Graded on a Curve: Kristin Oppenheim, Voices Fill My Head

Residing and working in Brooklyn, installation artist Kristin Oppenheim specializes in works based in sound, film and performance. Extending from these platforms, she is also a musician with records. Her new one, Voices Fill My Head: Collected Sound Works 1993 – 1999 is the second collection of her early material, eight pieces totaling just short of an hour, recorded in studio and featuring only Oppenheim’s voice, half-spoken, half-sung, sometimes whispered, overlapped and repeated, and thoughtfully spread out on double vinyl for optimal fidelity. It is the second release on the INFO label, available on June 9, coinciding with the opening of the artist’s solo exhibition at greengrassi in London.

Not having experienced Kristin Oppenheim’s installations firsthand, I can’t speak to their overall quality, but I do suspect they are great. My reasoning comes from this new collection of recordings, the second 2LP to focus on her productivity in the 1990s. The first is Night Run: Collected Sound Works 1992 – 1995, also featuring eight pieces, the set released in 2021 as the inaugural offering of the INFO label (started by fellow interdisciplinary artist Reece Cox).

When artists working in mediums visual or conceptual branch out into the realms of sound, the results are often of interest for how they differ from expected (or recognizable, if not necessarily typical) musical practices. This applies directly to Oppenheim’s work as related in the label’s description of Voices Fill My Head, the text describing the pieces as being created “not as music, but as repetitious sound installations designed to drift back and forth across wide stereo fields.”

But listened to at home through headphones, the pieces are deeply musical, and precisely due to the artist’s approach. As detailed above, there is just Oppenheim’s appealing voice, layered but otherwise not audibly manipulated, instead hitting that spot between half-speaking and half-singing, and as such differing from the standard of a cappella vocalizing, which is almost always performative in nature.

Here, the pieces register as deeply personal, like they are the surreptitious capturing of a woman singing gently, audibly alone, at home, for no one but herself (or if not alone, than maybe lulling a baby to sleep), with this covert documentation then altered (edited) in a way that deepens the root origin rather than just distorting it. Strengthening this aura in the record’s opening piece is the referencing of a source well-known, specifically, “Hey Joe.”

You very likely know the song. By this late date, the lyrics have drifted from the audacious to the banal to the retrograde. Oppenheim’s savvy maneuver is that she never gets beyond the first line. This magnifies the personal, suggesting a person lingering on the opening lyric as they’re unsure of, or disinterested in, what follows (a nice ambiguity), but simultaneously, we get stuck on the question of where Joe is going with that gun in his hand (hey, one either knows the answer, or one doesn’t).

Adding value to the piece is a spaced repetition of the phrase “I said,” delivered in a whisper. Even better, in the next track, “Tap Your Shoes,” the whispered line is “C’mon now.” And the fifth and sixth cuts on the record, “The Eyes I Remember” and “Scat,” are even more intensely focused on that hushed form of address, to fruitful effect.

Working as an artist for three decades, Kristin Oppenheim’s work is highly esteemed (that’s her photo providing Spoon’s Kill the Moonlight with its cover). When it comes to recorded sound, she is no mere dabbler (her roots span back to the 1980s San Francisco-based industrial outfit Minimal Man). Like its predecessor volume, Voices Fill My Head: Collected Sound Works 1993 – 1999 is an extended exploration of the endless possibilities of the human voice.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
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