Shape-shifting singer Christian Swenson has a fresh body of work
Seattle's Christian Swenson moves, at remarkable limb length, to his own musical beat.
Seattle Times arts writer
Christian Swenson's chosen musical instrument stands a little under 6 foot 5 and has a six-and-a-half-foot "wingspan." Its lanky skeletal framework is upholstered in a lean layer of flesh and topped by a lantern-jawed head fitted with a dark mop of hair.
Swenson's "instrument," in other words, is himself — and his unique brand of "bodyvoice" performance has beguiled Seattle audiences for three decades now.
On Friday and Sunday at the Rendezvous, he'll present his latest work: "Body of Music," an evening of a cappella songs and improvisations. Last week, I had a chance to chat with him at Seattle Yoga Arts where he rehearses. The first thing I asked about was his measurements.
There is, he concedes, "a little bit of a chimp factor" (as his younger brother puts it). On the other hand, he says, his feet are a "dainty" size 11.
Swenson's sheer length and legginess are what strike you first. But it's his otherworldly scat-singing that makes him so memorable. He's both a one-man band and, with his shape-shifting moves, a one-man menagerie.
Swenson came to his unusual voice-body hybrid via dance. After a difficult calculus course persuaded him to drop the idea of becoming a marine biologist, he started studying movement theater and modern dance at the University of New Hampshire. Within weeks something clicked: "I can remember the sensation of my consciousness just dropping into my body — a fascinating feeling."
He also realized early on that his interest was in "the nonverbal side of theater."
Shortly after moving to Seattle from his native New Hampshire in 1977, he joined Bill Evans Dance Company. It was while he was with Evans that he started playing around with the idea of "vocal self-accompaniment." But he had trouble figuring out how to make the choreography go with the song. He was trying to nail "Old Man River" at the time, but frustration nudged him more toward scat singing.
In 1986 he saw Bobby McFerrin perform, which gave him, he says, "a huge burst of permission." A trip to Asia later that year and his growing familiarity with world music led to his scat singing starting to sound "more like other languages."
Swenson's vocal imagination became still more key to his act in 1989 when he had arthroscopic knee surgery and couldn't perform at a local dance showcase. Instead, he showed video of the surgery, accompanying it with sound effects.
"Some people thought it was very funny," he recalls. "Some had to leave — they were going to throw up."
I was there and can attest. It was hilarious and nauseating, not to mention a brave transformation of what had to be extremely sour lemons into lemonade.
Although more knee trouble followed, Swenson continued to make a big impression, notably at the Serious Fun festival at New York's Lincoln Center, where he won high praise from dance critic Anna Kisselgoff. The possibility of national touring arose — but Swenson was newly married, with an infant daughter, and he had a sense that he was still just figuring what he was doing onstage.
An NEA fellowship and unexpected income from an ad he did for local restaurant chain Sea Galley (he was one of the three crab-legged chefs singing and dancing in the commercial) let him explore the "the trancelike aspect" of his performances.
He studied briefly with a Korean shaman whose teachings, he says, came from "a primordial place — just movement and voice and breath and meditation." He also became aware that he was "playing in dangerous territory."
"Because it's like you're practicing being psychotic," he says. The trick was to find a rhythm — a drumbeat, a vocal pulse — that tethered this "strange behavior" to the real world. "If I kept it musical or rhythmic," he says, "people were fine with it. There was order. It didn't look like a crazy person."
A University of Washington workshop with visiting musician Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan steered Swenson toward Sufi tradition and what he calls a "shimmer line," where it's impossible to tell if the vocal improvisations are steered by the body or vice versa.
But it would be a mistake to get on too mystical a tangent, here, because there has always been a delightful humor to Swenson's work.
"I'm not trying to be funny," he protests. "But people find it funny, whether because it's unusual, or it makes them nervous, or there's just something playful about it."
Still, it's the transcendental aspects of the work that stimulate Swenson most: "There's a part of me that likes to go way out there, to this place where it's not even singing anymore. It's this creature making sounds. Are you channeling this thing, this entity, pulling it towards music, pulling it towards delight?"
On the small stage at the Rendezvous, Swenson will take a "minimal" approach to the dance component of "Body of Music." In part, that's a function of respiratory logistics: "How much oxygen does the body get? How much does the voice get?"
But his concentration on voice over movement is also the product of a long-standing predilection too. There's always been a place that music took him, he says, that he couldn't follow in dance.
Considering the direction he's going in, it's natural to wonder if he has any plans to find some musical collaborators. No, he says — he's always been a bit of a loner when it comes to performing. He's never even had a director for any of his shows.
That's partly an aesthetic choice.
But it may also have to do with Swenson's inborn Yankee frugality.
With glee he cites a musician friend of his who likes to quip: "Oh, it's Christian — the guy who's too cheap to hire a band."
Michael Upchurch: firstname.lastname@example.org
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