German Vocalist, composer and improviser Laura Totenhagen’s (*1992) work is questioning, playful and slyly confrontational. Emerging from the rigidity of an academically-trained background, she revels in technical maximalism, playfulness-as-research and whole-body performance.
Laura utilizes vocalization, electronic effects and songwriting to channel feminist ideas and personal experience – and the places where the two meet. She draws influence from feminist texts and theory and uses movement and visual storytelling alongside technical complexity.
Rather than narrowing her work into one specific area, Laura allows her practice to spread across three distinct streams: solo vocal performance, vocal effects work and collaborative improvisation. She sees this as a vital breaking-down of musical elements that, in more rigid musical worlds, are pushed together for the sake of it, claustrophobic in their proximity. Through this separation, she gives care, thought and context to each element of her practice, and allows the space to fully explore their potential: rejecting bluster for creative liberation.
In her solo work, Laura sings acapella, creating an open space for the nuances and vulnerabilities of her performance. Although musically complex and sometimes vocally difficult, these performances are presented in the guise of pop, inspired by artists like FKA twigs and Klein. Movement, even choreography and other audiovisual performance tropes are used as critical and artistic tools.
Through repetition, vocal technique and movement, Laura takes words and melodies, breaks them down and examines them. She complicates the meaning of a saccharine lyric by placing stress on different words; repeats a platitude until it becomes more of a disembodied sound than a meaningful message. Through her bravura lyrical interpretation, she embodies the monstrous feminine on the receiving end of a relationship miscommunication, like Diamanda Galas singing a response track to a gaslighting ex, or an all-encompassing sexist society. In this mode, Laura is enigmatic and controlled: her body, voice, and words are sometimes in unison, sometimes conflicting, but her performance is consistently engrossing.
Whereas Laura’s acapella solo vocal performances are rooted in (a performance of) the human, her vocal effects work uses technology to dehumanize her expression, while incorporating textures, repetition. Taking inspiration from sound artist Lucrecia Dalt and producer Eartheater, as well as vocalists such as Stine Janvin and Sofia Jernberg, Laura filters her voice through effects to transform it into an electronic sound, and uses it like a synthesized instrument.
These works are sparse and durational, subtle in their changes of tone. Over the course of a performance, a prolonged cry might become a drone, or a single note to be manipulated into a harmony – all while Laura sits poised and still. Despite their ostensibly oppositional forms, Laura’s unadorned acapella performances and electronic manipulations both strive towards the same ideas of liberation from expectations; a parallel unlearning of musical rules and patriarchal shackles.
Laura’s collaborative improvisational work exists in contrast to these other two forms, both in its embrace of other players and in its immediacy, worlds away from her meticulous, sharply honed composition works. Working with players including pianist Eve Risser and violinist Maria Reich, trumpeter Pablo Gīw, bass player Farida Amadou and cellist Mariel Roberts, Laura creates dark, textural, non-hierarchical landscapes in which her manipulated voice is one character among many. This is another kind of liberation, and a shift in trust: from arbitrary institutional rules to like-minded collaborators – and most importantly to the self.
Based in Cologne, Laura has performed at festivals or venues including À L'ARME! FESTIVAL Berlin, Voc Cologne at Philharmonie Köln, Radialsystem Berlin, Deutsches Jazzfestival Frankfurt, Leipziger Jazztage or a show by designer Paula Knorr at London Fashion Week 2018. Laura is an alumnus of the German Academic Scholarship Foundation and is supported by NICA artist development. A masters graduate of the Hochschule für Musik und Tanz Köln, she has worked collaboratively with a host of musicians and improvisers from Germany and beyond, and maintains close, ongoing working relationships with Australian poet and lyricist Ursula Martyn-Ellis. Through these connections and her personal artistic process, Laura’s work is an expression of her experience that seeks to evolve, expand, and question.