If ecstasy and religiosity threw a party in a singer’s throat that might be the closest conceptual parallel to explain the fervent and unexpected sound of Samita Sinha’s singing and her unusual musical work. In her composition bewilderment and other queer lions at the COIL festival Sinha performs Indian classical music sagas but deconstructs and electrifies them. Her process allows you to sense the historic place these sounds come from but it’s as if they’ve time traveled to the future. As with anything this forward-looking it’s sometimes discombobulating, but the overall effect is a gnawing curiosity for more.
With some movements that sound more like pop music and others that evoke folk tales, this vocal art as a genre blurs at the edges of concert, performance, and sound painting. The ensemble consists of vocalist and composer Sinha, percussionist Sunny Jain, and guitarist Grey Mcmurray. Utilizing traditional instruments alongside electric guitars and a looping pedal, the result can vary from crackling electric static to feral howls in the dark to trance-like vocal vibrations that are magical and startling at the same time.
Sinha and Jain draw your attention immediately. Jain working with drums, a chimta, and found objects has moments of quiet delicate rhythm and others of explosive, ferocious pounding causing the audience to jump. Sinha sings notes, beats, and sounds. She occasionally drifts into text with a particularly evocative movement elongating words, such that a sentence like “Every breath is a song” becomes a protracted poem.
As much as the music builds a vibrant and unusual world, the production, directed by Ain Gordon, is a bit wobblier. Mcmurray, who throughout plays instruments and recites text, opens the show with indistinct stream of consciousness mumbling that gives the show an air of unfortunate pretentiousness. That thankfully dissipates once the singing starts. There are occasional projections off on one side, which are unfortunately obscured by the support beams in the space. But even if you can identify what they are (Wrinkled neck skin? Bees?) the intermittent images do not add to the experience of the music or draw the eye enough.
The effort to make the show look “theatrical” comes across as forced. I wished for more coherence between the visual experience and the aural one. The artists move around the space to different work stations to access various instruments and microphones but the changing use of the space does not create dynamic visual tableaux or drama. The performers are often lit to throw heavy shadows, which can generate massive shadow play especially as the drumming escalates but it was hard to tell if that was intentional or simply a “cool” byproduct.
But once the trio, sitting on a platform, pushes close to the audience a sudden intimacy is created. Sinha makes eye contact with us. She’s engaging and funny. In this gentler musical number, you can appreciate her performance more and the work feels deeply personal. The show cracked open for me with this gorgeously staged moment of direct audience connection. I wish I had felt this sense of being in the same room together all along.