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Tag: choral music

Hauntingly Immersive, Dystopic Swirl From Resina and Avant Garde Choir 441Hz

Polish cellist and composer Karolina Rec a.k.a. Resina wrote her new album Speechless – streaming at Bandcamp – during the Women’s Strike protests there last year. Plans for the album were nearly derailed by lockdown insanity, but Rec and conductor Anna Wilczewska’s Gdańsk-based choir 441Hz worked fast during brief moments of freedom. The result is a whirling, dystopic, electroacoustic salute to nature before she gets sick of us and kicks us off the planet for good (if we don’t beat nature to the punch with lethal injections and mass sterilization).

Rec likes diptychs, ending in a sonic place completely different from where she begins. Her opening piece here is Mercury Immersion, a ghostly chorale amid a constantly shifting series of increasingly anguished, rising and falling waves. Drummer Mateusz Rychlicki takes the eerie grandeur to a boomy peak at the end.

There’s a sharp, singing quality to Rec’s cello in Horse Tail, her one-woman multitracked string section joined by the choir as they hypnotically pulse along at a quasi-gallop. The creepy electronic effect toward the end is too good to give away, and spot-on for the plandemic era.

Looping, cocooning phrases from the choir contrast with the starkness of the cello and what could be whalesong in Failed Myth Simulation, a diptych; the second half is a motorik theme. The dissociative soundscape Darwin’s Finches features birdsong field recordings by Michał Fojcik, which turn out to be more icily techy than bucolic.

Underneath the gritty textures and sepulchral washes of voices, Unveiling could be a circling Philip Glass etude. Slashes from the cello penetrate calm loopiness as track six, Manic gets underway, Rec building a somberly minimalist theme that she eventually takes in a grim industrial direction. After that, the brief tableau Hajstra makes a good segue.

Rec develops variations on a heroic marching theme in A Crooked God, again veering into industrial roar and clank. The album’s final cut is Recall, a surreal, staggered canon at quarterspeed which eventually collapses in an electronic ice storm. This is a sonic treat for those brave enough to confront it.

Haunting Turkish Sounds From a Water Tower

Today’s installment of the daily, October-long Halloween celebration here draws on a style familiar to horror movie fans: classical choral music. But this is hardly your typical gothic crypt tableau.

Singer Dashon Burton, of adventurous contemporary classical choir Roomful of Teeth, brought his colleagues his new arrangement of Turkish composer Alev Lenz‘s song Fall Into Me. The ensemble liked it so much they decided to record it in an old seven-story water tank in Colorado known for its incredible natural reverb.

And it’s everything you could possibly want: haunting chromatics, ominously droning lows, but also an unexpected sense of hope. Tiredness and a little torture factor into the English lyrics, dovetailing with the zeitgeist of the past nineteen months. Give this maxi-single a spin at Bandcamp and get lost for five minutes.

Keeping the Great British Tradition of Choral Music Alive

For today’s installment of this month’s daily celebration of dark music, what could be more appropriate than a spare, elegaic Ukrainian choral work titled Kontaktion of the Dead? Or a haunting suite for choir and organ dedicated to the millions murdered by Axis evil in World War II? That piece is Maurice Durufle’s Requiem: both appear on today’s album, Remembrance, by the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge, recorded six years ago and still streaning at Spotify.

This may be the work of a student ensemble, but they are no ordinary group of college kids. Under the leadership of Graham Ross, this rotating cast of young choral talent have released a series of awardwinning records. They sing repertoire from the Middle Ages to the present day. Some group members go on to careers as professional singers, others take fond memories of their days as Cambridge choristers elsewhere.

Organist Matthew Jorysz provides delicately circling ambience as the men pulse amid the women’s lustre to introduce the requiem. This version is much more ghostly than the full symphonic arrangement (the New York Choral Society sang a rich, saturnine version at Carnegie Hall in February of 2017). The organ and women of the choir fuel the big crescendo in the second movement. The imploring intensity but also the lingering ghostliness of the third are stunning, with bass chorister Neal Davies taking a solo turn as the organ grows more ominous.

Hazy ambience turns blustery and bracing; mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnston hits anguished peaks and then fades down to Guy Johnston’s cello. The terseness of this arrangement is srriking, the composer often putting the women’s voices front and center in gently lilting, consoling melodies. Macabre echoes of the war linger in the organ melodies of the concluding movements: restraint, but also seething anger.

The album opens with the fleeting, stately Call to Remembrance, attributed to 16th century British composer Richard Farrant, followed by the somber, hypnotic waves of Thomas Tomkins’ early 17th century setting of the hymn When David Heard. A possibly earlier version, by Thomas Weelkes has much more of an upbeat sway.

Remaining in the 17th century, the group cut loose with symphonic intensity and dynamics in Robert Ramsey’s How Are the Mighty Fallen. Ross’ world premiere arrangement of Abide with Me offers momentary calm and optimism. The other 20th century works here include John Tavener’s Song for Athene, a muted, brooding farewell for a friend and two William Harris pieces, the first with more lively, tricky changes.

Daniel Hart’s Colorful, Ambitious New Film Score Hits the Screen and the Web

The last time composer Daniel Hart was featured on this page, it was at the end of last year’s annual Octoberlong Halloween celebration of dark music here. The dark soundtrack being celebrated that day was Hart’s score to the 2017 film A Ghost Story. Hart’s latest soundtrack is for the new movie The Green Knight, streaming at Spotify.

This music is very colorful, entertaining, ambitious and speaks well for the film. Here Hart engages a choir as well as orchestra, through a much wider sonic palette than his horror cinematics. Most of the twenty-nine segments here are on the short side, three minutes or considerably less: there’s a lot going on this narrative, obviously.

The beginning is percussive and flutey. Harp and cello move to centerstage, then orchestra and choir drift through calm and storm. Most of the orchestration is organic, although there are surreal electronic flourishes and effects.

Portents – acidic woodwinds approximate birdsong, a knock-knock from the drums and a stern mini-fanfare from the choir – appear early on. A bucolic guitar-and-flute tune signals the birth of Christ, quite an outside-the-box depiction.

Two central themes are a striking, somberly circling, Philip Glass-like string interlude followed by an even more striking waltz in the style of a medieval Jewish nigun.

A woman sings in Italian to wind up a twinkling, harp-and-cello-driven all-night vigil. The choral interludes can be demanding, and dramatic, and the singers rise to the technical challenges. Interestingly, Hart doesn’t get Elizabethan til the end: throughout most of the score, his harmonies are on the austere, modernist side. This is a rewarding listen for fans of picturesque contemporary composers like Richard Danielpour and Caroline Shaw.

The Eva Quartet Take Ancient, Otherworldly Bulgarian Choral Music to New Places

Bulgarian choral quartet the Eva Quartet’s new album Minka – streaming at Spotify – is a lot more eclectic than most collections of centuries-old, otherworldly music from the Balkans. In the same vein as the original popularizers of the tradition, Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares – with whom all four members of the quartet have sung – they take their otherworldly close harmonies, surreal whoops and shivery ornamentation to more recent places.

On this album, that means hints of Indian rhythms and melody, plus more modern songs by Stefan Dragostinov, Ivan Spassov and Dimitar Hristov, leader of the Bulgarian National Radio Folk Orchestra. As you would expect, most of the numbers here are on the short side, under three minutes, sometimes much less, occasionally bolstered by percussion or gadulka. This recording is often balanced by the high harmonies in one channel, the lower ones in the other, which actually works against the tension created by the harmonic adjacencies and microtones common to Bulgarian music. On the other hand, if you’re looking to isolate your own harmony when singing this, it makes your job a lot easier.

Sometimes the innovations – doot-doot rhythms in the fourth track, for example – add a humorous touch. Elsewhere, the four women – Gergana Dimitrova, Sofia Kovacheva, Evelina Christova and Daniela Stoichkova – ]energetically walk the maze of tricky rhythms, melismas and the occasional thicket of tonguetwisting syllables. By contrast, slow overlays of melody shift through the sonic picture in Spassov’s austere Balno Li Ti E Sinjo Ljo….only to give way to rapidfire operatics.

The aching, muted lustre of Razvivay, Dobro Povivay (Let’s Go, Get Your Clothes On) contrasts with the vocal acrobatics of the miniature after that, as well as Hristov’s Leme Dreme, with its playful tug-of-war between gadulka and vocals. And the drones of the album’s final cut are stunningly unwavering. Folk music never stands still: it’s always evolving, and this album is a good idea of where one of the world’s edgiest, most popular flavors is going.

A Magical, Mystical, Profoundly Relevant New Hildegard Recording By Seraphic Fire

Seraphic Fire‘s new recording of Hildegard von Bingen’s Ordo Virtutum – streaming at Spotify– couldn’t have come out at a more appropriate time. It’s a parable of good versus evil. The Virtues and the Devil battle over a soul; eventually the Virtues win. At the most pivotal moment in world history, as the voices of reason struggle against a genocidal, needle-wielding cabal of tech oligarchs, this celestial, otherworldly, stark music offers considerable solace and inspiration.

The central riff in the introit is an aptly solemn, desolate, seven-note phrase in the blues scale. It occurs here and there in British folk music and has been appropriated by the occasional classical composer in the centuries since. The rich natural reverb in the space where this was recorded enhances the feeling of isolation – something the world has suffered in unprecedented proportions since March 16 of last year.

The choir take their time with the prologue, the syncopation livening its hypnotic melody. As Anima, the embattled soul, Luthien Brackett sings with understated drama and optimism. Clara Osowski portrays Humility, Queen of the Virtues with a calm tenacity. James K. Bass plays the role of the Devil, the lone male character in the narrative. Hildegard refuses to give him a melody, so all he can do is bluster and bellow: feminism, 12th century style.

The men and women of the choir sing the rest of the roles, conducted with masterful attention to detail by Patrick Dupre Quigley. After the devil makes his entrance, we get a tantalizing bit of close harmony from the women. Long, understatedly imploring solos interchange with a sneering, diabolical presence.

A whispery, sepulchral drone lingers beneath the women’s voices as the soul returns. The final two passages, where the devil gets tied up and then sent back to hell, are tidy and bright: if only salvation was this easy!

The Jitro Czech Girls Choir Celebrate Owls, Mudpuddles, and the History of Western Music

Today’s album falls into the fun classical category. Czech composer Ilja Hurnik liked bright, singable melodies but also enigmatic harmonies. His music is picturesque to the extreme, deceptively playful and more complex than it might seem on the surface. The Jitro Czech Girls Choir’s new album Gratias, a Hurnik retrospective streaming at Spotify, contains two numbers about owls and more than one vignette of children having fun in the rain…alongside an improbably successful capsule history of western choral music. That speaks volumes. Jiří Skopal conducts these young women in an evocative performance of very serious unserious music.

Variations on a Mouse Theme are actually an ambitious attempt to trace the entire history of choral music, from the pre-Renaissance to the present, in less than ten minutes. After a coyly bustling bit of an intro, there’s a trio of leaping, Handel-ish miniatures followed by a more austere interlude punctuated by incisive bursts in the high harmonies. The false ending to the fourth segment is irresistibly funny, the group gamely tackling the thorny harmonies and tricky rhythms of the modernist coda.

June Night, for piano and choir, comes across as a more sober series of etudes: counterpoint, Romantically-tinged glitter with an affecting soprano solo, and a study in slowly shifting long tones are part of the picture. If the chromatics of the fifth segment are to be taken on face value, they’re a headache.

The Children’s Tercetta suite is more piano-centric. Icicles drip busily, a sparrow and swallow banter, a colt romps for a bit, a butterfly dips and lingers gracefully. Pianist Michal Chrobák’s poignancy alongside the voices in that second owl miniature make a strikingly somber contrast: it’s one of the album’s high points.

Water, Sweet Water is a triptych for choir and the most lushly enveloping piece here. The ensemble wind up the album with the brief, strikingly translucent six-part Missa Vinea Crucis for choir and organ. The opening kyrie is stunningly dark and chromatically bristling: organist František Vaníček brings to mind the great French composer Maurice Durufle, as he does again in the disquieting twinkle and gusts of the gloria. The lively counterpoint of the credo and ethereal agnus dei each make quite a contrast.

Much as all this music is essentially etudes, the fun Hurnik obviously had writing it translates vividly in the girls’ performance.

Jacob Mühlrad’s Somber Choral Works Explore Ancient Jewish Themes

Swedish composer Jacob Mühlrad‘s new choral album Time – streaming at Spotify – weaves ancient Jewish melodies and rapturous original themes into a hauntingly intricate web of sound. Fredrik Malmberg and Ragnar Bohlin conduct the Swedish Radio Choir with an aptly meticulous touch throughout this serious, brooding, often gloomy and potently relevant music. Mühlrad seems determined to become the Jewish Arvo Part, and so far he’s off to a good start.

The album opens with Anim Zemirot, a five-part suite of miniatures inspired by the concluding hymm from the Jewish liturgy. Slow, somber waves rise and subside, often with a bracing contrast between men’s and women’s voices. As celebratory music goes, this is pretty dark.

The album’s central, title suite draws on the Tower of Babel myth and the increasingly arduous challenge to find global unity across borders. The composer bases it on the word “time” in 104 different languages. Like the album’s first track, its gravitas pulses slowly in waves, spaciously drifting or suddenly looming into the sonic picture. As he does throughout the album, Mühlrad employs pretty much the totality of the available spectrum, ominous lows balanced by similarly uneasy highs. Subtle echo effects are a deftly executed touch. Repetitive, rising figures which fall just short of imploring are very striking, as the ending, which is unexpected and too good to give away. Slow and methodical as this is, it’s also very challenging to sing, and the group rise to the occasion.

The simply titled Nigun is more nebulously immersive, with its long, sustained, enigmatically close-harmonied motives, a sort of liturgical paraphrase with a terse tenor solo at the center. The concluding suite, Kaddish, is a Holocaust remembrance utilizing texts by Elie Wiesel and the composer’s late grandfather – a survivor – along with the traditional prayer for the dead. The sheer stillness of the introduction packs a wallop, in contrast with the incantatory yet similarly otherworldly pace the ensemble reach as Mühlrad builds momentum.

Much as this is compelling music, the decision to separate each suite into its parts – many of them cut off suddenly after less than two minutes – becomes frustrating, and jars the listener out of a reverie. If that’s intended to boost Spotify nanopayments, someday somebody at the record label might have enough pocket change for a bus ride home.

Sad and Anxious Choral Music for a Sad and Anxious Time

David Lang wrote his chorale Love Fail in 2012, long before the lockdown was anything other than a handful of World Economic Forum memos and hysterical flu-apocalypse memes bouncing around the web. But it’s an apt piece of music for this time in history. Loosely based on the story of Tristan and Isolde, Lang interpolates texts from sources as diverse as Lydia Davis, Marie de France, Gottfried von Strassburg, Béroul and Thomas of Britain into the narrative. All-female choir Quince Ensemble  sing this rather subtle theme and variations very matter-of-factly, in the style of a Renaissance motet, adding spare percussion in places. Their world premiere recording is streaming at Bandcamp.

The opening segment, He Was and She Was is easily identiable as Lang: short syllables, subtle and almost imperceptible variations and harmonies that in this case draw on both early music and this era’s minimalism.The ensemble follow with Durreth, an allusive, stoic but melancholy miniature

A Different Man has glockenspiel and a distinctly Spanish tinge to the melody  By contrast, The Wood and the Wire is much more upbeat and soaring, and evocative of British counterpoint from the 17th century and before.

Right and Wrong is a web of simple deconstructed chromatic riffs. You Will Love Me has tantalizingly evanescent close harmonies, while Forbidden Subjects provides welcome feminist context and reminds how agillely Lang works space into his music.

The next variation, As Love Grows begins even more spacious but grows much more warily anthemic. Members of the group rise to the top of their voices in I Live in Pain – no wasted words there, huh? – over a rhythmic rondo of sorts.

The music grows much more sparse all of a sudden in Head, Heart and picks up only a little If I Have to Drown, a gruesome dilemma that Lang doesn’t foreshadow in the least until it arrives. There’s subtle irony in the otherworldly tones of the conclusion as well. Lang has been incredibly prolific lately and this is one of his more memorable work from the past decade.

An Old World Premiere and an Ambitious New Choral Work From New York Polyphony

New York Polyphony are pretty much unique in the world of choral music in that they sing world premieres from five hundred years ago as well as from the here and now. The quartet – countertenor Geoffrey Williams, tenor Steven Caldicott Wilson, baritone Christopher Dylan Herbert and bass Craig Phillips – are as expertly protean as protean gets. One reason why they’re able to find so much fascinating, previously unreleased early music – beyond simply being experts at sleuthing it out – is that they’re smaller than most choirs and focus on the most intimate side of medieval masses and motets. The other is that they have sufficiently formidable chops to tackle this material – some of which was sung by boys at the time it was written – and Herbert’s steely upper register has a lot to do with that.

Their latest album And the Sun Darkened: Music for Passiontide is streaming at Spotify. The group open with fifteenth century Flemish composer Loyset Compère’s stately, utterly otherworldly Crux Triumphans. The group’s resolute command of the pairing of highs against lows leaves the impression that they are a much larger ensemble: it’s a device that’s worked for everyone from Mozart to Gil Evans.

From there, the group shift seamlessly from a spaciously soaring, brief Josquin piece, to the hypnotic, swaying, terse echo effects and persistently unsettled ancient/modern harmonic juxtapositions of contemporary composer Andrew Smith‘s Salme 55.

A diptych by a slightly later fifteenth century Flemish composer, Adrian Willaert, features more dramatic upper register work. From there the group move on to alternately desolate and delicately rhythmic 20th century Estonian terrain for a psalm setting by Cyrillus Kreek.

Their latest old world premiere is Compère’s nine-part suite Officium de Cruce. It’s a Book of Hours meditation, its brief segments ranging from proto-operatic counterpoint to a mystical sway and back. The rather brooding sixth segment, where those rhythms intertwine, is the highlight. The quartet close the album with a thoughtful, spacious, benedictory work by a Compère contemporary, Pierre de la Rue [editor’s note – no relation :)].

The kinds of venues these guys would typically serenade a year ago are dragging their feet reopening, which only means that crowds are going to stick with the vastly less expensive speakeasy circuit when they do. A radical shift in how live music is presented in New York City is underway. The old venue-centric model is being replaced by a community and artist-based scene…and some would say that change is long overdue.