Sunday 27 October 2013

Exaudi: Exposure 13

Having just been to see the Clerks and their experiment into the perception of words in music (see review on this blog), I listened to the Exaudi Vocal Ensemble’s Exposure 13 concert at the Only Connect Theatre in Kings Cross (on Tuesday 22 October 2013) with a new (sic) pair of ears.

A brief pre-concert talk gave two of the composers, Evan Johnson and Cassandra Miller, a chance to talk to Sara Mohr-Pietsch and Exaudi director James Weeks about their compositions. Both composers were very down to earth and endearing, and shared something about their compositional process for the pieces performed. But more of that later.

First performed was eight voices by Bryn Harrison (1969-) from 2012. eight voices was his first foray into vocal part music, but is an extension of modular techniques he had used previously in instrumental music. Small phrases of varying length were repeated against each other before moving on to the next loop – similar to ideas used by the minimalist Terry Riley – but without the overall movement and direction. Each of the four sections used the same wordless material, forming a static melancholic block inside which the voices danced around almost in oblivion to each other. Harrison compared the effect to that of the flow of water in a stream 'an object that appears both static and in motion'. For what must be a very difficult piece, Exaudi made both the content and the delivery seem effortless.

Young turtle asymmetries by Jackson Mac Low (1922-2004), written in 1967, was based on a text culled from an article about turtles hatching in the journal Natural History. Using only the male voices this work was much more open in texture than the Harrison. Half spoken, with long held consonants rather than vowels and a loose canonic treatment of the text, Exaudi managed to impart a ‘turtle-iness’ to the sound. Mac Low was one of the John Cage circle, and it is on this early milieu of experimentation that the newer pieces in the concert have built. It was also easily the most accessible, possibly due to the simplicity and sparseness of the polyphony.

Rytis Mažulis’ (1961-) Codex Lolita was the first of the Exposure 13 commissions. Two sets of text were interspersed: De castitatis thalamo from the 13th Century Codex Las Huelgas and Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov; and the music uses canonic techniques but with microtonal alterations. The final effect is one of listening to cathedral-like echoes, or the reverberations of a bell, where the pitch of the notes has been altered by the surfaces they are reflected off. Very tightly controlled by Exaudi – the nature of the composition meant that the text, especially the Lolita text, was obscured, becoming secondary to the music.

This concert was the UK premiere of Evan Johnson’s (1980-) vo mesurando, although not written for this concert in particular. During the pre-concert talk Johnson, also not a vocal composer before meeting Exaudi, described how he had pieced together fragments of madrigal, but was more interested in silence – the space where sound should be – as though the music had been 'wiped out'. Using only four voices the performers appeared to be singing to themselves, sometimes sotto voce, sometimes entirely silently. This conceit, once explained, produced a very interesting effect – one that would work well in a dramatic setting where perhaps the singers were getting on with something else at the same time.

The second Exposure 13 commission, Cassandra Miller’s (1976-) Guide was based on a folk tune Guide me, O thou great Jehovah as sung by Maria Muldaur in 1968. Miller described how she chose this because she wanted to produce a piece that felt good to sing. She also based it on the compositional ideas of Harrison’s eight voices - to be monolithic rather than a journey.

Even before seeing the score the performers were required to learn the Muldaur by heart. The score then fragmented it, providing the performers with pitch and repetitions. The final result was definitely more cheery than eight voices and, after all the constraints of the earlier pieces, Exaudi finally had the chance to let their hair down a little. The choice of tune was catchy, and I found myself humming along after the concert had finished.

The Exaudi Exposure commissions happen annually – the composers have a completely free rein with only the brief that it must be for eight voices. Previous commissions include pieces by Christopher Fox, Joanna Bailie and Robert Fokkens. You can hear some of Exaudi’s recordings here on Soundcloud.
Review by Hilary Glover

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