I picture Agnes Hvizdalek sat at the bottom of a 60-foot chimney. She’s in an ancient factory in São Paulo called Casa das Caldeiras, during an artistic residency in Brazil back in July 2016. There’s a microphone and nothing else. No instruments. For 48 minutes, Hvizdalek engages in an act of private study: the emission of a vocal sound, intense self-listening, subtle modulation, repeat, recalibration, new emission, reflection, recalibration. It’s an improvisatory phonetic monologue where each new sound spills organically out of the vocalisation prior, gradually shedding all basis in language and conventional song until it becomes a self-referential, thoroughly abstracted vocal shape; not a rebellion against the voice’s traditional use, but an act of clasping at the clacking, self-harmonising extremes of the voice as instrument.
I forever have to remind myself of the “true” context of this recording. As Hvizdalek burrows into a single multiphonic technique over the course of five minutes or more – producing strands of sub-octave hum that quiver beneath open vowels – I start to veer away from a context (woman, microphone, chimney) that I can intellectualise but no longer picture in my head. Instead, my imagination stumbles out into the open, scanning the outer horizon for a possible source of these birdsong helter-skelters, reptilian mating clicks and wormhole oscillations, invariably arriving at some sort of collage of crooked alien anatomy. Index turns particularly surreal when Hvizdalek utilises the acoustics of the chimney itself, redirecting her voice so that it swells into its own industrial echo, creating strange sub-rhythms as ripples of throat constriction splash into their reflected equivalents before shrinking back into a state of privacy.
In fact, the record’s strangest moments are those that juxtapose her voice with the day-to-day unfurl of human culture, offering up a yardstick for the extent of Hvizdalek’s estrangement from conventional vocal operation. When she falls quiet (each stop for breath offers the opportunity to reflect and realign), I can hear the tinny chatter of construction worker radios, the acceleration of passing cars and the clatter of movement within the factory. Like a tide, her voice retracts to reveal normality unfolding beneath her before the next exhalation smothers it again. For the most part these sounds are too subtle and incidental to actively engage with, but there’s one exception: the low drone of a passing helicopter invades the recording space, and Hvizdalek raises the volume of her animalistic clack to compete with the engine swell; like a castaway gone wild through extended solitude, waving frantically at this beacon of human civilisation in a bid to be taken back.