The vocal artist Xi.me.na wore paper at Joe’s Pub, which was only so surprising since, when I first saw her, at DROM, she was be-hooped in plastic. The clothes do not, of course, make the singer – the voice does – but they carry an attitude. Hers is fiercely self-assertive and unafraid of ornamentation so long as it speaks to something. She is, in another aspect, an accomplished soprano. Yet while opera exalts the unaided voice, in her personal art she loops hers, amplifies it, and otherwise extends it, manipulating the levers in full view, her cherubic face crisscrossed by mikes. The wires and electrical tape that adorn her lace-paper dress are as much an artistic as a fashion statement.
All manner of implements extend a natural power, including, for better or worse, weapons and vehicles, but also bats, balls and rackets in sport, the photographer’s camera, the painter’s brush, the writer’s pen, or the blogger’s internet connection. The voice, of course, is an extension of the breath, and the microphone of the voice; the same could be said of the acoustics of the opera house. Xi.me.na’s is a wonder to begin with, lusher than soaked earth and as unpredictable as bubbles popping. It goes from cosmic reverie to a not quite a capella intimacy (instrumentally unaccompanied, but behind a mike). Why wouldn’t she want to transmit it, multiply it, accompany herself with it, embrace it as sound, and send it, forever, through the ether? The latter possibility fascinates her in a time when astronomers are capturing sounds from deep in space and time, a fact with which she prefaced her rendition of “Mr. Spaceman.”
Perhaps it is with a knowledge of her operatic alter ego (who is simply Ximena Borges) that I associate what she does with art song. She takes poems and turns them into musical recitations, vocalizing them beyond the spoken word. This has not always worked, to my mind, in the history of lieder: the poetry gives way, too often, to vocal effect. But no such thought occurs seeing and listening to Xi.me.na. The word is unmoored, to be sure, from ordinary speech, yet is so respected in its meaning that, even filled to bursting, it survives as language. This was true of the e e cummings that she sang early on, or the poem “Before You” that she wrote as a girl, or her gorgeous rendition of Carl Sandberg’s “Offering and Rebuff” (“I could love you as dry roots love rain”) that sprouted, improbably but rightly, from Paul McCartney’s “Blackbird” (“singing in the dead of night”).
These are love songs, nourished by poetry and besot by the spirit of music. There is an album of them in the works. I look forward to it, wondering as I do so how it will be without her live before us. She has previously recorded a Christmas CD, which is both innovative and affecting, and surely the new one will be as discerning and melodic. How it will grapple with her as a stage performer I do not know: she is the visible personality at the center of things. Her musically excellent band (Mike Ramsey, percussion; Mason Ingram, drums; John Kengla, bass) faded to black, at last week’s concert, behind the exploding star of her presence. Xi.me.na is a rare assertion of song-in-the-world and the-world-in-song, the billowing of a dress as vital to its texture as the “ping” of a galaxy or a lover’s lament. Hear her, and listen, but see her too, and watch.