HEADSET SEXTET is a suite performed by six headphone-driven vocalists with taped musical accompaniment (all instruments by Joshua Fried). (Title listed on video as WORK IN PROGRESS.)
In HEADPHONE-DRIVEN PERFORMANCE performers try to imitate vocal sounds that are played over headphones. The performers have never heard these sounds before, and yet they are asked to reproduce the input AS IT HAPPENS--with every word, pitch and expression accurate and NO LAG TIME WHATEVER. This last requirement makes the task quite impossible and the result resembles a bizarre unknown, mostly indecipherable language--even though the source material is, for the most part, plain spoken English. Here and there an intelligible word or phrase emerges. In some sections, simple movement directives are added, electronic signal tones cuing the performers to listen for instructions. To preserve the necessary element of surprise, each performer can execute a given role only once. Mock-up tapes are used for auditions, training and rehearsal.
Headphone-driven performance focuses attention on the present moment--no one knows what will happen next, and the performers can't afford to look back. The audience shares in the very real sense of tension and danger. Raw emotions become abstracted and aestheticized; vocal behaviors happen that are otherwise unobtainable. Electronics, normally associated with mechanical repetition, become a catalyst for a one-time-only live event, exposing raw human qualities in the performer.
The selections on the video are:
1. "Simple Canon" Identical vocal parts enter at staggered intervals. Rage gives way to giddiness without warning, and everyone stops with perfect timing--but they don't know it.
2. "8/9 Canon" Two performers deliver a strident speech (political oratory?) in a double canon after the style of Conlon Nancarrow. The two voices and two music tracks proceed at different tempos in a ratio of 8:9, "catching up" with each other such that all four parts end in emphatic unison. In addition, the accompaniment (based on isorhythmic arpeggiated 9th chords) decelerates dramatically over the course of the piece. Calm returns in a wistful coda.
3. "Two Transformations" First transformation: a heated dialogue, perhaps about free will, that gradually accelerates. Second transformation: a passacaglia or set of variations of increasing density, in which a spoken passage is gradually warped by digital processing of the headphone part. The accompaniment to the whole movement is based on the speech rhythms and pitches of the second transformation.
4. "Second Cumbia" An original song in a popular Colombian dance rhythm. A concluding blast puts the performers in a state of suspended animation. ("First Cumbia", NOT on the video, uses phase patterns a la Steve Reich, to a Cumbia beat.)
5. "Coda" A cappella; one performer has a secret message of which the others are unaware.