Maja Ratkje/Jaap Blonk

Improvisors Majaap

Five Men Singing

By Ken Waxman

October 11, 2004

Tonsils, the larynx, the epiglottis, Kurt Schwitters’ Dadaist poetry, Donald Duck’s verbal anger and the mouth improv of comedian Jonathon Winters are some of the many sounds referenced on these CDs, which celebrate and showcase nature’s original avant-garde instrument: the human voice.

Five Men Singing is more-or-less just that. A live performance by American David Moss, Canadian Paul Dutton, Japan’s Koichi Makigami, England’s Phil Minton and Jaap Blonk of the Netherlands, it exposes every note, tone, timbre and texture that can be vibrated by the uvula, dredged from the throat and buzzed from the cheeks and lips. Improvisors Majaap adds an undercurrent of gender politics as Blonk faces off with Norwegian composer/vocalist Maja Ratkje.

Ratkje’s pedigree alone confirms the seriousness as well as the silliness heard on these discs. Someone whose works have been performed in films, by the Oslo Sinfonietta and bands like Jazzkammer and POING, she is as committed to these verbal improvisations as much as her notated and electronic scores. Twenty years her senior, Blonk is a self-taught composer and sound poet, whose powerful and flexible voice has led to collaborations as different as those with the Netherlands Wind Ensemble and Swedish improv saxist Mats Gustafsson.

During the 18 tracks that make up this CD, the pitches the two produce range from giggles, gargles and gurgles to burps, bumps and bellows. When Blonk doesn’t sound like Donald Duck embroiled in a particularly heated argument with Daisy, his sibilant quacks are superseded by tongue smacks, cheek thumps and Bronx cheers. In contrast to his strangled growls and basso, almost Tuvan tones, Ratkje’s output is more nimble, as if the Wicked Witch of the West was dialoguing with a recalcitrant ogre. Warbles and cackles are part of her stock-in-trade, with her vocal chords moving from feline howls and screeches to high-pitched nonsense dialogue that could come from a tiny child or a pixie. She can speedily scream like a cockatoo or peep like a chickadee. Usually, though, these bestial noises bring out the barking from Blonk’s inner pooch.

Sometimes, intentionally or not, the verbal intercourse seems almost sexual, as understated titters on her part join with racked throat pressure from Blonk. As they ejaculate quicker and quicker timbres in higher (Ratkje) and lower (Blonk) pitches, his final silence and breathing suggests post-orgasmic bliss, as does her happy nattering subsiding into silence.

Other times Ratkje’s and Blonk’s interaction can be compared to a particularly obtuse language instruction tape with the student and teacher both heard clearly, or European train station dialogue, though the words you strain to make out are Professor Irwin Cory-like classic doubletalk.

Multiply the doubletalk by two-and-one-half when Blonk concertizes with the other male soundsingers. Together the five put the babble in syllable. This could be a field recording of vocal improvisation from an exceptionally inventive and voluble tribe.

An old hand at all this, Minton started off as a trumpeter and vocalist with Mike Westbrook’s Orchestra in the mid-1960s. Since then, sans trumpet, his associations have included Europeans like British pianist Veryan Weston and Dutch bassist Luc Ex and Americans like drummer Gerry Hemingway. A reformed rock musician and vocalist/cornet player with the band HIKASHU, Makigami organized John Zorn’s game piece COBRA in Tokyo, and solo, recorded re-worked old Japanese pop songs.

Initially a percussionist, Moss has concentrated on what he calls “extreme vocals” since moving to Berlin in 1991. A performer in contemporary operas, he has worked with, among many others German composer Heiner Goebbels and American vocalist Shelley Hirsch. A writer as well as a sound poet, Toronto’s Dutton is also part of CCMC with Plunderphonics creator/saxist John Oswald and artist/pianist Michael Snow.

What all this means is that more influences such as the noisemaking of European Punch-and-Judy shows, extended New music techniques, the grunts and yells of Noh theatre, doo wop vocal group harmonies and the vaudevillian virtuosity of self-created sound makers are added to the mouth expansions showcased here.

“Ten Tones High”, for instance, could be what would happen if someone spiked the coffee of the Sons of the Pioneers as they were harmonizing around the campfire. Between the ululation you can almost hear the lowing of cattle, neighing of horses and wolves and dogs howling at the moon. Eventually bird warbles and spit rhythms hover over tongue slaps and Bronx cheers then explode into verbal gibberish that could come from a tape recorder running backwards.

Then there’s “Tough and Rumble”, which sounds like walk-in day at the Snoring clinic. Not only can you hear the timber-sawing heavy tones of epiglottis clearing, but it also seems as if a few of the patients are suffering aural nightmares. There are screeches, basso rumble wah-wah plunger tones, even whip-like “heys” and smothered yells. Between the seafarers’ signs and alter kocker’s oys, it’s as if the Ancient Mariner is jockeying for a seat in a New York Lower East Side delicatessen.

Other pieces show off vocal retching, gurgles and chugging adenoidal rhythmic blasts and breaths. Among the polyphonic vocal lines that reoccur are gaping earthquake crevice sounds, combinations of roars and snorts, airy breaths, whispered interjections, frantic screams, stentorian mumbling and cartoon character-like hiccuped, nasal passages.

Constipated cries vie for space with the satisfied tones that result from successful Pepto Bismal treatment. Bel canto operatic sounds appear at the same time as strangled, hysterical, Bedlam noises. If one fellow figures out how to play mouth trumpet or to expand cheek slaps to percussion, another performs a mouth and tongue tap dance or appears to have created a jew’s harp out of the oropharynx.

Dog panting is heard along with what could be small children burbling and screeching. Someone yodels as if he’s at the summit of a Swiss mountain, while another shrieks as if he’s trapped at the top of a top building. Lips are kissed, smacked and manipulated, while tongues smack and click-clack. And at points everyone combines for some snatches of vocal group harmony.

Real words that range from what sounds like “Seig Heil” to “200 years from ...” appear during the more than nine minute “Haiku Sonic” and it’s even possible that a deep throated “God Save the Queen” melody is breathed. Vibrated syllables and rude, raspberry-like noises are there in addition to what sound like saxophone reed wails. Dog barks, rooster crows, gargoyle snarls and just out of earshot dialogue that could come from cartoon character Smurfs appear. As the different voices attach and separate from one another the piece climaxes and melts into doubletalk.

It may be the oldest instrument known to humanity, but these Europeans, Asians and North Americans prove there’s still much that can be created with the human voice.