1: 6 September 2018
An illusion is at work. I lose the ability to distinguish between the inside and the outside. Sometimes the microphone is directly inside Audrey Chen’s mouth, picking up the sound of the tongue as it peels away from the teeth, reaching down into her throat where constriction turns breath into gargles and gags. Yet the acoustic reflections also place me within rooms of various sizes: echoes that conjure images of damp wood cabins or small cupboards. Over my initial listens to the album, I’ve marvelled at Chen’s disorientating augmentation of space and listener placement. Runt Vigor is an impossible sculpture of chambers inside chambers – a body occupying a room, a room tucked behind the teeth – in which the walls of the mouth quietly mutate to become the walls of an attic and vice versa. Spaces respire, spaces invert, spaces disappear. It’s a potent demonstration of one of the central ambiguities of engaging with sound: is listening the act of inhabitation, or the act of observation? Why not both?
For this reason and others, it’s a record that refuses to accommodate me. I spend the running time in a state of discomfort, often physically shuffling in my seat as Chen reshapes the room around me. Yet it’s a discomfort that denies listener complacency, forcing me to constantly question the dimensions of my surroundings and the source of the sounds I’m hearing. My powers of recognition are continually wrong-footed. Spluttering electronics are made to emulate the clacks and creaks of vocal improvisation (or perhaps vice versa). Breath cycles are overdubbed and blurred together, obfuscating the separation between inhales and exhales. Sounds slip into eachother like limbs intertwined, cello bows wriggling over the surface of sung vocal vibrato, electronics squirming into the crevices between skin and wood. Its cramped and constricted. Humid. The final 10 minutes coil around me like steam, with the cello panting and electronics like a dying petrol motor, and Chen’s voice floating through the mist, slinking into spaces as and when they appear. Sound has to strain and stretch to exist. As much as Runt Vigor thrives off the richness and ambiguity of the tones that make it, the record is also haunted by the asphyxiated spectres of that sounds that don’t.
The shape of Audrey Chen’s voice is forever undergoing adjustment. Firstly through the patterns of muscle contraction, generating everything from the ripples of vibrato on “Mouth” to the fountain of squeals on “In The”. Secondly through the forces of capture and presentation: her physical distance from the microphone, the precise tweaks of EQ, the gentle insertion of distortion into the signal. This process is constant. While her performance exudes the flow and elasticity of raw improvisation, every sound seems to be have been considered and consciously adjusted; every emphasis scrutinised, every consonant accentuated or reduced. The focal point of my listening is carried across each vocal contour in turn. The crackle of saliva forced through teeth is remarkably clear, to the point where I can picture the bubbles popping against enamel; elsewhere, the soft pronouncement of certain vowels is rendered so deep and warm that it quivers through the surrounding walls. When other instruments enter the frame – say, the intermittent thump of drum on “Mouth” – Chen’s enunciations are adjusted to mindfully interact, draped over the surface of the percussion like fabric. Sometimes her voice is tiny, scuttling into my ears like an insect. At other points the voice is a sudden womb, cradling me in vibrations that run over me and underneath me. Yet it is always changing. The sculpture is never done.
As the longest of the three pieces, “Heavy In The Hand” is able to explore a state of liminal loitering; a prolonged uncertainty and atmospheric clenching, whose every modulation brings not the promise of solution, but the opportunity to perceive this partial puzzle from a different angle. In the first half, Chen’s voice is propped upon a cloud of circularly-scraped drum skin, tossing and turning between reptilian croaking and fractured inward gasps, each gesture divided by restless brooks of spittle. The occasional soft boom of a distant drum alludes to lower frequencies that otherwise remain unexplored – the piece is crushed into an attic space of the shrill and the splintering, denied the low plosive bursts that might offer some sense of relief. The second half shifts from a textural imbalance to a harmonic one. Tones run at antagonistic angles: the anxious shivering of the bow, the bleak and inquisitive low bass tones, the inexorable putter of electronics. To my ears, the voice is trying to trace a line of reconciliation between these disparate zones, searching for a specific tone that might cultivate coherence. Instead, this 21-minute piece begins and ends in a yearning for the whole, stretching into the spaces where the missing pieces should be.