It starts with a series of arpeggios, at first sweet, then curdling with each layer added. Then a vocal line flutters and soars over the top of it, spirals out of control as the arpeggios drop into a deep fog. Then there’s a sound that morphs, unexplainably, from a gutteral chant to a buzzing, swooping choir.
It all comes from one voice — that of Anne Rhodes, performing as Red Rainbow. That voice seems infinitely flexible as Rhodes manipulates it. Sounds seem to come out of nowhere. But they’re really the product of a lifetime of singing, and of Rhodes pushing herself always to find out what she can do musically, to do it, and then to do more.
Rhodes, who is based in New Haven, has a new album and a bunch of shows coming up.
“I sang a lot as a child. Apparently I used to walk around in circles, making up songs” as a toddler, Rhodes said. She was born in Knoxville, Tenn. Her family moved around a lot when she was a young child, as her father (now retired) was a biochemist. She took piano lessons as a small child in Walla Walla, Wash. Then tried violin in Portland, Maine, in the fourth grade — “my grandmother’s violin. I still have it,” she said. In middle school, she took up tenor saxophone.
“We didn’t have a lot of money, but my mom wanted me to have lessons, because that was something she didn’t have growing up,” Rhodes said. She enjoyed a lot of it, but “was never good about practicing.”
In middle and high school, she joined the chorus, “and the last lessons my parents decided I could have — since I never practiced anything — were voice lessons when I was 16,” Rhodes said. “And that really took. I thought I was going to sing Madonna and show tunes, but before long I was singing Mozart and Schubert.” She took German as her foreign language. “By the time I graduated from high school I really wanted to be an opera singer.”
She applied and got into the Crane School of Music at SUNY Potsdam. “It was a great place,” Rhodes said. She got her first taste of performing 20th century music, and atonal music at that. “But it was just a little isolated,” she added. “If you grow up in Maine and want to go somewhere colder, you can go to Potsdam.”
She transferred to Boston University and went in as a junior. She found more competition among vocalists in Boston than in Potsdam. “I was certainly not one of the better singers there,” she said. But thanks to her instrumental background, “I discovered that I was good at learning music” compared to other vocalists in the program.
She found herself hanging out with composition majors and dove deeper into 12-tone and atonal music. “To me, that was experimental music” at the time, Rhodes said. She spoke to her voice teachers.“I want to do more of this music, but I want to make sure I get it right,” she told them. But there was no one else she knew who was doing it. So she’d make recordings of herself playing the melodies on the piano, and listen to it a lot. “I’d be on the T listening to it in headphones, and that’s how I learned it. I wanted the challenge.”
After graduation she worked as receptionist for the architecture department at MIT. She learned she could apply for a grant for a recital through MIT. “So I got one, and I did a recital of different stuff than what I had done in the past. I did some jazz standards. I did this 12-tone piece. I did a piece that an MIT undergraduate had written. I knew John Cage was important, so I went to the library.” (The librarian who helped her out there is now a colleague; more on this in a moment.) “And then I just found a poem I liked and improvised a melody,” Rhodes said.
She also started getting into improvising. As a coloratura soprano, “you can write your own cadenzas” to arias, Rhodes said. She studied the cadenzas of famous singers from the early 20th century. And she got introduced to pianist and composer Ran Blake at the nearby New England Conservatory.
“Hanging out with Ran Blake and his students, Ran would have these informal salons, and I would sing a standard, because I never got a chance to do that,” Rhodes said. “That was the opportunity I had to be free with rhythm.” Blake was head of the department of contemporary improvisation at NEC. She applied and got in. Then her significant other at the time got a chance to teach at Wesleyan, and told her about composer Anthony Braxton, who taught there. She made arrangements to move to Middletown, Conn. and applied to Wesleyan’s master of arts in music. She got in as a performer of experimental music performer. Her relationship with her significant other ended. She joined Braxton’s Wesleyan-based ensemble. Which is where she met Carl Testa.
“The music was so hard, and the graduate students are sweating blood, and Carl was just grinning and his fingers were moving so fast,” Rhodes said. “He knew that this isn’t music that you get perfect. This is music that you try really hard at. Then you surprise yourself and do it right.”
“What I really thought I wanted to do was collaborate with composers,” Rhodes said. Her masters thesis was on that very topic. She collaborated with professors and undergraduates alike. But “at the same time, I was getting more into improvisation ... and I just started thinking of myself less as a new music singer and more as an improviser.”
She studied at Wesleyan for two years, at first supporting herself by temping at a Verizon Wireless store. “I was living less than paycheck to paycheck,” she said. Though she also found a job at Wesleyan’s music library.
Rhodes married Testa shortly after graduation, in 2006. They decided to move to New Haven. She applied for a job at Sterling Memorial Library but didn’t think she would get it. “Carl and I were on our honeymoon at a cabin in New Hampshire,” she said. She had turned her cell phone off but her voicemail message indicated that if someone was calling about a job, they could leave a message with the main office of the place that was renting them the cabin. The first day she and Testa were there, she found a note on her door that Yale had called.
“They were like, sorry to bother you on your honeymoon, but we’d like to offer you the job,” Rhodes said. She accepted on the spot, and studied for her MLS through the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Just as she finished her degree in 2009, a job as a research archivist focusing on the oral history of American music opened up at Yale’s music library. Rhodes applied and got it.
“It was complete dumb luck,” she said.
Rhodes’s library jobs allowed her time to continue developing her musical pursuits. She and Testa played with the New Haven Improvisers’ Collective and started meeting other musicians in town. Testa introduced Rhodes to accordionist and composer Adam Matlock, who, it turned out, had already reached out to her electronically because he was interested in writing for voice.
She, Matlock, and cellist Nathan Bontrager “got the idea of doing smaller, acoustic stuff…. And I was still waiting for someone to ask me to do something, or for a composer to give me some music,” Rhodes said. When Testa started the Uncertainty Music Series in 2007, he said, “why don’t you ask some people to play with you?”
She thought of Matlock and Bontrager. “They came over and brought some pieces that they had been working on. I didn’t consider myself a composer but I did have this,” she said, referring to a piece of freehand embroidery she had been working on. “I made it as a piece of art. I was trying to do something that was unique, that wasn’t working from a pattern. I wasn’t thinking I would use it as a piece of music.” But when she showed it to Matlock and Bontrager, they were intrigued. They trio decided to try using Rhodes’s embroidery as a musical score. “They said, ‘maybe you could make us sweaters and we could play each others’ sweaters,’” Rhodes said.
The trio’s musical collaboration flourished quickly. They called themselves Broadcloth.
“Singing with Broadcloth really helped crystallize a lot of what I think about as my identity,” Rhodes said. “When I improvise, I think about my voice as an instrument. It’s more about timbres and textures. I don’t think about singing an e vowel. I think about singing a certain timbre.”
Performing with Matlock and Bontrager, “I couldn’t tell who was making what sound sometimes,” Rhodes said. “We could really blend our sound, and then diverge into our respective idioms as well…. We were all making pieces for that group. It all had some improvised sections, and some freedom within the structure. Moments of chaos that would suddenly converge into something, and back again.”
Broadcloth was Rhodes’s “major musical outlet,” Rhodes said, from 2007 until 2012, when Bontrager moved to Germany to study baroque cello. And in 2014, Rhodes became a mother. She continued performing with Braxton’s ensemble through the Tri-Centric Foundation. But “I felt like I lost a lot that first year” in terms of musical opportunities. Fellow musician Kyoko Kitamura told Rhodes she had a similar experience of balancing music and motherhood; it took her four years to get the momentum going again.
Rhodes’s and Testa’s son Florian turned four this year. “Both Carl and Kyoko were telling me this might be the time to develop solo material more, or be a bandleader more,” Rhodes said. But “I didn’t feel like I had ideas to bring to an ensemble. And I was very scared of going back to doing solo stuff, because it’s just so exposed and so nerve-wracking.”
“I can’t remember if it was Carl’s idea or my idea that I try working with a looping pedal,” Rhodes said. “But he got me a looping pedal for my 40th birthday. There’s one button that makes whatever you recorded go in reverse, and one that goes at half speed.” By manipulating those features, she could also play the loops back twice as fast. Though digital, the loops acted like tape. Slowing them down also dropped the pitch. Speeding them up raised the pitch. And the pedal’s reverse feature meant she could manipulate whatever the loop had recorded on the fly.
She had found her way forward and got another looping pedal to use alongside the first one. “All I had in mind was, ‘I really want to record the same thing over and over again, but a half-step apart,” Rhodes said, and thought of the vocal exercises she’d learned in the course of her education as a singer.
“I’ve spent 25 years doing these vocalises by myself, doing those in my parents’ living room, in practice rooms, in the shower, in the car. It’s this torturous thing you do to make your voice sound better. And I finally got an outlet for it — converting it into a background sound for improvising. It turns out if you do that and get lower and lower it sounds really creepy. And if you put it at half-speed, it gets really creepy.”
Meanwhile, “those fast, high-pitched cadenzas I used to do — I could speed those up so they just sounded ridiculous. That was what I started doing just to mess around, and it has become one of the things in my toolkit.”
So this year she has started doing solo shows. “I was really nervous for the first couple,” she said. “The next one I had, I was less nervous, but it didn’t go as well,” she laughed. “It’s taken a few performances for me to feel like I don’t have to map out everything for myself.”
Recently she did a solo set at Crunch House in West Haven. Almost nobody came, she recalled; they had booked the show against a big show somewhere else in New Haven. But it turned out to be her best set so far. “The response was so encouraging that I thought, “I can do this now.”
It was time for Rhodes to give her solo project a name. She called it Red Rainbow. “Red is my favorite color. And I just found myself wearing red to every performance I did because it’s the color in which I feel confident and comfortable,” she said. And “a rainbow evokes layers of color — layers of different-colored sounds. I’ve always liked rainbow colors, and my love of those has only grown now that I have a child.”
She also learned that “a red rainbow is a natural phenomenon. It is a rainbow that happens over a sunset…. The green and blue wavelengths are shorter so they become fainter. So you get a rainbow with no blue or green left in it at all, and what you have left are shades of red.” Which, as she pointed out, fits the sound of the music she makes. (Click on video above.)
0:00-2:04: Rhodes layers in vocalise half steps. “It’s for practicing your staccati,” she said. “Normally I would do half-step after half-step,” but this time she skipped lower faster. “I was getting weird with the timbres there” toward the bottom of her register. “Normally I would try to go as low as I could, but try to keep it all even.”
2:05: A vocal line that feels like the cadenzas Rhodes talked about. “That’s totally improvised,” she said. “I wanted something fast that also got really high-pitched at some point, because I was going to speed it up, and I wanted it to sound ridiculously high-pitched — more like electronics than a voice.”
2:27: Rhodes shifts the vocalise to half speed and the cadenza to double-speed, which also changes the pitch as if it were recorded to tape. She manipulates the cadenza element further with the reverse button. “One of the things that’s so strange about learning to use this stuff in my 40s is that this is analog. It clicks. It’s physical. It’s not intuitive the way that using a computer is intuitive. And these are made for guitarists, or somebody who’s going to stomp on them.”
3:50: “That’s overtone singing. And not very good overtone singing,” she said. “This is what made me lightheaded. I did this all with one breath, and then I almost passed out.” But she liked where it ended up. “It’s recording lots of loops over and over again. It’s like a spiral.”
5:20: “I guess that’s vocal fry,” Rhodes said. “I learned it as an extended vocal technique, or what most people do what they get to the bottom of their range and can’t go any further.” Also, “It has recently made the news as the way that millennial girls talk.”
6:45: Rhodes drops the vocal fry to half-speed and brings up the volume.
7:13: The staccato sounds are improvised. The chord Rhodes created “was totally coincidental. That was years of classical training worming its way into my consciousness.” Like the history of her musical journey, collapsed into a moment.