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‘It was a bit of a shock’: A singer loses her voice. How can a composer respond?

Ian Wilson’s Voces Amissae explores voicelessness, whether medical, psychological or social – including that of its performer Nora Fischer

The title of Ian Wilson’s new work, Voces Amissae, or Lost Voices, is a little bit odd for a piece that features voice, a string ensemble and two percussionists.

The work, which premieres at Dublin International Chamber Music Festival on Friday, grew out of an earlier work, Totemic, written for the viola and percussion duo of Nathan Sherman and Alex Petcu, which also became the title of the duo’s first album.

Nora Fischer was lovely to work with. A lovely, lovely voice. For the new piece I wanted someone with great flexibility in her voice, which she had at that time

The spur was the disparity Wilson experienced between the recording and live performances of Totemic. “I realised that the sounds I had written were not really coming across as clearly in the auditorium as they were on the recording, where everything was nicely, closely miked, so that all those swishes and hushes could come across,” he says. “I wanted to explore that sound world again but on a slightly bigger scale: more violas, more percussion, more everything.”

The larger scale, he felt, “would probably need some kind of focus as well, not just the lovely noises. I decided that a singer and some text would be good, just to give the thing a bit of shape and a bit of purpose.”


Wilson had worked with the Dutch singer Nora Fischer about 10 years ago. The two were introduced by the Dutch saxophone player Ties Mellema, “who I’d known for a long time. He used to play with the Amstel Quartet, who’ve been in Ireland a few times.”

The connecting thread was a project by Beck, a “wonderful, very talented singer, musician, songwriter, not really pop, very interesting”. Back in 2012 Beck had released not an album but Song Reader, “a book of sheet music. Basically he let everybody buy it and do what they wanted with it. Which is very unusual. Ties had the idea of recording the whole songbook with saxophones and Fischer as the singer.

“I made versions of two of the songs: one for Nora and Ties; one with Nora and a baritone saxophone quartet. I really enjoyed that, and she was lovely to work with. A lovely, lovely voice. I suppose because of the kind of voice I was looking for for the new piece, I wanted someone with great flexibility in her voice, which she had at that time.”

Since then, Fischer had to tell Wilson, she had been having trouble with her voice and hadn’t really been singing. “That was a bit of a shock,” he says. “We continued to talk about it, because Nora is a fabulous singer, and very much working across different genres.”

Although Fischer’s vocal problems were physical, they were “the result of some traumas that she’s had in her life in the last while that resulted in her not being able to sing with much confidence”. Locked out of singing, she had moved into theatre, among other things. “We kept talking,” Wilson says, “and we realised there was a way still for her to be involved.”

The project pivoted towards a work that “could be looking at different ways in which people have lost their voices, whether medically or psychologically or socially. We agreed that we would each interview a number of people. Nora was interviewing some immigrants and some homeless people in Amsterdam, where she’s from. And because of my history of projects with Tallaght University Hospital” – Wilson was composer-in-residence there for a number of years – “I was going to do some interviews with people there, and generally with people who had lost a voice for medical reasons.”

Sheila Chandra, whose debut single, Ever So Lonely with Monsoon, was a hit in Britain in 1982, in a breakthrough moment for Asian voices, has been suffering from burning-mouth syndrome since 2010. “She very kindly gave me a long interview about the problems she’s had with her voice. She was a big pop star in the 1980s; then she moved into world music. But she hasn’t been able to sing at all. Which is a real tragedy.”

Burning-mouth syndrome is a painful and little-understood neuropathic condition, Wilson explains. “It affects muscles in the mouth, the mouth lining, particularly the tongue. So it becomes very painful if you talk for any length of time, let alone sing. That’s been quite a trauma for her.

“I also spoke to one lady who has motor neuron disease and to someone who had had a stroke very young, at the age of 29, and she’d recovered her voice. It’s a broad palette of voices that we have involved in the piece. We’ve transcribed all our interviews, and I’ve taken out the most interesting little bits.”

Wilson has still had to take into account that the first performances will be given by a singer who’s not yet 100 per cent. “We have to see in rehearsal how that’s going to turn out. I’ve notated things for her to sing, with the proviso that she doesn’t have to. She could improvise her way around those if she wants to.”

I’ve included a series of poems by Draginja Adamović, a Serbian poet that nobody seems to know of in Serbia, which is really bizarre. So, in a way, she has lost her voice as well since she died. Nobody is reading her poetry

There’s another, independent strand. “I’ve included a series of poems by Draginja Adamović, who’s a Serbian poet that nobody seems to know of in Serbia, which is really bizarre. She died in 2000 and wrote the most wonderful, pithy, surrealist little poems, which were just right up my street. So, in a way, she has lost her voice as well since she died. Nobody is reading her poetry.” Her poems, Wilson says, “act like little markers throughout the piece as well”.

And every element of the extremely delicate musical performance will be controlled by a sound engineer, “miked so that those very quiet sounds will be able to be brought up to audible level, without being too loud in the auditorium”.

After Wilson had the idea for Voces Amissae, he says, “I stumbled across the music of Evan Johnson, a really interesting American composer who lives in Holland. It’s very beautiful, very delicate music. But you should see the scores.” You can see some on his website. “They’re the most complicated scores. They’re, like, overloaded with information about how to create the tiniest, quietest sounds. A really weird disconnect between what you see and what you hear, much more so than with Brian Ferneyhough, for instance.” Ferneyhough’s scores are notorious for their complexity. Johnson’s work, says Wilson, has, “more than anything, confirmed to me that it is a very viable approach to making music, to explore these very low dynamic sounds”.

I ask about the range of vocalisation he expects in the work. “This is what we’re waiting to find out in the rehearsal process. She says her voice is improving; it’s on the way back. I’m hoping that she will sing, at least the settings of the Adamović poems. I’m not really sure what her response to the other texts will be. They’re notated, but it could be something half-spoken, half-sung. I’m really not sure. That will be the fun of the rehearsal process.”

Voces Amissae, with Nora Fischer and the Ficino Ensemble, is at Dublin Castle at 6pm on Friday, June 9th (tickets are free), as part of Dublin International Chamber Music Festival; and at Triskel, in Cork, at 1pm on Saturday, June 10th