Singing Philosophy

By Ross, Alexander M. | The New Yorker, February 27, 2017 | Go to article overview

Singing Philosophy


Ross, Alexander M., The New Yorker


Singing Philosophy

Kate Soper's theatre of the mind.

"Ipsa Dixit" is a brainy and emotional tour de force.

There is a good argument to be made for retiring the words "genius" and "masterpiece" from critical discourse. They are artifacts of the Romantic religion of art, implying a superior race of demigods who loom above ordinary life. Such terms are rooted in the cult of the male artist--the dishevelled Beethovenian loner who conquers an indifferent world. Above all, these words place an impossible burden on contemporary artists, whose creations are so often found wanting when compared with the masterpieces of the past--not because the talent pool has somehow evaporated but because the best of the present diverges from the past. In a decentered global culture, a few great men can no longer dominate the conversation.

Nonetheless, in the face of a work as comprehensively astounding as Kate Soper's "Ipsa Dixit," which the Wet Ink ensemble recently presented at Dixon Place, on the Lower East Side, the old buzzwords come to mind. Soper, a thirty-five-year-old native of Ann Arbor, is a composer, a singer, and a writer; above all, she is a thinker. Her pieces, which are usually built around her own voice, often adopt the manner of a lecture. "What is art?" are the first words of "Ipsa Dixit." Soper is introducing Aristotle's Poetics, and the opening movement consists largely of an adaptation of that text, spoken and sung. This seems like an unpromising beginning for an evening's entertainment, but Soper and a trio of fellow-musicians--a flutist, a violinist, and a percussionist--succeed at once in animating the material. After the initial question, they mime playing their instruments, as if to ask, "Does John Cage count?" And after Soper declares, "Art is imitation," the percussionist dings a bell while Soper waves a silent one. They illustrate the words "flute," "lyre," and "rhythm," and demonstrate various poetic metres. These are just the first moments of a ninety-minute tour de force in which ideas assume sound and form. Call it philosophy-opera.

"Ipsa Dixit" includes two other movements based on Aristotle--"Rhetoric" and "Metaphysics"--as well as settings of Plato, Sophocles, Guido d'Arezzo, Pietro Bembo, Freud, Wittgenstein, Robert Duncan, Lydia Davis, Michael Drayton, Jenny Holzer, and Sarah Teasdale. The recurring topic is the relationship between expression and thought, language and meaning. The work could easily collapse under the weight of its intellectual cargo, but Soper maintains a light touch even as she delves into epistemological complexities. She has a poised, aristocratic manner, yet she is alert to paradox, irony, and absurdity. She can turn on a dime between conversational speech, pure-toned soprano singing, and Dadaistic noise. Her vocal calisthenics are in the lineage of such artists as Meredith Monk and Cathy Berberian, with a touch of Laurie Anderson, although her restless, antic instrumental writing is more in the European modernist tradition. Soper is both brilliant and funny--a combination that is always in short supply.

"Poetics" unfolds like a hyper-cerebral cartoon score, jumping from one split-second vignette to another. When Soper speaks of styles "too common to be beautiful," the players saw away amateurishly; mention of "exotic" styles elicits flamboyant figuration. At times, however, the music reveals gaps between Aristotle's strictures and modern aesthetics. When Soper announces that "the meaning of music-making is obvious to everyone," the trio interrupts her with a trembling, misterioso digression. Her peremptory conclusion, punctuated by another pedantic bell stroke, gets a laugh, because the meaning of this music, or of any music, is far from obvious. And when she quotes Aristotle's critique of improper proportions in art--for example, a work that goes on too long and loses its sense of oneness--the crystalline, shimmering music that follows, with luxuriously sustained singing of the Greek words to holon ("the whole"), undermines the philosopher's point. …

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