Soprano Heidi Heidelberg speaks about her techniques and influences

We continue to share info about each of the seven experimental artists involved with our two events this week.

Today we hear from soprano Heidi Heidelberg, one half of Bitch ‘n’ Monk, who hold their album launch at Rich Mix on Thursday.

We asked Heidi about her unusual technique and her influences, and here’s what she had to say:

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After a gig I am often asked that peculiar question: “are you classically-trained?”, mainly because I can use vibrato and tend to dance around in my soprano range when I improvise, in a way that is definitely inspired by operatic coloratura.

However classical training generally means a total commitment to mastering the ‘correct technique’ for opera or lyrical singing, but my mission is rather to find the technique I need to suit the music I’ve written, and the story I’m trying to tell. Sometimes I dramatically switch characters during a song and I need to abandon an angelic soprano voice in order to express rage, or even madness.

When writing a passage, you are experiencing one particular emotion in its essence, but in order to perform it with emotional integrity months, or even years, later I find that vocal and breath technique helps me to re-experience that emotion. Taking short gasps creates the real sensation of panic, while long meditative breaths calm the mind, so I use technique to enter a new mental and emotional space as well as to allow me the versatility to sing the melodies I like, however angular they might be.

My own training begun by singing and writing songs in my room when I was 5, then just singing along to music which inspired me and imitating sounds with my voice. I took some singing lessons at school, but I was always a deviant and my teachers were a bit perplexed. They were keen for me to pursue the classical route which naturally suited my voice, but I had other ideas.

I begun performing professionally while living in Paris and Berlin, but it wasn’t until collaborating with Mauricio [Velasierra, of Bitch ‘n’ Monk] that I could truly see my own path as an artist. Our work began with a partly-improvised piece of film music where I performed blindfolded and choked myself into a loop station. That’s when it started getting weird.

My vocal training involves a mixture of routines and methods, sometimes breaking my voice a little to learn a new technique and combine it with others. Switching between my classical lyrical voice and a chested rock voice used to be a great challenge, but now feels natural! I learn new modes and scales on the voice to familiarise my muscles and mind with new movements. Performing pieces like John Cage’s ‘Aria’ have helped me refine the ability to switch easily between vocal styles and characters. But mostly it is focused experimentation which drives my technique.

Here are some of the sounds, performances and voices which inspire me:

Cathy Berberian – A maverick who became known in the avant-garde classical scene in the 50s and 60s, performing works written for her by John Cage and Luciano Berio. But she was also a composer and an outspoken artist keen to demonstrate to elitist snobs that Beatles songs were the Handel Aria of her day.

So here she is with an arrangement ‘Ticket to Ride’ which she commissioned from Dutch composer Andriessen, in the style of 18th century song.

Dimi Mint Abba – This lady, another polemical figure, was legendary in Mauritania. A supporter of the separatist movement and a singer of sacred songs, as well as many celebrated secular and politically-themed songs which she wrote. When I first heard her I was trying to do the washing up and just ended up crying. Her voice is full of fearless abandon and a commitment to exaltation.

Here is her album of sacred Mauritanian songs.

Her stepdaughter is also a great singer, composer and performer called Noura Mint Seymali and she performs with her husband, a brilliant guitar player who has a specially designed electric guitar, fretted for Moorish modes!

Kamilya Jubran – This Palestinian Oud-player, composer and singer is a new, but invaluable discovery for me. The soul in her voice is just undeniable and, though her roots in traditional Arabic song come through, her style is entirely personal, with dark turns and flicks in her vocal line. She is always innovating and collaborating with new artists and ensembles.

Here is her duo with trumpeter and electronics wizard Werner Hasler.

The Bulgarian State Women’s Choir – Although the sound produced here is dependent on a large group I just love the courage in their voices. It’s such a bold way to sing, it sounds like streaks of undiluted acrylic paint.

Here is a famous album of theirs.

Barbara Hannigan – A Canadian soprano who takes on massive challenges in terms of repertoire and staging. I relate to her because she is never satisfied and if something is considered vocally impossible she would probably go into a forest and prove otherwise. A captivating performer, great conductor and the sort of vocal agility that makes you wanna practice scales every morning.

Here she is performing some Ligeti.

John Coltrane – I used to walk to school with my Lidl CD walkman laid out on my palm like a ceremonial pot, to prevent it stopping mid track, with ‘My Favourite Things’ playing. I’d just sing along to Coltrane’s solos, blushing when a passer-by caught me scatting before I knew what that was. I believe this was how I learnt to improvise, without intending to, and why it feels so natural to deviate from written notes.

Here’s a link to ‘My Favourite Things‘.

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Full details about Bitch ‘n’ Monk, Survival Skills and Peter Ehwald at Rich Mix


£9 advance tickets

£19 to reserve a discount pre-release copy of the album at the merch desk with your ticket

£12 on the door

Design by Lou Steaton