Ekmeles: We Live the Opposite Daring


Following up on a debut release with New Focus that was hailed as "spectacular" by The Whole Note and "remarkable" by textura, Ekmeles vocal ensemble, led by director Jeffrey Gavett, brings their crystalline performance style to new works by Zosha Di Castri, James Weeks, Hannah Kendall, Shawn Jaeger, Erin Gee, and Gavett on We Live the Opposite Daring.


# Audio Title/Composer(s) Time
Total Time 67:57
01Primo Libro
Primo Libro

We live the opposite daring

Zosha Di Castri
02I. I long and seek after
I. I long and seek after
03II. Nor desire, but all at once
II. Nor desire, but all at once
04III. We live, the opposite, daring
III. We live, the opposite, daring
05IV. Someone will remember us, I say
IV. Someone will remember us, I say
06this is but an oration of loss
this is but an oration of loss
07love is
love is


Jeffrey Gavett

Mouthpiece 36

Erin Gee
11Part 1
Part 1
12Part 2
Part 2
13Part 3
Part 3
14Part 4
Part 4

Contemporary music for a capella voices has a vast body of repertoire to take inspiration from in the Western classical tradition. The music on Ekmeles’ newest release, We Live the Opposite Daring, does so in fascinating and intentional ways, referencing the past through tuning systems, texts, extended vocal techniques, and poignant histories.

James Weeks’ Primo Libro expresses this backward looking stance most directly. A set of 16 short madrigals meant to be sung continuously, Weeks wrote the piece in 31-division equal temperament, which is closely related to quarter-comma meantone, a temperament commonly used in the Renaissance and early Baroque. The 16 madrigals, scored for one, two, three, and four voices, preserve characteristic voice leading one might hear in a Renaissance setting, unfolding within the closely spaced intervals of 31-tet. Another feature of this temperament is the availability of nearly pure major and minor thirds, something Weeks makes great use of throughout in rich sequences of triads, glistening with pure intonation while slithering through the microtonal crevices of the 31 pitch system.

Read More

Zosha Di Castri’s title track takes inspiration from Sappho’s ancient Greek poetry, while also evoking folk traditions. The opening movement is framed around a steady groove in triple meter articulated by the singers slapping a steady rhythm on their thighs, over which Di Castri builds chords that accumulate in each voice, and occasionally smear in descending glissandi. The glissandi motif continues into the second movement, a pastiche of varied vocal sounds and utterances. The body percussion returns for movement three, a vigorous march with dramatic ascending melodic figures and towering chords, highlighted by mnemonic syllable recitation evocative of Indian music. The final movement takes the form of an ethereal chorale, decorated with an undulating figure that is used both in foreground and background contexts.

Hannah Kendall’s this is but an oration of loss is a reimagination of material from a poem, “Zong!”, by M. NourbeSe Philip about the drowning of 130 enslaved Africans who were thrown off a British slave ship in 1783. Opening with an ominous passage for multiple harmonicas, Kendall introduces the voices from within the haze of harmonies. Whispered and spoken fragments drive the narrative forward, painted by the fluid sung landscape that surrounds them. Kendall’s multi-dimensional texture is evocative, painting various aspects of a tragic historical episode and its literary retelling.

The text for Shawn Jaeger’s love is is derived from a text by feminist scholar bell hooks. The piece opens with a figure that alternates between widely and closely spaced intervals in the ensemble. Quixotic spoken and parlando lines are delivered over disembodied, static harmonies. A climactic closing section accumulates energy through developing the alternating intervallic idea, eventually featuring dramatically overlapping melismatic lines.

Jeffrey Gavett originally wrote Waves for a performance on a unique instrument in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Oliver Beer’s Vessel Orchestra. The instrument was made of hollow objects that would be activated by feedback through microphones, resulting in a chromatic scale. Gavett used the opportunity to explore and exploit phenomena of beatings and subtle tuning. Vessel Orchestra as an object no longer exists, but Gavett adapted the piece for further performance using pre-existing samples of Ekmeles. Throughout the three wordless movements, one hears malleable lines and spaces opening up between unisons and just intervals, revealing a wondrous panoply of colors that lie beyond.

Erin Gee’s Mouthpiece series has established an inventive hybrid ensemble vocabulary for a wide variety of instrumentations, influenced by the jump-cut timbral quality of electronic music. Gee’s process involved recording 150 improvised vocal sounds, cataloging them, and drawing upon them as the source material for the piece. In Mouthpiece 36 we hear characteristically mechanistic figures involving interlocking figures and varied timbres throughout the ensemble. Part 2 explores nasal, fricative, sibilant, whistling, and breath sounds for a sensual tapestry. Part 3 is fifteen seconds long, a post-Webernian exercise in brevity that disappears with a vocal pop. An enveloping choral texture in Part 4 is decorated by a layer of timbral tapestry, as the resonant chords shimmer, rattle, and vibrate with extended vocal sounds. The piece cleverly closes with the same humorous pop that ended Part 3.

Ekmeles’ performance throughout these demanding works is nothing short of sublime. From the demands of Weeks’ microtonal pitch language to Gee’s multi-timbral hybrid textures and everything in between, Ekmeles proves once again why they are one of the pre-eminent contemporary vocal chamber groups in the world. The inventive repertoire they have commissioned pushes boundaries across multiple musical parameters, but remains grounded in the firmament of musical lineage.

– Dan Lippel

Recording Location: Oktaven Audio, Mt. Vernon, NY

Recording Dates:

Primo Libro, this is but an oration of loss, love is, Waves, Mouthpiece 36: July 24-27, 2023

We live the opposite daring: November 10, 2023

Producers: Zosha Di Castri, Jeffrey Gavett, Erin Gee, Hannah Kendall, Shawn Jaeger, James Weeks, and Ryan Streber

Engineering, mixing, mastering: Ryan Streber

Editing: Charles Mueller

Art and design: Alex Eckman-Lawn


Ekmeles is a vocal ensemble dedicated to the performance of new and rarely-heard works, and gems of the historical avant garde. They have a special focus on microtonal works, and have been praised for their "extraordinary sense of pitch" by the New York Times. They are the recipients of the Ernst von Siemens Music Foundation's 2023 Ensemble Prize, the first American group to receive the honor.

As part of their work expanding the possibilities of tuning and technique in vocal music, Ekmeles has given world premieres by composers including John Luther Adams, Taylor Brook, Courtney Bryan, Ann Cleare, Zosha Di Castri, Erin Gee, Martin Iddon, Hannah Kendall, Christopher Trapani and James Weeks.

In addition to creating their own repertoire, Ekmeles is dedicated to bringing the best of contemporary vocal music to the United States that would otherwise go unheard. They have given US premieres by composers including Joanna Bailie, Carola Bauckholt, Aaron Cassidy, Beat Furrer, Stefano Gervasoni, Evan Johnson, Bernhard Lang, Liza Lim, Claus-Steffen Mahnkopf, Lucia Ronchetti, Wolfgang Rihm, Rebecca Saunders, Salvatore Sciarrino, Mathias Spahlinger, and Agatha Zubel.

Collaborations with other musical ensembles and artists has been a part of Ekmeles's work from the very beginning. In their first several seasons they gave the US premieres of Luigi Nono's Quando stanno morendo with AMP New Music, and Beat Furrer's FAMA with Talea Ensemble. Their collaborations with Mivos Quartet include the US premieres of Stefano Gervasoni's Dir - In Dir and Wolfgang Rihm's concert-length ET LUX. Ekmeles joined with members of Tilt Brass and loadbang for the US premiere of Mathias Spahlinger's monumental über den frühen tod fraüleins anna augusta marggräfin zu baden, and Wolfgang Rihm's SKOTEINÓS. Ekmeles also collaborates beyond the traditional concert stage, including the integration of singers into choreographic works by New Chamber Ballet, and a staged memorized performance of David Lang's the little match girl passion at the MET Breuer Museum directed by Tony award winning director Rachel Chavkin. They also gave sold-out performances with Oliver Beer's Vessel Orchestra, the first sound-based installation commissioned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Director Jeffrey Gavett performed at the keyboard of this instrument, composed of 32 resonant hollow objects spanning 1,000 years of the museum's collection. In 2022 they sang as part of John Luther Adams's installation work Veils and Vesper, broadcast on WNYC's New Sounds.

In January of 2020 they released their debut album A howl, that was also a prayer on New Focus Recordings, with works by Taylor Brook, Erin Gee, and Christopher Trapani. Fanfare magazine said the album's performances were "beyond expert - almost frightening in their precision." In the spring of 2020 through May 2021, Ekmeles continued to bring their performances to audiences in authentic ways despite the difficulty of singing together. They performed innovative streaming concerts that combined elements of video art created by members of the ensemble, pre-recorded performances, and live synchronous online performing. Ensemble members performed simultaneously from San Francisco, Philadelphia, and New York.

James Weeks

James Weeks' music has been performed and broadcast worldwide, and seven portrait discs of my work have been released to date: Book of Flames and Shadows (Winter&Winter, 2022), Summer (another timbre, 2021), windfell (another timbre, 2019), Mala punica (Winter&Winter, 2017), Signs of Occupation (Métier 2016), mural (confront 2015) and TIDE (Métier 2013). His work also appears on the Wandelweiser, HCR and NMC labels.

Weeks typically (but not exclusively) writes for small ensembles or soloists, exploring pared-down, ‘primary’ musical syntaxes and systems, with particular interests in microtonality, modality and indeterminacy, embodied/haptic dimensions of sound, and plain-speaking. He often works with text and with found materials, particularly early music, and has an ongoing preoccupation with the music and aesthetics of the Italian Renaissance.

Collaborators and other performers of my work have included Quatuor Bozzini, London Sinfonietta, Royal Northern Sinfonia, EXAUDI, Ives Ensemble, Plus-Minus, Distractfold, An Assembly, Talea, Ekmeles, CoMA, Mira Benjamin, Lucy Goddard and Siwan Rhys, Apartment House and Anton Lukoszevieze. His music is published by University of York Music Press. Awards include a British Composer Award (2018) for Libro di fiammelle e ombre, written for EXAUDI, and an Ivors Composer Award (2019) for Leafleoht, written for Quatuor Bozzini.


Zosha Di Castri

Zosha Di Castri is a Canadian composer/pianist/sound artist living in New York. Her work, which has been performed internationally, extends beyond purely concert music including projects with electronics, installations, and collaborations with video and dance. She has worked with such ensembles as the BBC Symphony, San Francisco Symphony, Montreal Symphony Orchestra, the National Arts Centre Orchestra, the L.A. Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, the NEM, Ensemble Cairn, and the groups included on this album among others. Zosha is currently the Francis Goelet Assistant Professor of Music at Columbia University and was a fellow at the Institute for Ideas and Imagination in Paris during 2018–19, while working on this recording project.


Hannah Kendall

Described as ‘...intricately and skillfully wrought’ by The Sunday Times, Hannah Kendall’s music has attracted the attentions of some of the UK’s finest groups including London Philharmonic Orchestra, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, BBC Singers, and Philharmonia Orchestra, with performances at the Royal Festival Hall, Queen Elizabeth Hall, Purcell Room, The Royal Opera House's Linbury Studio Theatre, The Place, Westminster, Canterbury, Gloucester and St Paul’s Cathedrals, Westminster Abbey, and Cheltenham Music Festival. Kendall’s works have also been broadcast on BBC Radio, including 'Composer of the Week' in March 2015, and 'Hear and Now' in October 2016. In 2015, Hannah won the Women of the Future Award for Arts and Culture. Recent projects include a one-man chamber opera, 'The Knife of Dawn' premiered at London's Roundhouse in October 2016. Kendall is deeply committed to contemporary culture as a whole and often works collaboratively with artists from other art forms.

Born in London U.K. in 1984, Kendall graduated from the University of Exeter with First Class Honours in Music, having studied composition with Joe Duddell. Hannah also completed a Masters in Advanced Composition with Distinction from the Royal College of Music studying with Kenneth Hesketh and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the Royal College of Music Study Award and the RVW Trust. Kendall is currently based in New York City as a Doctoral Fellow in Composition at Columbia University.


Shawn Jaeger

Described as “mournful” (New York Times), “luminous” (Washington Post), and having “a sound world of its own” (Pioneer Press), the music of composer Shawn Jaeger (b. 1985, Louisville, Kentucky) explores folksong, field recording, and sonic ephemera to explore placemaking and personal and cultural memory.

He’s worked with leading performers, including Dawn Upshaw and the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, JACK Quartet, Talea Ensemble, Ensemble Dal Niente, Ekmeles, Aizuri Quartet, Longleash, Contemporaneous, Alexi Kenney, and Vicky Chow. His music has been featured at venues including Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall and Weill Recital Hall, Merkin Concert Hall, the Morgan Library, the Library of Congress, (Le) Poisson Rouge, Roulette, Jordan Hall, and the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, and on such festivals as Tanglewood, MATA, FERUS, Resonant Bodies, NYFOS Next, and Brooklyn Art Song Society’s New Voices. He has received commissions from Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute, the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Bard College Conservatory of Music, the American Composers Forum/Jerome Fund for New Music (JFund), Roulette/Jerome Foundation, the BMI Foundation/Concert Artists Guild (Carlos Surinach Commission), and Chamber Music America. His awards include the Claire Rosen and Samuel Edes Foundation Prize for Emerging Artists, Northwestern University’s M. William Karlins and William T. Faricy Awards, the ASCAP Foundation Morton Gould Young Composer Award, and two BMI Student Composer Awards. His opera, Payne Hollow, received coverage in Modern Farmer and a mention in Gene Logsdon’s Letters to a Young Farmer.

Jaeger holds a DMA from Northwestern University, and a BM from the University of Michigan. He’s taught music at the Bard College Conservatory of Music Preparatory Division, Tufts University, Princeton University (as a 2016-18 Princeton Arts Fellow), Brown University, The New School, and Kaufman Music Center’s Special Music School (PS 859). In 2023, he became Executive Director of Musicambia, a non-profit organization that develops music education programs in prisons to build supportive communities that transform lives inside and outside the criminal legal system. He lives in Brooklyn.


Jeffrey Gavett

Jeffrey Gavett, called a “brilliantly agile singer” by the New York Times, has performed with a broad array of artists, including Alarm Will Sound, ICE, Meredith Monk, New Juilliard Ensemble, Roomful of Teeth, SEM Ensemble, Ensemble Signal, Talea Ensemble, and his own ensembles Ekmeles and loadbang. As a recording artist he appears on a Kairos release of the music of Chaya Czernowin with ICE conducted by Steve Schick, and conducted and music directed for Roomful of Teeth’s CD The Colorado. Theatrical appearances include Rudolf Komorous’s Nonomiya and Petr Kotik’s Master-Pieces at New Opera Days Ostrava in the Czech Republic, Annie Dorsen’s Yesterday Tomorrow at the Holland Festival, in France, and Croatia, and Matt Marks’s Mata Hari on the 2017 Prototype Festival, as well as appearing on video in Judd Greenstein’s A Marvelous Order. Mr. Gavett holds degrees from Westminster Choir College and Manhattan School of Music.


Erin Gee

Erin Gee’s awards for composition include a Herb Alpert Award for the Arts 2023, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Radcliffe Fellowship, the 2008 Rome Prize, and the Award in Music 2022 from the American Academy of Arts and Letters for outstanding artistic achievement. She has also won the Charles Ives Fellowship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Zürich Opera House’s Teatro Minimo, and the Picasso-Mirò Medal from the Rostrum of Composers, a Fromm Foundation Commission, a Koussevitsky Award. She has been commissioned by the Zurich Opera House for the opera SLEEP, by the Radio Symphony Orchestra Vienna, the Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group under Esa-Pekka Salonen, Klangforum Wien, Tanglewood, and the Kronos Quartet. Gee has also worked with the Latvian Radio Chamber Choir, Wet Ink, Metropolis Ensemble, Repertorio Zero, and many others. The American Composers Orchestra commissioned Mouthpiece XIII: Mathilde of Loci Part I for Zankel Hall in Carnegie Hall, which was highlighted in Symphony Magazine (March/April 2010), and cited in the New York Times as “subtle and inventive.” Roulette hosted her first portrait concert in Feb 2019 with the Argento Ensemble. Mouthpiece 34 was premiered in the “Neurons” exhibit at the Centre Pompidou in Paris in 2020. Mouthpiece 39 was recently performed by the JACK quartet at the Boulez Saal in Berlin and Wigmore Hall in London.





Whereas another vocal ensemble might channel its collective energy into a seasonal programme of Yuletide chestnuts, Ekmeles dives headlong into obscure classics of the historical avant-garde and radical new works rooted in alternative tuning systems and innovative vocal techniques. These microtonal specialists have delivered world premieres of works by John Luther Adams, Taylor Brook, Ann Cleare, Christopher Trapani, and others and recently saw their efforts recognized with the Ernst von Siemens Music Foundation's 2023 Ensemble Prize, the first American group to be so honoured.

Enthusiastic collaborators, the vocal sextet—soprano Charlotte Mundy, mezzo-soprano Elisa Sutherland, countertenor Timothy Parsons, tenor Tomás Cruz, baritone (and artistic director) Jeffrey Gavett, and bass Steven Hrycelak—has partnered with equally forward-thinking groups such as Talea Ensemble, Mivos Quartet, New Chamber Ballet, and loadbang in presentations of pieces by Wolfgang Rihm, Luigi Nono, and David Lang. On We Live the Opposite Daring, Ekmeles' follow-up to its head-turning 2020 debut A howl, that was also a prayer, the group turns its attention to new material by Zosha Di Castri, James Weeks, Hannah Kendall, Shawn Jaeger, Erin Gee, and Gavett.

Much of it's demanding, to be sure, but Ekmeles more than meets the challenge. No work better illustrates the high level of difficulty involved than Weeks's Primo Libro, whose sixteen concise madrigals requires the group to painstakingly sing in thirty-one-division equal temperament. While it feels related to quarter-comma meantone, a temperament commonly used in the Renaissance and early Baroque periods, the micro-divisions separating the thirty-one intervals (which means all notes are approximately 1/5th of a tone apart) give the work a decidedly modern feel. At the same time, the scoring of these madrigals for one, two, three, and four voices strengthens that connection to an earlier time. The microtonal pitches that emerge over the course of the eighteen-minute performance are naturally riveting when so many are unfamiliar, and hearing the singers' voices spiral through the work is at times vertigo-inducing.

The five other settings are no less arresting, each one imaginatively conceived and captivating to hear. In reimagining Sappho's ancient Greek poetry through a modern lens, Di Castri's We live the opposite daring also couples new and old. The first movement begins the work with the singers slapping their thighs in a steady triple-metre rhythm as they sing, their voices at certain moments gathering into resonant chords and elsewhere splintering into whoops, smears, and glissandi. The second movement takes experimentation to a further extreme when animalistic utterances, growls, hisses, and other cryptic vocalizations surface. Movement three charges into position with body percussion and a cartwheeling voice effect igniting an explosive array of declamations and chords. Soothing by comparison is the contemplative, chorale-like closing movement, a satisfying choice arriving as it does after the furious pace of the penultimate one.

Kendall describes this is but an oration of loss as a reimagining of “the songs, cries, lamentations, incantations, and sighs” of M. NourbeSe Philip's book-length poem “Zong!,” itself a reworking of a legal transcript detailing the drowning of 130 enslaved Africans thrown off a British slave ship in 1783. The ear's instantly caught by an introduction of softly wheezing harmonicas, which gradually shifts to a blossoming of vocal harmonies and furiously whispered fragments. References to the horrific event surface through the vocal haze, with words flickering across a dense array of harmonicas and voices. Meanwhile, the text for Jaeger's playful meditation love is comprises near-rhymes and anagrams derived from a text by feminist scholar bell hooks that explores the challenges associated with the word. The hypnotic interweaving of overlapping vocal lines and spoken phrases makes for a gripping, oft-ecstatic tapestry.

The three-part Waves was written by Gavett for a performance at the Metropolitan Museum of Art using Oliver Beer's Vessel Orchestra, an instrument assembled from hollow objects in the Met's collection capable of producing a chromatic scale. Activated through feedback using individual microphones, Gavett controlled the instrument from a keyboard and sang as he played. The timbres that resulted prompted him to compose Waves as a series of beating patterns of glissandi and “almost-unisons.” In place of the no-longer-existing Vessel Orchestra, he used pre-existing samples of Ekmeles' voices to generate the dazzling panorama. Concluding the album is Gee's four-part Mouthpiece 36, which she created using 150 improvised vocal sounds as source material. Amazingly, the composer adds to the already staggering wealth of vocal effects already heard in the other works when whistles, clicks, whispers, neighs, and pops work their way into the presentation, the work's second and fourth movements particularly amazing in that regard.

A howl, that was also a prayer set a very high bar, but We Live the Opposite Daring is a more than credible follow-up. It also would be hard to imagine any other recording matching it for the sheer number of vocal effects and techniques it features. On its beguiling sophomore effort, this ever-intrepid outfit goes places few other vocal ensembles dare venture.

— Ron Schepper, 2.09.2024


Blog Critics

The avant-garde chamber choir Ekmeles has just six members, but can attack the sound front like an army. They kick off their second release with a sonic ambush, showing off their skill with microtones and nontraditional tunings in Primo Libre by James Weeks.

Why Settle for 12 Tones?

This 17-minute tour-de-force is a set of 16 modern "madrigals" written in 31-division equal temperament (31-ET). That scale dates back to the mid-16th century but is rarely (to say the least) heard today. The tuning divides the octave not into the common 12 tones but 31 evenly spaced frequencies. It allows for chords and intervals that sound very weird and "out of tune" to our modern ears, accustomed to the 12-tone scale. An example that a non-musician can imagine is a neutral triad – a three-note chord that sits in between a major and a minor, sounding a little like each but not quite like either one.

It's not hard to play microtones (tones in between two of the typical 12) on a fretless string instrument like a violin. It's not hard to detune a guitar or piano to sound like a keyboard might have sounded before J.S. Bach popularized the well-tempered tuning (or to just sound eerie). Singing in an alternate tuning is another matter. A vocalist must cast off their intonation training to teach their vocal apparatus entirely new notes and intervals, then sing them consistently, correctly, and in harmony with others.

That's what you'll hear in the Primo Libre madrigals, written for one, two, or four voices. The ensemble's name, Ekmeles, according to its website, means, "in Ancient Greek music theory, tones of indefinite pitch and intervals with complex ratios, tones 'not appropriate for musical usage.'" But the group shows that what may seem "indefinite" actually has distinct meaning, with intriguing effects on the human ear and brain.

Ekmeles: Back to the Future

These shiny little pieces may be settings of 16th-century Italian lyrics, but they sound both alien and mechanistic, as if created by an advanced and robotically inclined otherworldly civilization. Weeks' score lets us hear solo and duo voices, where the "unnatural" intervals are plain to hear. We also hear sequences of four-part chords where individual parts move to adjacent microtones, altering the character of the chord in ways for which words don't come easily to mind because these chords don't trigger the specific emotions our brains have trained us to feel from music.

So yes, the piece shouts "I'm demonstrating something" more than "I'm seeking to make you feel something." But it can certainly make you feel that you've experienced something new.

The four-movement title piece is a new work by Zosha Di Castri setting fragments of poems by Sappho. Glissandos, ululations, sprechstimme, body percussion, and other effects elaborate a creepy sound palette that's twisted and dynamic. Unapologetically weird, this music outlines a strange psychedelic journey from ancient Greece to an uncertain and scary future.

Airy harmonicas in gently clashing tunings usher in this is but an oration of loss by Hannah Kendall. This Ekmeles commission sets an M. NourbeSe Philip text about a 1730 legal case concerning the deliberate drowning of 130 enslaved Africans. Aesthetically the most powerful piece on the album, it's a melange of lamentations including shouts, cries, mournful vocal harmonies and dissonances, and anxious spoken readings.

Shawn Jaeger's love is features intriguing microtonal harmonies and humorous spoken-word interjections. It also shows off the vocal skills of individual singers. But overall it smacks of quirkiness for the sake of quirkiness.

Cut and Paste

The album closes with two studio efforts. The first, Waves, has three short movements created by Ekmeles' artistic director and baritone Jeffrey Gavett. The piece is a vocal realization of music originally performed on artist Oliver Bear's "vessel orchestra" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Gavett's stitched-together vocal samples add up to compelling vocalise: introspective sighing; assertive chanting; then a haunting darkness with an inconclusive resolution.

For the four short segments of "Mouthpiece 36," Erin Gee employs recordings of the singers scatting, humming, growling, swooping in glissandos, whistling, going nasal, articulating nonsense syllables, and even indulging in rich, natural-sounding harmonizing. Enough of the sounds resemble animal utterances that their having being "improvised in nature spaces" rings true. These are curious and funny little pieces that don't seem to take themselves too seriously, even if the composer's liner notes do.

All told, We Live the Opposite Daring cements Ekmeles as one of our foremost experimental vocal ensembles. The album comes out February 16, 2024 on New Focus Recordings. I can't wait to hear what they record next.

Their February and March 2024 concerts take place in New York City and include performances of music by Karlheinz Stockhausen and Arvo Pärt. Hannah Kendall's piece from this album is on the menu for a free concert March 23 at St. Paul's Chapel, Columbia University.

— Jon Sobel, 2.09.2024


WRUU Contemporary Classics Interview


— Dave Lake, 2.26.2024


Bandcamp Daily Best of Contemporary Classical

New York’s Ekmeles are one of the most probing and experimental vocal ensembles in the US, a compact group with an outsized mastery of both ancient and modern approaches. They delve into the past on opening gem Primo Libro by British composer James Weeks, the director of Exaudi—which often feels like a sister ensemble to Ekmeles. Weeks created an uninterrupted collection of 16 brief madrigals—in solos, duos, trios, and quartets—written using a 31-tone scale once common in the Baroque era, placing meticulous demands on each singer. The ensemble nails it, taking us back in time while also suggesting something futuristic, with forms and lyrics eluding any clear reference. Zosha di Castri’s title work also collects ancient ideas, recasting texts by Greek poet Sappho and borrowing folk traditions in a three-movement piece that incorporates mouth percussion and other extended techniques from the vocalists. Hannah Kendall’s this is but an oration of loss takes material from a poem by M. NourbeSe Philip recounting the brutal story of 130 enslaved Africans that were drowned in 1783, thrown off of a British slave ship; the piece blends rustic harmonica, narrative fragments, onomatopoetic utterances, and swooping harmonies to create a haunting, troubling resonance. Additional pieces by Shawn Jaeger, ensemble member Jeffrey Gavett, and Erin Gee vividly inspire yet further stylistic excursions, all executed with unerring intonation, dramatic flair, and rhythmic vitality, thriving within and outside choral orthodoxy.

— Peter Margasak, 2.29.2024


I Care if You Listen

We Live the Opposite Daring, the sophomore album from the New York-based vocal sextet Ekmeles, is immediately magnificent. Released Feb. 16 on New Focus Recordings, the album is a tour de force in contemporary vocal music, featuring a massive variety of techniques, approaches, and styles, while never losing sight of its expressive power in these technical pursuits.

The album opens with James Weeks’ Primo Libro, a series of 18 continuous madrigals for one, two, or four voices, cast in 31-tone equal temperament. This tuning system means that each neighboring tone is approximately one-fifth of a whole-step apart, as opposed to the half-steps used in most Western music. This allows for much finer control of intervals and lines, as well as more ‘pure’ harmonies that closely match simple ratio relationships. But it also requires incredible skill from the performers in producing these extremely precise intervals. Luckily, Ekmeles is up to the task, bringing this work vividly to life. Every detail is immaculately rendered, creating vibrant, resonant harmonies that dazzlingly shift and slide about in this incredible work.

Based on texts by the ancient Greek poet Sappho, Zosha Di Castri’s We live the opposite daring begins simply with body percussion and slowly stacking harmonies before rapidly expanding out into a dense kaleidoscope of semi-independent voices. Di Castri uses a downward slide as a primary motif in the first two movements, building into a powerful climax that gradually sighs away. Ekmeles’ performance of the sensitive final movement, which highlights the lyrical qualities of Sappho’s poetry, is particularly stirring; they sing the subtle and deceptively complex music breathtakingly, with absolute grace and poise.

Hannah Kendall’s this is but an oration of loss begins with a dissonant array of harmonicas that saturate the audio spectrum, creating a dense curtain of sound through which voices slowly emerge: fragmented, spoken, whispered, and sung. The piece reconfigures text from M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong!, a book-length poem about the drowning of 130 enslaved Africans, thrown off the British slave ship Zong in the Caribbean in 1781. The piece is tense, anxious, and dense throughout, struck through with an air of lamentation that conveys the seriousness and tragic horror of its subject.

Meanwhile, Shawn Jaeger’s love is evokes Ligeti with disjointed, rhythmic singing and extensive use of distinct vocal timbres that remind me of the Nonsense Madrigals. This setting of text by American feminist author bell hooks also includes significant spoken passages, which are handled as readily and expressively by the ensemble members as their sung work. In particular, the solos midway through the work are both extremely difficult and extremely well executed, with the transitions between spoken and sung tones handled convincingly by each singer. Eventually, Jaeger builds to a powerful climax that breaks out into wild melismas, foreshadowed by the repetition of “crashing” and “smashing” earlier in the work.

Jeffrey Gavett originally wrote Waves for voices and Oliver Beer’s Vessel Orchestra, which was a sound installation that used microphone feedback in hollow objects to create resonance. Vessel Orchestra no longer exists, so Gavett repurposed the piece using recorded samples of Ekmeles’ singing to explore near unisons that produce the auditory effect of beating. The result is strikingly otherworldly, as voices move, jump, and interact in ways that feel simultaneously human and inhuman.

The final work, Erin Gee’s Mouthpiece 36, features the widest variety of vocal effects, running a vast gambit of clicks, whistles, breaths, fricatives, and more things than can be named. To generate material, Gee recorded and cataloged 150 improvised vocal sounds that became the source for the work. Despite this outward strangeness, the piece is immediately approachable with interesting, and at times even groovy, rhythmic schemes and expertly crafted harmonies that keep the piece grounded. Each of the movements shares materials and ideas, but remains distinct, helping the work maintain a sense of freshness throughout. The final movement is particularly excellent, with Gee using extended vocal techniques in the context of a slowly developing choral setting. Ekmeles is at their finest here, demonstrating their mastery of both traditional and experimental vocal styles and creating a wonderfully intriguing and moving vocal texture.

— Sofia Rocha, 3.14.2024

Related Albums