Lyra Pramuk’s transition, in music and life
The music is perhaps unlike anything you have heard. Or maybe it is like many things you've heard.
It is "Fountain," the debut album by Lyra Pramuk. Music that flows and explodes out of the classical and electronica realms. A droning, oscillating, leaping, humming. Machine-manipulated vocalizations with the influence of African rhythms dart with electricity and land somewhere between Gregorian chants and the poetry of Laurie Anderson songs.
"I like it to be kind of messy and confusing and tangled up," Pramuk says. "Because that's how I feel like my relationship to the world and to technology is. And to my body.
The arc of Pramuk's life and the arc of her art are essentially the same: a gay teenage boy growing up in a small Pennsylvania town, submerging into the life of a self-described "music nerd" at Eastman School of Music, emerging as a transgender woman living in Berlin. Once a member of small-town church choirs, then a student of classical singing at Eastman, now the creator of a contemporary sound in the thumping dance scene of Berlin's abandoned industrial warehouses.
Yes, she says, "I've had a different path, for sure.
Pramuk describes the development of her music as a "very, very solitary process." Yet her voice and magazine fashion photos can be readily found on the internet, where the 29-year-old is emerging as a role model for the LGBTQ+ community.
"Fountain" was recorded in Berlin and Stockholm, with Pramuk premiering the bulk of the material at a 2019 festival performance in Krakow. The album itself was released in March on an Icelandic label.
But her story begins in rural Pennsylvania.
"It's a really small town, central Pennsylvania," Pramuk says. "It's a lot like the South."
Like the South, in that the churches were a strong part of the society. Pramuk was singing in church, even in choirs at state and regional competitions, where Pramuk was one face among many.
"I didn't even feel the need to come out as a gay man," she says. "It was dangerous to be different, so I just kind of preserved myself as much as I could. Like protect yourself, kind of get out, explore the world, you know, just try to stay focused.
Pramuk was Christian, then not Christian. Atheism didn't work. She is, to this day, too spiritual for that. And musically, her ambition was bigger than a small town.
"Like, in my hometown, I didn't grow up in a culture where there were like a lot of people who were seriously wanting to be classical musicians," Pramuk says. "Or there weren't like careers in classical music as much as there were, like, people who would split playing with the local symphony with being music teachers.
It was the internet that freed Pramuk. Logging into iTunes, following a Pied Piper of sound.
"That's when the world opened up for me," she says. "I asked, 'What is happening? What is all this?' "
The world opened up more when Pramuk came to Rochester and Eastman. Although the door creaked a little on its hinges.
"There are a lot of types of singing that go on there, but I would say for most of the voice majors, it's very focused on opera," she says. "You know, like career opera singing, and when I came into the program, I didn't really know anything about opera, and I wasn't particularly interested in becoming an opera singer."
Yet Pramuk wanted to know the history, working for much of her four years at the Sibley Music Library. "I was just looking at scores all day," she says. "I was such a nerd, I was a huge nerd. I basically knew all the music, like I tried to know all of the composers I could possibly know, and looked at how they wrote music, how they wrote music for the voice."
She looks back and sees herself as a focused and diligent student. "I didn't play too much," she says. "I really wanted to get a lot out of that experience."
There were nights at older friends' apartments downtown, for dinner or house parties, or to visit a voice teacher who lived in Webster, in a house overlooking Lake Ontario. Pramuk knew Eastman percussion students who moonlighted in rock bands, meaning nights spent at the Bug Jar. There were a couple of visits to Letchworth State Park. "I miss the upstate landscape," she says.
And yet, "I always felt a little bit like an outsider when I was there, and not in a bad way," Pramuk says. "I just felt like I came from a different culture."
While studying at Eastman as a baritone, Pramuk hadn't figured out her identity as a trans woman. It was a journey that took time.
"I knew I didn't want to do this like, super-gendered male opera thing, there was something about that," she says. "I was just, 'There's no way I'm doing that,' you know, and that was kind of my starting place.
"I got more interested in experimental or contemporary vocal practices because it also freed me in my understanding of my voice and my body. And so, when I did, you know, discover who I was much later, I already had a good foundation to be doing experimental things with my voice."
Some of that foundation was laid with Eastman's music ensemble Ossia. Pramuk was also studying German, and taking trips there. Just a few months after graduating from Eastman in 2013, Pramuk returned to Germany on a yearlong scholarship.
And Pramuk simply stayed, and was pulled into the strong electronic music scene there. She got a job with a Berlin electronic music software company, where she found herself designing and curating a techno festival called Loop.
The rave scene was going strong. Late-night dance parties, fueled by electronic music -- and often psychedelic drugs -- in dark, immense spaces lit by dazzling lights. It was different, yet familiar.
"It's like the other side of a coin of communal music experience," Pramuk says. "Like choir singing is very collective, and very focused. And raves are very collective, and very ecstatic. Choir singing is very ecstatic.
"You can actually feel music when it's put through speakers that big," she says of the rave experience. "Yeah, it's quite intense. Choir singing is very physical, too, so there's like a connection there for me, for sure."
When performing live, Pramuk sets up like a deejay at a dance club. Two microphones, one for lead vocals, one for backing vocals. Sound samples and looping pedals for building textures, a MIDI keyboard. And everything running through a laptop computer. The computer operates like a synthesizer, shifting Pramuk's vocal pitch.
Her music had started in churches, now Pramuk was singing in former electrical plants. But they were still buildings with high ceilings, producing similar musical character. It's a haunted sound.
Cavernous spaces, Pramuk says, "are a huge part of the sound world where I live."
This is where "Fountain" emerged. A transition from where Pramuk had once been musically, to where she was now peering over the edge.
"This music kind of came out of a lot of performances that I was doing," she says. "I was doing touring things, concerts like small festivals in Europe a few years before this album came out. A lot of the energy, or the musical character, kind of came from all of this kind of religious singing I was doing in churches, this chorale singing. That's where I kind of live in my head, because I sang in choirs for so long."
Futuristic folk music. Laurie Anderson comes to mind.
"Oh yeah, Laurie Anderson," Pramuk says. "Here are my foremothers: Laurie Anderson, Meredith Monk, Björk. So many foremothers I think are in this music. Also a lot of like, women electronic music pioneers. Women folk singers, from different cultures. There's a lot of what I listen to in this music, because it's kind of like devotional music. It is devotional music.
While at Eastman, Pramuk had not been ready to make this professional and personal leap.
"I think I really started to find the freedom to just, like, start to think about identity a bit more when I got to Berlin," she says. "I wasn't quite there. I was really focused on school. I didn't have the space at Eastman to handle that.
"The musical education was so gendered, the classical education is so gendered. That's something I really struggled with, it took me a long time to unlearn the gender part of my vocal training. And my voice is such a big part of who I am, it was something that took a longer time, I would say. And most of that discovery process took place in Berlin.
Pramuk speaks of "thinking of the voice as an instrument in its own right, as though my voice were a cello, you know?" Thinking that shows up in the song "Cradle," where her electronically manipulated voice does indeed seem to become a cello.
"I really see my voice as an instrument, you know," she says. "Whether like now, as I'm talking as an instrument to communicate. And in a musician setting, I see it as an instrument like any other instrument."
Eliminating gender has a place in Pramuk's music. But not in her life.
"When I'm off the stage I really identify as a woman, right?" she says. "I feel, myself, so feminine, that's who I am. Onstage, or in my music, I don't want to feel limited by any of those constructs. Because the music is about more than that. And I don't want to, I didn't want to feel any limitation about where I can go, or what kind of sounds I can make."
Is it "kind of messy and confusing and tangled up," as Pramuk says? Perhaps that is simply the order of art and life. She built the astonishing richness of "Fountain" with layers upon layers of her own voice, and nothing more.
"You need low frequencies and high frequencies to make a symphony, you know," Pramuk says. "You need the whole thing."
Jeff Spevak is WXXI's Arts & Life editor and reporter. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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