New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Category: choral music

A Gorgeous Live Recording of an Iconic Renaissance Choral Epic

Taken out of historical context, the Green Mountain Project’s final January 2020 concert performance of the Monteverdi Vespers of 1610 – streaming at Bandcamp – is epically electrifying. Considering the hideous events of the past nine months, it’s absolutely heartbreaking. Outside of Sweden, Nicaragua, Moscow and a few (slowly growing) parts of the world, it is illegal to either perform, or invite audiences to attend. How fortuitous it was that the ensemble decided to go out when they did – with a bang. This is a particularly high-voltage performance.

Choir directors Jolle Greenleaf and Scott Metcalfe first staged the iconic Renaissance choral work at St. Mary’s Church in midtown Manhattan in January of 2010. It became an annual tradition, finally winding up a year ago, the impassioned voices joined by strings, the period brass of the Dark Horse Consort, and organist Jeffrey Grossman. This massive double live album isn’t quite the complete show: brief, more mundane moments of call-and-response have been omitted. The group sing it at a slightly elevated Venetian pitch, as choirs where the composer was employed four centuries ago would have. Another fascinating accession to tradition is that most of the mass is sung one voice to a particular part, and every one of the soloists rises to the occasion.

Maybe because this is a concert recording, there are places where the instruments are as loud as the voices, occasionally even more so, everyone benefiting from the space’s immense amounts of natural reverb. The choir and instrumentalists handle Monteverdi’s intertwining counterpoint effortlessly and seem to relish hitting the big swells. Angels duel in strong, elegant, melismatic vocalese. Women soar over the men’s steady river of lows and the lustrously balanced orchestration: the wordless sonata that opens the second disc is a lush, majestic highlight.

Another welcome feature that older listeners typically take for granted is that this recording is divided up into a mere 24 tracks, a handful of which go on for almost ten minutes at a time. It’s not quite the equivalent of a vinyl record, but happily this album eschews the recent and incredibly annoying tendency for record labels to slice classical pieces up into dozens of fragments, presumably to maximize Spotify nanopayments.

Fascinating, Rare Choral Music From Georgia

In the Georgian language, zedashe means “jug.” The Republic of Georgia is home to one of the earliest wine-making civilizations, and also a deeply rooted tradition of choral music. So it’s no surprise that one of the country’s most celebrated choirs would call themselves Zedashe. Their latest album Silver Sanctuary is streaming at Bandcamp.

Traditional Georgian music sounds like nothing from the surrounding areas. Much of it is stark yet resonant. It follows neither traditional western, Arabic or other levantine scales or harmony. Zedashe are serious scholars, blending all sorts of large and small-scale songs from across the centuries with new arrangements, some based on musicological fragments they’ve unearthed over the years. Various configurations of the men and women of the ensemble join voices throughout this rather epic 22-track record, occasionally bolstered by drums, panduri and chonguri lute, accordion and bagpipes. Some of the songs feature lyrics in endangered regional languages including Chan and Megrelian.

Irony and hardship permeate this material. Unrequited love is a persistent theme, as are drinking and war. Couples bound for arranged marriages long for their true loves. Fables illustrate age-old human foibles. One of the songs salutes Queen Tamar, a 12th century strongwoman and patron of the arts. Others chronicle struggles against Russian invaders.

The longer, slower numbers tend to be more hypnotic and drony; the shorter, more kinetic ones often feature a lot of call-and-response. There are also a couple of impassioned solo performances.

And in keeping with this month’s theme here, this music is illegal to either perform or witness in most parts of the world. For anyone who missed this past year’s ACDA/NATS/ChorusAmerica webinar, most professional choirs don’t expect to be able to either rehearse or perform (outside of Sweden, Nicaragua, Moscow, or a small county in Idaho, anyway) for the next two years. Isn’t it about time we all raised our voices together against this madness?

A Matter-of-Factly Harrowing Eco-Disaster Cautionary Tale by Sarah Kirkland Snider

Sarah Kirkland Snider’s Mass for the Endangered is not an appeal to a deity but to nature. Ultimately, it’s a cautionary tale, a plea for the survival of the environment rather than for the humans whose liturgies typically serve as text for such things. Backed by terse piano and a vivid chamber orchestra, Gabriel Crouch leads vocal ensemble Gallicantus in this intense, dynamic world premiere recording, streaming at Bandcamp.

Throughout the suite, Snider seamlessly interpolates the original latin with new text by first-class art-folk songwriter Nathaniel Bellows. The opening kyrie section, centered around variations on an eerie six-note riff, is a study in contrasts, somber ambience anchoring angst-fueled crescendos from the choir. Hypnotic yet acidic echo phrases rise to chilling heights: this is hardly an easy piece to sing, and the ensemble dig in mightily. 

The group negotiate the tricky counterpoint of the gloria over harp caught in limbo between icy belltone astringency and anthemic neoromanticism. A tritone menace appears as exchanges beetween the men and women of the choir rise and fall.

The alleluia is a mashup of Renaissance rhythmic grace and tensely pulsing minimalism. Snider’s gift for implied melody really comes to the forefront as the voices pick up with an uneasily dancing rhythm over steady harp, resonant winds and circling strings in the credo. A galloping low string figure stands out stunningly below the soaring, twinkling atmosphere above.

Snider combines the sanctus and benedictus sections with a minimalist bounce that brings to mind David Lang’s choral works. The voices reprise the suite’s initial angst, but also offer hope against hope, a bassoon swirling upward over the strings’ incisive, percussive phrases in the concluding agnus dei. Nothing like the apocalypse to inspire creativity, huh?

Meet Some People in a Legendary Brooklyn Graveyard This Month with Singer Gelsey Bell

Gelsey Bell devised her new album Cairns as a headphone-enhanced walking tour of Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, and much of it was recorded there. As fans of the space are aware, it is a working cemetery, and it’s open daily from 7 AM to 7 PM. In order to help get people off their screens and back into the outdoors this summer, she includes a map along with the album – a collaboration with composer Joseph White – streaming at Bandcamp.

Bell recommends that people who want to take the tour should download the album, since phone reception deep in the cemetery gets iffy. “It can also be experienced at home, letting the field recordings made at Green-Wood transport you there. Or you can get really weird with it and just listen walking in a totally different environment,” Bell explains. It’s meant to be an immersive experience, with helpful cues and some music too. “Let’s see if you can keep pace with me,” Bell says with a smile.

The music includes a soaring, Renaissance-influenced electroacoustic chorale, gentle accents that could be harp and bells, and lightly pulsing ambience. Bell is a friendly guide, full of historical insights and unselfconsciously poetic observations. You might not expect someone who can be such a force of nature onstage to speak as quietly as she does, with a break in her low register.

On this particular walk, she’s carrying a stone which she’s going to add to a cairn in the cemetery. There’s birdsong, sounds of wind, fragments of conversation and a vehicle or two. The first of a handful of permanent residents you will visit is an American Indian woman whose name, translated into English, means “Productive Pumpkin,” and who died while working while working for P.T. Barnum.

The others you will meet – in one way or another – include the guy who booked the Beatles into Shea Stadium; the feminist scientist who in the 1850s discovered the link between carbon dioxide emissions and global warming; a pair of women who lived beyond the century mark; and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Bell also loves trees: you will encounter several, and learn a lot about them as well.

She also doesn’t shy away from the many grim political realities associated with those who reside along the way. This is definitely a People’s History of the cemetery. And in the spirit of Pauline Oliveros, Bell suggests midway through the tour that everybody should take a five-minute break, without headphones, to listen to the musical quality of the surrounding nature.

A Lush, Sweeping Debut Album From the String Orchestra of Brooklyn

Although the String Orchestra of Brooklyn have been championing new composers for more than ten years, their debut album – streaming at Bandcamp – only came out late last year. It has two spacious, rather horizontal contemporary pieces alongside a couple of unselfconsciously vigorous Italian Renaissance works, The dynamics and range of the ensemble, as well as the singers, really shine here.

The first piece is Christopher Cerrone‘s High Windows, beginning with shivery sixteenth-notes behind sudden doppler bursts and a low drone. A sudden airy horizontality slowly gains momentum with terse moodiness rising from the low strings, the violins finally descending and joining the lattice. A muted loopiness in the return of the opening theme has icy echoes of electronic music; it ends in a long, somber series of waves.

Jacob Cooper‘s Stabat Mater Dolarosa unfolds at a glacial pace, sheets of sound drifting through the mix, akin to watching cirrus clouds on the horizon on a relatively windless day. Uneasy close harmonies rise and then fade away. The composer’s use of implied melody as the sound rises with an allusive ominousness from the low strings is very clever, especially as a choir enter wordlessly. With the singers sometimes adding harmony, sometimes doubling the violin lines, the atmosphere grows more somber, leading to a long descent into the abyss led by the basses. The rise to density afterward is much more disquieting, with a series of slow, massed glissandos. The effect where the singers have to pause for a breath is, well, breathtaking. Soprano Mellissa Hughes adds stark, plainchant-inspired lines over the waves of the concluding movement

Paganini’s Caprice No. 6 in G minor is actually more of a canon, also built around slowly shifting sustained lines, but with rapidfire, tremoloing violin. The ensemble close the album with a steadfastly marching interpretation of the first movement of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater, the choir enhancing a gothic undercurrent.

Calmly Yet Adventurously Exploring Slavic Vocal Traditions with Kitka

All-female Bay Area choral ensemble Kitka love exploring vocal traditions from Eastern Europe to parts of the former Soviet Union. Beyond that eclecticism, they distinguish themselves with their collective vocal range: this unit has strong contraltos to balance out all the soaring highs. Their vast twenty-two track album Evening Star is streaming at Bandcamp. Although a lot of their material is very rhythmically sophisticated, there’s a mystical, reassuring calm to much of it, a welcome antidote to the terror of the coronavirus scare.

The opening medley of Bulgarian carols is a lot of fun, with a very cool contrast between an increasingly complex, stately web of counterpoint and a triumphant “wheeee” bursting from every corner of the stereo picture. That contrapuntal complexity returns again in songs from Romania and Latvia.

They have just as much fun with the eerie close harmonies and swooping, melismatic ornamentation of several more Bulgarian and Serbian tunes. They spice a Latvian round with strange, surreal, looming percussion. In one of the Ukrainian tunes, a couple of the group’s most distinctive voices add striking timbres over an increasingly delirious backdrop anchored by boomy bass drum. The group interpolate a a Greek tune – with a swooping, melismatic Indian flavor- within a brooding Appalachian-tinged folk song, the only one from these shores here.

The album also includes a calm, Renaissance-tinged Russian hymn; a spare, hypnotic Georgian piece and a triptych of Yiddish lullabies over a wafting midrange drone. There are love songs, laments and a peasant work song. Among all the solos, the single mightiest one is at the end of a steady, swaying Ukrainian number. They wind up the album with a Yiddish tune and finally break out the accordion, memorably. In the centuries before the magic rectangle took over the collective imagination, this is what people used to do with their time.

Twin Peaks Chorales and a Mysterious Ritual From Mary Prescott at Roulette

A jubilant howl emanated from the dressing room last night at Roulette seconds before the nine members of Mary Prescott’s ensemble took the stage for her hauntingly immersive performance piece Loup Lunaire. It began rather coyly but quickly took a much darker turn. Part choral suite, part dance performance, the choreography was every bit as compelling yet as enigmatic as the music, to the point where it wouldn’t be fair to spoil the plot. Inspired by the wolf mother archetype – depicted here as responsible yet more or less alone – along with behavioral cycles in nature, the piece is a precursor to another work, Mother Me, which Prescott and Cara Search will perform on May 6 as part of a semi-monthly Roulette residency.

Luisa Muhr was the first to let loose a howl onstage, but it wasn’t long before the responding round of wolven voices from the rest of the group – Prescott herself stage left, joined by Search, Noa Fort, Ariadne Greif, Joy Havens, Nina Dante and the lone man in the cast, Chanan Ben Simon – had reached a peak and then scattered downward.

Prescott’s strikingly translucent, distamtly disquieting themes gave the singers plenty of room to join in increasingly intricate webs of counterpoint, and sometimes back from there. The compositions evoked styles as diverse as rapturous Hildegard hymns, wistful Appalachian folk, Caroline Shaw’s maze-like work with Roomful of Teeth, Angelo Badelamenti’s Twin Peaks soundtracks, and Indian canatic music. What was consistent was a pervasive unease, amplified by how surealistically one segment would overlap into another.

Meanwhile, onstage behind the dancers, guitarist David Torn added extra levels of angst, or menace, or outright dread, with airy washes of sound as well as several long, majestically mournful Pink Floyd interludes. Nobody does David Gilmour in lingering cumulo-nimbus mode better than this guy.

The series of narratives among the dancers were similarly somber, much of the action in elegant slo-mo. Their buoyantly simple, flowing costumes were sometimes augmented by a little onstage dressup – Prescott’s expression as she was tidied and prepared for the next stage was priceless, and too good to give away. Purification, or at least forgiveness for some unnamed (or unnamable) sin seems to be part of the picture – no spoilers. It’s impossible to find fault with this piece. The dancers are all strong singers, individual role-playing was sharp, choreography briskly executed, lighting a thoughtful enhancement, and the guitar was as vivid as the vocals. Roulette hit a bullseye in commissioning this.

A Dreamy, Hypnotic Holiday Celebration with Roomful of Teeth and Tigue at the Guggenheim

Last night Roomful of Teeth sang a cocooning, dynamically pulsing, brilliantly conceived site-specific program, beneath and sometimes on the rotunda at the Guggenheim Museum. Conductor Brad Wells marveled at the space’s natural reverb, whose benefits were bolstered by the presence of percussion trio Tigue on several numbers.

The night’s most striking and hauntingly memorable song was Sarah Riskind‘s 2016 Hanerot Halalu, based on a stark melody in the chromatic Jewish freygish mode. Tynan Davis introduced that one from the second level of the balcony, the rest of the octet gathered on the ground-floor stage, Esteli Gomez eventually tossing the melody back up to her with similar elegance. Counterintuitively, the choir reconvened and followed with Gustav Holst’s wistful, folksy 1906 song In the Bleak Midwinter.

To open the evening, Tigue held the ground floor with their subtle, snowy accents while the choir, gathered four flights up on the balcony, delivered an emphatic, minimalistic new arrangement of Praetorius’ 1609 motet Lo, How a Rose. Caroline Shaw, who seems to have become the ringleader of this merry band, explained that the night’s bill was “A mix of the familiar and the unknown, by design,” works selected to rise up and ripple around the space. The two ensembles would come full circle at the end with more stately, reverent Praetorius, Tigue up on the balcony this time with handbells to add delicate tingle to the mix.

The night’s most dramatic, dynamically charged piece was Caleb Burhans‘ 2010 partita Beneath, ascending and falling with catchy, simple riffs punctuating slowly crescendoing, tectonic layers. Shaw described the world premiere of On Snow, which the Guggenheim’s Works and Process series (of which this concert was a part) had commissioned from her, as being “Music of the 17th century melting bit by bit.” The ensemble couldn’t conceal the fun they were having with the music’s coy, loopy, swoopy motives, bolstered by an elegant, slow crescendo by Tigue, from a ripple to a rumble.

Jeremy Faust’s Jubilo came across as a purposeful blend of minimalism and Renaissance polyphony. The choir followed the dreamy counterpoint of the 16th century Coventry Carol with the steady wave motion of Wells’ 2014 composition Render. Then Tigue built a matter-of-fact yet playful thicket of polyrhythms, the choir eventually interpolating airy swells and gentle gusts.

After the rhythmically pulsing variations of Judah Adashi‘s 2014 Bjork-inspired piece My Heart Comes Undone, the whole crew – also including baritone Jason Awbrey, bass Cameron Beauchamp, tenor Eric Dudley, baritone Jeffrey Gavett, sopranos Abigail Lennox  and Sarah Brailey – seemed to relish the wryly dipping, undulating quasi-mordents of Shaw’s Sarabande, from her Pulitzer Prizewinning 2011 suite.

This was the final concert at the Guggenheim this year. The museum’s events series continues next year with plenty of dance, opera and theatre as well.

Holiday Irreverence

On a macro level, holidays are always a good thing. In an era where workers’ rights are under fire more than at any time since the Industrial Revolution, anything that stands in the way of the bosses’ sense of entitlement is worth celebrating.

On the other hand, we in the west have become estranged from the winter solstice and harvest festival best remembered by the latin name Saturnalia. With all the religious associations weighing it down over the centuries, year-end holiday music has become a vomitorium of cheese and schmaltz. It’s time to take our holidays back! Here’s a handful of irreverent sonic treats to inspire you.

Jewish a-cappella group Six13 have a couple of seasonal tunes that deserve to be sung while the dreydl spins. A Star Wars Chanukah has some familiar lyrics set to the tune of John Williams’ Star Wars theme: the video, and the costumes, are the funniest part. Bohemian Chanukah – an update on Bohemian Rhapsody – is just plain LMFAO hilarious. The jokes are too good to give away, but it’s the one about the shonde known as baked latkes that might be the best of the batch. And as much as these guys are a comedy act, they’re actually fine singers.

On the Christmas side, the UK’s most prolific psychedelic punk weirdos, the Pocket Gods have a brand-new album, Rock N Rollin’ Fornicating Xmas streaming at Spotify. Frontman Mark Christopher Lee can’t keep a straight face throughout a punk rock Silent Night. There’s also a phony country song about getting fast food takeout with Jesus; a Ramonesy dis dedicated to Boris Johnson; a number about Christmas masturbation; and a sludgy, Black Angels-esque dirge, I Killed My Parents on Christmas Day. If December 25 bums you out, this will make your day a bit more tolerable.

Airy, Low-Key Ambience and Choral Themes From Carolina Eyck

Carolina Eyck‘s new album Elegies for Theremin & Voice – streaming at Spotify – blends multitracked, wordless vocals with theremin. which she uses for for both steady sustain as well as the instrument’s signature quaver. In places, it’s impossible to tell which is human and which is machine. It also tends to be minimalistic: from time to time, the music recalls John Zorn’s work for small vocal ensemble, as well as Sophia Rei in a rare pensive moment, or Emilie Wiebel. There’s a general sense of calm in these pieces: as elegies go, this is not a dark album.

The album’s opening track is Duet 1, a simple, gentle miniature, fuzzy lows from the theremim almost buried in the mix. The second number, Remembrance is a happy one, an increasingly complex web of harmonies based on a blithely dancing ba-ba vocal riff,  with a choir of voices massing in the background, the theremin occasionally diverging into tremoloing microtones.

Eyck’s vocals seem taken by surprise during the first part of Absence, a diptych. As the theremin grows more present, they grow more wistful. She builds Uncle from a simple descending progression into a steady, sober choral piece: it’s the album’s most recognizably elegaic theme. She follows that with a fleeting solo theremin miniature and then the slowly shifting tectonic sheets of Duet II

The hazily looped Commemoration brings to mind Caroline Shaw’s choral work, reduced to simplest terms. The playfully rhythmic Presence is Eyck’s take on Indian takadimi vocal exercises, while Friend, a synopsis of sorts, wouldn’t be out of place in the early Meredith Monk catalog. Eyck winds up the album with the baroque-tinged Solo II. She’s playing the album release show tomorrow night, Oct 16 at 8:30 PM at Constellation, 3111 N. Western Ave in Chicago; cover is $10.