Audrey Chen and Phil Minton Credit: Courtesy of Audrey Chen

It’s generally considered high praise to say that musicians have developed their own languages, but Audrey Chen and Phil Minton make nonpareil music by bypassing language altogether. Though their voices make all the sounds on the 2013 album By the Stream (Sub Rosa), there’s rarely a word to be heard. Instead they work with everything else a voice can do, wielding gasps, wheezes, coughs, belches, growls, gargles, gulps, snorts, and hums in wildly dynamic improvisations. At Constellation on Wednesday, January 31, they make their first-ever Chicago appearance as a duo.

Minton took a circuitous route to radical improvisation. Born in 1940 in Torquay, England, he picked up the trumpet when he was 15. In the 60s, when he played mostly in jazz and rock groups, he began an enduring relationship with English pianist, composer, and bandleader Mike Westbrook. Minton found ways to both satisfy and transcend the requirements of Westbrook’s big band-rooted compositions. 

Phil Minton performs with Mike Westbrook’s band sometime in the 1980s.

But in other partnerships with improvisers (among them pianist Veryan Weston and saxophonist John Butcher), Minton has broken with words and composition altogether in order to engage on equal footing with musicians who are reimagining the possibilities of their instruments. And since the late 1980s, Minton has led workshops for nonprofessionals as part of what he collectively calls the Feral Choir project. In this context he encourages people who may believe they can’t sing to explore and exult in the possibilities of the voice, and then leads them in group performances.

Phil Minton’s Feral Choir in 2010

Many musicians fret about the toll that time takes on their instruments, but not Minton. He reckons that the variety in his practice has actually done his 77-year-old voice some good. “I’ve lost a high tenor sound that I could sing with ease until my 50s,” he says. “But I’ve found ways and means to many other voice placings that because of my own historical-cultural blind spots I never knew existed. I’ve also explored and discovered some completely new territories from my own vocal workouts that I’ve practiced through the last 50 years or thereabouts. So I think one of the reasons my voice has preserved well is because it’s rarely in ‘one place’ making the same sound for any length of time. I also try to avoid talking like a sensible person.”

Chen, who’s 36 years younger than Milton, came to improvisation after years of rigorous classical training, which began when she was eight. She grew up in Naperville and New Hampshire, then studied cello and voice at the Manhattan School of Music, Columbia University, and Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. In her mid-20s she shifted her focus from new music and early music to electronics, noise, and improvisation; since 2011 she’s split her time between Baltimore (where her now 17-year-old son lives) and Berlin.

A 2007 Audrey Chen solo performance for cello, electronics, and voice

The two singers first met in 2005, when Chen picked up Minton at Dulles airport before his performance at Baltimore’s High Zero Festival. She was also scheduled to appear at the fest, and they’ve been performing together ever since. “Audrey has the most amazing palette of sounds that she can place in all areas of time and space and with such an incredible energy that it’s inspirational and transcendental every time I sing with her,” Minton says. Chen and Minton have recorded two CDs for the Sub Rosa label, one with three other musicians and another, By the Stream, devoted purely to their vocal improvisations as a duo. That’s the format they’ll bring to Constellation: two voices, two microphones, and no net.

Chen and Minton perform together in 2015.