Where Were You Then?
Listening to Shelley Hirsch’s new CD Where Were You Then?, a collaboration with composer/arranger Simon Ho, the first image that sprang to my mind was of a rare, brightly feathered bird from some distant, quasi-fictional island alighting on my Brooklyn fire escape. And while Hirsch’s voice does at times invoke a delicate, elusive sensibility amid the grime and squalor of urban space, she’s as savvy and full of bravado as any New York pigeon, her astonishing vocal abilities encompassing everything from soaring glissandos and fluttering ululations to deceptively simple spoken-word pieces. The result is a loopy, fragmented, kaleidoscopic journey in which memories spin out multiple worlds, at once sublime and earthy, magical and funny and chaotic.
Hirsch loosely belongs to the clutch of avant-garde, voice-as-instrument singers that emerged from Downtown Manhattan in the ’70s and ’80s (when Downtown was as much a state of mind as a place), including Meredith Monk, Pamela Z., Joan La Barbara, Diamanda Galas, Cathy Berberian, and Pauline Oliveros. Over a career spanning 25 years and dozens of releases, she has collaborated and performed with all the heavy hitters of new music, including Anthony Coleman, Christian Marclay, Ikue Mori, Hans Reichel, Elliott Sharp, and Fred Frith.
Yet Hirsch’s particular and peculiar modus operandi seems more accessible than most of the other musicians who occupy this niche of the avant-garde. Maybe it’s because of her humble Jewish-Brooklyn roots—her semi-autobiographical O Little Town of East New York (1995), recounts growing up in that working-class neighborhood in the ’60s—or her occasional, unexpected forays into an almost pop-music sensibility, or the ironic backward glance that keeps her stories from ever turning nostalgic. In any case, what’s on offer in this collection of autobiographical tales is at times unnerving, at times overly revealing; by turns emotionally raw, sorrowful, hysterical (in both senses of the word), engaging, and relentlessly weird, but never is it alienating.
The CD’s standout track might be the beautiful and transcendent “Take Down the Wall,” in which this phrase, sung over and over against a musical backdrop of achy violins and tumbling percussion, displays Hirsch’s virtuosity to goosebump-inducing effect as she veers between soprano tremolos and guttural howls.
While Hirsch’s vocals are necessarily front and center, her collaborator Simon Ho (piano/sequencer/effects) and a varying lineup of seasoned musicians (strings, woodwinds, percussion, bass, tuba, drums) weave a sonic geography for those vocals to inhabit that is both spacious and intimate. Ho and company draw from a wide range of musical traditions and motifs: The music is often cinematic, as in the ’60s horror-movie soundtracks that back “Hitchhiking/Heinz.” “Julius,” “Never,” and “Online Dating” channel Weimar-era cabaret songs, with copious amounts of oom-pah and clunky piano. In “Jim Gartenberg,” a short but chilling narrative recounting a man’s calling into a television news program on September 11, 2001, the music is swirling, ambient, and spooky, punctuated with echoing chimes, but it rightly exists as a mostly blank canvas for Hirsch’s straightforward narrative: “It’s not ‘was’ there, he said. I am here now, stuck on the 86th floor with one other person…the area facing the East River.” A lesser artist might have made a piece about September 11 the focal point of the album, but Hirsch wisely situates this reminiscence as just one more element in a great, unknowable collage of voices, memories, and images.
It is in fact collage that seems to be the overarching sensibility driving Where Were You Then? and indeed, much of Hirsch’s oeuvre. Like Walter Benjamin’s notion about the constellar, rather than linear, nature of time, images and stories and sounds come at you all at once. Any notion of orderly progress, or of any one event having more spiritual weight than any other, is tossed out the window with anarchic glee. And this, more than anything, is what sets Hirsch apart—her quick-change artistry and grab bag of astounding vocal personalities effect a sort of acoustic alchemy. It’s a thing of wonder both playful and sobering.
Backed by the see-sawing, tightrope-walker music of some ominous dream circus, “Hitchhiking/Heinz,” a tale about hitchhiking in Holland in the early ’70s, is both funny and deeply unsettling. As Hirsch recounts her apprehension at being picked up by two elderly Germans (“You know where they must have been in World War Two!”) her voice, ragged with encroaching hysteria, tips over into Victorian-melodrama theatrics, invoking a cartoonish damsel who intones, “I told them my name was Shelley Hirsch…they must have known it was a Jewish name!” and “The men got back in the car and said they were going to take care of me!” The story becomes a sort of dark fairy tale in which the heroine throws off the cloak of her prejudices. As Hirsch’s voice crescendoes she cries out with an operatic flourish, “How could they be so nice? So nice!” It’s a moment charged with visceral delight for the listener. The CD is full of these kinds of surprises—moments of unexpected levity in the midst of melancholy, anguish, or rancor. In case anyone’s forgotten, this is what art is supposed to do: surprise and challenge us. Hirsch does both, in spades.