Sunday, January 29, 2017

Innova Releases Another Album of Performances by Volti

Volti is an a cappella choir of professional singers led by founder and Artistic Director Robert Geary. The group gives regular concerts that provide San Francisco audiences with a generous exposure to the latest efforts in choral composition. In March of 2010 Innova released its first recording of the group entitled Turn the Page: New Directions in American Choral Music. The end of last week saw the release of a new album, This Is What Happened: More new directions in American choral music.

Keeping up with Volti is no easy matter. This is not because their concerts are poorly publicized (speaking as one determined to get out the word for each one of them). The problem, instead, has to do with the density of concert programming on any given date, particularly in the period between February and June.

However, getting there is only part of the problem. Geary casts such a wide net in preparing each Volti concert that only the most dedicated members of the audience manage to avoid the risk of cognitive overload. Put another way, when so much novelty is trying to work its way into mind, the result tends to be that no individual piece succeeds very well by virtue of being crowded out by the others. Thus, when I checked my concert-going records, I realized that I had probably heard every selection on this new CD in concert and then sheepishly acknowledged that I had recalled none of them! I realize that this sounds a lot like that it’s-not-you-it’s-me cliché; but there it is.

The good news is that I already have a copy of another Innova recording of Volti, released in July of 2012 (between the first and the latest albums), entitled House of Voices: More new directions in American choral music. While I did not enthusiastically embrace it during my initial encounter, I stuck with it. I would return to it from time to time, more to remind me of the Volti aesthetic than for the sake of building up stronger perceptions of any of the individual compositions. One result has been that, whether in concert or on recording, my listening experience has acquired certain expectations associated with Volti performances. Through those expectations I have come to deal with a variety of different idiosyncratic techniques for expressing texts through music (not to mention some eyebrow-raising processes of selecting texts in the first place).

I would also suggest that the foundation of those expectations is built from the solid execution technique that Geary has cultivated in his singers. To draw, once again, upon that distinction that Igor Stravinsky emphasized, listening cannot take place unless the stimuli of hearing are experienced with a minimum of noise, if not its entire absence. On the basis of the Volti concerts I have attended, I have the greatest admiration for Geary’s ability to provide me with “noise-minimal signals;” and that ability is just as evident in the engineering that goes into the production of his Innova recordings. Anything else has to do with the how my mind acclimates to making sense of those signals, regardless of who the composers are or the texts they have chosen to set.

For the record, the composers represented on this new album are, in order of appearance, Robin Estrada, Stacy Garrop, Mark Winges, John Muehleisen, and Shawn Crouch. Of these five, the only one to have made much of a dent on either sensemaking or memory has been Winges. This is because he has been Volti’s Resident Composer at least from the time when House of Voices was released. Geary has thus given his work a generous amount of attention; and, as a result of that exposure, I have come to feel that such attention was well-deserved. On the other hand my only knowledge of Garrop comes from the 2015 release of her Mythology Symphony on Cedille Records; and any subsequent listening experiences of that piece have been about as uncomfortable as the “first contact.” Nevertheless, I have high hopes for future listening experiences of all six of the pieces on This Is What Happened, just as I shall continue to seek out opportunities to squeeze Volti recitals into my schedule.

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