Friday, May 17, 2019

The Latest Volti Album from Innova

courtesy of Volti

Three weeks ago Innova released the latest album of performances by Volti. Based in San Francisco, this group is an a cappella vocal ensemble that specializes in new music, much of which is commissioned by Volti itself. The new album, given the rather lengthy title the color of there seen from here, marks the ensemble’s 40th season. The back cover of the album proudly displays the ensemble’s motto, updated for this special occasion: “Singing Without a Net for 40 Years.”

The album itself consists of five premiere recordings, each by a different composer, all currently living in the United States. In order of appearance, those composers are Forrest Pierce, Tonia Ko, Robin Estrada, Mark Winges, and Žibuoklė Martinaitytė. Only the Martinaitytė composition, “The Blue of Distance,” was not commissioned by Volti; and Winges is the ensemble’s resident composer. Through my own listening experiences, I have encountered three of these composers, Estrada, Winges, and Martinaitytė; but the only one of the selections that I have listened to in performance is Estrada’s “Cæli enarrant,” which was performed at the final program of the 39th season in May of last year.

One of my great regrets is that I do not get to enough Volti concerts. Mind you, I have yet to go to one in which I have listened to a composition that I had previously encountered; so I always come away from these occasions feeling a bit overwhelmed by all of the newness. Nevertheless, there is always considerable diversity across the entire program, meaning that there is no “Volti sound” or “Volti style” that would establish some basis of predictability. For that matter, such diversity is evident in the only multiple-movement composition on the album, Ko’s “From Ivory Depths,” whose two movements require significantly different technical skills. That diversity is clearly established throughout the new album, but it affords the advantage of enabling multiple listening experiences for each of the compositions.

In my case I suppose that the deepest impressions come from composers that approach phonemes as “component sound sources,” often with an attention to the synthesis of lexemes from the conjunction of phonemes that is deliberately secondary. Listening to “Cæli enarrant” in concert, I was struck by the incomprehensibility of the text as the basis for a mystical experience. This was not so much a negative reaction as it was the impressions of an atheist speculating on the nature of religious experience. To some extent this rethinking of the role of linguistic building blocks was reinforced by the Martinaitytė composition performed on the same program as “Cæli enarrant.” The title of that piece was “Chant des Voyelles” (incantation of vowels), which seemed to have reflected her interest in an Egyptian prayer consisting only of vowels.

According to my records, this is the third time I have set myself the task of writing something that makes sense about a new Volti recording (not counting their contribution to a Christmas “sampler” album). In each case I have returned to the album several times after having written about it. Since each album tends to involve a different collection of composers adding to the Volti repertoire, I feel as if I am “growing a new mindset” with each new album. As a result, I am not embarrassed to admit that, as has been the case with past albums, the growth of the mindset for the color of there seen from here is still “work in progress.” Nevertheless, just like my encounters with extensive newness every time I attend a Volti concert, I know that the work will progress; and I have every reason to believe that the results will be satisfying!

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