Colorful Language

(courtesy of David Moss)

David Moss is a self-described “extreme vocalist.” In his bizarre, entrancing performances, he babbles and sings in invented languages, his commanding but playful use of his voice leaving audiences speechless. This Saturday, at the University of Chicago’s Bond Chapel, Moss will premiere his latest composition, “Hyperglyphyx.”

The composition focuses on “a rhythm that drives the human genetic package,” Moss says. Trained as a percussionist and self-taught as a singer, Moss is interested in finding ”a pulse, a beat, a chant buried” deep in human memories and “chemical hieroglyphics.” It is what cannot be expressed in grammar alone that excites Moss. To find these hidden beats and pulses, he uses warped excerpts from texts selected partly for their content, “and sometimes for the rhythm and color of their language,” he says. He cites three diverse authors. “[Italo] Calvino, the Italian writer, has attracted me tremendously because of his imagery about time and memory and physical location and philosophy of places…Melville, especially in ‘Moby-Dick,’ represents this kind of incantational power of speaking and writing through repetition and exaggeration and onomatopoeia–it’s almost like chanting. [Franz] Kafka lies between the two, dealing with narrative puzzles and mysteries.“ The excerpts are critical in Moss’s improvisations. “I like to know that I have someone’s beautiful words in front of me that I can jump into and use as material to start something new again.”

Moss’s Saturday performance is part of the “Praxes of Theory” conference, a two-day international colloquium that explores the relationship between aesthetic theory and performance practice in a variety of disciplines. Appropriately, the colloquium is being hosted by the University’s Germanic Studies, Theater and Performing Studies, and Cinema & Media Studies departments, along with the Renaissance Society. Artists and scholars will discuss a variety of formal papers and conceptual performances, including Moss’s vocals.

“Hyperglyphyx” and a history of unique, titillating performances have kept Moss’s name in discussions of the avant-garde. One of his current projects is the improvisational trio Denseland, formed in February of 2008 to investigate “being compact, earthy, and massive.” To the novice listener, Denseland sounds a bit like the lovechild of Tom Waits and a washing machine. But somehow the trio’s music really does sound earthy–it suspends listeners in an alternate world of sounds that creep, crawl, scrape, and slink.

This ability to activate instruments and his voice into something that seems to move has earned Moss significant critical praise. He was a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1991 and a DAAD Fellowship (Berlin) in 1992, and in 2005 he was a soloist in the opening concerts of both the Venice Biennale and the Queensland Biennial Music Festival. In 2001, with funding from the Belgian government, Moss founded the Institute for Living Voice, which offers workshops, concerts, and discussions focused on singing.

When Moss comes to town on Saturday, it will be no surprise if his audience is awestruck. He will likely turn Bond Chapel into a playground for his voice to take flight. Or to sink, swim, swoon, or skate.
Bond Chapel, 1050 E. 59th St. May 22. Saturday, 8pm. Free. renaissancesociety.org