Embodying PLACE

An Interview with Julia Cordani

by Ethan Hayden


Julia Anne Cordani is a Buffalo-based performer and educator, passionate about music accessibility and advocacy. She currently studies under a respected interpreter of both classical and modern music, Tiffany Du Mouchelle. Julia’s primary interest is in early music, but she strives to combine her love of the ancient with her equal love of the modern by studying contemporary vocal techniques and composers.


Julia’s recent accolades include participation in a choral music intensive in Southern France with the University of Delaware and performing the role of Belinda in the University at Buffalo’s production of Dido and Aeneas. She performs regularly with the Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus, serves as soprano section leader for the University at Buffalo Choir and University at Buffalo Chamber Ensemble, and is the Managing Director for Sotto Voce Vocal Collective, a new music vocal ensemble in Buffalo. Julia is also a staff member for the music education outreach organization Buffalo String Works.


I. Barrenness and Voids



EH: I’m curious what it was like for you when you first received the score compared to when you actually began rehearsing the piece.  Were there any other movements in which you had very different first / last impressions, or where your perspective changed over time?


JC:  This happened especially with Part 2, the one in which we walk around and imitate the sounds in the environment.  At first, I was really psyched about it, I thought "This is going to be fun!  I'm going to follow the birds around!"  I had so many ideas coming into it, and then when I got to the actual sites, I found the soundscapes to be very barren and open.  I almost felt like I was put on the spot:  I was looking for sounds to emulate, but then there weren't any.  It was different day to day during rehearsals too, one day there was a lot of wind, lawn mowers, or party boats going by.  That was a great day because I never had to think about it, I just followed my instinct.  But there were other days—especially at Artpark, which lacked the infrastructural resonances that seemed to carry more at Silo City—where I experienced hearing nothing, besides maybe birds.  So I'd just move toward a tree, hoping there'd be some minuscule amount of breeze swooshing the leaves around.  So for that movement, it wasn't necessarily that I moved from an optimistic to pessimistic view, but it was more that I viewed it optimistically, got punched in the face with the reality of its difficulty, and then had to reform all of the ideas I'd previously developed about how to perform it and look for sounds.  My first look over the score, I thought that movement would be fun.  But it took a lot of struggle and planning to figure out how I was actually going to orient myself once I was physically in the environments.

Null Point’s realization of PLACE part 2 (excerpt) at Artpark (July 16, 2017). Photo by Colin Tucker.

EH:  I had a similar experience with regard to the barrenness of the spaces, but for me it was more pronounced at the Silos.  There is a sort of void there, and one does one's best to fill the void with whatever the instructions tell one to do.  The Silos are kind of like a desert, so empty.  So how do you respond to a space that feels like a void?


JC:  Well, that was something that I kind of battled with too—especially in Part 7, the movement I performed solo—because I was inside the ground level of the Perot grain elevator.  I was firmly planted in this one room that was 20'x10' room, rather small.  So I was thinking about how I could project myself into this environment without invading it, but also drawing inspiration from it because all of the sounds were so quiet, it wasn't very dense.  I was getting most of the sounds I was generating resonances from via the metals that were around me.  It was very sparse, I had to really be creative with where I pulled the resonances that I was trying to copy.


EH:  So specifically, how did you use your vocal apparatus and your body to copy or respond to those resonances?


JC: For me, it proved really useful to use sounds that were at the extremes of my register—which was also something that helped me grow as a performer, using the sounds that I am not so readily using in my regular repertoire.  I found that things resonated really well that were uncomfortable, or No Person’s Land for me in my register (either really high sounds, or really low sounds).  Mid-register I was getting some good sounds if I could find them.  For instance, there was an airplane that went overhead at one point in the performance, and that was kind of in a mid/low-register and was something I could really belt out and match.  But then at one point, I was drawing sounds from little ticks in the metal I heard, or little echoing things.  So it was interesting to have to learn how to manipulate my voice in different ways.  At some points it felt like controlled and directed screeching or really low grumbling sounds.  It was like learning how to use my voice in a different way entirely, especially in that section.


Julia Cordani in Null Point’s realization of PLACE part 7 at Silo City (June 17, 2017). Photo by Null Point.

II. Sonic Integration



EH: Was there anything about the way Null Point was approaching the piece that made it particularly challenging?  Did Colin [Tucker, Null Point artistic director] give you any directives when you and he first discussed Part 7?


JC: Yes, he demanded that we be 100% focused on the environment, and I think that was a real challenge.  It was so different at Artpark compared to the Silos, and both times we had onsite rehearsals so [each time we were rehearsing] we were really finely tuning in with the sounds of the environment.  It wasn't as simple as hearing a bird chirping trying to copy it, it was more like:  can you copy it exactly, can you become the bird.


EH:  Yeah, make your sound inside the sound of the bird.


JC:  Exactly.  And because it was so challenging and so infuriating to try to exactly mimic what you were hearing, it was super rewarding because Colin had such a specific direction of where he wanted it to go, especially with respect to emulating the two really different environments that we were in.


EH:  What kinds of physical or mental focus does a piece like this require?


JC:  It's unique for us as vocalists, since our bodies are our instruments.  It wasn't me sitting in a chair in a room just playing an instrument—I was the instrument.  My whole goal for the vocal sections was firmly engrain myself into the environment, and make myself one with it in variety of ways:  either becoming indiscernible from it, or becoming an amplifier of it, so to speak.  So I guess having the physical focus to do that is important when your voice is your instrument, your body is your instrument, and then in turn you're trying to integrate yourself into the environment.  So it's not even like I'm trying to integrate, say, a violin into the environment.  For me it was my whole body was the environment.  So physical focus has to do with being aware—for instance, if I'm singing and taking a step while I'm singing, how does that effect my sound?  Or if I'm crouching while I'm singing to try to find a different resonant space on the floor, or higher up (which I did a couple times).  It's being really aware and purposeful with my movements and making sure that I was fully opening myself to the environment, even more so than I'm used to when I'm singing even very demanding repertoire.  The full opening:  I am the Silos.


Julia Cordani in Null Point’s realization of PLACE part 7 at Silo City (June 17, 2017). Photo by Null Point.

EH:  A singer potentially has more of a sense of location.  It's a weird metaphysical thing to say "I am my instrument."  It's a very intimate relationship we have with the sounds we produce, whereas an instrumentalist is always going to have some mediating distance between them and their sounds.  With regard to this idea of embodiment or becoming in sync with a space ("I am the Silos"), it seems like it's similar to what is required of you in opera, as someone who has a lot of opera experience.  David Dunn has you embody a physical place, and playing, say, Dido, makes you embody a character or emotional space.


JC: It's funny you mention that, because I think that's definitely one of the ways I started thinking about PLACE, and becoming integrated with the space—thinking about it as almost like a character, taking and integrating all the things one can pull from the environment.  It has these qualities:  these sounds usually happen but sometimes those sounds happen, sometimes these are abrupt, those are normal.  Taking all these things and incorporating them into something almost like a character description, and becoming that.  It's very similar to putting yourself in a role in some kind of dramatic production.



III. Environmental Imprints



EH:  Now that we have some distance from the performance, can you say whether performing PLACE altered your everyday sonic or musical perception?


JC: It was strange, I still find myself doing it, but I suppose it spiked in the time shortly after we finished a performance.  I found myself humming along to everyday sounds.  I'd see if I could mimic the sound of the wind, say, by rubbing my hands together.  It was also strange because it was very subconscious.  Every time I'd try to emulate a sound or notice environmental sounds, it kind of invaded my subconscious thought process.  I think without even being aware of it, performing PLACE and interacting with the soundscapes at the site, it kind of forces itself into one's brain in at a subliminal level—like one is getting integrated with feeling and paying attention to the sounds that surround oneself in a more hyper-aware way.  I remember one specific instance—I even wrote about this in my journal because it struck me so—I was starting water for the sink and noticed that it was running at around a G pitch, and I was humming along with it and gurgling in the back of my throat trying to see how I could sound like the sink.  I wasn't even doing it consciously, I was in the middle of other things (cleaning the kitchen, washing dishes, etc.).  But then I noticed and thought to myself, "Oh, I'm doing PLACE in my house right now—my house is PLACE."