however is a good example of how Soper deconstructs and reconstructs her texts; the starting point is the work of George Berkeley, philosopher from the age of Enlightenment, describing the contents of dialogues between Philonous and Hylas (imaginary characters, but possibly inspired by Greek classical literature) to expound a particular mental conundrum. In Soper’s mouth, what starts as a “straight” vigorous reading of the text soon takes off into an ever-increasing spiral of vocal distortions, treatments, electronic noise and other forms of controlled mayhem; all the better to illustrate the meanings of particular words, phrases, or concepts. As the text is about the supposed inability of the human frame to genuinely perceive reality, Soper’s take on the subject is all the more poignant, as her voice spins off into a cosmic metaphysical whirlpool of sound. Powerful stuff.

A similar approach has been used on the title track, based on a short text by Kafka. Through fragmentation, repetition, stating and restating sentences with her strange emphasis, Soper shows how she can scramble common sense and invite us to question how we perceive things, yet still arrives at a coherent statement in the end. The fact that she does it in a near-histrionic fashion, keyed up to fever pitch throughout, compels us to pay attention.

In the middle of the album sits a longer and quite challenging piece ‘The Fragments of Parmenides’, nearly 20 minutes, which is a very layered contemplation on the deep meaning of things whose nuances of meaning, I must admit, are defeating me for the time being. It’s a deliberate juxtaposition of a text by Parmenides with a poem by W.B Yeats, involving conventional song-form performances from Soper and aggressive free-jazz styled piano work, all taking place in the framework of a “lecture” styled format (the same method as on ‘Dialogue I’, in fact). This lecture form seems to come naturally to Kate Soper, able to deliver a persuasive presentation with all the force of an academic, except that she illustrates the drift of her topics with piano, singing, and a mannered form of song-speech. As noted, I’m unable to grasp the thread of this diatribe, but I note that Parmenides (Greek philosopher born 515 BC) was renowned for his interest in ontological conundrums and paradoxes, areas which I feel sure appeal to Soper’s mind.

An exceptional record by this very individual creator. The cover art uses an image by Toby Sisson, the woman artist from Minnesota. From 21 February 2022.