A vocalist of any kind is a sort of illusionist, in that the source of the sounds lies out of sight. Watching the New York-based experimental vocalist Charmaine Lee perform the haunting grumbles and fey sighs of her 2019 set at Issue Project Room, I considered that her throat just then might conceal a schoolgirl trapped in a washing machine. Part of the pleasure of seeing her live was witnessing the contrast between these dynamic, energetic vocalizations and her physical composure, such that our focus lay only with the grimoire of sounds Lee was launching into the microphone.
Lee, who is predominantly an improviser, has written about the process of developing an individual sonic language through live performance, collaboration and carefully selected technologies. If her debut album Ggggg (2018) was Lee sounding out of a few elements of her vocabulary, her work on the recently released LP KNVF weaves these eclectic sounds into ample sentences. Using various effects and a small arsenal of mics, including a contact mic that she affixes to her throat with a bandage and an amplified hair comb designed by the musician Victoria Shen, Lee generates a startling range of vocalizations—everything from morning ablutions, as on “Esteemed Dougie,” to a failing hard drive on “Monstas’ Marriage” and “The Final Futz.” Her results outline, as she describes, a kind of polyphony that places the possibilities of the voice in conversation.
The voice as we expect it to sound is sometimes barely evoked at all, as on the atmospheric “Residual Pulse.” “False Gravity,” seemingly a meditation on sucking the air out of a balloon, would fit well in a Foley retrospective. When Lee produces more “organic” vocalizations—swallowing, breathing, gargling, squelching—the effect is often so visceral and intimate to the point of inducing squeamishness. Lee mirrors this effect in her childish intonations, which include an nymphetic “yeah” that seems to hail from the same unsalvageable universe as the early-2000s internet hoax Bonsai Kitten, in that its chilling cuteness and sly eroticism inspires an urge to switch planets. On “Whip,” Lee pairs saccharine sighs with the imposing sound of her hair as amplified by Shen’s comb, suggesting a Care Bear choking on its own fur. She modulates so deftly and quickly between different aesthetic registers as to imply they are much closer than we perhaps would like to think.
Among these largely kinetic, effervescent tracks, a few stand out for their starkness. On “Market Slip,” Lee holds a B-flat through a series of “maws” and “mees,” for the album’s most sustained use of pitch. Heard on its own, the stoic sixth track “Exuberant Bodies (For Yan Jun)” seems to give us sentence shrapnel, shards of words too obliterated by processing to make out, over a backdrop of high-pitched white noise. The album credits reveal that Lee is in fact reading from “Exuberance with Bloody Hands,” a myth-infused musing on desire and violence by the Australian poet Dorothy Porter. Porter’s text shreds in Lee’s throat and emerges unrecognizable, its intensity evoked through incoherence.
Lee, as she has stated, is after a mode that plays well with others. As her work evolves, her voice seems to increasingly resemble a repository for all she has encountered. The consistently fresh arc of KNVF offers a sense that it might have been recorded a hundred different ways—a testament to the value of being such a curious, permeable performer.