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

Ekmeles in Manhattan, Spring 2017 is made possible in part with public funds from Creative Engagement, supported by the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council and the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and administered by Lower Manhattan Cultural Council. LMCC.net


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

Ekmeles in Manhattan, Spring 2017 is made possible in part with public funds from Creative Engagement, supported by the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council and the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and administered by Lower Manhattan Cultural Council. LMCC.net


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


18
Sep 16

Benefits of Marginalia

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.


I’m a firm believer that the best way to learn music is to write all over it. This is kind of a contentious issue among musicians – I know people who go into concerts with perfectly clean scores and play beautifully. I know other people that mark a few breaths, perhaps highlight their line if the score is especially crowded, but leave the majority of the page blank. I happen to be one of those people who writes in every beat, every interval, and usually gives myself encouraging words or phrases if the passage is particularly tricky.

I say this not without a certain amount of defensiveness. Occasionally I’ll stop myself in the middle of marking up a score, and notice that I’ve just been slashing quarter note beats over consecutive quarter notes, or I find I’ll have given myself every interval for an ascending C major scale. But even taking the time to mark in obvious things has value: for me, it’s a way of internalizing music by reinforcing the time signatures and tonality, among other things.

Marking your score can serve any number of purposes, whether it’s clearly defining specific points of coordination:

Coordination

alerting yourself to the dynamic markings:

Dynamics

highlighting the general ambiance:

Ambiance

or just occupying yourself during a boring rehearsal:

Boring rehearsal

But what I want to discuss in this blog post is marking music as a way of analyzing music. I think that contemporary solo music requires a higher level of initial interaction with the music on the part of the performer. We can’t rely on traditional harmonies, timbres, or gestures to intrinsically inform our artistic choices. Before we even begin rehearsals, we need to have some sort of idea about the rules that govern a particular piece’s sound world. I mark up my score not just to learn it but also to form my initial thoughts about a piece. It has been a particularly important aspect of my preparation for Ekmeles’ upcoming concert at Gettysburg College next Friday.

Charlotte Mundy and I will be performing Kaija Saariaho’s exquisite duet, From the Grammar of Dreams; five songs composed in 1988 with texts from Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar and also her poem “Paralytic” from her collection of poems, Ariel. A piece like this cannot be sight-read. Even if the notes are simple and the rhythms easily decipherable (they’re not), putting an a cappella duet together with a partner requires an incredible amount of independence: each singer must be responsible for her own part, as well as making sure she fits into the other singer’s part. There is no conductor to beat a time signature, or tell you when you’re singing the wrong notes – you have to constantly monitor yourself. And you can’t simply sing your part and hope it aligns with the music going on at the same time. You need to know what every moment sounds like before you even walk in the door to rehearse.

So I sat down and marked up my score with everything I thought might be helpful in putting this music together when Charlotte and I rehearse on Sunday.

Here’s the first line of the third movement:

Third movement

Compared to other movements, this one is relatively simple. The mezzo-soprano sings three different pitches, and the time signature is in a comfortable 4/4 with quarter note equaling an almost-too-slow 48 bpm – really simple stuff.

The first mark I make is to point out that the F natural I sing against the soprano’s A# in measure 1 is actually heard as a perfect 4th. I mark the half step for myself between the F natural and the F#, and back to the F natural, not because I don’t know what a half step looks like, but rather to draw attention to that particular contour, and this recurring motion by half-step that I suspect might become a central idea throughout this movement. Once again, I mark the interval between an F natural and an A# as a perfect 4th (damn those augmented thirds!), and I also draw a thick vertical line alerting myself to the fact that the soprano is moving as well: the first time in the piece that we move together. I mark a half step between my A# and B natural, the perfect 4th back down to an F#, and a half step back down to an F natural. At the same time, I also make sure to point out the initial tritone in measure 3 (soprano’s F natural vs. my B natural) that collapses to a minor second, and expands finally to a perfect fourth in the middle of the bar when the soprano takes over my B natural.

Writing this after the fact, I now want to pick up my pencil and go back and draw attention to the fact that in the second half of the third bar, the soprano falls a half step, I fall a half step, and then the soprano raises a half step, resulting in the same tritone that we began the measure with, except the voices are switched! Exciting stuff!

So already, just by marking up my music by myself in my apartment, without singing or rehearsing even a bit of this music with Charlotte, I have a pretty good idea of the structure of this movement, and what kinds of intervals and which pitches are going to play an important role.

Here’s the fourth line of that same movement:

Fourth line

Right away, we can see that half steps, F naturals, F#’s and B naturals abound, just as the first line hinted. But there’s another device at work: imitation between the voices, most obviously on the word “magnolia,” first sung by the soprano, then repeated note by note in the mezzo line, then appearing once again in the soprano line. It goes even further though: after singing “magnolia,” the soprano sings the same “of the” that the alto just sang in the first measure of that line (once again disguising that perfect fourth as an augmented third!), and which the alto repeats after they mimic the soprano’s “magnolia.” I went back to the first line, and discovered that Saariaho does a similar thing there: starting halfway through the second measure, the mezzo line is a note-for-note reproduction of the soprano line.

The final measure of the third line has the soprano and alto passing triplets and quintuplets back and forth, before settling on 16th note divisions. By marking every beat in every measure, even though it’s only in 4/4, we can easily come to the conclusion that nowhere in this line do the soprano and mezzo move at exactly the same time. This makes that synchronous jump in measure 2 all the more important!
When Charlotte and I perform this piece a week from today, we won’t be thinking about half steps, or disguised perfect fourths, or alternating triplets and quintuplets. We’ll be singing with a more macro view of the piece in mind: how the third movement contrasts with the second, and the fourth. Hopefully, we’ll have discussed the text, and have formed a collective opinion on why Saariaho chose to set these portions of Plath’s books. But by doing this detail work beforehand, I can trust that my deeper understanding of the mechanics of this piece will inform the artistic choices that I make in performance, instead of relying on Western classical tropes.