Lee Ellen Shoemaker is The Tunnel Singer, a San Francisco-based performance artist and vocalist. Born in Kokomo, Indiana in 1936, singing in spaces with long natural reverberation has been a passion since childhood. Shoemaker's mother and father taught her to harmonize with them. She enjoyed playing the family piano, but resisted learning to read music and practice scales, preferring to improvise. She remembers listening to music on the floor-model Philco radio, but favored tuning in unusual sounds between stations on short-wave bands. Her mother says that as a toddler she harmonized to the drone of the vacuum cleaner.
Shoemaker studied painting, drawing and video at University of California, Davis, graduating in 1985. She often describes her music as painting with sound. Accepted for graduate studies at San Francisco State University’s Center for Experimental Interdisciplinary Art she studied Performance and Life Art. She took extensive cinema and script writing courses prior to transferring to the Instructional Technology Department where she earned a masters degree in multimedia development. She designed, published and maintains her website at www.tunnelsinger.com.
Shoemaker’s performance career started when she improvised with a saxophone player she met in a Golden Gate Park tunnel in 1992. He convinced her to sing with him at Cafe International in San Francisco. When she tried a solo performance with a Tibetan singing bowl, audiences were entranced.
Requests for recordings encouraged her to record and produce CDs. Stephen Hill (Hearts of Space) referred her to an engineer with the expertise and equipment to record live performances in tunnels. Her debut album, Inner Runes (1995) is recorded live in the exquisite acoustics of the Exploratorium's “Sound Column” located inside a support column of San Francisco's Palace of Fine Arts rotunda.
Her second album, Ravens in Moonlight (1997) was recorded live in Construction 129 at the Marin Headlands near the Golden Gate Bridge. It includes didgeridoo and percussion. In the fog-muffled World War II artillery tunnel, ravens can be heard in the background. Peter Thelen of Exposé Magazine describes Ravens in Moonlight as, “… somewhere between Dead Can Dance and Transmission.”
She traveled to Port Townsend, Washington to record her third album. Water Birth (1999) was recorded live in the “Cistern Chapel," a vast underground concrete cistern. In its 45-seconds long reverberation her voice creates a soundscape for an undersea voyage, evoking deep peace. Ben Kettlewell comments in Alternate Music Press, "The compositions on Water Birth evolve like a wordless mantra, suggesting an underwater environment of sea creatures, slow undulation of underwater plants and inner space. Echoing voices cascade against each harmonic overtone to produce a giant modulating chord.”
Returning to Port Townsend, she completed her fourth album, Night Skies (2000). Recorded in a U-shaped mortar magazine the music is inspired by alchemical symbols describing the progress of the soul's journey from Earth through the heavens. Omni-directional reverberations from the unusual shape of the tunnel intensify the otherworldly feeling tone of this CD.
In 1997, Shoemaker developed a rare neurological condition, Spasmodic Dysphonia (SD), and in 2000 lost her ability to sing. Searching for another "instrument" to express her music, she found music sequencers. She spent nearly year learning compose music using computers. Her fifth album, Sailing the Solar Wind (2003) is the result.
Fortunately in 2005, Shoemaker found Mark Coury, M.D. at the Voice and Swallowing Center of University of California Medical Center. He developed a special way of injecting Botox into her larynx (the standard treatment for SD) that allowed a temporary restoration of her speaking and singing voice. These injections need to be repeated at two to three month intervals. This treatment allows her to sing and record again. Her first album after this treatment, is a live vocal recording called Cenote in the Cistern Chapel in 2006.
In 2008, Neville Pearsall, her Port Townsend engineer at Synergy Sound, electronically captured the reverberation of the Cistern Chapel by recording a convolution reverberation in the space. This advance in sound recording allows Shoemaker to work with sound engineer BZ Lewis at Studio 132 in Oakland, California utilizing the reverberation of the Cistern Chapel. “With headphones on and my eyes closed, I can almost feel the moisture from the cistern ceiling misting my face, Shoemaker said. Her latest release, Beyond Stillness uses this impulse response. Another new album, Dreams Without Words has been recorded using this technique and will be released in Spring 2009.