Repertoire


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 13

Ben Johnston

This Thursday, we’ll be singing a program of music by living American composers at Roulette. I’m especially excited to be presenting a few short pieces by Ben Johnston, a composer whose music fits our mission of performing music that would otherwise go unperformed. Despite being earlier works in Ben Johnston’s exploration of just intonation, both his I’m goin’ away and Rose present special difficulties to the performer. In rejecting the equal tempered tuning of the piano as an acoustical falsehood, Johnston expands both the consonances and dissonances available. The 3-limit consonances of 3:2 perfect fifths, and 5-limit consonances of 5:4 major and 6:5 minor thirds are familiar to the ear of a seasoned choral performer, but Johnston’s systematic exploration of pitch space requires a specificity and fidelity to exact intonation that eclipses most music. To complicate matters, both of the works we will be performing include 7-limit intervals, including the 7:4 or ‘natural’ minor seventh, and the septimal 7:6 third. Whereas tuning compromises are made quickly and in passing in most music—especially unaccompanied vocal music—Johnston has accounted for every pitch relationship and every adjustment to be made. It’s a dramatic raising of the stakes, requiring a new kind of precision from performers who need to sing or play not just an F, but the F. In this way, Ben Johnston is a most uncompromising composer, a composer of absolutes. You can hear a sample of his vocal writing below in his Sonnets of Desolation, sung by the Swingle Singers.


28
Nov 11

Tuning – Vertical vs. Horizontal

I was talking with Sasha Zamler-Carhart, director of Ascoli Ensemble, about the ways that our ensembles approach tuning. Ekmeles’s approach to tuning Gesualdo in 31-note equal temperament is a mostly harmonically focused – 31ET being a keyboard temperament -and is about aiming for pure verticalities. Sasha’s group, specializing in Medieval music, and often reading from original manuscript parts, approaches tuning in an entirely linear sense. Of course they make sure they begin lines and cadence together, but reading from parts and singing in Pythagorean tuning – which is beautifully melodic, but only harmonically satisfying for major seconds fourths and fifths – has led them to consider tuning in this way.

Our most recent project, the premiere of Randy Gibson‘s “Circular Trance“, was an almost totally vertical experience. Scored for an array of sine wave drones in addition to the seven singers required, the piece’s complex just intonation tuning system requires us to constantly listen vertically, and to subsume our voices into the tuning of the drone. Perhaps the most linearly conceived work that I’ve ever performed is the first movement of Johannes Schöllhorn‘s “Madrigali a Dio”. The pitches for the singers are graphically specified on a 3 line staff representing the full compass of the voice, so that the pitches are only determined relatively within each voice, and are free to interact with the other voices at any interval, tempered or otherwise.

Despite these extreme examples I think I do my best work tuning diagonally, imagining both the melodic contour of my own individual part, and the way it will interact with the other parts as they go along. In reality, tuning with an ensemble of voices is a constant game of listening and subtle adjustments. Rules and approaches to tuning are a jumping-off point and a reference; but in practice, the voice is both a producer of an infinite continuum of pitch, and fallibly organic.


7
Nov 11

Project Schott New York

I’m very proud to have several friends involved in Project Schott New York, a new publishing initiative that I think has the potential to expand the availability of contemporary music in a way that benefits performers, audiences, and composers alike.

Downloading scores from composer’s websites is great, but requires being first aware of the composer; a central clearing house for online scores that actually involves a revenue stream for composers is a whole new ball game. I’m excited to see how it develops, and hope it can spur a revolution in the sometimes very backward world of music publishing!


25
Apr 11

IMSLP – sheet music online

IMSLP is a huge repository for public domain sheet music, which is wonderful if you’re looking for older music. Recently their servers had been down, due to a spurious legal challenge from the Music Publisher’s Association. Now they’re back up and running again, and you can find that there’s more than just old music on their servers! Luckily, there are some living composers who have chosen to post their works under Creative Commons licenses, giving us access to newer scores.

Michael Edward Edgerton is one of these living composers who posts his own scores on IMSLP. He is also a researcher into extended vocal techniques, and his works explore a kind of vocal parametric decoupling which includes precise notation of intraoral articulation points for consonants. Cantor’s Dust and Anaphora are two solo voice works worth checking out, if you’re interested at all in the possibilities of notation for vocal music!

It’s hard to know what is lost and what is gained in the move of parametrically decoupled actions from the dramatic choreography of the arms of string players to the movements of the tongue, vocal tract, and larynx of the singer, hidden inside the body. Of course the sonic exploration remains equally valid, but the visual performative intensity is occulted. We are presented with a kind of visual mystery in the performance of any vocal music, where the physicality of sound production is mostly interior and unknowable.


4
Apr 11

Extended Voices (1968)

The album cover of the LP Extended VoicesHere’s a lovely recording of some early music for voices and electronics (not Early Music) called Extended Voices by a motley assortment of 60s luminaries, all conducted by Alvin Lucier. Also included are some magnificent non-electronic works by Feldman for chorus that could stand to see the light of day more often! I might also point you to the links on the left of the page to access the rest of the fabulous resource that is UbuWeb.


17
Jan 11

Brahms

No, we’re not discussing old music here (not right now at least), but a great way to find new music. IRCAM’s fabulous database BRAHMS (which surely stands for something…) has recently gotten a facelift, but has luckily retained its incredibly useful functionality.

With a rudimentary knowledge of French (or google translate) you can use the œuvres par genre search to find repertoire for precisely the instrumentation you need. While the database can’t claim to be exhaustive, it does seem to contain some information not to be found elsewhere. The works pages also often contain links to the Contemporary Music Portal, where you can hear excerpts of unpublished concert recordings.