What happens when you immerse the vocals of a dancehall queen who thrives on pulsing beats in the droning of an art sound machine? That was the experiment set up between Jamaican dub vocalist Warrior Queen and New York artist Marina Rosenfeld in P.A./Hard Love, which had its premiere on April 26 at the Kitchen in Chelsea.
Rosenfeld’s “P.A.,” which is an evolving “modular sound-system project” was first presented at the Park Avenue Armory in 2009 as part of her residency there, where she attempted to fill the cavernous drill hall with noise from loudspeakers, subwoofers, and massive horns that look like they broke off from giant gramophones. She’s since toured “P.A.” around, always adapting it to the architecture and feel of a space, and installed in the Kitchen it was backed by the kind of blinding bright lights that might illuminate a high school football match somewhere in a shadowy midwestern evening. (Luckily, these lights were turned down once the actual performance began, although they maintained a strong glow.) However, while Rosenfeld has staged event performances, such as her “Teenage Lontano,” also at the Park Avenue Armory as part of the 2008 Whitney Biennial, an adaptation of Ligeti’s 1967 “Lontano” performed by a choir of 24 teenagers with their ears plugged into mp3 players with the score while a whirring speaker splayed electronic music from the ceiling, much of her work with “P.A.” has been focused on experiential sound installations. At the Kitchen, however, this was set up as the winding background noise to a concert, where it competed with, swallowed, and sometimes melded interestingly with Warrior Queen’s vocals.
The “P.A.” installation was the foundation of P.A./Hard Love, and New York-based cellist Okkyung Lee took center stage for a few haunting songs over roads of static, but Warrior Queen (aka Annette Henry), was the heart of the evening. Rosenfeld’s work sometimes has a touch of the dehumanizing in it, like in “Teenage Lontano” where the beautiful movement of the choir piece was given a cold edge by the electronics, and at the Kitchen there was some distance created by the pulsing, clicking cycles of sound.
The Kitchen is a small venue, yet all of that distortion created limits to the audience connection. And Warrior Queen is someone who wants to connect. Unfortunately the echo effect on her mic made it difficult to communicate, but she regularly tried to engage the crowd and bared some intense emotions on songs about a husband dying on a wedding night or wanting some XXX-level “hard love,” which she prefaced with a caution that it was going to get explicit — “I’m just giving you a warning, yeah?” — before layering her rapid dubstep vocals over the sound installation. There were moments that were just begging for some harder beats to be thrown in and give her some grounding and when they finally did near the end of the evening, the music reached a stage that was both sonically interesting and emotionally gripping, basically the best of both Rosenfeld’s and Warrior Queen’s worlds, a peak I wished the whole evening had summited.
However, it over all felt like an experiment in progress, where the two artists are still figuring out how to collaborate through their two approaches to music: the hands-off sound installation artist approaching noise as a layer over a space, and the dancehall vocalist who is all about the emotional audience response. This May, P.A./Hard Love is being released as an album with electronic label Room40, and it will be intriguing to see where both of these music perspectives go when neither space nor a live audience are in play. Here’s a preview:
P.A./Hard Love was at the Kitchen (512 West 19th Street, Chelsea) on April 26 and 27.