Siren voices: review of Yvon Bonenfant’s Beacons

The Performance Centre, University College Falmouth
21st October 2011

In Beacons, the audience is invited to share in a night-time motorway journey, designed to explore lights as signals ‘placed for us, by one another, warning or attracting, saying “come here” or saying “stay away”.’ The work is performed and composed by Yvon Bonenfant, with video editing and programming by David Shearing.

Bonenfant is known for exploring the tactile and textural qualities of the voice through the use of extended techniques. In this work in particular, the voice is never just a voice; it is always struggling with becoming a subject. What’s more, due to the extensive use of amplification and spatialisation, it often comes across as being not quite localised in the mouth. Its narrative function is questioned and intermittently obscured, at times slipping into gibberish and mumbling. Sense-making, then, becomes a sensuous rather than semantic process.

Sonically, the textures of the work always seem to exceed those that might signify a lone presence. The piece frequently takes on a polyphonic texture, making recurrent use of loops, delay and imitation. This is echoed by Bonenfant’s impressive use of vocal range; he exploits a technical capacity to jump between different ‘voices’ (from falsetto to bass, for example).

A feeling of the performer yearning to build a relationship with the audience grows from the moment the work opens with an eerie lone voice singing, ‘Can you reach me?’ Presence, too, is problematic. As the piece progresses the lights gradually rise, revealing Bonenfant to be sitting in profile: only slowly does he come to face forwards and take on a more direct engagement with the audience.  Early in the performance, at least, this figure is never fully illuminated and is always slightly out of reach.

The stage is empty apart from the performer and three large video screens, which hang asymmetrically above. The visual element of the performance comprises images of lights, predominantly red and blue, fitting in with the theme of a night-time motorway journey. The spatialisation of the vocals is reflected in the distribution of images across the three screens, leading to a (poly)rhythmic interplay between sound and vision in the gradual slippage between looking and listening.

As the end of the journey approaches, the loose and fragmented sense of narrative begins to draw together. ‘I see glass and a little bit of blood … I couldn’t quite get there in time … so f***ing cold.’ ‘You’re breaking up’ becomes ‘they’ve broken up,’ before Bonenfant switches to a speaking voice and addresses the audience directly, so that the final ‘I love you,’ is both surprising and discomforting. Ultimately, this is a work about attraction and repulsion, reaching out and pushing away. Perhaps it’s also about being unable to resist being drawn in. Rather than the warning siren implied by the flashing police lights in the video, Beacons presents the voice as a siren/Σειρήν; the voice luring the audience onwards, drawing it into an unavoidable catastrophe.

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