Quince Contemporary Vocal Ensemble: Hushers


Quince Contemporary Vocal Ensemble's second recording, Hushers, posits a new paradigm for a capella vocal music, in which text setting and linear structure exists side by side with works that use the voice as a multi-timbred instrument. In music by Kaija Saariaho, Kate Soper, Warren Enström, and Giacinto Scelsi, Quince delivers strong performances of music that fuse the ever present warmth of the human voice with compositional aesthetics more typically heard in instrumental works.


The opening bars of Warren Enström’s Hushers on Quince Contemporary Vocal Ensemble’s new release emphasize extended fricative sounds that could be mistaken for a percussion ensemble. When we finally hear sung notes emerge, they are first accompanied by hisses and shushes, and the pitches themselves push up against each other in dissonant intervals. With extended techniques woven into the fabric of a timbre and sound driven texture, Hushers squarely inhabits a 21st century vocal aesthetic. Kate Soper’s Songs for Nobody returns to traditional text setting, setting work by American poet, Thomas Merton. Written as the result of a commission from the Museum of Biblical Art in New York, Soper endeavored to capture Merton’s faith in the purity of the inner life. Saariaho’s From the Grammar of Dreams sets excerpts from The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath for two singers, embodying the instability of the protoganist’s struggles with issues of life and death, madness and solace. In the second movement, each singer in the duo alternates between athletic singing and forceful, rhythmic recitation of the text, creating an unsettling texture where song and speech are unbroken even as each individual performer leaps back and forth between roles. This alternation culminates in the earthy fourth movement, as the two singers hocket between each other in spats of heavy breathing and swooping, plaintive figures. Giacinto Scelsi’s compositional process was unique — he considered himself a “receiver” of sounds, and recorded improvisations to hand off to a colleague to notate and orchestrate. On Sauh I-IV, Scelsi uses phenomes instead of language setting, lending the piece a ritualistic, chanting quality (fitting given Scelsi’s fascination with Hindu and Buddhist ritual). The relationship between Sauh I-II and Sauh III-IV is close — the first two duos provide the seed material for the fleshed out quartet versions. After a journey through the intensity of the Plath and Merton text settings, the disc closes in a world of abstract syllables and non-semantic meaning, as it began.

Producers: Brian Penkrot (track 1), Brian Penkrot, Carrie Henneman Shaw, Eric Fernandez (tracks 2-4), Amanda DeBoer Bartlett (tracks 5-9), Eric Fernandez, Brian Penkrot (tracks 10-13)
Recording Engineer: Dan Nichols Edited, Mixed and Mastered at Aphorism Studios
''Song'' By Thomas Merton, from THE COLLECTED POEMS OF THOMAS MERTON, copyright ©1949 by Our Lady of Gethsemani Monastery. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.
''Love Winter When the Plant Says Nothing'' By Thomas Merton, from THE COLLECTED POEMS OF THOMAS MERTON, copyright ©1963 by The Abbey of Gethsemani. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.
''Song for Nobody'' By Thomas Merton, original by Cesar Vallejo, from THE COLLECTED POEMS OF THOMAS MERTON, copyright
©1963 by The Abbey of Gesthemani, Inc. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.

Quince Contemporary Vocal Ensemble

With the precision and flexibility of modern chamber musicians, Quince Contemporary Vocal Ensemble specializes in experimental repertoire that is changing the paradigm of contemporary vocal music. Described as "a new force of vocal excellence and innovation" by The Brooklyn Rail, Quince continually pushes the boundaries of traditional vocal ensemble literature. As dedicated advocates of new music, Quince regularly commissions new works, providing a wider exposure for the music of living composers. They recently received a Chamber Music America award to commission a new song cycle by composer LJ White, and will be releasing an album of contemporary vocal repertoire on New Focus Recordings early 2017. In 2016, Quince was featured on the KODY Festival Lublin, Poland in collaboration with David Lang and Beth Morrison Productions. They have also appeared on the Outpost Concert Series, the Philip Glass: Music with Friends concert at the Issue Project Room in Brooklyn, and the SONiC Festival in New York. During the 2016-17 season, they will collaborate with Eighth Blackbird and Third Coast Percussion on performances of Music for 18 Musicians by Steve Reich, and will be presented on the Ear Taxi and Frequency Festivals in Chicago. Comprised of vocalists Elizabeth Pearse (soprano), Kayleigh Butcher (mezzo soprano), Amanda DeBoer Bartlett (soprano), and Carrie Henneman Shaw (soprano), Quince thrives on unique musical challenges and genre-bending contemporary repertoire.


Bandcamp Daily: Best of Contemporary Classical March 2017

In recent years, a number of thrilling vocal ensembles such as Roomful of Teeth, The Crossing, and Ekmeles have achieved new heights; on their second album, Quince Contemporary Vocal Ensemble prove they belong in such company. The quartet aggressively commissions new work, and as they’ve evolved, their choices have increasingly drifted toward more experimental pieces, where abstract sound often trumps more conventional modes of singing. That modus operandi certainly applies to the album’s title track, written for the group by Warren Enström, a five-minute exploration of “shh” sounds in the Russian language, which veers from sibilance to ethereal harmony. The other three multi-movement works occupy slightly more familiar territory, and were all composed before Quince formed. The most recent of those is “Songs for Nobody” by Kate Soper, which uses the poetry of Thomas Merton. A rippling soprano lead rises above terse but haunting group harmonies, with deftly shifting rhythmic accents and timbral emphasis from silky to sharp. The group brings a harrowing precision and emotional rawness to Kaija Saariaho’s 1988 work “From the Grammar of Dreams,” which uses writings of Sylvia Plath, while the album concludes with the four-movement “Sauh,” a 1973 Giancinto Scelsi exploration of phoneme strings comprised of two duets and two quartets, where wordless utterances are layered to become eerie worlds of sound.

- Peter Margasak, Bandcamp Daily, March 2017

Hear Nebraska

Review: Exploring intense new vocal music with the Quince Contemporary Vocal Ensemble’s Hushers’

HN readers may know vocalist Amanda DeBoer Bartlett best for her work as founder and director of the Omaha Under The Radar festival, which will celebrate its fourth year of bringing adventurous new music to multiple Omaha venues this July. This Nebraska native is no stranger to the performance side of the stage, either, having worked live and in the studio with a diverse range of artists including Holly Herndon, Deerhoof, and several cutting-edge contemporary chamber ensembles. One of those chamber groups, the Quince Contemporary Vocal Ensemble, has just released their sophomore album, “Hushers,” on New Focus Recordings, and it’s one of the most immersive set of vocal pieces you’re likely to hear all year.

If “classical” vocal music makes you think of bombastic operas or church hymns, “Hushers” will turn your preconceived notions into exciting, boundless possibilities. This disc features four pieces that showcase the diversity of creativity in contemporary music, managing to tap into universal themes while inhabiting their own unique, personal spaces. The album takes its name from the brief opening piece “hushers” (2014), which is structured on the sounds of a set of consonants unique to the Russian language. Rather than realizing a text, the music focuses on the subtle differences in these sounds, pitting them against one another in shifting rhythmic triplets and building blocks of unusual texture. As a librarian, I hear a certain kinship with maintaining the “silence of the stacks” peeking through this piece as well. Closely-spaced microtonal vocalizations gradually overtake the husher-sounds toward a haunting crescendo, leaving us with a piece that feels much larger than its modest five minutes of running time.Kate Soper’s “Songs for Nobody” (2006) follow, setting three delicate nature-oriented poems by Thomas Merton to playful recitation. Harmonies frequently erupt effortlessly out of intoned unisons, and these short pieces incorporate a wide range of compositional approaches, including polyphonic passages and mouth sounds that would be comfortable within “hushers.” These are affecting short pieces that highlight very modern sounds with gentle allusions to Renaissance motet writing, and the angular melodies found here highlight the acrobatic technical skills of Quince.

Kaija Saariaho’s “From the Grammar of Dreams” (1988) works with considerably darker texts by Slyvia Plath, and consequently it features the most dramatic shifts in texture, dynamics, and style on the disc. Saariaho’s five short movements perhaps demand the most focus among these works to digest, alternating between melodious, comforting approaches, almost-silent whispers, and heavy rhythmic breathing redolent of aggressive Inuit throat singing. It’s appropriately evocative of complex, dreamlike states, though not all of these dreams have happy endings.

The final piece on “Hushers,” Giacinto Scelsi’s “Sauh I-IV” (1973), is another voice composition made of non-textual phonemes and microtonally-shifting intonations, the perfect bookend to the opening piece. Mostly unknown during his career, Scelsi was among the first composers to embrace time and spatial philosophies drawn from eastern musical traditions, but his unique approach can be felt in a variety of drone-oriented musical styles today across many genres, from classical to post-rock to experimental bands like Nebraska’s own Bus Gas. “Sauh” also brings together the worlds of composition and improvisation: initially created by notating recorded improvisations, the first two movements are duets that are transformed into quartets in the final movements through imitative counterpoint. Formal considerations aside, the aural result is haunting and downright trance-inducing, subtle shifts oscillating within a narrow pitch range that reaches toward infinity. As microtonal shifts melt and undulate inside a larger drone, musical punctuation comes through occasional rhythmic punctuations and shifts between molto and senza vibrato, like sonic waves hitting a shore and sliding back out to sea.

Make sure you don’t get left at the shore yourself: you can pick up this powerful new Quince disc from New Focus Recordings.

— Scott Scholz, Hear Nebraska, 4.2017

Chicago Tribune

"Hushers," a New Focus release from the Quince Contemporary Vocal Ensemble, showcases various ways in which this remarkable Chicago-based women's vocal quartet has been charting bold new directions in vocal chamber music. Kaija Saariaho's 1988 "From the Grammar of Dreams," the album's centerpiece, comprises surreal little soundscapes for two speaking-singing voices. Giacinto Scelsi's "Sauh I-IV" (1973), a set of vocal pieces that substitute phonemes for words, also fascinates, in a bizarre sort of way. The gray-on-gray CD booklet is almost impossible to read. - John von Rhein, Chicago Tribune, 4.13.2017

Opera News

Judging by the evidence here, Quince Contemporary Vocal Ensemble is the Anonymous 4 of new music. They have a clear mission (in this case, commissioning, performing and advocating new and experimental work), superb blend, great versatility and a general fearlessness of approach. It’s hard to imagine that the fresh, daring, often forbiddingly difficult works on this disc could be performed any better.

It takes its title from the opening piece by Warren Enström. “Hushers” (2014), according to the composer’s notes, are four consonants in the Russian language, roughly equivalent to the English “sh,” “ch,” and “ge” (as in “garage”) sounds, as well as “shch” (as in “Krushchev”). As the four group members rhythmically toss around these consonants, it sometimes sounds like a choo-choo train, or a shaker. No actual pitches appear until about halfway through the five-minute piece; these are carefully calibrated sustained tones that form exquisite dissonances.

Kate Soper’s three Songs for Nobody (2006), from spare, evocative texts by Thomas Merton, flow freely from consonance to dissonance, but manage to stay tender even when the harmonic language is at its most acerbic. Soper has something very original to say with these surprising, otherworldly pieces. The third, in particular, “Song,” employs whispering, prolonged consonants, varied textures and vocal lines that seem to shadow each other, all to pronounced effect.

Kaija Saariaho’s From the Grammar of Dreams (1988) uses four excerpts from Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, plus fragments from Plath’s poem “Paralytic.” Saariaho’s music, always haunting, is a good fit for Plath’s often searing inner explorations (although for some reason these texts are not printed in the booklet). Saariaho’s setting is for two voices, and she conjures a distinctive sound world for each of the five movements. The style seems to feature both discipline and wild abandon. In the first entry, one of the voices intones relatively melodious, highly melismatic lines while the other declaims harshly in a kind of sprechgesang. In the second, one voice alternates stylized rhythmic utterances with singing. In the third, all sung and quite lovely, the two voices engage in hypnotic counterpoint. In the fourth, rhythmic panting and gasping yields eventually to singing but with a back-and-forth that evokes bipolar madness. In the final piece, both singers vocalize on “ah” with a certain controlled ecstasy; only in the last few seconds do we realize they are actually singing a two-word text: “I smile.”

Much strangeness surrounds Giacinto Scelsi’s Sauh I-IV, from 1973. According to the notes, Scelsi described himself as a “messenger,” not a composer, and he recorded improvisations until he found one he liked, then handed the tape off to a collaborator who would notate and orchestrate the sounds. Sauh uses strings of phonemes instead of texts, and the title refers to a type of phoneme used in Hindu and Buddhist mantras that “may or may not have meaning.” The pieces themselves, two for duo and two for quartet, are drone-like and slowly shifting but not at all unpleasant. The pace finally accelerates toward the end of the last number.

No doubt it took great commitment and patience to decipher and learn these pieces. This disc is well worth hearing for its sheer novelty, and for the unusual, thoroughly impressive artistry of its four singer/members. —Joshua Rosenblum, Opera News, 7.17

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