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 While her music lacks the overtly Romantic tinges and other clear historical references of Rihm, it embraces the elder composer’s violent and jarring contrasts which balance the work’s structure.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

Feb 18

Whirled English

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 mezzo soprano, Elisa Sutherland.

Marc Sabat’s new piece for Ekmeles, Seeds of Skies, Alibis, is written in “whirled English.” What this means exactly will be explored in a few paragraphs, but it indicates at the very least that language has been toyed or experimented with – only one of the ways in which Sabat subverts our assumptions about music and text in this carefully crafted piece.

Sabat refers to the work as a cantata, a form that indicates some sort of narrative or scene that unfolds through alternating expository recitations and emotional arias. Seeds of Skies is indeed made up of a variety of subsections (some you won’t find in the quintessential cantatas of Monteverdi and Bach): “Recitativo,” “Chorale,” but also “Invocation,” “Chants,” and, puzzlingly, “Short Cuts Long Lines.” And the text plays an important role in determining the form, albeit in an original way: where once it might have indicated a switch from recit to aria or fugue to chorale, Sabat’s text exerts its force on a measure-by-measure basis, drawing out sibilants and cutting short excited plosives in mini-dramas of their own.

So what is “whirled English?” The text for the piece is taken from Ovid’s Metamorphosis, but then brought through a second metamorphosis by Sabat and the poet Uljana Wolf. While us singers never pronounce the Latin directly, the words we do speak take their sound and shape, not meaning, from Ovid’s lines. “In nova fert animus mutatas,” becomes: “In no war fared animals mutate us;” “dicere forma” is transformed humorously (and with some truth) into, “dick arrows form us.” But Sabat and Wolf are not satisfied with one acoustic permutation. The “fert” in the first line has a new life reflected in multiple languages across the first movement of the piece; it appears as “fared” and “fährt” and “faire,” “fate” and “feared” and so on and so on.

Each line of Ovid’s is given this same treatment. No thought is spared for accurate translation, only humor and enthusiasm for the sound of language as we speak and sing it. It’s as if two thousand years of Latin derivation is happen right before us, bursting into being. The text is resplendent with cognates and faux amis across a multitude of languages and dialects – as if the piece were an entire conversation of that moment of: “Oh! I thought you said…”

I always love pieces that make me think about some aspect of music in a new way, whether it is timbre, harmony, form, or something more specific, like the beauty of a certain interval or how soprano saxophones really can sound nice. Sabat and Wolf achieve what the greatest poets are always striving for: to make us experience language in a new way. For their “translation” does have meaning and truth, for us to discover and figure out for ourselves:

In nova fert animus mutatas dicere formas
Of bodies chang’d to various forms, I sing:
In no war fared animals mutate us, dick arrows form us

Feb 18

Eastman: That Which is Fundamental

Ekmeles performs Julius Eastman’s early graphic work Macle on a festival dedicated to the composer’s work. The concert will also feature performances by Tilt Brass, Julian Terrell Otis, and ACME.

Ekmeles rep for concert

  • Julius Eastman – Macle (1968)

Ekmeles personnel for concert

Ekmeles in Manhattan, Spring 2018 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