Music In Conversation
LUCY DHEGRAE with Joanna McNaney Stein
I wanted to explore the spiritual connection between the heart and the mind and the voice.
Mezzo-soprano Lucy Dhegrae is currently the Artist-in-Residence at National Sawdust in Brooklyn, where she is performing her four-part Processing Series concerts. She is also the Director and founder of the annual Resonant Bodies festival of new vocal music. On February 10, she will perform at the Appel Room for the New York Philharmonic’s Project 19, and February 19 she sings Elliott Carter's Tempo e Tempi with Ensemble Échappé at the Italian Academy. On March 7, she will have her debut at 92Y, performing George Benjamin's Into the Little Hill with Talea Ensemble, and March 28 she performs the third segment of The Processing Series, I Was Breathing, at National Sawdust.
The Processing Series premiered November 23, 2019, with More Beautiful Than Words Can Tell, and continued January 11 with A Barely Arching Bridge.
Joanna McNaney Stein (Rail): How do you begin creating a piece that involves processing trauma?
Lucy Dhegrae: I started working on this in 2013. I found out that I had [vocal] paresis and read articles about how survivors of sexual assault would lose their voice...you just know that something applies to you and in a deep way and it all makes sense. I started with the deep impulse to sing. I didn’t know what and I didn’t know why.
From 2013 to 2015, I was doing a lot of physical/voice therapy and I was getting these injections into my throat and doing psychoanalysis. Then I heard this [Bessel] van der Kolk interview on his book The Body Keeps the Score. I started reading and realized within one chapter, I needed to try some of these therapies.
Body-based therapies were really what I had the most breakthroughs with. I walked into the therapy session as one person and walked out a different person. All of a sudden I had this flow that I didn’t have before. I thought that there was some sonic element of the therapy that we could build into the pieces.
What I thought I was doing was commissioning composers to write different pieces based on their reactions to [the book]. What I ended up making is quite different and embodies my own evolution as a singer and a creator. The process was basically asking myself: What is the point of singing? What is the point of going to a show? What does art do? What does music do in particular?
Singing comes from this really deep, raw place. The fact that my singing voice was affected by my trauma, but not my speaking voice—there’s something down there, and I don’t know what it is, but I want to search around and see what else wants to come out.
You have one very long nerve that starts in your brain and it goes down and wraps through your heart and then it goes into your vocal chords, it’s called the recurrent laryngeal nerve. The metaphor of something that wraps through my heart affecting my voice—I wanted to explore the spiritual connection between the heart and the mind and the voice.
The place that you need to get to to create something is not giving a fuck what people think. This show is for me. Artistic work [is] driven by inner knowing and that is not egotistical, that is intuition. Following that deep need creates art. If you don’t do that, then you end up with something that’s very democratic and thoughtful, but thoughtful is not moving.
Another goal of mine is not to try to make sense of everything. Trauma does not make sense. You’re not necessarily going to have a linear story. Maybe people won’t understand why this element is juxtaposed with that in the show, but I don’t understand why it’s that way in my brain either. It’s accepting the chaos of the mind and also that there is deep wisdom there.
Rail: In the opening performance you gave a disclaimer to the audience. I’m paraphrasing: “I’m okay up here, you don’t have to worry about me.” But I did feel somewhat protective of you as you were performing, because the performance was so vulnerable and raw.
Dhegrae: I wouldn’t do anything on stage that I was not comfortable with at this point. I want people to be able to watch. I don’t want this forced shame-viewing. Just coming to the show and knowing it’s about rape, I give everyone huge kudos for just showing up. There’s no removal. I’m not a character. I don’t have a mask on. I don’t have a costume on. I recognize the intensity and difficulty of watching it.
Another part of the whole experience that I’m trying to get to is anger and aggression. Those two things aren’t allowed in women. Getting to those parts of my voice and releasing them, that’s been really important. To get down to that physical, violent place in me.
Understanding where that comes from allows me to understand why people do this. [There are] huge questions: Why does this happen? Why did someone do this to me? What happened to him to make him do that?
Rail: How does working on multiple projects at once affect you?
Dhegrae: The [series] is obviously very intense. I like to go down into my deep cave and swim around with all the stuff that’s down there.
If I’m working on something and my schedule feels insane, I have to go back down into my body and ask, “What do I need right now?” Learning to do that is the process of healing…the process of being a creative person who puts work out there in the world.
[At this point] in my professional development, I’ve already done a lot of work [on] these [pieces]. [Things don’t] feel so insurmountable.
It also puts into perspective the things that are important and the things that are not. I have made a lot of personal changes in my life because I just can’t make myself do things that I don’t want to do anymore.
I’m also going through a divorce right now. I was married very young…at 25. That’s a really big change. I have other changes in my life, so my tolerance for bullshit is just way lower than it used to be.
Rail: Do you find that there is one person you are trying to reach in the audience, consciously or unconsciously?
Dhegrae: What I think makes a good performer is someone who is open to the audience’s energy, yet is doing their own thing. You’re not closed off, nor are you overly concerned about the audience…like I’m trying to please you, or I’m charming you. That’s a typical singer place to go to, from literally singing like “Let me entertain you” like a six-year-old in a school pageant or my uncle telling me, “You need to smile more when you’re on stage!” It just goes back to the idea that you need to be a pleasing female for everyone to watch on stage.
In this show, I wanted to bring together these two communities that are pretty separate. One being the contemporary music community—that I have through colleagues and Resonant Bodies and as a performer—and the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) community. I was keeping those parts of my life separate. This was a way of bringing those two together, [and] also integrating my own experience. Having those two parts of my life, and those people in the audience was on my mind when I got out on stage.
I’m thinking on one hand how one piece might affect someone who’s from a community where they’ve seen all this stuff before or they’ve heard me. I’m also thinking of people who have no context for this music whatsoever and thinking about how that will flow. Those are two very different groups of people, but I want to include them both in the experience.
With the Processing Series, I feel like I’m beginning to put together all the threads in my life that I love. I love my show. No one’s going to stop me or tell me that I can’t. I’m not going to allow anyone to distill me down to something smaller than that. That is what art is. It’s exploring the infinite nature of beings and lives.
Rail: Is there anything else you want to share?
Dhegrae: I think the hardest thing to contend with when you are making art that is topical is that it doesn’t turn into propaganda. That is something I’ve really tried to avoid in this work and that’s [what] I’ve seen so many pieces [become].
I think we’re uncomfortable calling it propaganda, but propaganda is when you are trying to elicit a particular reaction. To me, that is not art. Art is about feeling, but you can’t have a goal in mind. I don’t have any intended message or feeling that I want people to have, I’m not trying to lead the audience to a goal or a place.
As an audience member, I’ve often felt forced into a place and I don’t appreciate it. I don’t like it. I don’t think anyone likes it either.
Resisting other people’s impulses to essentialize my show or my story, that’s been a big challenge for me and something that I hope I stay vigilant about. I’m here to explore, I’m here to ask questions. I don’t know the answers to them, I genuinely don’t. And if I do know the answers to them then I need to ask better questions.