21
Mar 17

Darkness is the future

As part of our 2016-2017 season we’re giving each of our core singers a turn at the helm of the blog. The below post below comes from our soprano, Charlotte Mundy.


“Darkness is the future. The present and past are daylight and the future is night. But in that darkness is a kind of mysterious, erotic, enveloping sense of possibility and communion… people have often taken on things that seemed hopeless – freeing the slaves, getting women the vote – and achieved those things.” – Rebecca Solnit

Ekmeles’ program of Passion settings coming up on Monday has gotten me thinking about paradox. A proper telling of the Passion story needs to embrace paradox – the horrific pain and uncertainty of crucifixion needs to sit right up against the miraculous glory of resurrection – and the 21st century Passion settings we’re performing on Monday are beautifully paradoxical.

Wolfgang Rihm’s Sieben Passions-Texte plays with our feelings of knowing (joy!) and not knowing (fear!). To my ear the music oscillates constantly between order and chaos – the voices slip from unison to atonality to brief chord progressions that make tonal sense for a few seconds, and back to atonality. The text is Latin, the stereotypical language of institutional certainty, but it’s incomplete, it only tells fragments of the story. It’s up to you whether to read along with a translation or to give up on that level of understanding and just let the sound wash over you.

In one of my all-time favourite pieces of music, David Lang’s The Little Match Girl Passion, H. C. Andersen’s little match girl is substituted for Jesus. Lang tells the whole story in English and uses starkly neutral words and harmonies. Somehow, maybe because it takes some structural cues from J.S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, the form of the piece is so perfectly balanced, it feels like a force of nature rather than something man-made. By never projecting a particular emotion onto the story, Lang gives us the space to hear every word of it as simultaneously horrible and sublime.

If you’ll allow me a little naive optimism here – I think in dark times like these, complex music can help us understand, on a level deeper than intellect, that nothing is ever all good or all bad. No situation is hopeless, the unknown is fertile territory, and by working hard together on things we care deeply about, the way Ekmeles spends hours practicing pieces that took months or even years to write, it’s possible to create new, beautiful (if complex!) realities that no one could have previously imagined.


17
Mar 17

Lenten inspiration

As part of our 2016-2017 season we’re giving each of our core singers a turn at the helm of the blog. The below post below comes from our countertenor, Tim Keeler.


You guys, we’re in Lent!

Everyone knows that the best music is sad music and that the best sad story is the Passion story. Lent, therefore, is the best time for music. That’s why I’m excited.

Ok maybe I made a few exaggerations and assumptions just then, but it is true that I get pretty pumped about Lent. From Allegri’s “Miserere” to Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, it just doesn’t get any better.

Just so we’re all on the same page, Lent is the time in the Christian calendar between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday. It lasts for 40 days and the end coincides with the commemoration of the Passion story. The Passion story follows Jesus Christ from his entrance into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and ends with his crucifixion on Good Friday. Easter is technically not in Lent, so all the happy stuff about resurrection and eternal life gets left out. So Lent is, in a nutshell, sad. And sad music is juicy and dramatic!

Our next concert features a bunch of this juicy, sad music. Ekmeles will perform two different Passion settings – one each by David Lang and Wolfgang Rihm – and parts two versions of the Seven Last Words of Christ – by Haydn (performed by Attacca Quartet) and Schütz. While they are all inspired by the same Lenten story, these compositions are all drastically different. Lang’s work is sparse, delicate, and isn’t even explicitly about Jesus. Rihm’s Sieben Passions-Texte is harmonically complicated, tonally ambiguous, but texturally very simple. Haydn’s collection of seven instrumental sonatas contains no text at all, but each movement is inspired by the same seven sayings that Schütz sets in his work, which is an early German Baroque masterpiece.

Each piece is incredibly expressive in its own way. The shared Lenten inspiration brings out emotion and drama in these disparate compositions. This concert is thus a perfect encapsulation of why I get excited about Lent – we get drama, musical ingenuity, and passion (!) from four very different composers. See you there!


27
Jan 17

First Impressions

As part of our 2016-2017 season we’re giving each of our core singers a turn at the helm of the blog. The below post below comes from our mezzo-soprano, Elisa Sutherland.


An admission: I am an incorrigible critic. I always judge books by their covers. First impressions, for me, last well beyond the point of being proven wrong.  

So goes it with music: I often glance at a score and immediately form an opinion from anything but the music itself. If a work features lots of fast notes or copious accidentals, if my part consists mainly of rests, if the composer makes a note of which foreign country she was in whilst writing the piece or if he includes his middle initial, if the font of the title is of the “Real Book” variety… I usually base my opinion on these admittedly superficial characteristics, incapable as I am of that Mozartian feat of looking at a score and actually hearing what it sounds like.

To my credit, I am always pleased whenever I turn out to be wrong, which is most of the time.

For our concert in Syracuse and again here in New York, we are performing a set of three “scenes” by Erin Gee, taken from her larger work, SLEEP. I was familiar with Gee’s style, having sung an intricate chamber work of hers for soprano and clarinet, percussion and viola. I enjoyed it immensely: the singer and, indeed, the rest of the players are forced to mutter/stutter their way through a variety of soft fricatives, pitches appearing pointillistically throughout. The work is virtuosic in that the voice never rests, and also rarely rises above the dynamic of piano – a Herculean task to give to a subset of musician known for our dramatic tendencies. I loved the interplay between the need for constant expression and the limitation of softness – very satisfying.

When I looked through my score for SLEEP, I was disappointed. In the first movement, the second soprano part stays mainly within the range of a fourth, often in unison or perhaps triads with another singer. Occasional extended techniques, few rhythmic values more complex than a triplet. Worst of all, she calls for whistling, the singer’s most dreaded instruction. My part by itself was unremarkable. I quickly and satisfactorily slipped into my comfortable assumptions about the piece, and flipped to another score.

Of course, once we read through the music at our first rehearsal, I realized the extent of my hubris. A piece of chamber music is not contained in one part. In placing each of our lines on top of one another, Gee has created another experiment in the breadth and depth of quietness – this time, punctuated by silence and whispers. Unisons branch into thirds and triads; whistles appear, echo-like, floating in octaves above sustained notes. Hushed spoken syllables pass back and forth between voices. Any one part of this music taken by itself is meaningless – together, our six voices form an exquisite construction. Plus, Tim Keeler gets to beat-box.

I hope you have a chance to come to our concert, either in Syracuse or in New York at the DiMenna Center. Sure, we’re singing Taylor Brooks’ Motorman Sextet, a microtonal magnum opus of dizzying virtuosity; we’re blasting Andrew Waggoner’s stacked and jacked That Human Dream; we’re crooning our own Jeff Gavett’s eerie, interlocking Peccavi fateor; this music will astound and amaze. But Erin Gee’s music will make you consider the beauty of softness, the meaning in an unvoiced bilabial plosive, the very nature of sound. Perhaps, like me, your own assumptions will be challenged. And in the world we live in at this moment at this time, all I can hope for is that my first impressions will be proven wrong.


21
Jan 17

Music Mondays: Last Words

Ekmeles reprises David Lang’s 2008 Pulitzer Prize-winning the little match girl passion, this time as part of a passion-themed concert also featuring works by Wolfgang Rihm and Schütz, with the Attacca Quartet performing Haydn.

  • David Lang – the little match girl passion (2008)
  • Wolfgang Rihm – Sieben Passions-Texte (2001-2006)
  • Heinrich Schütz – The Seven Last Words of Christ and St. Matthew Passion, excerpts (1645, 1666)
  • Joseph Haydn – The Seven Last Words of Christ, string quartet version (1783/1787)

Ekmeles personnel for concert


10
Jan 17

American Works

Taylor Brook – Motorman Sextet score excerpt

Ekmeles performs 21st century American works, including a premiere by Andrew Waggoner, a work by director Jeffrey Gavett, Taylor Brook’s epic microtonal work, and portions of an opera by Erin Gee.

  • Taylor Brook – Motorman Sextet (2013)
  • Jeffrey Gavett – Peccavi fateor (2015)
  • Erin Gee – Three scenes from SLEEP (2008)
  • Andrew Waggoner – That Human Dream… (2014/2016) World Premiere revision

Ekmeles personnel for concert


18
Dec 16

little match girl passion at the MET Breuer

The little match girlEkmeles reprises David Lang’s 2008 Pulitzer Prize-winning the little match girl passion, this time memorized, and staged by Rachel Chavkin, for a performance at the MET Breuer.
  • David Lang – the little match girl passion (2008)

Ekmeles personnel for concert


05
Dec 16

Music of the North on Music Mondays with JACK Quartet

Ekmeles performs a trio and duo by Karin Rehnqvist and Kaija Saariaho, as well as solo performances of songs with piano accompaniment by Anna Thorvaldsdottir and Jean Sibelius, all interspersed with performances by JACK Quartet of music by John Luther Adams and Marc Sabat, under the theme Music of the North.

Ekmeles repertoire for concert

  • Karin Rehnqvist – Davids Nimm (1983)
  • Kaija Saariaho – From the Grammar of Dreams (1988)
  • Jean Sibelius – Selected songs
  • Anna Thorvaldsdottir – Hvolf (2009)

Ekmeles personnel for concert


26
Nov 16

The Chaos and Insanity of Nature

As part of our 2016-2017 season we’re giving each of our core singers a turn at the helm of the blog. The below post below comes from our tenor, Steven Bradshaw.


I begin my tenure with Ekmeles on December 1st, diving into Zosha Di Castri’s bold work The Animal After Whom Other Animals are Named for 6 voices and electronics. The first thing that struck me about the score was the space it left for each musician to make decisions. It’s a certain type of composer that writes this way and her technique is conducive to the kind of music-making I’m interested in. The piece jumps back and forth quite sporadically between rhythmic speech and complex harmonies, interspersed with vocal figures of a more approximate nature. Studying the piece and shaping the performance of my part has been an unusual process. While the artistic choices available to us in the harmonic sections are more-or-less familiar, the sections of speech and approximate vocal phrasings — wailing, screeching, growling, glissandos, whistling, and white noise — are very enveloping. It’s an expansive sound world beyond traditional vocal repertoire, made even more-so by the amplification which unlocks another layer of possibility. No longer bound by the acoustics of Miller Theatre, the sounds of a mysterious forest teeming with life emerge from a landscape of electronic drones and glitches. Blood-curdling howls and whispered hissing can be heard equally in this thick atmosphere. My part alone calls for shrieking high Es followed shortly by a long drone waving microtonally and drifting into white noise before eventually choking out and gasping desperately for air in the span of less than a minute.

The text, it seems to me, gives voice to a consciousness that cannot express itself in this way. It reminds me of Arthur C. Clarke’s wonderful writing in the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey, in which the author tells the story through MoonWatcher: the hominid. Healey’s poem reflected through the prism of Zosha’s menacing score seems to speak to the chaos and insanity of nature. Music and the written word have a unique ability to unlock a point-of-view that is truly… other.


22
Nov 16

The snake who mistakes its own tail

As part of our 2016-2017 season we’re giving each of our core singers a turn at the helm of the blog. The below post below comes from our bass, Steven Hrycelak.


Ekmeles first had the opportunity to perform Zosha Di Castri’s The Animal after Whom Other Animals are Named three years ago. We loved it then, and performed it again soon after. What a rare treat to revisit a piece for a third time in as many years, and for such an exciting series as Miller Theatre’s Composer Portraits on December 1st.

The work utilizes electronics, which create a widely varied aural backdrop for the six vocalists. And Di Castri asks the singers to use an enormous array of techniques, from booming oration and the use of a megaphone in the bass part, to whispering, muttering, gasping, sobbing, shuddering, humming, growling, whispering, gulping, and the use of vocal fry in all the voice parts. Extremes of range and dynamics, microtonal tuning, and vibrato usage also create a really dramatic, constantly evolving palette of colors. What I love about both the challenge and extreme variety of this, however, is that it all feels purposeful and so well suited to Nicole Sealey’s text. There are moments of fairly traditional singing in the score, but they are always amped up by Di Castri’s layering of other vocal techniques. Moments of homophonic writing are very rare, and are usually reserved for moments of dramatic outburst, when it is clear that the composer wanted the text to be boldly stated by the voices together.

There is one notable exception, and it is one of my favorite moments in the score. Here, at letter I, 4-6 of the voices at any moment (though the personnel are constantly shifting), are homophonically singing the text “the snake who mistakes its own tail, but maintains an orderly suffering.” And the text setting is truly remarkable! Even visually, and certainly through the chromaticism, the slithering of the snake is apparent. The highest sung pitch ascends by half step over the first three measures, from C# to C to B and passing from mezzo soprano to soprano, as the snake slithers. This pattern repeats starting on beat 2 of the fourth measure, but down an octave, and is passed from tenor to mezzo soprano. The countertenor has quite literally dropped an octave on this second iteration, moving fully into baritone range, and changing the color of the sound entirely. The vertical sonorities are quite dissonant throughout, but are most consonant in each phrase on the word “orderly,” employing a straightforward minor seventh chord, the first time in third inversion, the second time in an incredibly low root position. The first setting of the word “suffering” maintains the same chord as was heard on “orderly,” though with the voicing all shifted around. When “suffering” appears a second time, however, the chord is very low, dark, and dissonant.

Di Castri - The Animal After Whom Other Animals Are Named

Click for a larger image

Di Castri continues to employ some other vocal sounds in this section – most notably, the laugh/shudder of the mezzo soprano, disrupting the orderliness of the first iteration of “orderly” – and these effects do enhance and comment on the more “traditional” homophonic vocal writing, as they do throughout the piece. But for me, the harmonies and the movement between them, in addition to the plummeting register of the section over all, create masterful text setting and a truly special musical moment.


01
Oct 16

Composer Portrait: Zosha Di Castri

The Animal After Whom Other Animals Are NamedEkmeles performs both solo, and with piano percussion quartet Yarn/Wire as part of Zosha Di Castri’s Composer Portrait at Miller Theatre.

  • Zosha Di Castri – The Animal After Whom Other Animals Are Named (2013)
  • Zosha Di Castri – Near Mute Force (2016)

Ekmeles personnel for concert