Dissecting sound with Theatre of Voices

From growling to mooing, Copenhagen’s Theatre of Voices goes to vocal extremes to get a particular tone.

The Danish vocal ensemble led by artistic director Paul Hillier is one truly dedicated to sound. ‘If the piece requires growling, we’ll do growling,’ says manager and soprano Else Torp. ‘If you have to sound like a nervous cow, we’ll do mooing. If you want us to change from the most horrid noise in one bar, to a serene purity of tone the next bar, then that’s what we’ll do. I think we’re really true to our name in that sense – Theatre of Voices.’

Originally founded in 1990, and relaunched in Denmark in 2004, TOV meticulously dissects and analyses each word, producing a very precise sound. These bites and snippets of vocals are then gradually stitched together to create a complete piece of music, sometimes guttural and throaty, often beautiful and melancholic. ‘We work very loyally with each piece of music,’ says Torp. ‘We’re willing to go very far in exploring what sort of sound is required, either in one bar or in a whole piece. We have a great willingness to explore all abilities in order to frame the nucleus of any one piece.’

‘Our Cage performances are like art installations’

Stockhausen’s 1968 work Stimmung, which Theatre of Voices released on Harmonia Mundi in 2007, was a major challenge. ‘That pushed us out to all possible corners, and in impossible ways,’ says Torp. ‘It was really hefty, beyond anything I’ve ever done, and I think I can say that for the group. It requires such precision, with the most incredibly strenuous material.’

Torp is quick to point out that the experience was also exhilarating and fun; a sense of humour is certainly not absent from the ensemble of singers. ‘Our [John] Cage performances are like art installations that are allowed to go wrong,’ Torp laughs. ‘They’re incredibly funny and sometimes it’s hard to keep a straight face.’

Theatre of Voices © Lars Bjarnø
Theatre of Voices © Lars Bjarnø

The six-strong group is also no stranger to going to extremes. Beyond its sound, a playful yet profound storyteller is at work on Theatre of Voices’ programming. Hillier combined David Lang’s The Little Match Girl Passion with early Italian oratory (one of which detailed the sacrificing of a child), and then dubbed the programme ‘Family Values’. ‘That’s actually very provoking,’ says Torp. ‘We can sit and think about that one. It gives a different twist to things so that you must take an interest in the content beyond the live presentation and the sound. Because yes, it’s very listenable music, but actually it’s quite hardcore content.’

‘All our programmes present the highest possible quality,’ she continues, ‘and very often with a priority given to narrative so that the combination of music and text tell a story in a way that makes a difference to the listener and gives food for thought.’

What effect has that approach had on TOV’s audience? ‘Very often they go away transformed in some way. They come up to us and say, ‘Wow, this made me think of such and such’, or ‘Thank you, you have changed this for me’. I think we’re fortunate to get very profound reactions from the audience.’

It’s a tactic that also appears to be paying off in the industry; as well as critical reception, the ensemble is attracting accolades. TOV has been nominated for the 2013 Nordic Council Music Prize, which will be announced on 30 October.

Meanwhile, the ensemble’s current project is a characteristic mix of old and new. Playing at venues around Denmark until 13 October, Hamlet’s Tears is based on John Dowland’s own variations on his famous song Flow my Tears, also known simply as Lacrimae. ‘We have also found texts by TS Eliot, Dylan Thomas, Geoffrey Hill, and Dowland’s contemporary, Thomas Browne, to go with the works. It’s quite an unusual tapestry of music and text. There’s a lot of internal and historical references, but also very specific musical references, intertwined.’ In March next year, TOV will perform music by the Danish composer Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen with the London Sinfonietta at Queen Elisabeth Hall, Southbank Centre.