Feb 18

Register and Emotion

As part of our 2017-2018 season we’re continuing to give each of our core singers a turn at the helm of the blog. The below post below comes from our director, Jeffrey Gavett.

From the moment we are born, we express ourselves and communicate with the voice. Quality, intensity, and range of vocal sound can communicate volumes, even without the benefit of words.

Several pieces on our February 22 concert push the extremes of range and intensity of the voice. Rebecca Saunders’s Soliloquy is constructed as a countertenor solo buoyed by the remaining quintet of singers. His melody is an extraordinary high-lying and textless line, mostly at the quietest dynamics, colored and doubled by the soprano and mezzo most often.

Since the context in which we hear the human voice most often is in speech, and natural emotional expression, I thought of what these extremes in register can mean to a listener. Regardless of our level of musical literacy or knowledge, we experience the voice deeply and directly. In speech, the highest extremes of range are only reached intermittently, if at all. Especially for a male voice it is uncommon for the inflections of even emotional speech to reach the ranges used in Saunders’s work. One has to look at more intense uses of the voice to find these kinds of sounds: screaming, wailing, crying. The correlation isn’t so direct to these sounds though. The singing voice, sustaining high and quiet, has a balance between this natural quality of emotional outburst, and the artifice of a sustained, controlled, practiced expression. The sounds of natural vocal expression are captured and repurposed into something rich and strange.

Lest you imagine the work to be one-sided, living only in high and quiet rarified air, I will remind you that Rebecca Saunders is a student of Wolfgang Rihm. While her music lacks the overtly Romantic tinges and other clear historical references of Rihm, it embraces the elder composer’s violent and jarring contrasts which balance the work’s structure. The gentle straight tone of the countertenor’s line occasionally breaks out into vibrato-soaked fortissimos. And while the countertenor hangs out at the top of the staff, the bass also enters on sustained sepulchral (we’re literally in a crypt so please extra points for me for this adjective) low notes, anchoring the work. What does a low note mean to us, intrinsically? Is there a natural emotional quality we ascribe to them? I tend to think of purring, or the end of a relaxed sigh and exhale, both sounds of contentment and relaxation – placing these notes on the opposite of both the pitch and emotional spectrum from the countertenor’s line in this piece.

Feb 18

Whirled English

As part of our 2017-2018 season we’re continuing to give each of our core singers a turn at the helm of the blog. The below post below comes from our mezzo soprano, Elisa Sutherland.

Marc Sabat’s new piece for Ekmeles, Seeds of Skies, Alibis, is written in “whirled English.” What this means exactly will be explored in a few paragraphs, but it indicates at the very least that language has been toyed or experimented with – only one of the ways in which Sabat subverts our assumptions about music and text in this carefully crafted piece.

Sabat refers to the work as a cantata, a form that indicates some sort of narrative or scene that unfolds through alternating expository recitations and emotional arias. Seeds of Skies is indeed made up of a variety of subsections (some you won’t find in the quintessential cantatas of Monteverdi and Bach): “Recitativo,” “Chorale,” but also “Invocation,” “Chants,” and, puzzlingly, “Short Cuts Long Lines.” And the text plays an important role in determining the form, albeit in an original way: where once it might have indicated a switch from recit to aria or fugue to chorale, Sabat’s text exerts its force on a measure-by-measure basis, drawing out sibilants and cutting short excited plosives in mini-dramas of their own.

So what is “whirled English?” The text for the piece is taken from Ovid’s Metamorphosis, but then brought through a second metamorphosis by Sabat and the poet Uljana Wolf. While us singers never pronounce the Latin directly, the words we do speak take their sound and shape, not meaning, from Ovid’s lines. “In nova fert animus mutatas,” becomes: “In no war fared animals mutate us;” “dicere forma” is transformed humorously (and with some truth) into, “dick arrows form us.” But Sabat and Wolf are not satisfied with one acoustic permutation. The “fert” in the first line has a new life reflected in multiple languages across the first movement of the piece; it appears as “fared” and “fährt” and “faire,” “fate” and “feared” and so on and so on.

Each line of Ovid’s is given this same treatment. No thought is spared for accurate translation, only humor and enthusiasm for the sound of language as we speak and sing it. It’s as if two thousand years of Latin derivation is happen right before us, bursting into being. The text is resplendent with cognates and faux amis across a multitude of languages and dialects – as if the piece were an entire conversation of that moment of: “Oh! I thought you said…”

I always love pieces that make me think about some aspect of music in a new way, whether it is timbre, harmony, form, or something more specific, like the beauty of a certain interval or how soprano saxophones really can sound nice. Sabat and Wolf achieve what the greatest poets are always striving for: to make us experience language in a new way. For their “translation” does have meaning and truth, for us to discover and figure out for ourselves:

In nova fert animus mutatas dicere formas
Of bodies chang’d to various forms, I sing:
In no war fared animals mutate us, dick arrows form us

Feb 18

Eastman: That Which is Fundamental

Ekmeles performs Julius Eastman’s early graphic work Macle on a festival dedicated to the composer’s work. The concert will also feature performances by Tilt Brass, Julian Terrell Otis, and ACME.

Ekmeles rep for concert

  • Julius Eastman – Macle (1968)

Ekmeles personnel for concert

Jan 18

New Chamber Ballet

New Chamber Ballet joins forces with Ekmeles for a new ballet to music by Kaija Saariaho and Karin Rehnqvist. Also on the program: a new ballet to music by Bach.

Ekmeles rep for concert

  • Kaija Saariaho – From the Grammar of Dreams (1988)
  • Karin Rehnqvist – Davids Nimm (1983)

Ekmeles personnel for concert

Jan 18

Microtonal Premieres

This program features U.S. and world premieres by composers experimenting with the infinite tuning flexibility of the human voice. A world premiere commission by Marc Sabat is paired with U.S. premieres by Catherine Lamb and Rebecca Saunders, and an Ekmeles favorite by Erin Gee.

  • Marc Sabat – Seeds of Skies, Alibis (2017)
  • Rebecca Saunders – Soliloquy (2007)
  • Catherine Lamb – pulse/shade (2014)
  • Erin Gee – Three Scenes from SLEEP (2008)

Ekmeles personnel for concert

Nov 17

An uneasy symmetry?

As part of our 2017-2018 season we’re continuing to give each of our core singers a turn at the helm of the blog. The below post below comes from our bass, Steven Hrycelak.

So much of the history of Western music centers around tonic and dominant harmonies, as well the dominant’s functional cousin, the subdominant.

For those of us obsessed with symmetry, however, it is worth noting that the thing that divides the octave in half is the tritone — which is exactly in between the fourth and fifth scale degrees, upon which the subdominant and dominant chords are built.

To achieve a scale that contains these fourth and fifth scale degrees, major and minor scales are made of various combinations of whole and half steps. Scale degree four and five are a whole step apart, but a scale of only whole steps would contain neither of these pitches; that is, neither a perfect fourth nor a perfect fifth above the root would be in this scale.

How, then, to achieve something more symmetrical? More contemporary composers have explored two options. First, the whole tone scale, which divides the octave into six equal whole steps, and the tritone into three equal whole steps. Dominant and subdominant harmonies are not a part of compositions employing this scale, and any given scale degree has less prominence, but a feeling of completion or circularity may still be felt as the octave is achieved, depending on how the composer uses this scale. The other frequently employed option — more of a technique than a scale, per se — is based on minor thirds, which can stack indefinitely to create diminished triads. This divides the octave into four equal parts, or the tritone into two equal parts. I find that this configuration further downplays the prominence of scale degrees, meaning that nothing feels like a root as diminished triads endlessly invert.

Chris Trapani, in his piece End Words, explores a further division of this symmetry — and one that we are not used to either performing or hearing. In the second movement this piece, the building block is a scale in which the minor third is cut in half; in other words, each scale degree is equal to 1.5 semitones. In this way, the octave is divided into eight equal parts; the tritone, into four.

In my experience in working on this piece, this adds to a further lack of grounding, or a feeling of weightlessness, as the size of the interval is not one that we encounter regularly. But, since each interval is the same size, perhaps there is also something grounding in that? Maybe you have another reaction altogether? I’d love to know what you think, when you come to hear us on Friday night!

Nov 17

Second chances

As part of our 2017-2018 season we’re continuing to give each of our core singers a turn at the helm of the blog. The below post below comes from our baritone and director, Jeffrey Gavett.

As musicians working in contemporary music, we have a lot of first chances at things. Whether we’re first cracking open a new, ink-still-wet commission written just for us, or digging into an existing, new-to-us work for the first time, a lot of our work consists of first encounters. This is an exciting way to be dealing with art and life, and I’m sure that this is at least part of what draws many of us to this field.

Because of this state of affairs, second chances are even more special to me. Every piece that’s ever been performed has a premiere; not every piece gets a second performance. This week we’re giving the second performance of End Words, a substantial piece written for us by Christopher Trapani, and commissioned by Chamber Music America.

Coming back to a piece after the premiere, I look at it with totally different eyes. Despite the hours and hours we spent rehearsing the piece for the premiere, I’ve found new questions to ask the composer, finding ambiguity in passages that I previously read through without a second thought. Certain sections feel internalized and ‘finished’, while others feel totally foreign – did my score change in the last six months?

A second performance still requires a deep reassessment of the work. The piece isn’t brand new, but it also isn’t at all a repertoire standard yet. Sometimes I find it useful to take the process of learning for a second performance more like another chance at a first engagement with the score, walking the same paths with a different intention. What if, instead of focusing on hearing a section harmonically, I focus on the linear intervals; instead of a rhythmic focus, what about a melodic one? A great piece of music can yield new insights with each performance, and ideally, the second performance is a chance to go in a different direction than the first, further opening the possibilities. I’m very excited for this second performance – and maybe even more so for the third, coming up this May. What could be better than a second second chance?

Sep 17


As part of our 2017-2018 season we’re continuing to give each of our core singers a turn at the helm of the blog. The below post below comes from our baritone and director, Jeffrey Gavett.

The composers for our concert of October 7th have all notated their scores in a somewhat traditional sense. We have sheets of paper with words, notes, lines, and symbols on them, that communicate to us what we are supposed to do to realize the music. One thing that differs between the pieces is the level of control that the composer decides to exert over the performance – below are a few examples selected from the concert’s repertoire.

James Weeks’s Primo Libro exerts a level of specific control of the performance in many ways. The octave is divided into 31 equal parts, demanding a specificity of intonation from the singers, who are also following a rhythmic flow that moves on a prescribed grid, but without traditional meter. Cassandra Miller’s Guide also asks the singers to perform a difficult and specific task in memorizing, slowing down, and transposing the details of an audio recorded performance. However, the ensemble is split up into three groups, each of which must coordinate internally, but which move independently from one another. Thus the performances are rigidly controlled at the level of the individual, and small group, but the larger work is more open.

Liza Lim’s Three Angels contains a range of notational styles and levels of control. The soprano’s music is extraordinarily specific, with difficult rhythms and quarter tone inflections of melody throughout. The baritone’s solo is traditionally notated, but also includes instructions for improvisatory looping and shifting of materials. The mezzo soprano performs with a small ‘wacky whistle’ on her palate, and her music is written totally graphically. The coordination of the solos is also left slightly open, similar to how Miller’s work is more open in a larger formal sense.

Ben Johnston’s Rose, like James Weeks’s Primo Libro, is extremely specific in its pitch demands. Written in a 7-limit just intonation system, the work avoids the traditional triads of a 5-limit system and creates a new harmonic grammar for its tuning. Its rhythm and formal language however are musically very traditional, and depend on phrasing and shaping by the singers for expressive purposes.

Sep 17

Learning by ear

As part of our 2017-2018 season we’re continuing to give each of our core singers a turn at the helm of the blog. The below post below comes from our soprano, Charlotte Mundy.

What would it mean for classical music if the score wasn’t the definitive version of the piece, but just a guide – a starting point?

In a recent interview on the Resonant Bodies podcast, Jennifer Walshe said, “In the theatre world they understand the script is the starting place, it’s not the definitive document…. People don’t rush up to the director’s table [after a play] and look at the script, whereas after a new music concert they rush up to the stage to look at the notation because that’s where we have been told that the piece is located. It’s located in the notation, and the analysis of the piece should always lead with the score.”

I find it exciting, then, that three of the pieces on our program on October 7 require the study of non-visual material apart from the score, i.e. recordings, as part of the rehearsal process.

Primo Libro by James Weeks uses a tuning system that divides the octave into 31 notes (as opposed to the usual 12). The intervals are audible but so tiny that they’re hard to comprehend unless you’ve already heard them, preferably multiple times. They’re virtually impossible to read off the page. The only way to come close to learning this piece properly is to use a synthesizer to render Weeks’ insanely precise (and also incredibly expressive and dramatic!) melodies and vertical harmonies.

As part of the process of learning Guide, composer Cassandra Miller asks the performers to memorize the phrasing, inflection and diction in Maria Muldaur’s 1968 recording of the song, “Guide me, O Thou great Jehovah.”

Her Disappearance is graphically notated, and intended to be a relatively ‘open’ piece. It should, in theory, be possible without hearing the recording of the composers’, Bethany Younge and Kayleigh Butcher’s, performance. But the recording has been indispensable in helping Elisa (Ekmeles mezzo) and I understand how to approach the piece.

I think our concert on October 7th proves that re-thinking how music is written, disseminated and learned opens up space for more flexible, exciting, new sounds. It will also ultimately open up the role of ‘composer’ to people who have brilliant musical ideas but don’t feel at home between the five lines of the musical staff. I’m looking forward to seeing what comes next.   

Aug 17

Ekmeles +

Ekmeles is augmented by electronic accompaniment for this celebration of collaborative sound. Ekmeles’s Chamber Music America commission from Christopher Trapani receives its second performance here, paired with an older work for voices and electronics by established master of computer music Kaija Saariaho. Finally, the expansive and open form of John Cage mixes voices and electronics in four interconnected solos.

  • Christopher Trapani – End Words (2016)
  • Kaija Saariaho – Nuits, Adieux (1991)
  • John Cage – Four Solos for Voice (93-96) (1988)

Ekmeles personnel for concert

End Words has been made possible by the Chamber Music America Classical Commissioning Program, with generous funding provided by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and the Chamber Music America Endowment Fund.