Friday 17 February 2023

NYCGB Young Composers 4

NMC - NYCGB Young Composers 4

NYCGB Young Composers 4 - Ben Nobuto, Sun Keting, Thomas Metcalf, Claire Victoria Roberts; National Youth Choir of Great Britain, NYCGB Fellowship Ensemble, Ben Parry; NMC

The fourth of NMC's annual collaborations with NYCGB results in an anthology disc of eight striking and challenging new works in superb performances by the young singers

NMC's disc NYCGB Young Composers 4 is the fourth in the label's partnership with the National Youth Choirs of Great Britain. The disc features new choral works by four talented, rising-star composers, Sun Keting, Thomas Metcalf, Ben Nobuto, and Claire Victoria Roberts. These new works are the product of NYCGB's yearly Young Composers scheme, which comprises of an intensive schedule of full choir workshops, composing sessions with the NYCGB Fellowship Ensemble, and tutorials with disinguished composers and mentors.

On the disc, Ben Parry conducts the National Youth Choir of Great Britain and the NYCGB Fellowship Ensemble in Ben Nobuto's Sol, Sun Keting's Máng Gǔ, Claire Victoria Roberts' Hope is the thing with feathers, Thomas Metcalf's LIVING SENSE DATUM, Claire Victoria Roberts' The Moon is distant from the Sea, Sun Keting's thronged only with flowers, Thomas Metcalf's H(AI)KU and Ben Nobuto's The nearness of things.

We begin with Ben Nobuto's Sol sung by the eight-voice NYCGB Fellowship Ensemble. Whilst Nobuto talks about writing the piece imagining the singers were part of a little sun cult, the text consists of overheard fragments of speech. The work moves between non-vocal and vocal, with many unpitched effects. Fast and manic, it is rather striking and Kings Singers-ish in a way, though the work I first thought of was Cathy Berberian's Stripsody, perhaps the grandmother of all these types of piece.

We move to full choir for Sun Keting's Máng Gǔ which means fullness of millet, but is also the name of a tribal dance in Yunnan, China. The first part, ‘the dawn mountain song’, features disctinctly non-Western calls over sustained notes, creating a fascinating sound world. Gradually developing in complexity, it moves into the more structured second part, ‘the tribal dance of the harvest day in the fields’ where the calls are made over an unpitched, rhythmic structure that gradually develops into a more choral texture. The result is rather terrific.

We return to the smaller group with Claire Victoria Roberts' Hope is the thing with feathers, setting an Emily Dickinson poem. We open with a sense of eight individual voices, with Roberts creating varied textures that lead to an explicit melod over a fast accompaniment. The result, however, never quite settles and thus remains intriguing.

Thomas Metcalf's LIVING SENSE DATUM is sung by the full choir. The text was generated by feeding the words ‘environment’, ‘climate’, ‘endangered’ into an AI poetry-writing application. The grammatical errors and nonsensical imagery highlight the fallibility of technology and its attempt to recreate human action, and Metcalf describes the piece as 'a surreal interpretation of the climate emergency'. White noise rises in pitch and volume towards a single unified note. Then Metcalf mixes choral intoning of the text with spoken and unpitched passages. It is a very varied and intense piece, though I sometimes felt that perhaps Metcalf was trying too hard to include as many different elements as possible.

With Claire Victoria Roberts' The Moon is distant from the Sea, sung by the full choir, we finally get a combination of melodic shape and an expressive use of pitch. Another setting of Emily Dickinson, two solo lines create a rather folk-like melody before the full choir develops this into a lovely sound world. There is plenty of use of melisma, and Roberts' makes quite a sparing use of the text, but towards the end we get some really ecstatic moments.

Sun Keting's thronged only with flowers, sung by the smaller group, begins with a solo voice, keening and this sense continues as the piece develops, remaining gentle and keening, though gradually the intensity grows towards a climax. 

Thomas Metcalf's H(AI)KU is a four movement work sung by the smaller group and sets haiku's generated by AI. The first movement 'Artifice' is a mix of whispering, non-pitched sounds and whistling, leading to 'Human' where note clusters are set against intoned text with fragments of expressive melody. There is a great use of silence and Metcalf's writing feels considered and spare. 'Life' continues this sound world, though the speeds are faster leading to the final movement 'Environment' which is a bewildering mix of repeated noites, chattering and other unpitched effects. The styles change rapidly, and get a bravura performance from the eight singers.

Finally, we return to the full choir for Ben Nobuto's The nearness of things which begins with a melody of clapping, humming is added and then handbells. Gradually textures become denser and darker, and there are moments which are close to white noise, before gradually unwinding. Nobuto describes it thus, 'there are three layers of activity – a group of sopranos carrying handbells, a ‘clapping pair’ singing a nonsense poem, and the rest of the choir reciting geologically significant dates – all unfolding together. The three groups don’t necessarily complement each other, they just co-exist. No foreground or background, just a single, complex mass of sound, moving slowly through space.'

NYCGB Young Composers 2022 Thomas Metcalf, Claire Victoria Roberts, Sun Keting & Ben Nobuto photo: Rich Hardcastle
NYCGB Young Composers 2022
Thomas Metcalf, Claire Victoria Roberts, Sun Keting & Ben Nobuto
(Photo Rich Hardcastle)

The performances on the disc are uniformly terrific and this is music that takes no prisoners. The composers all had a variety of approaches to text, but few seem to have created works which give us a really expressive projection of text. Similarly pitch and harmonic development seem to have been less important, and in a few of the pieces you felt a sense of the composers trying a little bit too hard, writing just a few too many challenging, often non-vocal effects.

But the works on the disc form a dazzling kaleidescope of pieces, and it is clear that all four composers are not only talented but each seems to have a clear idea of their voice and what they want to achieve. I look forward to hearing more from them.

Ben Nobuto  - Sol
Sun Keting' - Máng Gǔ
Claire Victoria Roberts - Hope is the thing with feathers
Claire Victoria Roberts - The Moon is distant from the Sea
Sun Keting - thronged only with flowers
Thomas Metcalf - H(AI)KU
Ben Nobuto - The nearness of things
National Youth Choir of Great Britain
NYCGB Fellowship Ensemble (Ailsa Campbell, Ella Rainbird-Early, Florence Price, Olivia Sholton, Timothy Peters, David Woods, Jason Ching, Freddie Crowley)
Ben Parry (director)
Recorded at the Royal Academy of Music, 3 September 2022, and Audio Network, School Farm Studios, Essex, 15 October 2022
NMC DL3051 1CD [41:21]

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