David Moss

February 26, 2009
Suzanne Thorpe

Vocalist David Moss has been dubbed the "Caruso of the avant-garde" by High Performance Magazine. Der Spiegel described his acrobatic vocals as "somewhere between scatting and scary". Andante Music Journal wrote that he shifts gears so quickly that he "sounds like a car radio on which someone is turning the dial". A self-proclaimed extreme vocalist, he is also a percussionist, composer, and improviser, and he has expanded his work to include appearances in film, theater and opera. Moss will be performing on the final night of The Human Voice in a New World festival, presented by Electronic Music Foundation, on Saturday, February 28, 2009. In anticipation of his visit, AE caught up with him in Germany, to ask a few questions about his music and upcoming performance.

AE:  Good evening, David. I hope it’s not too late for you, with the time difference. Speaking of which, how did you, a native New Yorker, come to live in Berlin?

DM:  I never intended to live in Berlin, thought I would end up in Rome, or Milan, or something like that. But then one day someone from the German Academic Exchange Program, DAAD, called me and said you should apply for this international artists exchange program because they'll feed you and take care of you, and support what you do. So I received this fellowship for one year, in 1991-92, and began a wonderful experience that many American artists dream of but rarely get the chance to do. I was given economic and artistic support in a way I had never been given before, all the things I had been struggling for in the US to establish for so long came easily to me in Germany. So I stayed one more year, and one more year, and here we are 18 years later. For people who have interesting concepts or strong ideas, there is always someone here who will say “great, let's give it a go”, without a lot of the struggle that one finds in the US for financial support and the requirements for name recognition.

AE: You refer to yourself as an extreme vocalist. Can you talk about what that means, and why the choice of words?

DM:  In the work I do it's always been a question of how to describe the voice without putting a preset in people's mind about a category or genre. You could say experimental, avant-garde, contemporary music vocalist, etc., all of which carry loads of information that you can't help but give to people if you use those terms. And I didn't want to give that information. I want people to think of what it means when someone says extreme vocalist. To think about what is going on with the voice, with the generator of the sound, the vocal chords, the body and the muscles; what's going on with the mental concepts and the process that would generate voice sounds. Extreme in range, extreme in texture, in meaning, in musical variety. These are all wonderful ideas that will generate questions and wonder from people as they imagine what I might do. I want them to ask what would be the result from the phrase extreme vocalist.

Extreme vocals by David Moss

AE:  I find it interesting that you started out as a percussionist.

DM:  Yes, that's my claim to, well, I wouldn't say fame, but my uniqueness as a vocalist in the last 30 years. My voice developed out of the idea of playing percussion instruments. As I began to sing, I thought I could do with my voice everything that I could do with my hands and my feet. I thought it was an interesting thing to do, and had no idea it was an impossible thing to do, so I tried to do it. When I tried to do everything with my voice that my hands and feet could do, suddenly I found out that my voice was moving really fast, without the barrier of a preconceived notion of speed. I didn't think I couldn't make these sounds, because I had done it previously as a drummer, so by trying to be a vocal drummer, not with beats with but with sound, suddenly I opened up a technique for myself that allowed me to move around between areas of my voice: super high, super low, super smooth, very percussive, and sometimes aggressive, mellow, or metallic sounds or boomy. So this use of my drumming to inspire my voice is still with me. When opera singers hear me today they ask how can I change so fast without putting friction on my vocal chord. And I reply, well, you know you just have to think of yourself as drummer! What was beautiful for me, and a completely random event, is that I was able to explore the voice without a vocal teacher to tell me what I couldn't do. I could explore purely from the idea that sound, rhythm and energy were important to me and I would draw from my knowledge of percussion techniques.

AE:  And who were the musicians and vocalists that influenced your concept of the voice?

DM:  I had lots of influences, the first of which were not vocalists, but informed my ideas of how to sing. The most important was John Coltrane, in terms of creating a musical, singing, forward moving line of melodic information. That to me was something that I thought could be transferred to the human voice, and I worked on that a lot. Then I began to look and listen for singers that could give me information. The list goes in various directions: from James Brown to Joan La Barbara, from Meredith Monk to Diamanda Galas, Maria Callas to Tibetan Monks singing overtones and droning. All of these singers gave me various potentials as I was seeking a way to break out of my own skin. I would hear or feel their sound and make a mental effort to leap and inhabit their throat, in a strange way. I would ask myself what is going on in their throat, muscles, head face shoulders, neck. How are they breathing? What is the in and out of the air supply? How did they use their tongue? I would really try to physically understand and produce the shape of their work.

AE:  Now you're beginning to sound like a teacher, which you sometimes are, at the Institute for the Living Voice. You're the artistic director, is that right? Can you tell us a bit about that?  

DM:  This is an interesting point. In the '80s I would travel around Europe a lot, giving lectures and workshops, and there would always be a crowd of people. They would ask where they could find the next workshop, and I realized that there was no central information source for this. I began to formulate an idea of creating a center at which I could invite various wonderful singers of all different genres, to teach and give a concert. We could publicize these events, and folks could know ahead of time how these singers could be reached, helping to make a network function. This was my way of bringing people together on a more regular basis.

AE:  Much of your performance today is in contemporary, experimental theater and opera. Do you feel that your skill set is particularly appropriate for these works?

DM:  I've been really lucky that I've been able to meet a network of younger composers in Europe that are affected by the experimental music scene that I came out of in the '70s and '80s. They love the sound of improvisation, quick moving changes and surprising timbres. But they went on to composition rather than performance. They now call on me to be a character, like a strange guy that floats through space and makes comments about the world, and they think I’m perfect for that. And I am perfect for it!  Heiner Goebbels saw me as a theatrical character, not purely as an invisible sound maker. He heard that my voice had a physicality, a visual element our power and presence that he could translate and help to use theatrically. Working with him was a big adventure for me, and it opened the doors for work in operas by Luciano Berio and Lost Highway by David Lynch. I could do lots of things because this one person saw the potential in my voice for theater.

Moss as Prince Orlovsky in Hans Neuenfels' production of Die Fledermaus

AE:  Do you often work with interdisciplinary artists?

DM:  For many years I worked with other types of performers, but then in the last five years, something radically has changed, and I am now involved with four rather intense productions that involve multimedia. For example, now there is a four-country project that is starting up in Europe. Creative computer centers in Hungary, Germany, France and Italy are forming a coalition in order to create a series of streaming interactive workshops on the net, but without the traditional dynamic of a streamed workshop, with a figure looking at you. They are developing ways for people to connect, live in a room, with methods of feeding back information between locations. Strangely enough, I am the least technological out of all of these people. I use technology to muck-up my work, to create accidents, as it were.

AE:  What kind of accidents can we expect at your performance in New York?

DM:  I've developed a kind of ongoing table-top concert, using objects with which to mess with my sound. I use very simple, old-style electronics, like piezo and contact microphones, samplers, and a number of objects, like toys, pieces of metal, that I can put into the microphones that very minimally effect what I’m doing. I'm not transforming via electronics, but creating densities and accidents that allow my voice to be the commentator, sound weaver, storyteller, narrator, interrupter, and in general act in an unexpected way. The listener gets a strange experience. I push and pull them, tickle, annoy and surprise them. I completely overwhelm them with abstract sound, and anger them by taking away the story that they love. I then give another sound to surprise the listener and use their expectation of the narrative process to allow my music to transform itself. Suddenly the mind of the listeners is pulled along by the next wave.

AE:  So for your first presentation of your own work in New York City in ten years, we should all expect quite a ride! 

DM:  You bet! Come on board!

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For more information about David Moss' performance in The Human Voice in a New World, go to the EMF Productions site:

EMF Productions