Last night at the Noe Valley Ministry, the Volti a cappella choir, whose motto “Singing without a net” can still be found in the program book, concluded its 39th season with a program entitled Bay and Beyond. The title may have referred to the fact that the two world premieres on the program, both products of Volti commissions, were composed, respectively by Bay Area composer Danny Clay and Lithuanian-born composer Žibuoklė Martinaitytė, whose “beyond” now extends only as far as New York. This year Clay was selected for Volti’s Choral Arts Laboratory, a commissioning and residency program for American composers under the age of 35. The residency side of the program means that the composer can develop his/her work through active engagement with the performers, rather than just submitting a score that is subsequently performed.
Clay took advantage of this active engagement to create, for the first time, a new work based on guided improvisation, rather than a score. He created three pieces collected under the title Playbook Choruses. Most likely the title reflected the sports connotation of the noun “playbook,” referring more to strategic guidelines than to explicit instructions. There was also a distinctively ludic quality to each of the pieces.
The first suggested that the conductor was “playing” the vocalists, as if the collective were some sort of instrument. That suggestion was reinforced by distributing the singers among the audience, allowing listeners a “full frontal” view of conductor (and Artistic Director) Robert Geary. The second was a variant of musical chairs with each of the players (standing) contributing to making the music. The process of elimination was a bit more obscure but was reinforced with theatrical gestures. The last involved a more meditative gathering of three groups (again on audience side), each around a music box advancing through its notes at a deliberately slow pace.
The free-form nature of these pieces, along with the different levels of wit that emerged through performance, could not have provided a better instantiation of that “singing without a net” motto. Each piece depended on an acute capacity for in-the-moment commitment; and, in the first of those pieces, that commitment was required of both conductor and vocalists. At the same time, Clay had chosen a title that referred not only to strategic approaches to play but also to the connotation of “playing for the fun of it.” This was music that obliged the performers to dispense with any suggestions of formality, an obligation shared by the audience accepting that these were not the usual “concert pieces.” Fortunately, both performers and audience had no trouble buying into this obligation, making for a listening experience that was as fun as it was memorable.
From that contextual point of view, Martinaitytė’s new piece, “Chant des Voyelles” (incantation of vowels), could not have been more different. As she explained to the audience, the work emerged from her realizing that she did not want to set a text in her native Lithuanian that would require listeners to bury their heads in a text sheet, nor did she want to wrestle with shaping her music around English words whose sonorities were still somewhat foreign. She recalled a sculpture by Jacques Lipchitz called “Chant des Voyelles,” which was inspired by an Egyptian prayer consisting only of vowels; and this inspired her to approach her composition from the same point of view.
The result turned out to be a fascinating investigation of the nature of sound itself, rather in the spirit of how several painters from a variety of different periods have tried to use their work to understand the foundational nature of color. Those on the technical side of speech understanding systems appreciate the extent to which vowels are recognized through different patterns in the frequency spectrum. By having different voices sounding different vowels based on different pitches, Martinaitytė could synthesize her own individual frequency spectra, which would result in new sonorities not representative of any recognizable vowel. In other words the piece emerged from the composer’s ability to create new sounds almost as if she had been working with electronic synthesis equipment.
One result was that, every now and then, timbres would emerge that could not be attributed to any individual source but, instead, reflected synthesis through the superposition of multiple sources. Some might have thought that this amounted to replacing electronic oscillators with human singers. However, the performance of the piece transcended its “scientific roots.” Instead, execution took on an almost ritualistic quality (reflecting back on the Egyptian rite that inspired Lipchitz); and Volti’s performance was so focused and compelling that there was no doubting that this was an act of music-making that easily held the attentive listening in its thrall.
The program began with “Caeli enarrant,” composed by Robin Estrada on a Volti commission in 2016. At the beginning of the program, Geary stressed the importance of Volti revisiting the results of past commissions, rather than just focusing on moving on to “the next new thing.” In my own case, however, this was a “first contact” experience. It did not take long to realize that the composer had taken Latin Biblical texts and decomposed them into phrases, words, and possibly even syllables, which could then be reconstructed in different combinations.
This suggested the connotation that “Divine Word” was not simply a text one could read from the pages of the family Bible. Instead, it was an onslaught of linguistic “primitives,” which mind had to tinker with and ultimately assemble into one or more meaningful sentences. In many respects, Estrada was even more daring in his efforts to reduce text to such “primitives” than Martinaitytė had been in her decision to work only with vowels. In both cases the listener was obliged to be actively committed to a process of sense-making; and the coupling of these two pieces on the first half of the program made for a mental workout that turned out to be as refreshing as it was engaging for those willing to buy into participation.
The remainder of the program was devoted to “new music from earlier times.” Volti revisited two Cowell compositions, which they had performed almost exactly a month ago for the first of the three Bard Music West concerts entitled The World of Henry Cowell. They also concluded the program with Terry Riley’s setting of the 193rd chorus from Jack Kerouac’s 242-stanza poem “Mexico City Blues.” Each of these three pieces came from a different decade of the twentieth century. The Cowell choruses were composed in 1937 and 1953, and Riley’s Kerouac setting was written in 1993. Nevertheless, each had its own way of representing a “new voice of its time,” providing an enlightening perspective for the commissioned compositions that were last night’s “main attraction.”