Juliana Huxtable’s Layered Vocals, Spurred by Electronics, Come to Light at Dimmed National Sawdust

Juliana Huxtable is an artist who transcends labels, defined only by her ability to breach and reshape the borders of traditional music genres. She is a published writer and poet, visual artist, DJ, and co-founder of the nightlife project Shock Value. Her music is just as varied as her career — she offers performances that are exciting and refreshingly new.

On May 6, not far from Bang on a Can’s Long Play Festival, Huxtable and Tongue in the Mind — her project with multi-instrumentalist Joe Rinaldo Heffernan — brought National Sawdust’s Archive of Desire festival to a close. Curated by composer Paola Prestini, the artistic director of National Sawdust, the weeklong celebration of Alexandrian poet C.P. Cavafy’s 160th birthday concluded with Huxtable’s set, inspired by Cavafy’s poem Ionic.

In Huxtable’s performance, looped spoken phrases became more undecipherable the more they were layered. Only the most distinctly pronounced words cut through the increasingly crushed cacophony of phrases, like “…and the distance from her… silence now” transforming into “Distance. Silence.” Or “no train is empty” dissolving into “empty.

Juliana Huxtable at National Sawdust's "Archive of Desire" festival -- Photo by Zachary Schulman

Juliana Huxtable at National Sawdust’s “Archive of Desire” festival — Photo by Zachary Schulman

Huxtable’s approach to layering and manipulating her own voice is reminiscent of Pamela Z, but where Z tends to focus on the breath and carefully articulated words, Huxtable suffocates and scrambles, obliterating any meaning and begging the question of whether or not words actually matter in the context of experimental music. Accompanying Huxtable was Heffernan’s lush, melodic and methodical piano that sounded like a combination of Jason Moran and a Chopin nocturne. The juxtaposition of Huxtable’s choked and fragmented vocals against the breathing fluidity of the piano resulted in an almost perpetual climax that neither resolved nor moved, but Huxtable and Heffernan — with Via App on electronics — found joy in the combination of these diametrically opposed styles.

The evening continuously flowed between different musical influences, never staying in one sonic area for too long. Electronic dance music supported linear, tonal singing; Heffernan’s electric guitar solo accompanied his smooth alternative rock vocals, followed by a clamoring industrial vibe. Huxtable sang a few songs with moaning slides and groans against electronics that were fused with accented rim shots on the drums, faint salsa inflections peeking through. When her singing evolved into fully-formed lyrics, Hefferman accompanied her with a folksy guitar sound.

Throughout the evening, every recognizable genre of music underwent some form of cyclical metamorphosis through unexpected additions and subtractions. A typical two-beat repeated loop of electronic music abruptly dropped out instead of fading, leaving only a tenderly plucked acoustic guitar playing in a ballad style. Unlike the trademark wailing grief of the blues, Heffernan’s guitar was melancholy but hopeful, as Huxtable offered a soothing scalar melody, calm when meandering through neighboring tones.

Joe Rinaldo Heffernan at National Sawdust's "Archive of Desire" festival -- Photo by Zachary Schulman

Joe Rinaldo Heffernan at National Sawdust’s “Archive of Desire” festival — Photo by Zachary Schulman

The visually stunning lighting also contributed to the show’s immersive quality. The entire venue, including the stage, was entirely black until a lone white spotlight illuminated Huxtable for the entrance of her tender vocals. When her simple four-bar phrase closed, the white spotlight faded with her, leaving everyone in the dark again. On and off, smoothing into and out of her voice, the flash of white evoked the depiction of someone slipping away, seeing only a pulsating flash of light, and then another, longer each time. Even more hypnotic was the guitar left in the dark — only heard and not seen — with Hefferman’s fingers moving by feel, not by sight.

National Sawdust proved an ideal space for the evening’s body-reverberating drumbeats, sweet, heaven-calling acoustics, narrative-inducing light production, and cinematic proportions — all things that Juliana Huxtable and Tongue in the Mind could have achieved on their own. But something about being left in the dark in the venue’s intimate space, having just a few moments at a time of being suspended in a void of the unknown, recalled the closing of Cavafy’s poem:

When an August dawn wakes over you,
your atmosphere is potent with their life,
and sometimes a young ethereal figure,
indistinct, in rapid flight,
wings across your hills.


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