Anna & Elizabeth are something of a millennial Shirley Collins, working on bringing traditional American folk songs into a modern context. The duo have been collecting songs, in their words, “from archives and old people” — though admittedly some of those old people were found on YouTube. All of their songs from this set are immigrant songs, tales of coming to America, as an effort to remind their countrymen of their roots even as they try to punish those who follow their ancestors’ examples. While there’s a decided traditional tinge to their banjo-and-guitar-based songs, subtle electronics feed into the background. Exactly how modern their interpretations are is really only apparent once they hold a laptop up to the microphone to play a recording of Margaret Shipman’s “Jeano and Jeanette.” The duo then repeat the song back with their own smooth-out harmonies.
The highlight of Anna & Elizabeth’s set is definitely their scrolls. The two-foot-tall paper scrolls are created by the duo to illustrate their songs. For the occasion, they’ve brought a painted seascape, lit from the front, and a backlit paper cut collage detailing life next door to a warm-hearted and musically talented neighbor. The scrolls are turned manually by Elizabeth, who sings while hiding behind them, the accompaniment often quiet enough that you can hear the soothing hum of the mechanism.
Heather Leigh’s music, however, is at the opposite end of this aural spectrum, though superficially it appears she comes from a similar tradition. Pedal steel is often associated with Americana, but Leigh’s performance is dense and droning, a world away from the instrument’s familiar warble. In Leigh’s hands, the pedal steel sometimes chimes and sometimes sounds like an approximation of 80s hair metal guitar. Her accompanist on electronics and violin (which again is distorted beyond its usual self) only adds to the density of the performance. Leigh’s dazzling soprano is a defiant strike against the heaviness of her arrangements. She sustains high notes that many singers would use to punctuate a song, and with a force that many could only aspire to. She’s found a space adjacent to but still a fair distance from the familiar.
Spectacle more than earns its name in the rich interior of Sankt Johannes Kirke, just across the road from Alice itself. Local sound artist Sofie Birch sits at the end of the nave, emanating warm waves and rivulets of synth sounds. This is a far cry from the punk posturing of the noise scene, combining Birch’s production abilities with a careful ear for composition, particularly when she uses her own voice. Layering vocal loops to create harmonies is certainly a common technique in the scene, but what makes tonight’s example so interesting is how these accretions slowly change the nature as well as the texture of the melodies, how these evolve in an almost classical sense.
To our backs in the church a much larger synth lies in wait: Sankt Johannes’s organ, ready to be taken through its paces by an artist of a considerably more venerable vintage. Charlemagne Palestine made a name for himself in similarly hallowed surroundings as a carilloneur in Manhattan’s Saint Thomas Episcopal Church in the 60s, having made his way through the banjo, accordion, and singing in synagogue. He has often referred in interviews to the concept of “playing a building”, of considering both the bells and the organ as part of the larger synthesizer of the church itself, and tonight he gives ample proof of it.
The piece starts off with relatively soft (relatively for a massive organ, of course), pad-like drones of two or three notes, variously modifying and slowly building on one another. The sound starts to bulk out and fluctuate, you can start to hear the harmonics of a simple three note chord, played of the course of several minutes, collide with each other. The wall of sound becomes dizzying as your attention hops up and down the frequency spectrum, trying to land somewhere. With no melody to follow, no clear demarcations of time, the air of the church gets denser. Keen on showing us the full potential of the instrument, Palestine pulls out the stops (are rare case when the phrase can be used literally) to cut the texture with a buzzing saw of a chord.
The notes start to thin out again, allowing Charlemagne Palestine to break out into another one of his talents, a spectacular chant, the technique of which was taught to him by Indian classical singer and scholar Pandit Pran Nath. Without any technological amplification, his arms raised to the heavens, Palestine’s voice reaches into the deepest recess of the building, bouncing off the walls alternately booming and plaintive. A long silence follows the end of the piece, after which Palestine invites us to praise the instrument: “The organ is still the most complete synthesizer in the world. It can sound like Bach, but it can also sound like Schmach!”