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September 2012

Number Her Daze:
Abigail Fischer's AbSynth, Hammer Museum

  Abigail Fischer

Under the benevolent auspices of its 6 month residency at the Hammer Museum in Westwood, the unstoppable wild Up sponsored a Saturday afternoon appearance by Abigail Fischer with AbSynth, her evolving performance piece for mezzo soprano (herself) and accompanying electronics (an Apple laptop, natch). In addition to pursuing a career within the core opera repertoire, Ms. Fischer has staked a place for herself as a go-to singer in New York New Music ["none dare call it 'indie Classical'"] circles, and AbSynth is as much a showpiece for its collection of contemporary composers as it is for the singer who commissioned them.

When AbSynth first surfaced, around 2007, it seems to have been postured as the story of a robot who becomes a woman and wished to return to robotitude. As it has evolved for the Hammer performance (under the co-direction of Ms. Fischer and wild Up conductor/artistic director Christopher Rountree), plot is no longer a particular point of emphasis. The singer appeared human throughout, albeit not necessarily a human you would feel comfortable being left alone with. While the performance played out as a series of intriguing incidents, there was little attempt to tell a fully cohesive tale.

AbSynth begins and ends with Nico Muhly's "Mothertongue," commissioned for Ms. Fischer and later recorded with her for Muhly's 2008 album of the same name. The premise of the piece is a release of the accumulation of addresses, phone numbers, account numbers, passwords, and other identifying rubrics that each of us builds up over time. As Muhly pieces go, it has never been among my personal favorites, but it proved to work far better as a piece for performance than it does as a recording.

In a loose fitting robe, Ms. Fischer sang to an accompaniment of layered versions of her own voice, spinning out numbers, addresses, etc., while arranging alphanumeric blocks on a table and hanging index cards with place names on paired clotheslines. Soon enough, she doffed her robe to "shower" in leopard-print underthings while standing in an inflatable wading pool, singing all the while. Refreshed, she transitioned by way of Caleb Burhans ["No"] to pick up a [working] blow dryer, to the accompaniment of which she sang a Florent Ghys do-fa-sol song ["Patatra"] in which her live voice looped and relooped with itself and the voice of the composer. Slipping at last in to a salmon pink dress, Ms. Fischer concluded the initial arc of the performance with a pensive, yearning segment from Missy Mazzoli's chamber opera, Song From the Uproar (the full recording of which, with Abigail Fischer and NOW Ensemble, is forthcoming later this year from New Amsterdam Records).

With wild Up pianist Richard Valitutto at the keyboard, Fischer next slid smoothly from art song to show tune, combining sparkling wit with an edge of psychosis in Lerner and Weill's "Mr. Right" (Love Life, 1948), cataloging the myriad perfections that a man would be expected to bring to their relationship. Mr. Right himself was waiting in the wings: briefly leaving the stage, the singer returned dragging him on in the form of a large pinata, a bright yellow robot, seemingly part Klaatu, part Big Bird, singing now with a lo-fi beatboxed accompaniment composed by Kevin McFarland. The path of true love did not run smooth for Mr. Right, however: after releasing him from his bonds, Fischer soon enough murdered and eviscerated her cybernetic fella with a pair of scissors. (Robot viscera, for the curious, resemble turquoise tissue paper. The candy to be found within the sacrificial victim was distributed to innocent children at the end of the show.) The singer now seemingly freed by her wanton act of pinaticide, the program worked its way back to where it began, as the accumulated props were joyously gathered and cast aside while Ms. Fischer sang through to the conclusion of Muhly's "Mothertongue."

Abigail Fischer is a strong and flexible singer, and AbSynth is custom built to show off her range of expressive talents. She is as comfortable and commanding with the non-linear gibber and vocalise of the opening pieces as she is with the more traditionally operatic lines of the Mazzoli or the puckish sparkle of the Weill. She is also a most engaging and personable person in person, happy to chat with audience members after the performance.

While AbSynth may not hold up under the scrutiny of mere logic in retrospect, there is hardly an uninteresting moment in it as it is being performed. Abigail Fischer is an exciting performer and has developed a close working relationship with some equally exciting composers. wild Up and Christopher Rountree deserve a vote of thanks for letting southern California sample her wares. I would hope we will hear her here again soon.



In the absence of actual program notes, AbSynth is at times a challenging game of "Spot the Composer." To the extent selections have been misidentified, omitted, or dropped in out of sequence, the faulty memory of the blogger is to blame.

Earlier performances of several of the core pieces of AbSynth exist on (gracious!) Myspace, in live recordings that tell as much about certain audience members' allergies as they do about the artists. Additionally, several of the pieces, or at least their electronic components, have been collected on Soundcloud.

Next for wild Up itself: another free-w/-museum-admission performance in the Hammer courtyard next Saturday, September 1; a "Bach BQ" in which the ensemble takes on/has its way with JSB's Brandenburg Concertos.


Photo: Shamelessly lifted from Ms. Fischer's site; I hope she doesn't mind.