Dec 14

American Composers

Ekmeles performs works by U.S. and Canadian composers for four to eight singers

  • Ben Johnston – Sonnets of Desolation (1981)
  • John Cage – Five (1988)
  • Evan Johnson – vo mesurando (2012) U.S. Premiere
  • James Tenney – A Rose is a Rose is a Round (1970)
  • James Tenney – Hey When I Sing These 4 Songs Hey Look What Happens (1971)
  • Matthew Ricketts – Women Well Met (2013)
  • Andrew Waggoner – … that human dream (2014) World Premiere
  • Aaron Cassidy – A Painter of Figures in Rooms (2011-2012)

Ekmeles’s season is supported by New Music USA’s Cary Fund For New Music Performance Fund, the Aaron Copland Fund for Music, and the Amphion Foundation.

Personnel for concert

Sep 13

21st Century Americans

Ekmeles kicks off the 2013-2014 season with a program of 21st century American music.

  • Taylor Brook – Motorman Sextet (2013) World Premiere
  • Aaron Cassidy – A Painter of Figures in Rooms (2012) US Premiere
  • Elliott Carter – Mad Regales (2007)
  • Zosha Di Castri – The Animal After Whom Other Animals Are Named (2013) World Premiere
  • Adam Mirza – Safe Words (2011, rev. 2013)

Personnel for concert

Supported by New Music USA’s Cary Fund For New Music Performance Fund and the Alice M. Ditson Fund of Columbia University

Feb 13

Changing gears

Above: Aaron Cassidy's "I, purples, spat blood, laugh of beautiful lips" Below: Ken Ueno's "Shiroi Ishi"

Above: Aaron Cassidy’s “I, purples, spat blood, laugh of beautiful lips”
Below: Ken Ueno’s “Shiroi Ishi”

As singers of contemporary music, we are called upon to sing in many styles, and with many different vocal qualities. Working with the former is simply a matter of learning the proper aesthetic and idiom for each piece of music, or section of a piece, as it may be. Performing with a different vocal quality is a matter of physiology and muscular training, and can really throw a wrench into the works.

Rehearsing for our January 24th concert, I quickly realized I would need to use a lighter vocal mechanism for the long sustained lines of the second tenor part in Ken Ueno’s gorgeous “Shiroi Ishi” (it’s officially gorgeous, ask the New York Times). Since this was vocally the most challenging work on the program, I thought of it as my technical default for the rest of the show, centering my vocalizing and practicing around the technique required for the piece, and placing the other works on the show as much into the same space as possible.

On a wide-ranging program, however, it’s not always possible to stay within the confines of one vocal quality. I happened to have programmed Aaron Cassidy’s “I, purples, spat blood, laugh of beautiful lips” on the same show, and get this, before the Ueno. I am occasionally my own worst enemy. Luckily we had made the time to run the full program in order in rehearsal, so I was prepared for the big gear shift from Cassidy into Ben Johnston, and finally to the long long lines of “Shiroi Ishi”. Balancing programmatic and performative concerns is a never-ending process, especially as singers of new music.

Jan 13

Aaron Cassidy – Experimental Composer

I’m very excited to have another chance to sing Aaron Cassidy‘s wonderful I, purples, spat blood, laugh of beautiful lips at our upcoming concert this January 24th at Roulette.

If you don’t know his work, I think the piece is an excellent introduction! Here it speaks (and shouts and burbles) for itself, in my performance from the very first Ekmeles concert.

Aaron Cassidy – I, purples, spat blood, laugh of beautiful lips from Ekmeles on Vimeo.

After that, you might also be interested to read his paper, I am an experimental composer , now available on his website.

And would be remiss if I didn’t post the incredible JACK Quartet‘s inspiring performance of Cassidy’s Second String Quartet, which is referenced in the above paper.

Oct 12


Ekmeles performs works by living American composers at Roulette as part of the 24th season of the Interpretations series. Preceding the performance will be a 7:30PM talk with Bryan Jacobs, Evan Johnson, Louis Karchin, and Ken Ueno. Following the Ekmeles set at 8PM will be a performance by the Pheeroan akLaff Ensemble.

  • Louis Karchin – To the Sun
  • Louis Karchin – To the Stars (Premiere of new arrangement for Ekmeles)
  • Aaron Cassidy – I, purples, spat blood, laugh of beautiful lips
  • Ben Johnston – I’m goin’ away
  • Ben Johnston – Rose
  • Ken Ueno – Shiroi Ishi
  • Evan Johnson – Three in, ad abundantiam (US Premiere)
  • Bryan Jacobs – Do You Need, Do To Me, 18 Me, 18 Mean

Personnel for concert

This concert supported by a grant from the The Aaron Copland Fund for Music.

Apr 12

Some Recent Silences

As always, Tim Rutherford-Johnson of The Rambler comes through with the goods. Another example of his perceptive and brilliant writing on music is up at NewMusicBox: an essay on the continuing influence of Cage’s 4’33”, including discussion of Ekmeles favorites Aaron Cassidy and Peter Ablinger. He also touches on the Catskills setting of the seminal work’s premiere, critical—I think—to understanding what the piece is all about.

Read the full post over at NewMusicBox.

Dec 11

The Exploded Voice

An excerpt from Evan Johnson's "General Interrupter"

The consonant staff

I’m looking right now at a piece by Evan Johnson for solo voice called A general interrupter to ongoing activity. The composer describes it in the performance notes as being “comprised of overlapping, mutually imbricated, sometimes self-canceling structures laid out over a landscape of several different independently treated types of more or less vocal, muscular action…”

A sample from Evan Johnson's "General Interrupter"

An example of the rhythmic structure of the pitch staff

The notation for the piece parses the voice into its component parts – a staff for breath, one for fricative and consonant sounds, teeth clicks, whistles, tongue (pressure and clicks), voicing and vowels, and finally pitch. The amount of information on the page is mind-boggling – add to these concerns a rhythmic language involving tuplets nested 3 or 4 deep, and an extreme degree of specification in dynamics and articulation. Traditional vocal notation involves a staff with the pitches on it, words below, dynamics above, and occasionally articulation markings. This traditional notation is a kind of shorthand, in that it assumes the singer is coming to the score with an understanding of language, phrasing, idiom, style, and a myriad of other historical assumptions. In a way, General interrupter is technically totally prescriptive; an alien musician wouldn’t need to know these traditions to interpret the score. However, the mere quantity of information here demands a kind of interpretation, a filtering of the demands of the score through the ability and body of the performer.

A sparse page from "General Interrupter"

A sparse page from "General Interrupter"

Aside from the idea of the voice expressing manifold levels of often physically self-contradictory musical information, what interests me most in the piece may be the notation itself. While some pages are dense with ink and high prime number tuplets, others are reduced down to a single staff, with rhythm notated proportionally and graceful slurs arcing across the page.

I see in this kind of writing the voice exploded, its infinite variables found so intriguing that it becomes impossible to choose a single possibility. In contrast with say, the string quartets of Aaron Cassidy, whose decoupled instrumental actions create a dramatically physical choreography that produces an explosive music, exploding the voice creates dramatically physical, extremely small inner conflicts, invisible to the audience. I think this distinction is important to note, and that using the voice in this way is a departure on a journey inward – maybe this is really the implosion of the voice – a new hermeticism.

Oct 11

The new continuo?

Ekmeles is currently preparing a performance of several of Gesualdo’s madrigals, applying a tuning that is a combination of historical fact and conjecture – Vicentino’s 31-note division of the octave. There is a surfeit of forgotten theories of the tuning of musical instruments and performances, including many that were likely never used in performance. Nicola Vicentino (1511-1575) went a step further than many theorists, actually building and designing instruments capable of producing the scalar divisions he proposed mathematically. He devised the archiorgano, and the archicembalo, respectively an organ and a harpsichord capable of playing 31 (roughly) equal divisions of the octave, allowing free modulation through the keys in a mean-tone tuning, and application of the ancient Greek enharmonic genus. Scipione Stella, a composer at Gesualdo’s court, made a copy of the archicembalo – thus our historical conjecture.

Vicentino himself was a madrigalist, though it is recorded that his enharmonic vocal works were never performed without the harmonic support of a player at the archicembalo. This idea of needing continuo in the context of difficult intonation reminded me of the place singers of contemporary music often find ourselves – ears attached to computer synthesized tracks of our pitches. As readers of the blog will know, I am an advocate for making use of all technological tools possible in the course of learning difficult music. What I am interested in exploring is performing with these computer crutches. Of course, in some cases (like Martin Iddon‘s commission for Ekmeles, Hamadryads, or Aaron Cassidy‘s I, purples, spat blood, laugh of beautiful lips) the in-ear pitch component of the piece is a considered and integral part of the piece.

But what about when the composer hasn’t asked that a pitch track be used, and precise intonation is just too difficult, whether because of short rehearsal time, vocal considerations, or extremely small divisions of the octave? Is performing with a pitch track in our ears just cheating or is it the new continuo? Is the vitality and authenticity of a performance threatened by adherence to a mechanical version of the work which, by literally blocking the ears, supersedes the natural interaction of the performers? Thanks are due to a 16th-century Italian composer for raising these very modern questions – but more importantly, what do you think?

Jan 11

Tuplets and polyrhythms

A section of John Cage's "Living Room Music" which features quintuplets

How do I do this accurately at a slow tempo?

5 for 4 over a full bar of 4/4 at quarter=60? How do you do anything but fake that? All it takes is a little math! Slow tuplets can be a real killer, and if you try to perform them like you would an eighth note triplet (probably by feel), you’ll be all over the place. The least common multiple is your friend! In the case of our example (from John Cage’s Living Room Music, if you’re playing along at home), that would be 5×4 = 20. This number is the number of even pulses the bar is divided into that can accomodate both the quintuplet and the normal quarter note pulses. We could also have come to this from another angle: if the rules and standards of notation are preserved (tuplets over 3 beats need to have dots. Very few composers follow this standard; Carter does), tuplet notes will subdivide just like normal ones. This means a quintuplet quarter note split into 4 will yield 4 quintuplet sixteenth notes, just like its non-tupleted cousin will split into 4 normal sixteenths. Each normal quarter note in the bar could be divided into 5 quintuplet sixteenths. Either way we get there, 5×4 or 4×5 results in 20 quintuplet sixteenths, four of which add up to a quintuplet quarter. Knowing this, we can re-notate the rhythm as follows.

The quintuplets renotated

First the pulse, subdivided by accents, then written with ties

Now instead of a mysterious 5 floating somewhere in the bar we have attacks in relationship to the quarter note pulse, easily realized with a facility in subdivision. The purely mechanical accuracy of this method is, in many cases, only a first step; ideally, a tuplet like this should be realized without the syncopation accents implied by the re-notation. When you know exactly where each note lands in relation to the regular pulse of the piece, you can perform the tuplet smoothly, knowing proper points of reference throughout.

Any interaction of pulses can be rationalized in this manner – a more complicated example yielding a similar method: 5 for 3 over 3/32 in Aaron Cassidy’s I, purples, spat blood, laugh of beautiful lips. We can use our knowledge of the standards of tuplet notation to find how the pulses interact. First, we can imagine each iteration of the the 5 over 6 to have dots, which would make the first note of the quintuplet 9 pulses long, and the second note 6 pulses long. This 15 part division of the bar is in fact the LCM, allowing us to easily place the 32nd note every 5 pulses (15/3) and the 32nd note of the quintuplet on the 10th iteration of this pulse, leaving us with attacks on iterations 1, 6, 10 and 11 of a 3/32 measure hypothetically subdivided by 15 128th note quintuplets!

The same method can be used in the abstract to learn a polyrhythm. What does 5 over 3 in general sound like? Find the LCM (15), write out the digits 0 – 14 on a piece of paper, and circle every multiple of 3 and put a square around every multiple of 5. Following the numbers as a regular pulse, tap both hands at 0, the left at circled numbers and the right at numbers with a square. Voila, 5 over 3, mathematically done! Practice feeling each number as the ‘main pulse’, and each as the ‘cross rhythm’.

Two ways of feeling a 5:3 polyrhythm

Two ways of feeling a 5:3 polyrhythm

Generally, feeling the higher prime as a pulse will be easier, as it will feel subdivided by a lower prime. Take the above example: the 5/4 measure requires accurate placement of only triplets, while the 3/4 measure would require quintuplet level accuracy. An ability to shift between the two feels can help with accurate performances of polyrhythms and tuplets.

Nov 10

Christian Bök – Eunoia

If you’ve heard Aaron Cassidy’s I, purples, spat blood, laugh of beautiful lips (which I wrote about learning in a previous post), you’ve heard (in fractured form) Christian Bök’s delicious ‘homophonic translation’ of Rimbaud’s “Voyelles.” It comes from his incredible book Eunoia, which you can hear read at PennSound, and read on your own in its entirety at the publisher’s website. Each of the book’s five main chapters uses only one vowel, and attempts to exhaust the lexicon of univocal words. The experience of hearing Bök’s poetry read aloud straddles the musical and linguistic.

Another current favorite of mine, several of Bök’s own performances of which you can find at the above link, is his “Motorized Razors.” Are poets really allowed to make these kind of sounds? (Isn’t that my job?) He also does a lovely rendition of his artistic Urvater Kurt Schwitters’s Ursonate.