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

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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.

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