Kate Soper and Sam Pluta Fracture What is Known on “The Understanding of All Things”

In many of her works, composer and vocalist Kate Soper negotiates and defies genre. She lets us consider the relationship between theatricality and music in a new way, her works often untethered to conventions of opera but more detailed and elaborate than art song. Out March 4, 2022 on New Focus Recordings, The Understanding of All Things is a work of re-imagined sonic theatre produced collaboratively with Soper’s Wet Ink Ensemble colleague, Sam Pluta. Soper, whose vocal music is largely written for herself, provides voice and piano, and weaves her own text together with philosophical and poetic writings of Franz Kafka, George Berkeley, Parmenides, William Butler Yeats, Robert Frost, and Fred Lerdahl. Together, Soper and Pluta ask the listeners: How do we know that we know?

The Understanding of All Things is a collection of three new works by Soper, with two improvised interjections in which she and Pluta join musical forces. In the titular piece, Soper sets Kafka’s philosophical text for voice and fixed electronics. Beginning with electronics that evoke a metallic spinning, mirroring the mention of a child’s top in the text, Soper quickly enters, combining theatrical speech with singing and extended vocal techniques. The music manipulates the listener’s sense of time and space with sustained vocal gestures layered with continued speech and at times, an audible distance between singer and listener. Throughout, electronics imitate the playing of a metal prayer bowl, possibly suggesting that music, or humanity, both withstand time and impact ways of being. The piece ends with Soper speaking Kafka’s text, “Once the smallest detail is truly known, are all things known?”

Kate Soper--Photo by Marco Giugliarelli

Kate Soper–Photo by Marco Giugliarelli

Pluta then joins Soper for Dialogue I, which seems to be a demonstration of the closing Kafka quotation: the improvisation is full of fine, nuanced musical details. Pluta gradually inserts his live electronics to punctuate and mirror ideas in the text by George Berkeley. Soon, the dramatic reading turns to dense musical enactment with a timbral focus. Soper’s hallmark melodic extremes and extended vocal techniques such as vocal fry, glottal trills, and ultra-breathiness stand up to Pluta’s distinct live electronics style that highlights the interplay between noise and pitch. At times, Pluta mimics Soper’s vocal improvisations and at others, the two argue.

The Fragments of Parmenides begins with Soper singing her own setting of William Butler Yeats’ “For Anne Gregory” after a brief, dramatic, spoken introduction. The song establishes and then straddles a line between lounge song and folk ballade. The nostalgia brings a sense of familiarity, old knowledge, and comfort, but Soper purposefully sings microtonal discrepancies to show cracks in the saccharine poem. Soper then moves to text by Parmenides and expands the song into a musical exploration of philosophical ideas. The piano accompaniment almost mirrors the text painting of a Schubert lied, sonically constructing horses galloping, bright and high collections for the concept of light, and low pitches for darkness. Soper moves along the continuum of dissonance and diatonicism with microtonality in piano and voice to reveal a further fracturing of what is “known.”

Sam Pluta

Sam Pluta

Dialogue II also tests ideas brought about in the previous piece, exploring the “empirical noise” mentioned in Parmenides. Pluta and Soper give a sense of pressure with vocal glottal stops and grunting and their electronic counterparts. The piece is not rooted in text, but exhibits Soper’s wide breadth of extended techniques with less melodic, yet still sung, gestures. The two composers improvise, oscillating between congruity and incongruity.

Closing with So Dawn Chromatically Descends to Day, Soper combines Robert Frost’s poem “Nothing Gold Can Stay” and Fred Lerdahl’s ideas about mapping emotion onto musical sounds to extract meaning. Again beginning with a theatrical spoken reading of Lerdahl’s text, Soper seamlessly transitions to an almost sweet, almost sad song using the Frost poem. The album ends by challenging the ideas from the first piece: reluctantly accepting impermanence while using the image of metal.

On The Understanding of All ThingsSoper expertly and carefully blends ideas of philosophy with music, old texts and new, and classical techniques and styles with popular music. We can hear influences in Soper’s work from the spectralists and experimental composers like Meredith Monk and Laurie Anderson, but we still hear new, challenging musical ideas. Both Soper and Pluta perform with sensitivity, elegance, and skill — they extend the boundaries of ideas of new music while also setting incomparable examples as performers. Together, they ask the listener questions of knowability and helps us explore the answers in the music.


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