Certain artists are conduits. Spirit flows through them. They have easy access to memory and the subconscious, with all the freedom that implies. Their stories, full of fine particulars, reveal enduring truths. They are natural improvisors, allowing characters and emotions to mingle and merge organically, like they do in dreams.
Shelley Hirsch is such an artist. On Wednesday, November 7, as she created – with words, music and movement – discreet, detailed, slightly ambiguous worlds, I thought of the assembled shadow box universes of Joseph Cornell. Like all great storytellers, the 66-year old vocalist was able to transport 60 participants into a fantastically collaged world of people and places. The concert, held in the UMass Old Chapel, concluded the first half of Season 30 of the Fine Arts Center’s Magic Triangle Jazz Series.
Alone on stage, Hirsch used text, theatrics, fashion, movement, recorded sound, and all manner of vocalizing to create unique sound worlds. Her free mixing of form recalls the creative tumult of New York’s Lower East Side in the 1970s and 80s, a scene Hirsch was very much a part of.
After a rich childhood in Brooklyn (chronicled brilliantly on her recording, O Little Town of East New York,) Hirsch dropped out of the High School of the Performing Arts and began a career that took her to San Francisco, Amsterdam, and finally, Tribeca. Her work is shaped by an intense intake of both the natural and created worlds, as well as her interactions with an incredible number of actors, visual artists, dancers and musicians. The list is long, but includes Christian Marclay, Sigourney Weaver, Ned Rothenberg, Jim Hodges, Anthony Coleman, John Zorn, Ikue Mori, and Butch Morris.
During her two days in western Massachusetts, we repeatedly stopped to marvel at popping red and yellow leaves. She listens intently to the sounds around her, Hirsch told Jason Robinson’s Amherst College students, and tries to reproduce them in her mouth and body. “The body is the world’s largest recorder,” she said. When drawn to something – Butoh, Romanian Gypsy music, wind through trees – she “would not try to imitate it, but try to inhabit it.”
Hirsch’s voice is an incredible instrument, able to produce a wide range of sound and accents. She had a couple of years of opera training, but is largely self-taught. She told us that early on, she didn’t want to be “the singer” in the band, but wanted to be thought of as “one of the instrumentalists.” She developed a prodigious technique and a unique vocabulary. But over time, she’s become less interested in being a virtuoso and has come to place a higher value on words and stories.
She “read” (much too dry a word) three untitled poems, including a hilarious one about the double meaning of the word “boner.” But the center pieces were “Power Muzak” and “States,” two longer compositions that saw Hirsch in highly interactive engagement with pre-recorded music that included kitsch, Latin, drones, abstract soundscapes, and stretched versions of “Blue Skies,” “Tenderly” and “Blue Moon.”
As a child she was drawn to the reverberations in her apartment hallways; in concert she used reverb to draw us into a hazy past, lending a feeling of indeterminacy and faded memory. Hirsch is a memoirist, using her past to create very contemporary music. At the end of O Little Town of East New York, she goes back to the old neighborhood and tells her friend’s mother all the things she remembered growing up. “How do you remember all these things?” Mrs. Calabro asked in thick Brooklynese, “How do you remember?”
We felt so thankful to have witnessed the inner reach of Shelley Hirsch’s far out world.