Philly Fringe 2017: Michael Kiley’s ‘Close Music for Bodies’

Listening in (on yourself)

Michael Kiley’s world premiere for this year’s Curated Fringe, Close Music for Bodies, blends an ensemble of nine performers and a simple yet immersive design. You can make your own body the private star of the show, if you give yourself over to its unusual, participatory staging.

Sing out loud, sing out strong. (Photo courtesy of Michael Kiley.)

The production is “staged” in Christ Church Neighborhood House’s fourth-floor theater, but there’s nary a chair or stage to be seen. There aren’t even any playbills in the house — to make sure you’re as unencumbered as possible during the performance. You receive the paper afterward, once you’ve retrieved your shoes, phone, and bag, which the artists (with steely gentleness) urge you to leave in the lobby.

Not the story you’re used to seeing

The ensemble (Kiley, Eppchez, Cynthia Hopkins, Scott McPheeters, Arielle Pina, Martha Stuckey, Michele Tantoco, Brandon Washington, and Sheila Zagar) begins to sing about our breath, larynx, lungs, diaphragm, and vagus nerve while we sit on the wood floor in a clumped semicircle. It quickly becomes clear that it’s best to let go of any traditional sense of story.

This is what Kiley calls “The Personal Resonance Song,” and it opens and closes the show, with “The Story Song” in between. The latter is composed of verbal fragments of the ensemble’s personal experiences, including childhood memories and events, such as a fire, sexual harassment, and hair loss. The cascading lyrics and tones, by turns subtle, percussive, sweet, and dissonant, defy conventions of rhythm, rhyme, and narrative in song.  

The cast spreads the audience throughout the space and moves through the shifting crowd (we sit, stand, and walk on individual cues from the singers) for the duration. Under Rebecca Wright’s direction, ensemble members blend in to disappear and appear among the patrons. As a result, a sustained mosaic of sound — from harmonious humming to wolfish wails — operates throughout the whole room as well as right beside you.

Yi Zhao’s lighting, which includes a large grid of bulbs hanging from the ceiling, seems to respond organically to the movement of the voices (or maybe it’s the other way around), brightening and dimming along with the audience’s collective breath.

Joining in

Kiley’s vocal work subverts contemporary notions of the sounds we make. He rejects an idealized, homogenized, often digitized and heavily edited version of the human voice. Instead, he favors bodies as holistic individual instruments that should generate organic, un-self-conscious sound because it feels good to us.   

In light of this philosophy, lovely as it is to listen to performers like Stuckey (of funk band Red 40 & the Last Groovement) and Hopkins at close range, I wonder how it could have bolstered Kiley’s theme to cast singers without well-known voices.

The performance culminates in a prolonged collective bout of audience humming. With no policing of volume, posture, notes, or tone, the sound meshes into a rounded, euphoric buzz, naturally rising and falling in concert with the lights. I noticed the vibration in my teeth and nose, the way the sound changed with the shape of my mouth, and the necessary, sustaining interruptions of breath.

As the dimming lights and the quieting ensemble effortlessly drew the noise to a close, the crowd turned of its own accord to windows opening in the dark. A bluish nighttime light seeped in along with a humid breeze. The sounds of the city, like its own organism, fill the silence.

Sign Up For Our Newsletter

Want previews of our latest stories about arts and culture in Philadelphia? Sign up for our newsletter.