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.
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
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, Can This Even Be Called Music, 1.9.20
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, esoteros, 1.11.20