Boxing, we’re told, is the quintessentially male sport. Joyce Carol Oates, in her 1985 book On Boxing, even says this: “Men fighting men to determine…masculinity…excludes women as completely as the female experience of childbirth excludes men. The female boxer violates this stereotype and cannot be taken seriously—she is parody, she is cartoon, she is monstrous….”
Toronto composer and sound artist Juliet Palmer, a founding member of the interdisciplinary performance collective urbanvessel, disagrees. Palmer’s Voice-Box, with librettist Anna Chatterton and choreographer Julia Aplin, is about women who box, and it takes them very seriously indeed, using boxing as a metaphor for making a distinction between violence and aggression, and for understanding the positive value of aggression.
“Aggression is a very gendered issue,” says Palmer, who initially came to North America from her native New Zealand in 1990 to work with Meredith Monk in New York, earning a PhD in composition from Princeton in 1999. She now lives in Toronto. “If a woman is aggressive, she’s often sidelined. But positive assertion is how we act in the world, how we get things accomplished.”
The initial idea for Voice-Box, commissioned by Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre, came when opera singer—and accomplished boxer—Vilma Vitols approached Palmer about bringing the worlds of opera and boxing together.
“It took us a while to find the form for Voice-box,” says Palmer, whose previous works with urbanvessel include Slip, a site-specific performance for bathhouse (performed at Toronto’s Harrison Baths), and the much-acclaimed Stitch, an a cappella work for three female singers whose central metaphor is a sewing sweatshop. “Often there was the urge to push towards narrative, which wasn’t helpful. We’re exploring the structure of the sport — it’s more of an event than a story.
“It was a collaborative process, with the librettist there from the beginning. We spent time in the gym experimenting with training routines and vocal improvisation to see what impulses were triggered by the physical language of boxing.”
The piece, structured in a series of “bouts,” involves four protagonists (yes, there’s some real boxing) and, as in much of Palmer’s vocal writing, shifts fluidly between styles, exploiting the particular skills of its performers—improviser, jazz and gospel singer Christine Duncan; actor and opera singer Neema Bickersteth; actor, comedian and boxing coach Savoy Howe; and Vitols, whose expertise ranges from Baroque opera to contemporary music.
“I write specifically for different performers, and I adapt what I’ve written in collaboration with them,” says Palmer, whose chamber and orchestral music is more abstract and complex than her theatre music. “If they have great improvisational skills, I make sure they have that option; if their strengths are in interpreting precise notation, then I do that. The challenge is in how those different voices can share the same space. Each has a different emotional register that I want to access.”
To expand her understanding of the voice in dramatic contexts in different cultures, Palmer has studied South Indian singing, Japanese folk singing and Georgian singing—to name a few. In Voice-Box, Duncan uses Tibetan throat singing to make the idea of aggression clear in the music. “It’s in your face and uncomfortable,” says Palmer, “a deep, multiphonic sound that’s non-feminine and aggressive.”
There’s also a chorus of grunting sounds taken to extremes, an operatic duel, a tango, an electro-acoustic score that recycles sound endemic to the gym and the sport—bells, punching bags, squeaking ropes—and a cheesy, pre-recorded boxing theme.
That theme goes public for the first time when Voice-Box premieres on Harbourfront Centre’s World Stage Series in Toronto, Nov. 10-14. We hear it’s a knock-out.