Artist to Watch: Liz Pearse

The talented musician and new music specialist has a mission: pushing what the voice can do.

Vocalist Liz Pearse has a maker-mentality of independence, curiosity and conviction. She loves the challenge of dissecting and mastering a complicated score. “That’s the kind of thing I enjoy — I don’t do Sudoku — I like (Milton) Babbitt!” she said, referencing the avant-garde American composer known for his pioneering in electronic music and serialism.

[block pos=”right”] “You don’t need other people’s approval for your art. … You can do whatever you want on your own.”
— Liz Pearse [/block]

Since moving to Kansas City two years ago, Pearse has eagerly engaged in the music scene in Kansas City as a talented soprano and new music specialist. She joined the board for newEar Contemporary Chamber Ensemble and has performed locally with newEar, KcEMA, Classical Revolution KC, and in the chorus for the Lyric Opera of Kansas City.

But her main focus is performing around the country with Quince Contemporary Vocal Ensemble, a treble quartet currently based in Chicago, Ill.

Quince was formed by graduate students in the contemporary music program at Bowling Green State University, and the quartet continues to perform, commission and record new music. Last summer, they traveled to the KODY Festival in Lublin, Poland, to present the Polish premiere of David Lang’s love fail, an evening-length multimedia work for voices and percussion. Lang wrote the piece for Anonymous 4, but with that group’s retirement, the opportunity opened up for Quince. In 2017, they’ll tour the show, produced by Beth Morrison Projects.

There’s not a lot of modern repertoire for an all-female quartet, though, and Quince takes a special pride in commissioning works for their unique make-up, including a campaign last year for a project called Modern Storytelling.

“They’re really cool stories,” explained Pearse, citing pieces based on absurd dreams or tales of anthropomorphic creatures. “It’s not all love and loss. There are other stories to be told.” Quince will release its second album, Hushers, in February 2017.

Pearse started exploring new music while an undergraduate at Indiana University, performing at her friends’ composition recitals. After completing a master’s degree in vocal performance from Indiana she began a doctorate of musical arts in contemporary music at Bowling Green State University, home of the MidAmerica Center for Contemporary Music. Her research explores how contemporary vocal techniques are taught at the college level today.

“What started my interest was listening to singers like Tom Waits . . . To the general college voice teacher the sounds he makes are horrifying . . . but this person has made a career with that timbre, with that technique, making the sounds he makes.”

Traditionalists look askance at teaching extended techniques, and modern performers have had to forge their own paths. “It’s all sound the human voice is capable of (with contemporary techniques), it’s just learning to use different parameters,” said Pearse. “It’s training use of the voice. What’s taught in colleges is a very specific style or small set of timbres that help for unamplified singing in a large hall — for opera — and that’s not the only thing that the voice can do.”

Pearse loves to perform and attend opera, though, and part of her legacy at Bowling Green was launching a chamber opera project, MicroOperas, which continues to commission and premiere new works each season.

“Not all of us want to see museum pieces. I love a really well-done Mozart opera . . . but there’s a different sort of interesting in playing the lottery of ‘I’m going to a new music show and I have no idea if I’m going to like anything.’” What Pearse hopes for from initiates to new music is openness to the experience and a willingness to not lump all new music into the same category. “Expecting ‘this will be pretty’ maybe isn’t the most constructive mindset,” she said. “I would much rather have somebody go (with) the hope they’ll hear something they’ve never heard before, that is either interesting in that they want to know more, or interesting in that ‘I hate this and I don’t know why.’”

“To me that’s art — learning more about yourself as a person through reacting to something you are presented with — which is so much more fun than watching another near perfect rendition of Beethoven 3.”

Pearse is currently working on a solo project, commissioning self-accompanied works, since she’s also a capable pianist. “I have friends who have gotten depressed (over the rejection inherent in the opera audition circuit) and my suggestion is this: ‘Put on a recital, put together your own music. You don’t need other people’s approval for your art . . . You can do whatever you want on your own.’”

This sort of independent spirit is the telling component of Pearse, an attitude of “Who’s stopping us?” whether producing operas, originating art songs, exploring vocal noises or challenging academic dogma, indicating a commitment to reaching out to audiences, connecting fellow artists and creating new experiences through her art.

Libby Hanssen

Libby Hanssen covers the performing arts in Kansas City. She maintains the culture blog, “Proust Eats a Sandwich,” and writes poetry and children’s books. She holds a master’s degree in trombone performance from UMKC Conservatory and currently works at UMKC’s Music/Media Library.

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