New York based contemporary vocal ensemble Ekmeles releases their debut album, "A Howl, That Was Also a Prayer," a collection of premieres by Erin Gee, Christopher Trapani, and Taylor Brook that explores innovative territory in vocal writing, notably microtonality and alternate temperaments.
Motorman SextetTaylor Brook
Three Scenes from SleepErin Gee
|10||Scene 4, Abyss|
Scene 4, Abyss
|11||Scene 7, Transparency|
Scene 7, Transparency
|12||Scene 10, The Fourth Letter|
Scene 10, The Fourth Letter
End WordsChristopher Trapani (b. 1980)
|13||I. They Raised Violins|
I. They Raised Violins
|14||II. You Used To|
II. You Used To
|15||III. The Painter|
III. The Painter
Hailed as a "brilliant young ensemble... defining a fresh and virtuosic American sound" (The New Yorker), vocal ensemble Ekmeles celebrates the release of their first solo album” A Howl, That Was Also A Prayer.” The recording consists of three innovative looks at what singing could be in the 21st century. Extremely fine microtonal gradations of pitch, innovative electronics, and imaginative vocal techniques and timbres come together to express Ekmeles's unique contribution to vocal music. The album includes Ekmeles commissions by Christopher Trapani and Taylor Brook that highlight both composers’ innovative approaches to microtonal composition. Rounding out the album is Erin Gee’s Three Scenes from Sleep, music that integrates extended vocal techniques and taut rhythmic gestures within a long range harmonic progression.
Taylor Brook’s Motorman Sextet explores the limits of microtonal writing for unaccompanied voices, mixing spoken and sung inflections to moving and humorous effect in a massive thirty minute suite of movements. The text is taken from David Ohle's surreal, cult novel, Motorman; the six voices simultaneously narrate the story and create an atmosphere through myriad vocal techniques and styles. Oscillating chords melt, descending in pitch as if we were listening to a recording as the tape speed was slowing. Brook’s palette is expansive, creating contrapuntal textures reminiscent of choral music though through a distorting prism, using extended techniques to imitate foley sounds, and spinning weightless harmonies suspended in thin air. The narrative voice changes from male to female, at one moment delivering text with thespian formality and the next in a lackadaisical, slacker style, sometimes shrouded in a halo of imitative, sung text in the background. The variety of textures within a narrative frame reminds one at times of radio dramas from the 1940’s, but with a dystopian twist. This is one of Ekmeles's most ambitious commissions, and a landmark work for Brook's microtonal style.Read More
Christopher Trapani's End Words is a novel venture in the relationship between the oldest and the newest forms of musical expression; six human voices are paired with electronic counterparts in an innovative method of electronic music-making. This evocative work posits a new intersection of voice and computer in the 21st century, as Trapani’s manipulations of pre-recorded vocal fragments combine with the live performances to generate shimmering vowels, percolating consonants, and hallucinogenic voicings. The final movement is framed by a tintinnabulating electronics part, with the text largely being delivered in sighing unison rhythms passed through the ensemble in rich, technicolor harmonies. Taking inspiration from an archaic poetic form, Trapani uses texts from sestinas (a thirty nine line form) for the piece, as well as borrowing aspects of its structure to frame the organization of the composition (he even takes it one step further, writing his liner note for the piece in the form of a sestina).
Erin Gee’s Three Scenes from Sleep are wordless vignettes that skitter with pops, clicks, and whistles, charmingly deploying the composer/performer’s battery of idiosyncratic vocality, through a crystalline harmonic structure. Gee puts the listener inside a playful laboratory of sounds in these pieces, subtle percussive glitches trigger static open voicings, while hissing air sounds suggest air released from pressure valves. Tonal structures provide a magnetic center around which glissandi, microtones, and non-pitched material pushes away before being pulled back. These three short movements are part of a larger piece including texts drawn from Vedic scriptures, Joseph Campbell, and Robinson Jeffers. The wordless movements heard here capture the unconscious mind in various stages of sleep.
Ekmeles’ "A Howl, That Was Also A Prayer” is a landmark album for contemporary vocal music, with the ambition of the compositions only matched by the stunning virtuosity and symbiotic cohesion of the ensemble.
– J. Gavett/D. Lippel
1. In Ancient Greek music theory, tones of indefinite pitch and intervals with complex ratios, tones "not appropriate for musical usage." In New York City, a new vocal ensemble dedicated to breathing life into those disallowed tones, new and old.
2. A "brilliant young ensemble... defining a fresh and virtuosic American sound" - The New Yorker
Ekmeles is a vocal ensemble dedicated to the performance of new and rarely-heard works, and gems of the historical avant garde. New York is home to a vibrant instrumental New Music scene, with a relative paucity of vocal music. Ekmeles was founded to fill the gap by presenting new a cappella repertoire for solo voices, and by collaborating with these instrumental ensembles.
Director Jeffrey Gavett brings a hybrid vision to the group: he is an accomplished ensemble singer and performer of new works, and holds degrees from Westminster Choir College and Manhattan School of Music's Contemporary Performance Program. He has assembled a virtuoso group of colleagues who bring their own diverse backgrounds to bear on the unique challenges of this essential and neglected repertoire.
New York-based contemporary new music vocal ensemble Ekmeles is spectacular in their first solo release. Featuring commissions by Christopher Trapani and Canadian Taylor Brook, and a third work by Erin Gee, the six singers perform these innovative 21st-century works with precision and understanding. Brooks’ nine-part microtonal a cappella Motorman Sextet is based on David Ohle’s 1972 cult novel. The opening party-like vocal chatter sets the stage. The clear-spoken narrative by different voices features atmospheric backdrops like multi-voice unison spoken words, dynamic swells, held notes, high voice staccatos and atonal harmonic touches. Gee sound-paints new dimensions to my favourite pastime in Three Scenes from Sleep, taken from a larger piece. No words here; just voice-created clicks, pops, rustles, held notes, rhythms, high-pitched intervals and the final closing more-song-like held-low note which musically illustrate the unconscious sleep state. Trapani’s End Words features live voices with prerecorded vocal fragments and electronics. The three movements, based on texts by Anis Mojgani, Ciara Shuttleworth and John Ashbery respectively, are driven by tight ensemble performance. The first movement electronics add another voice to the clear ensemble articulations and swells with low drum-like thunder manipulations, squeaky electronic birds and plucked string effects. The closing third movement is unique with the opening electronic bell sounds leading to a strong electronic “duet” with the almost spoken vocals. Director/baritone Jeffrey Gavett leads Ekmeles in an exciting futuristic musical direction.
— Tiina Kiik, 3.01.2020
Vocal ensemble sighing, sweeping and dripping at the edge of the void. A Howl, That Was Also a Prayer illustrates three significantly different works for the New York group, largely unaccompanied except for the electronic tête-à-tête composed by Christopher Trapani.
- Lars Gotrich, 1.7.20
As with many instruments of the classical tradition, so too the choir revives and evolves in the multiple ramifications of contemporary music, from sacred minimalism to various crossovers with popular music (Chanticleer), with jazz and r&b (Bobby McFerrin’s Voicestra), up to the new “cultured” sensation Roomful of Teeth. In this context, the vocal sextet Ekmeles makes its decisive entry on the recording scene by presenting three compositions (two of which commissioned for the ensemble) by young or very young American authors engaged in expanding today’s vocal repertoire.
Based on David Ohle’s cult novel from 1972 – although rediscovered only thirty years later – the “Motorman Sextet” by Taylor Brook (*1985) sees the chamber polyphony offering a wide chromatic palette as a counterpoint to an otherwise flat and detached narrative, like a Carver lent to dystopian sci-fi. Sinister and replete with chiaroscuro nuances, the ensemble’s vowel song passionately interprets the mental dramaturgy conceived by Brook, capable of suggesting a highly detailed stage design with a strong expressionist flavor.
The three short scenes from the play “Sleep” by Erin Gee (*1974) make the most of the stereophonic effect, alternating minimal phonemes located in the center with melodic and onomatopoeic openings on the edges: an “incorporeal” organism in constant development, a stream of unconsciousness where pure sound intuition gives shape and depth to the dreamlike microcosm of the representation.
Finally, the “End Words” triptych by Christopher Trapani (*1980) intersects the ensemble’s talent with electronic manipulation, thus giving birth to an “augmented” listening experience. The tonal suspension of the first two movements (based on texts by Anis Mojgani and Ciara Shuttleworth), where further vocal samplings converse with pointillistic strokes of strings, comes to completion in the final poem “The Painter”, which with a thriving twentieth-century sprechgesang gives new life to John Ashbery’s verses, centered on the struggles of a painter over the choice of his subject.
The already crowded and always intriguing catalog of the collective label New Focus is enriched with a very particular piece, the revelation of a valuable ensemble and a useful collection in order to understand the results and the opportunities of 21st-century vocal music.
-Michele Palazzo, 1.11.20, esoteros
What a mind-blowing record this is! The Ekmeles vocal ensemble recorded commissioned works by microtonal aficionados and contemporary classical composers Taylor Brook and Christopher Trapani as well as Erin Gee, who explores the boundaries of vocal technique and corporeal rhythm. The visions of the three composers come into life on this album, and it’s as beautiful to music explorers as it’s repulsive to others. A truly fantastic phenomenon!
-Dave Tremblay, 1.9.20, Can This Even Be Called Music
If you’re a classical tourist, this vocal bunch annexed from the contemporary classical side of things, indulges in things that will be a bunch of words that mean nothing to you. Coming from a place way beyond girl friend music, this bunch sounds like a 50s choral ensemble doing Christmas aires as led by Marvin the Martian. Way out there but something that can be experienced as an event without getting lost in preciousness, this debut is a well planned set that easily takes you to the sonic land of tomorrow in fine style.
-Chris Spector, 12.18.19, Midwest Record
A recording I've often returned to is The Complete 10-Inch Series from Cold Blue, a three-CD set issued in 2003 whose contents originally appeared on ten-inch vinyl in the early ‘80s. The reason I mention it here is that appearing alongside pieces by Rick Cox, Daniel Lentz, and others are Read Miller's Mile Zero Hotel and The Blueprint of a Promise, both of which utilize unadorned speaking voices to mesmerizing and strikingly musical effect. It's impossible not to be reminded of Miller's pieces as I listen to “A Howl, That Was Also a Prayer”, the debut album by the New York-based contemporary vocal ensemble Ekmeles, when its realizations of works by Erin Gee, Christopher Trapani, and Taylor Brook (two of them Ekmeles commissions) mesmerize in similar manner.
Like Miller, the three contemporary composers maximize the expressive potential of the speaking voice, its capacity for contrasting rhythms, cadences, inflections, and dynamics, while the virtuosic Ekmeles—soprano Charlotte Mundy, mezzo-soprano Elisa Sutherland, countertenor Tim Keeler, tenor Steven Bradshaw, bass Steven Hrycelak, and baritone (and group director) Jeffrey Gavett—rises to the demands of the innovative material throughout the near hour-long release. In Ancient Greek music theory, the group name refers to “tones of indefinite pitch and intervals with complex ratios,” and certainly fine microtonal gradations of pitch enter into the performances of the Trapani and Brook pieces. Gee's Three Scenes from Sleep completes the trio fittingly with its own plethora of extended vocal techniques.
With text culled from David Ohle's science-fiction novel Motorman, Brook's nine-part Motorman Sextet is an epic, half-hour excursion into microtonality, just intonation a central part of its design. The delivery fluctuates between spoken and sung passages as Ekmeles' members enhance the narration of the novel's storyline with myriad techniques. Voices gather into strange wordless wholes before parts splinter off and then rejoin. As words are spoken by one member (sometimes multiple voices in unison), the others present counterpoints that are so unusual they threaten to draw attention away from the narrative, and with the arrangement and vocal techniques constantly changing, listening engagement never weakens. During some moments, the vocal textures veer into choral territory; at other times, however, the vocal effects are so alien, no obvious categorical precedent exists to which they might be compared. Adding to the effect, one member's delivery might seem bored and another's impassioned, and hisses, howls, hums, whispers, and animal-like sounds also surface. Lines of text are passed between male and female voices like a ball thrown from one player to the next.
Intended to capture the unconscious mind during various sleep stages, Gee's Three Scenes from Sleep eschews spoken text for wordless movements packed with idiosyncratic effects, from thrums and clicks to glissandi swoops and gravelly murmurings. Hisses resemble steam being released from an overdriven machine during “Scene 4, Abyss,” after which pops, coos, and whistles create a field of agitated babble in “Scene 7, Transparency,” the nine-minute whole amounting to a dizzying array of vocal treatments. Using texts from poems by Anis Mojgani, Ciara Shuttleworth, and John Ashbery, Trapani's twenty-minute End Words parts company with its predecessors by working electronics into its three-part design; specifically, the ensemble's six voices combine with their electronic counterparts as pre-recorded vocal parts blend with live performance. The electronic dimension aside, Trapani's piece is closer in spirit to Brook's in merging text elements with vocal techniques, even if the electronic applications in Trapani's lend the result a greater hallucinogenic quality. Bird chirps, water burble, string plucks, and percussive accents also surface to dramatically extend the sound palette.
Regardless of differences between the works, they form a solidly cohesive whole and collectively provide the singers with marvelous showcases for their vocal abilities. In being less predicated on conventional melody and compositional forms, A Howl, That Was Also A Prayer mightn't offer the immediacy that a recording by a vocal ensemble such as The Crossing, Vox, or Roomful of Teeth would have. Listeners with an appetite for adventurous and original music-making should, however, find much to appreciate about Ekmeles' rather remarkable debut.
- Ron Schepper, textura, 2.2020
With A Howl, That Was Also a Prayer, the vocal ensemble Ekmeles presents three suites of avant-garde vocal music by three different composers. Taylor Brook composed his Motorman Sextet using text from David Ohle’s novel Motorman, and it combines spoken word, sung lyrics, and vocal noises into a microtonal stew of epic surrealistic scope. The nine sections are like scattered flickers from a series of seemingly unrelated stories, though all concern a character named Moldenke. The six singers take turns with the spoken parts, and sometimes the others echo sentence fragments in weird melodies. The episode (“Part VI”) where Moldenke volunteers for injury in the Mock War is particularly attention-grabbing. Three Scenes from Sleep by Erin Gee doesn’t have any real lyrics, being composed of a wide range of vocal sounds, from clicks and pops and hisses to sliding whoops to whistling. It’s a dreamlike journey through a strange forest made of human-faced trees trying to communicate — or perhaps something more sinister. The final set is End Words by Christopher Trapani, also in three parts. This piece introduces some electronic sounds emulating chirping birds and strange machines, along with some sounds that seem to originate with conventional instruments. There are some floating note clusters that recall Ligeti’s choral music, but many other sounds besides. The final section features phrases punctuated by bell-like tones. On a technical level, the performances are quite impressive, with the six voices coordinated tightly in spite of the unconventional nature of the pieces. Ekmeles has created a fascinating glimpse into the world of experimental vocal ensemble music, a far cry from the acapella music most of us are familiar with.
— Jon Davis, 10.31.2020
Comprised of a soprano, mezzo-soprano, countertenor, tenor, baritone (who also conducts them), and bass, Ekmeles is a New York-based vocal sextet devoted to new classical music. Their most obvious antecedent is Electric Phoenix, whose members in turn came from Ward Swingle’s Swingle II. Ekmeles is the Greek word for tones “not appropriate for musical usage,” so it should come as no surprise that this new ensemble seems to gravitate toward the odd, the experimental, and the opposite of “easy listening.” This is their debut release, although I think individual tracks by Ekmeles have been included on other releases.
When reviewing new music releases, I usually start by writing about the music itself. This time, however, it seems appropriate to say from the outset that, while you might not like the music on this CD, there should be little doubt that these performances are absolutely astonishing. In all three of these works, one suspects that Ekmeles has been assimilated by The Borg (attention Star Trek fans!) because they sing as if they were one being with one brain and six mouths. That is how perfect their tuning and their synchrony are. These works, especially the first, also give them opportunities to act with their voices, and this too is carried out with skill and sensitivity.
Taylor Brook’s Motorman Sextet is based on David Ohle’s cult novel Motorman. Stylistically, the novel reads like a sci-fi hybrid of The Metamorphosis and Woyzeck as it might have been penned by William S. Burroughs. The central character, Moldenke, dwells in a decaying future in which multiple moons and suns light up the polluted sky. Moldenke is kept alive by four sheep hearts that pump blood through his body. It does not get less strange. Brook took his text from 10 of Ohle’s chapters, although he shuffles their order, which makes the story neither less nor more perplexing. Each member of the sextet recites sections of the text, while the others comment on it or illustrate it with swoops, grunts, gurgles, and just about any noise that can come out of a human throat. The last section (which starts with the words “In the old days Moldenke listened to the weatherman, his radio on through the short nights, the face of it green and glowing”) starts with what sounds like half-remembered and half-misheard recollections of a country-and-western song, so there is humor too, although it is of the blacker sort. Motorman Sextet contains much that is similarly funny and horrifying, all at the same time. It sounds like a synthesis of Berio (A-Ronne, perhaps) and Ligeti with one of Robert Ashley’s contemporary operas. Brook is a composer to keep one’s eye on. For example, Virtutes occultae, a work for six alternatively tuned virtual pianos, is available on Bandcamp.com, and it is an ear-bender in its own way.
Next up is a selection of three scenes from Erin Gee’s opera Sleep, “with texts compiled from Vedic scriptures, the myth analyses of Joseph Campbell, and Robinson Jeffers.” However, it is unlikely that you will discern any words at all. Elsewhere, writing about her related series of so-called Mouthpieces, Gee has commented that she “notate[s] the vocal sounds using the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) in order to accurately transcribe both the type of sound and the place of articulation in the mouth. The sounds that I use are often remnants or artifacts of phonemes, however, when placed in a non-semantic context, they float in a liminal space with no overt connection to a language.” Suffice it to say that these three excerpts, totaling just over 10 minutes, take us into a realm in which nothing seems familiar, but which nevertheless seems to be governed by logic, as foreign as that logic might seem. In addition to singing (after a fashion), there are whistles, lip-popping, and other sounds that seem related to what some popular performers of today refer to as “beatboxing,” which essentially is the art of imitating percussion instruments with the voice alone.
Christopher Trapani’s End Words is a collection of sestinas, defined by Wikipedia as “a fixed verse form consisting of six stanzas of six lines each, normally followed by a three-line envoi. The words that end each line of the first stanza are used as line endings in each of the following stanzas, rotated in a set pattern.” Specifically, the verses are Anis Mojgani’s They Raised Violins, Ciara Shuttleworth’s Sestina, and John Ashbery’s The Painter. In the booklet, Trapani’s description of the work is itself a sestina—very creative! And even more creatively, Trapani has attempted to mirror (in different ways) the structure of the sestinas with his musical settings. End Words is unlike the other works on this disc in two ways: It adds other sounds (birdsong, telephones, and many that are less easy to identify or describe) and, in performance, some of the singing is pre-recorded. Trapani does not fragment or shuffle the texts, so it is possible to follow them, although the layering and manipulation of sounds can make this difficult, so it is good that New Focus Recordings has provided them in the booklet. Trapani’s music, like Brook’s suggests Berio, Ashley, and Ligeti—imagine, if you will, the latter’s Mysteries of the Macabre cross-pollinated with musique concrète). End Words, like Motorman Sextet and Sleep, is heavily involuted, and it demands a lot from the listener (not least his or her closest attention, and a willingness to go with its unpredictable and unusual flow), but it certainly is impressive, and, despite the antecedents I listed above, original in the degree to which Trapani explores the consequences of his compositional choices.
This disc, which goes by the title A Howl, That Was Also A Prayer is a strange kind of fun, but fun nonetheless. All three composers take us to new and not always comfortable places, but never simply to shock us, and the performances by Ekmeles are beyond expert—almost frightening in their precision. If you have read this far, perhaps this is for you.
— Raymond Tuttle, 8.01.2020