This Sunday: National Chamber Choir of Ireland visits NJ

On Sunday October 16 at 3 PM, the National Chamber Choir of Ireland will give a concert at Montclair State University in Montclair, NJ (ticket information here). Led by the esteemed conductor, scholar, and vocalist Paul Hillier, the choir’s program spotlights the work of British composer Tarik O’Regan, including the regional premiere of his Acallam na Senórach: “An Irish Colloquy.” Afterwards, O’Regan and Hillier will be on hand for a talkback.

Introduction to Modal Theory

Today I’ll be giving a talk at the Westminster Choral Pedagogy Institute. I’ve been asked to give a brief introduction to modal theory, including construction and cadences. Below are two handouts that I’ve prepared.

Introduction to modes 1

introduction to modes part 2

The scores we’ll be consulting during the talk are:

“Ave Maria…” – Josquin

“Why Fum’th in Fight” – Tallis

“O Magnum Mysterium” – Victoria

“Mass in G Minor: Kyrie Eleison” – Vaughan Williams

Jeff Gavett talks about Ekmeles

Ekmeles rehearses Iddon

On Tuesday 1/11, newish New York vocal ensemble Ekmeles presents a program of music by Martin Iddon, Alvin Lucier, and David Lang at The Tank. I caught up with Ekmeles’ director, baritone Jeff Gavett to learn more about the event.

Carey: Why did you form the group Ekmeles?

Gavett: “While New York is home to many exceptional instrumental groups dedicated to contemporary music, there is a relative paucity of new vocal music. Ekmeles was created to fill the gap, and bring adventurous new music for solo voices to audiences that otherwise have little or no chance to hear it.”

“Our first season so far has included a US premiere by Mauricio Kagel, New York premieres by Aaron Cassidy and Kenneth Gaburo, and new commissions by Troy Herion and Jude Traxler. We also performed as the vocal complement in a sold out performance of Knee Plays from Einstein on the Beach as part of the Darmstadt Essential Repertoire series at Issue Project Room.”

Carey: Tell us about the works on the concert?

Gavett: “First on the program is our commission, Martin Iddon’s Ἁμαδρυάδες (hamadryads). It’s a transformation of Josquin’s Nymphes des Bois which involves retuning the intervals of the original in chains of Pythagorean intervals. These pitches, notated to the hundredth of a cent, are traversed mostly through extremely slow glissandi, requiring the singers to use sine wave reference tracks to achieve the tuning. We’ll also be playing tuned wine glasses, which blend eerily with the vocal textures.”

“Next is Alvin Lucier’s Theme, a setting of a poem by John Ashbery which shares some kinship with his most famous work. Lucier fragments the poem and distributes it between four speakers, who read the text into what he calls “resonant vessels.” These are vases, milk jugs, any empty container into which is placed a miniature microphone, which picks up the sound of the voice as filtered by the vessel, much like the room filters the sound of Lucier’s voice in I am sitting in a room.”

“David Lang’s the little match girl passion rounds out the program. As the title suggests, Lang has taken Hans Christian Andersen’s moralistic children’s story and infused it with the Passion. The suffering and death of a poor little girl is thus directly and explicitly equated to that of Christ, amplifying the story’s emotional impact. The singers all play percussion instruments, and the glockenspiel is featured especially prominently, its crisp attack evoking the freezing night. The clear and sparse textures throughout the match girl text are contrasted beautifully with richer quasi-choral textures in the Passion-derived elements.”

Carey: What’s next for Ekmeles?

Gavett: “Upcoming performances include John Cage’s Song Books at the Avant Music Festival on February 12th, and Chris Cerrone’s Invisible Cities with Red Light New Music in May.”

Concert Details

Tuesday, January 11th, 2011, 7 PM - Ekmeles – Resonances
$10 admission
The Tank
345 W 45th St, Manhattan, NY 212-563-6269

Anonymous 4: “The Cherry Tree” (CD Review)

Anonymous 4
The Cherry Tree: Songs, Carols, and Ballads for Christmas
Harmonia Mundi SACD/CD

On their latest holiday recording, The Cherry Tree, Anonymous 4 brings together two of their principal musical interests: the chant and polyphony of early English and Irish music alongside repertory from the American spiritual and shape-note singing tradition. This shift between musical eras is accompanied by appropriate shifts in style. The quartet remains impressive in their ability to capture a variety of affects: the suppleness of chant, the vibrancy of early carols, the formalized music-making and rounded tone of polyphonic church music, and the varied inflections of Anglo-American folk music. Thus, fans of their earlier recordings, Wolcum Yule and American Angels alike, will find much to enjoy here.
What’s more, the diversity of the programming poses few problems in terms of cohesion. This is, in part, due to careful curating by the ensemble (certainly helps that they have trained musicologists and folklorists among their number!). But the recording is also unified by themes from the miracle ballads of “Joseph and Mary.” This story is first found in the apocryphal Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, and is famously set in the Coventry Play (c. 1400). It has remained a part of folklore, providing fuel for legends, ballads, and songs since the 15th century. Indeed, it’s fascinating to see how many musical responses there have been to the Cherry Tree legend over the years, making the CD both a history lesson and musical delight.

Nico Muhly: Choral Music on Decca

Nico Muhly
A Good Understanding
Los Angeles Master Chorale; Grant Gershon, conductor
Decca CD

Before he became a Juilliard graduate, a session musician for stars such as Jonsi and Philip Glass, and then a famous composer with a pile of prominent performances and a bright future with lots of commissions, Nico Muhly was first a boy soprano. A Good Understanding, his latest Decca CD, one of two on the imprint more or less released simultaneously, demonstrates a strong connection to these musical roots and the choral music tradition. He’s also fortunate to have found ardent and well-prepared advocates in the Los Angeles Master Chorale and its conductor Grant Gershon. It’s a winning combination.

Bright Mass with Canons is a surprising and fascinating juxtaposition of traditional and postmodern elements. Its Kyrie is a good example of this. Underneath soaring vocal counterpoint, which often embodies the Anglican sound world of composers such as Whitbourne and Bennett is an underpinning of nervously skittering organ licks. The Sanctus thickens the broth further, its dense organ chords eliciting intriguing polychords from the voices.

The mass, as well as the cinematically swept Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis settings which follow, attractively wed these varied elements into well-crafted works. The Christmas anthem Senex Puerum Portabat is equally imaginative. It starts with long stretches of moody sostenuto cluster chords, but these give way to jubilant singing as well as bright flourishes and ebullient sliding passages for brass ensemble.

The title track, with its long legato lines for the voice somewhat curiously punctuated by boisterous percussion and a busy organ part, feels a bit more diffusely ordered, but there are a lot of very attractive moments. The LA Children’s Chorus provides a supple and affecting rendition. Expecting the Main Things from You, a triptych of Whitman settings, employs a kaleidoscope of textures circulating through the music, including pitched percussion and a prominent solo violin part. Muhly seems to favor interruptive accompaniments, and perhaps is responding to the digressive nature of the source texts with effusive variety, but the piece never quite settles in. The use of a “morse code” vocal accompaniment adds a fragmentary quality to some of the music. But again, it features affecting moments of skillful writing for both voices and instruments.

Thus, while its second half is uneven, all told the CD contains some of Muhly’s best work to date.

McFerrin’s extended Vocabularies

Bobby McFerrin
UMG/Decca CD

Bobby McFerrin and many many friends

Vocalist, composer, and conductor Bobby McFerrin has won ten Grammy’s and acclaim for his tremendous musicality, as well as his eclectic approach to a host of musical styles. It’s refreshing that he seems increasingly willing as the years pass to take his time and refine a project. His previous recording was eight years ago. His latest, VOCAbularies, was some ten years in the making.

In a recent interview with John Schaefer on Soundcheck, McFerrin also mentioned that this patience has infiltrated his performance demeanor. McFerrin said that he no longer felt he had to work so hard with his voice, that he didn’t have to force things. He was more willing to trust the instrument; more willing to accept how it behaves from day to day. This level of trust in one’s technique, continual thirst for exploration, and acceptance of the ebb and flow, the digressions and surprises, allows McFerrin continue to be a formidable force in the high-wire realm of vocal improvisation.

McFerrin has proven again and again to be a generous collaborator. One notices the painstaking detail with which all of the vocalists and instrumentalists who appear on the CD are cited for their various contributions. And while McFerrin, in fine voice, takes a central role in the proceedings, he graciously shares the spotlight with a number of other singers. Vocalist/composer/producer Roger Treece serves as a frequent co-author and co-arranger on the recording. He seems to have a fine understanding of McFerrin’s musical and sonic predilections. If anything, his work helps to keep things on an even keel in terms of traffic control, balancing the myriad voices in the mix. This is particularly challenging on “Wailers,” a live track from a concert in Norway on which some 2500 audience members are heard! There are few places where audience participation manages to come off without a hint of mawkishness: this is one of them!

Lamentations never sounded so good

‘Not even the words of the gloomy prophet sound so sad as the sad music of my composer’.

-Robert Dow in his copy of Robert White’s Lamentations

Hymns, Psalms, and Lamentations

Sacred Music by Robert White

Gallicantus; directed by Gabriel Crouch

Signum CD

There’s much to lament these days – just the news about the BP oil spill alone makes my blood boil. And while no one can entirely assuage our feelings of loss and dismay, even with the most beautiful music, I’m willing to give the newly minted early music ensemble Gallicantus an inside track on trying to make us, for a moment, forget. Hymns, Psalms, and Lamentations is an exquisitely beautiful disc of church music by Tudor-era composer Robert White.

In their debut recording, the all-male octet Gallicantus sing with lovely tonal purity and seamless blend, but they never seem dispassionate. Indeed, under the direction of Gabriel Crouch, their performances find that delicate balance between graceful stylistic care and emotive text-painting.

There are a number of stirring works on the disc, including a heart-rending Miserere Mei Deus and an equally engaging Manus tuae facerunt me. But the standout performance is its closer: White’s 6-part Lamentations setting. While there’s plenty included on the CD – it clocks in at a generous 73 minutes – one can’t help but get a little greedy and wish that they’d also recorded his 5-voice Lamentations setting as well.

White is not the household name that Tallis or Byrd is in choral circles. But then, he had less time to make an impression. He and his entire family perished in an outbreak of plague in Westminster in 1574. Scholars aren’t sure of his birthdate, but most put his death well shy of his fortieth birthday. One hopes that this disc invites further exploration of this composer’s repertoire: relatively small, but poignant nevertheless.