Shelley Hirsch

by Anne LeBaron

published in the book, Postmodern Music / Postmodern Thought, (c) 2001 by Garland Press. The editors for the book are Judith Lochhead and Joseph Auner.)

........One of the most extraordinary aspects of The King of Buffalo is the auto-intertextuality: Feldman's observations and music are manipulated by Brooks so that they ultimately comment upon themselves. Brooks's choice of fragments, of processing means, and of combinations and juxtapositions are not only essential to the creation of the piece, but are also indicative of a hidden subtext, and imply a difficult personal relationship between the composer and his subject. The resulting hybrid, a biographical /autobiographical snapshot, is infused with ambiguity. The subject becomes portrayed (betrayed?) by his own narcissism, as interpreted by the complex attitude of his portrayer.

Such a richly penetrating sonic portraiture brings to mind the intensely personal work of Shelley Hirsch, who performs as a vocalist primarily in her own compositions.1 Hirsch's work on recordings, although meticulously constructed, gives the appearance of spontaneity---a testament to her skills as an improviser. Enlarging her palette with electronics, applied live and in studio recordings, she often layers strands of fractured syllabic repetitions with increasingly complete linear phrases, placing the listener into a decidedly non-linear, multi-dimensional space. Yet, her most complex vertical layerings, and her most jarring horizontal juxtapositions, are framed by a listener-friendly transparency. Her distinct brand of slightly jaded optimism and sincerity, spiked with humor, balances the occasional darker implications of her stories.

Going as far back as her childhood, Hirsch relentlessly mines her life experiences, concocting brilliant collage-like reminiscences that are alternately, and sometimes simultaneously, disquieting and euphoric. Embracing archetypal personas such as Blanche Dubois, she weaves their reinvented essences into the maze of associations conjured by her alchemical compositions. Investigating immediate consciousness, memory consciousness, and image-making consciousness, she becomes a producer of sonic images, recycling the discarded and the strange. Her remarkably unfettered access to the motherlode of automatism enhances her gift of spontaneous ingenuity.

Hirsch's command of extended vocal techniques imparts enormous variety to her music. The tone of her voice can range from audacious vulnerability, to charismatic intimacy (especially in the story-telling segments), to hallucinatory excursions floating effortlessly out of the spoken/sung voice and into pure Hirschian singing. Such transitions always remain viscerally connected to the text and in context. By judiciously inserting cliched musical phrases and even covers of commonly recognized tunes, like "Blue Moon" in her composition States, she exploits a network of culturally-specific 'signs', twisting them into a kind of parody that hovers between homage and satire. Quotes from the Banda music of Central Africa and the voices of a Bulgarian chorus are used to globally expand her images in this composition. Skillful underscoring enhances and propels these and other 'circular' story/compositions.

A type of cultural anthropology, Hirsch's musical creations embody the essence of surrealism: the division between the real and the imagined dissolves, replaced by an imaginary world that radiates out from a vast dynamic repository of memory and association. Harry Lachner, in the liner notes to Hirsch's recording, States, writes eloquently of her non-linear poeticism: "States is . . . a pandemonium of resuscitated ghosts from the past, the present, and the future; an illustrious parade of characters; a vocal discourse between various impersonations of imaginary people; an associative stream of the subconscious where Shelley Hirsch's singing in tongues reformulates our own collective nightmares and hopes."

Hirsch's creative transformations of kitschy fragments and her skilled shaping of multiple dimensions suggest a quality central to the surrealist doctrine, the merveilleux: "a rupture in the order of reality." (Adamowicz 1998:11-12) Her methods go beyond conventional definitions of composition and of performance. By violating logical, linear narrative forms, by opposing elements from our known world in disturbing ways, she plunges herself, and her audience, into collective reminiscences so visceral that they seem almost visual---a surreal accomplishment in itself.

In live performances, Hirsch often relies on layering techniques, piling up a swarming multitude of voices while maintaining a distinct function for each independent line. This ancient method of putting several processes into play at once can be subsumed under the rubric of polyphony. Simultaneity, conceived with respect to the thousand-year history of polyphony, refers to concurrent yet unrelated and self-sufficent processes which don't exhibit the organic cooperation of independent strands bound by a common harmony. In the early twentieth century, the principal of simultaneity was applied to the fields of tonality and rhythm. Bartok's Fourteen Bagatelles, written in 1908, represent the earliest examples of two simultaneously

1. Hirsch also collaborates with many musicians. Her performances take place in a wide variety of venues, including concerts, radio plays, films, recordings, alternative operas, and multi-media events.
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