Helen Svoboda

Helen Svoboda Illuminate 2024Illuminate Adelaide. Nexus Arts. 6 Jul 2024


Finland-born, Melbourne-based vocalist, double bassist and composer, Helen Svoboda, is a unique and highly accomplished performer with a compelling stage presence, and her fabulous solo concert at Nexus Arts was keenly anticipated and hugely appreciated.


Svoboda has worked with a variety of ensembles, performing jazz and experimental music, and the distinctive character of her voice and her playing adds a dimension to every ensemble with whom she works.


As a soloist, she performs her own compositions, drawing on a magical blend of musical genres and her own fertile imagination to create a sound world unlike any other.


She opened by singing unaccompanied a slow, delightfully melodic tune that created the character of the cool northern Finnish landscape, the tune commencing in the alto register before suddenly leaping up an octave and then back again. She then began bowing the bass in a rather discordant, agitated manner to contrast starkly with her melismatic vocal line. At times, the bass and voice follow the same melodic line, in the same register and with the same timbre, creating a seductive duet. Towards the end, she recapitulates the first theme in the voice.


Her bowing explores the harmonics and overtones in the bass, with atonal or microtonal passages, and it combines with her voice to create a dense weave of sound, peppered with abrupt shifts in register, dynamics and texture. All kinds of motivic material emerges and can as easily disappear or return transformed.


She later tells the audience that the first song was actually about a beetroot. Evidently, vegetables are a recurring theme in her music.


As well as bowing the bass and playing pizzicato, she uses a range of extended techniques to explore the sonic potential of the bass, including tapping the body or the bridge, bowing while plucking, wrapping a section of string with aluminium foil to create a mildly buzzing effect and even catching the handle of the bow against the string as she bows to create a rhythmically percussive effect. Bass solos punctuate her performance, her bowing ranges from the gentlest of touches to vigorous scrubbing, and her use of all these techniques is virtuosic.


Her second song involved continually repeating the line ‘when it rains, it pours’, accompanied by the widest variety of sonic effects in the voice and the bass. Another song involves passages in which she repeats the Finnish word ‘kuu’ (moon) in a dreamily high soprano, interspersed with passages of a growling ‘hey’, emphasising the contrast in the character of the voice to create a dialogue in vocal sound, and complementing this with complex bass patterns.


Svoboda cites singers Meredith Monk and Björk as influences and her performance also recalls Luciano Berio’s writing for voice insofar as she explores what can be achieved vocally.


She is concerned with the environment and attunes herself to its sounds and physicality, as if she is transcribing her perceptions of the environment into sound — the effect is quite hypnotic as well as being highly musical. Her performance often seems improvised, as if it is a response to some inner rumination, and each performance of a piece will be different as she allows herself to react to her own sound as it evolves.


This was a magnificent concert. Helen Svoboda’s visits to Adelaide are all too rare but catch her if you can.


Chris Reid


When: 6 Jul 2024

Where: Nexus Arts

Bookings: Closed