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.

Aug 16

Bach and Lang: Forces required

As part of our 2016-2017 season we’re giving each of our core singers a turn at the helm of the blog. The inaugural post below comes from our bass, Steven Hrycelak, and is about our September 1st performance at the Skaneateles Festival.


As we prepare to perform BWV 40 and David Lang’s the little match girl passion for the Skaneateles Festival, it took some thought to find a context in which to discuss both of these works.

But then it hit me: we are performing both of these works with just four singers. Why would we do this? What are the benefits and disadvantages of this approach, and what challenges do this one per part presentation offer compared to a larger ensemble approach?

Much has been made in recent years, with some very strong opinions expressed, about what forces should be used to perform Bach’s vocal works. The cantatas, as well as the Christmas Oratorio, B Minor Mass and other works, call for varying numbers of soloists in addition to choral parts and instrumental parts. Occasionally, sections of the chorus are marked as ripieno, or one voice per part, which implies a distinction between this subset of singers and a larger chorus. Often this is not marked, however, and many conductors choose to make more soloistic sections of choral movements into ripieno sections, to further this contrast between larger and smaller forces. There are also a considerable number of cantata performances, however, that only use four singers in total, with the same singers executing all of the solo and all of the choral parts. Taken to the extreme, there have been recent performances of works as grand as the St. Matthew Passion — which calls for double choir, SATB solos, and an Evangelist, a singer portraying Jesus, and several smaller roles — using only eight singers in total.

These reduced vocal forces can be thrilling, but require powerful and versatile singers, who can cut over an orchestra both in solo movements and in the often more heavily orchestrated choral movements. It is an exciting challenge as a performer, and one that demands a free, open throated approach to singing Bach, and a chamber music sensibility in the music making. I know we are all excited for this challenge, and the thrill of performing this great cantata with such fine instrumentalists.

What about the Lang, then? The piece was commissioned by Carnegie Hall for Theater of Voices, and performed with only four singers. However, I have performed this piece three times before–once with four singers and twice with a larger ensemble–and I know that the composer approves of both approaches. I have really enjoyed both as well.

The larger ensemble approach offers the possibility of a more blended sound, as the singers have reinforcements to help with breathing and sustaining the sometimes very taxing vocal lines. Someone from each vocal part is assigned some percussion instruments to play, and having other singers on each vocal line certainly takes some pressure off the percussionist (I was the bass percussionist for one of the ensemble performances I did and not the other, and I can assure you that the latter was much less stressful). The incredible sparseness of the score, however, means that ensemble has to be pretty perfect within each section, or it is very noticeable. There is a tricky section for the altos in the first movement where the word stress plays against the meter in a rather angular melody, and could be difficult to coordinate with a section.

Which brings us to the four singer version. It is very hard for the singers! The range demands are extreme, and some of the breath lines are very long. The section that jumps to mind is movement 13, in which soprano, tenor and bass are just sustaining very long whole notes for six pages, with no rests written in, so only quick catch breaths can be taken. And if that weren’t enough, the pitches of the bass part jump all over the place.

The alto line of this movement is a solo in which you hear the chattering of the little girl’s teeth as she is freezing to death. It is incredibly haunting writing, and I think that I ultimately prefer the fragility of the accompanying voices being one per part, and the labor that is required to make this happen. Having lots of singers on each part accompanying the alto soloist could allow for a more seamless background, but I think the struggle for the other singers to sustain these lines actually adds to the fragility, the quiet drama of this scene, and ultimately the tragedy of this work. For me, this is the high point of the piece, and the four singer version enhances the impact.

If you get to hear us do this piece, check out a choral recording after. I’m curious to hear reactions to these very different takes on this work.

The score to David Lang’s the little match girl passion used with permission by Red Poppy, LTD., administered exclusively worldwide by G. Schirmer, Inc.

Sep 12

Workshopping: Week 1

We’re just getting started workshopping a new piece for our October 13th performance at Issue Project Room (at Our Lady of Lebanon Cathedral). Composer Thanasis Deligiannis is meeting with the 5 singers for the project individually, to get to know our voices and personalities as he assembles the new work, Ignored Manuals.

Our first few meetings have involved the standard “what’s your range” discussions, but quickly moved into a more exciting creative process, with Thanasis singing to us fragments of the piece for us to imitate. Though we are moving towards a written score in the end, starting off with this kind of rote process affords us a kind of musical communication more focused on timbre and other subtle sonic details of vocal sound. In a way it reminds me of learning a language from tapes in the car; we’re beginning with pure sonic mimicry, and eventually getting to analysis and written communication.

Oh, and Thanasis’s isn’t the only voice that might be imitated…

Apr 12

Text and IPA for composers

This post is part of a series directed at composers writing for the voice. Something about vocal music feels inherently different from instrumental music; this can be daunting for a composer familiar only with instrumental writing. These posts are intended to be signposts pointing to notational standards and techniques which will allow composers to be as communicative and clear as possible in their writing for singers.

The ability to deliver a text is what sets the voice apart from instruments. There are, of course, occasions on which a more instrumental vocal line is desirable and extremely effective; but when it is at all possible, I prefer to work with words. Text serves as an important cue for musical and vocal interpretation, and can be an immediate way of understanding an otherwise unfamiliar musical style or affect. A text should always be clearly credited as to its source and printed in its entirety somewhere in the score, so that it can be studied and understood away from the music.

Even if it is outside a composer’s aesthetic or intent to use an actual text or even any real words, indicating which vowels or consonants the singers should use can provide an opening for an emotional and interpretive connection to the music. For this reason I would recommend all composers to become familiar with the International Phonetic Alphabet, known as IPA. It is a system which can notate in varying degrees of specificity the sounds of any language, real or imagined.

A fantastical virtuoso use of IPA can be seen in Ligeti’s Aventures and Nouvelles Aventures, for which the composer devised an entire artificial language, notated in great detail. It is of course not necessary to go to these lengths to make use of IPA. It can be used as part of a traditional text to describe a segmentation of words, as in Berio’s A-Ronne, where the text “Aleph is my end” is split between two hocketing singers, one performing only the vowel sounds and one performing only the consonant sounds. Stockhausen uses IPA in Am Himmel wandre ich… to write out nonsense syllables like [tɛgədɛgə] as well as to indicate a kind of echo of a word in the text (often colored by Stockhausen’s German accent!): the word ‘universe’ is echoed by [huhihø], the text ‘of having’ is echoed by [ɔ ɛ ɪ].

IPA is an incredibly flexible and communicative system which can be applied to many ends and aesthetics, and these examples I’ve given only scratch the surface of what is possible. I look forward to seeing how composers of vocal music continue to develop its musical use.