A couple of weeks ago, Rose and I went to local contemporary music ensemble Present Music‘s final concert of the season, which featured Amy X Neuburg, both as composer performing four or five of her own pieces and as guest vocalist. We both enjoyed her music immensely, and Rose was particularly impressed…to the extent that she bought one of Neuburg’s CDs on sale in the lobby. Now that doesn’t sound all that impressive…until you realize that, living with me and my far-too-many-thousand-disc collection (not to mention all the mp3s, as well as various twentieth-century music-storage formats), Rose hasn’t bought a CD in probably twenty years.
While we were looking over the selection of CDs, I remembered the other reason Neuburg’s name rang a bell (the main one being that our friend Sue had blogged about her show a few months back): years ago, when I was reviewing CDs for the late Milk magazine, one of Neuburg’s earlier recordings had found its way to my inbox (actually, had found its way into a large plastic bag full of CDs that Josh, the editor, figured would most annoy me and drive me insane). It was billed to Amy X Neuburg & Men, was called Sports! Chips! Booty!, and featured what I dearly hope was intentionally awful cover art and design. It therefore fell victim to my generally quite reliable cover-art triage method – but even though I can’t recall a note of it any more, I remember being quite unimpressed. (Which is why I didn’t review it: my policy was not to bother writing utter slams unless the artist was publicity-bloated and such slams would constitute reader service. What’s the point of slamming an album by a musician your readers have never heard of? And if the CD really sucks, ignoring it does it more damage than slamming it anyway. See? I wasn’t being a kind, sensitive critic…I was being even more evil but in a subtler way.)
I’d completely forgotten that CD – and it’s just as well, since I therefore came to the concert without preconceptions. And either my ears have changed since that CD, or Neuburg’s music has – because I found her current material far more interesting, challenging, witty, and engaging than I would have guessed, if I’d remembered my earlier encounter with her music. She uses a loop-based system that allows her to layer her voice, along with the occasional sample, in real time. As she notes, it would be technologically simpler to prerecord those loops, or hire a band, but the fact that she builds and triggers the loops and samples in real time has two key effects on her performance and music: one, it keeps things interesting for the audience, in that the structure of what they hear isn’t tucked away on a laptop (which eliminates the notion that all that’s going on is button-pushing), and two, probably more importantly, the limitations of the set-up impose a compositional discipline upon Neuburg that gives her music a distinctive character. Loops can be turned on and off, altered, and edited on the fly – but the restriction of essentially doing this in real time creates a choreography out of the otherwise-mundane act of pressing keys and buttons.
As for the content filling out that structure, let’s get one thing out of the way quickly: Laurie Anderson. Yes, there are off-kilter narratives, altered voices, deadpan juxtapositions, etc….but Neuburg is also a classically trained vocalist, and therefore relies less upon electronic alteration of her vocal texture and more upon her own abilities – abilities which are quite chameleonic: she switches from speech to pop-singing to classical singing instantaneously, and she’s very canny about the uses and connotations of the various voices she uses. (And sadly, Anderson herself hasn’t seemed to recognize her strengths since the mid-eighties. She decided to become a singer – but she’s not that good a vocalist. She decided to write songs – but she lacks the songwriter’s sense both of melody and structure. And rather than the bizarre and intriguing textures of her earlier work – a few weeks back, Little Hits posted “Walk the Dog,” the b-side of “O Superman,” if you want an example – she relied increasingly on generic late-eighties synth sounds.) In other words, Neuburg is anything but a Laurie clone: I’d argue that insofar as Anderson’s an influence, Neuburg has surpassed her in nearly every way by this point.
Some examples: “My God” adapts a Renaissance motet as backdrop to one of Neuburg’s wordplay-laden monologues – which (and I’m warning you in case you’re listening in headphones and have turned it up earlier) is interrupted by a metallic blast about a minute and a half in. What’s interesting is the way that motet – initially calming and beautifully mysterious in the way Renaissance polyphony often is, moving in slightly unexpected ways – becomes, in its repetition and elaboration, increasingly frustrating. Something more ought to happen to it, you think; why does it proceed blissfully unaware of its surroundings? And, right about then, Neuburg switches things up on you – just at the point you were thinking you knew exactly how this piece goes.
“My Fuzzy Muse” begins with another appropriation, of sorts: this time, a sort of country-western-as-played-on-a-Toys-R-Us-organ sound. The chorus, however (if we can call it that), manages to be amusing, catchy, irritating, and vaguely threatening (given the rest of the lyric).
The two pieces only begin to suggest the variety of moods and sounds that figure into Residue‘s songs. In many places Neuburg manages the neat trick of transmuting her songs’ silliness, mundanity, cleverness, and by-now-expected postmodern referentiality into unexpected emotional heft. Not that she’s gonna get all serious on you, but this also isn’t just blank parody either. It almost makes me wish I still had that copy of her old CD, just to see if I missed anything.