Posts Tagged: Wolfgang Rihm

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 While her music lacks the overtly Romantic tinges and other clear historical references of Rihm, it embraces the elder composer’s violent and jarring contrasts which balance the work’s structure.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.

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.

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!

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.

Feb 12

Wolfgang Rihm String Quartets

Though it’s not vocal music, it is music by an incredibly prolific and wonderful composer of vocal music, and I think a great decision on the part of a publisher to reach out electronically:

Universal Edition has put online the scores to each of Wolfgang Rihm’s string quartets, celebrating their performance at the 5e Biennale de quatuor à cordes. It’s a wonderful opportunity to peruse these scores at your leisure, without leaving the comfort of your desk!