A small, quiet crowd of no more than thirty people gathered at Highways Performance Space in Santa Monica on Saturday, February 23 to hear experimental vocalist Odeya Nini’s gifted “Solo Voice” penetrate their senses. Her short, 45-minute show was a powerful exploration of sound presented as both minimalistic vocal riffs, and more elaborate exercises integrating household items as props to enhance her gift. With improvisation, Nini was able to command the small room and create a lasting impression, elevating her art through fun and finesse.

Inside the theater, the usual folding chairs were arranged in a half-circle on stage, creating an intimate atmosphere where audience members were encouraged to gather. Nini emerged alone and upon entering, began her set with a group of calming breathing exercises. The only sounds that could be heard were her deep inhales and exhales, which she paired with gentle bows and extending arms that floated upward and hovering in front of her body, as though holding the air that filled her expanding chest.

Odeya Nini - Photo by Adeline Newmann

Odeya Nini – Photo by Adeline Newmann

Nini’s first sounds were a low purring growl — a teaser of what was to come. She reassured her viewers with a gentle smile before loudly singing a pure note, lips barely parted, that rang out like a steady alarm washing over the audience in a single wave. This was her signature sound, which she repeated a few times throughout the evening. Its reiteration served as a motif that brought the various parts of the performance together.

I first heard that melancholic tone during her role as Lucha (Ch. 7) in The Industry’s 2015 opera Hopscotch, then recently again in homeLA’s PASSAGES. The sound is haunting and continuous, a mood-setter and testament to her stamina, as she seemingly holds the note longer every time she performs it. Nini’s solo at Highways was no exception, its transformative power was reflected the audience’s faces, their expressions ranging between thoughtfulness and serenity.

After the crowd was given enough time to get used to the sound, she began playing with tone, raising and lowering her pitch, sharpening and softening her delivery until her voice resembled an instrument. At times she was an electric guitar, opening and tightening her vocal chords like a musician wiggling a vibrato arm. She amplified the rhythm with a microphone, moving toward, then backing away from it slowly until its echo engulfed the room.

As Nini stepped away from the mic, she began incorporating more of her body into her performance. She backed up against the wall, bumping it with her hips to create a pulsing trill. Extending one arm, she navigating the undulating sounds she produced with every curl of her fingers. Stomps transformed the drawn-out notes into a beat, which she continuously vocalized, her feet like drums against the ground.

Odeya Nini - Photo by Adeline Newmann

Odeya Nini – Photo by Adeline Newmann

Eventually she returned to the microphone, singing phrases about love in clear tones before allowing her voice to melt into an indiscernible hymn. In that moment, her use of lyrics seemed unnecessary. This may have been the weakest part of her performance, but it still seemed to resonate with many of the listeners. At the very least, its more ordinary style helped Nini transition into her climactic use of props.

The lights dimmed and Nini pulled out a laser pointer, which she dragged up and down her spectators’ arms and legs, stopping at their chests to bridge a connection between viewer and performer. Her next step was to stop singing and pull out equal-length pieces of foil, placing them around every other audience member until she had created a costumed clan. One woman received a crown instead of a sash.

The Cagean silence that took over as Nini tended to her work turned everyone’s attention to the flapping sheets of metal, making them mindful of their movements. Their initial impulse was to freeze, but the inevitable crinkling formed a pleasant rhythm all its own.

Nini wrapped herself in the final piece, covering her head like a cocoon, an alien crystal queen glowing in blue lights. The effect it gave her voice as she produced her same pure note tone caused my skin to tingle.

Winding down from the eccentricity of that moment was a lower-pitched verse produced with two fans: one small and purse-sized, the other large and meant to cool a room. As the lights went up, Nini poised toward the mic again, brought the handheld fan close to her face and let out low vibrations, closing out the show with a prayer-like hum.

Nini’s rough production contrasted her refined technique, providing a small peek at the many methods a singer could use to embellish their natural abilities. Though her style was clear from the beginning, her power grew as the minutes went by, showing off her full range and capability, opening up less experienced witnesses such as myself to a whole new way of seeing and feeling sound.

For more about Odeya Nini, click here.

Featured image: Odeya Nini – Photo by Adeline Newmann