Composer John Aylward releases Angelus, his monodrama for voice and ensemble inspired in equal measure by his mother's experience as a refugee fleeing Europe during World War II, Paul Klee's affecting painting "Angelus Novus," and a series of texts that speak to themes common to her story of displacement and resilience. The performance features soprano Nina Guo in a wide ranging part with the Ecce Ensemble, of which Aylward is the director.
|01||I. What is Possible|
I. What is Possible
|02||II. Angelus Novus|
II. Angelus Novus
|03||III. Dream Images|
III. Dream Images
|04||IV. The Abstract|
IV. The Abstract
|05||V. Supreme Triumph|
V. Supreme Triumph
|06||VI. Secret Memory|
VI. Secret Memory
|09||IX. The Wing|
IX. The Wing
|10||X. A Distance From the Sea|
X. A Distance From the Sea
Composer John Aylward writes that his monodrama Angelus is a “treatise on the human experience.” Catalyzed by a trip he took with his mother to Germany for the first time since she fled as a refugee during World War II, the work is variously inspired by Paul Klee’s painting Angelus Novus as well as the authors that provide the texts for the ten movements. Angelus engages with what it means to be human grappling with existential questions.
The opening movement sets Adrienne Rich’s “What is Possible,” a poem that laments the burdens on all of our minds that obscure clarity. Aylward’s setting leads the vocal part back and forth between spoken and sung lines, sometimes seamlessly transitioning from one to the other mid-phrase. The ensemble writing briefly highlights each instrument in turn, as if to paint Rich’s enumeration of quotidian objects that represent bare necessities: “wooden spoon, knife, mirror, cup, lamp, chisel, a comb passing through hair...”
Movement two sets Walter Benjamin’s “Angelus Novus,” a description of Klee’s painting, an angel amidst dystopian ruin. Aylward opens the portrait with poised intensity, with chordal bursts in the vibraphone, skittering ponticello arpeggios in the strings, and focused melodic fragments in the winds. Storms brew, accumulate energy, and recede, as the angel surveys the “wreckage” with dismay.
For his setting of a passage about truth and illusion from Nietzsche’s The Will to Power, Aylward strikes an expository tone, as the music supports the unfurling of a rhetorical argument. Nina Guo’s elegant soprano, mostly bound to spoken words, flies freely on select phrases, highlighting Nietzsche’s dichotomy between illusory and authentic impulses. Aylward’s word painting in this movement is pitch perfect -- one staccato vibraphone note responds to the word “truth,” while he adds pedal to the vibes for an irregular, looped dream sequence on the text, “our eyes glide only over the surface of things…”
Duality between the concrete and abstract realms is also at the heart of Aylward’s setting of Schopenhauer’s excerpt from The World as Will and Representation. Alternating duos with John Popham’s muscular cello lines and Hassan Anderson’s lyrical oboe, Guo reaches an ethereal plateau when singing about deliberative distance. The dissociation of the closing lines (“you are like an actor who has played your part and takes your place in the audience...”) is highlighted by the disjointed, unpitched percussion line.
Aylward elides the percussion and voice duo into the contrasting D.H. Lawrence text, focused on the passion of the flesh. Guo’s energized melodic phrases are punctuated by forceful sprechstimme. The movement becomes increasingly inflamed and culminates in a searing passage that alternates between a high vocal note on the words, “yours only for a short time.”
Movement six sets a passage from Carl Jung’s Aion: Researches into the Phenomenology of the Self. Oboist Anderson’s multiphonics produce crunchy beatings with closely spaced intervals from the voice on the text, “the earth.” Flute dovetails with oboe for a climax on the word, “resolution,” before closing out the movement with a sensual duet.
The flute and soprano texture elides into movement seven, a setting of a hybrid text by Aylward and Thomas Mann. Guo and flutist Emi Ferguson’s lines plateau on select pitches, framed as temporary pedal points. Sudden ascending swoops, whispers, fricatives, flutter tongue, and wind sounds break up the melismatic texture.
Plato’s Phaedrus, interspersed with excerpts from the Catholic Angelus prayer, is the source for movement eight, a contemplation on the inspired state of madness. The scoring departs from the duo dominated texture of the previous movements, with percolating passagework in the strings and embellishing figures in the percussion leading into a series of pulsating chords. Guo swims above this shifting texture with lines that explore drastic registral peaks and valleys.
Phaedrus is also the text for movement nine, as the work circles back to the topic of winged flight. Violinist Pala Garcia’s virtuosity is featured, moving fluidly between arpeggios, angular lines, and brusque double stop punctuations. The movement’s taut intensity boils over and erupts into a frenzied ensemble passage, the violent fall of an earthbound angel.
Aylward’s final movement sets excerpts from Weldon Kees’ A Distance from the Sea. A shrouded passage between alto flute and clarinet merges with soprano and ensemble for subdued, resigned material. In its quest for meaning amidst a context of displacement and upheaval, Angelus toggles between themes of the mind, the body, and the spirit. Guided by texts from some of history’s most cherished thinkers, Aylward and the excellent Ecce Ensemble take the listener on a journey that marries his rich, dynamic musical palette with texts that explore core philosophical and metaphysical topics that shape our lived experience. The closing setting of the Kees text seems to shimmer and disappear, reminding us that after the struggle, life can seem “remote, unreal, and perhaps it is.”
– Dan Lippel
Recorded at the American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York, NY, June 19, 21 & 22
Joel Gordon, Recording Engineer
Sarah Borgatti, Recording Manager
Mixed and Mastered by Joel Gordon and John Aylward
Produced with funding from The John Simon Guggenheim Foundation and with support from Catherine and Paul Buttenwieser and Cynthia and John Reed.
Cover Image: Klee, Paul. Angelus Novus. 1920. Oil transfer and watercolor on paper. The Israel Museum, Jerusalem. Jerusalem, Israel. Reprinted with permission.
Design: Marc Wolf, marcjwolf.com
Text translations and adaptations by John Aylward.
What is Possible by Adrienne Rich. © 1981 by Adrienne Rich from A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far, set to music by permission of The Frances Goldin Literary Agency.
A Distance from the Sea by Weldon Kees from The Collected Poems of Weldon Kees edited by Donald Justice used by permission of the University of Nebraska Press. Copyright 1962, 1975, by the University of Nebraska Press. Copyright renewed 2003 by the University of Nebraska Press.
Excerpt from Apocalypse by D.H. Lawrence © Cambridge University Press 2013. Reproduced by permission of Paper Lion Ltd, The Estate of Frieda Lawrence Ravagli and Cambridge University Press.
John Aylward has been described by the Boston Globe as "A composer of wide intellectual curiosity" who summons "textures of efficient richness, delicate and deep all at once." His music is influenced by a range of modern and ancient literature and deeply affected by time spent in the deserts of Arizona and New Mexico. These streams of influence have led to a music that considers ancestral concepts of time, appropriations of indigenous cultures into surrealism, impressionism and post-modernism, and the connections between creative mythologies across civilizations.
Aylward's work has been performed internationally by a range of ensembles and soloists, and his own ensemble, Ecce, has served as a laboratory for his larger projects to take shape. Both as a pianist and as a director of the Etchings Festival, Aylward has supported new music of all kinds through commissions and performances.
Awards and fellowships include those from the American Academy of Arts and Letters (the Walter Hinrichsen Award and a Goddard Lieberson Fellowship) the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University, the Koussevitzky Commission from the Library of Congress, the Fromm Music Foundation, the Fulbright Foundation, the Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst, the MacDowell Colony, the Atlantic Center for the Arts, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, First Prize from the International Society for Contemporary Music, and many others.
Aylward holds composition degrees (MFA, PhD) from Brandeis University and a degree in piano performance (BM) from the University of Arizona. John lives in Northampton, Massachusetts, with his wife Kate, and teaches music composition at Clark University.
Ecce Ensemble is an ensemble of performing and creative artists who take on intensive collaborations and pedagogical projects that touch on important cultural and social aspects of our time. Their core aim is to work in a collaborative, creative, socially engaged and interdisciplinary way. Directors of the group routinely reach out to artists from around the world to assist in the group’s collaborative projects and the ensemble itself is diverse in its talents and creative visions.
Recent collaborations have been with prominent international figures such as Kaija Saariaho, Toshio Hosokawa, Philippe Hurel, Mark Andre, Garth Knox, Keiko Murakami, and a range of other performers, theater artists and movement artists. In the past ten years, over a hundred emerging composers and sound artists from around the globe have been mentored at Ecce’s annual summer festival in Auvillar, France.
The nearly infinite stylistic possibilities of the present day do not guarantee of course that everything will be great. In the end a little greatness is as rare a thing now as any other time. I must say the album coming out this month of the music of John Aylward, namely his Angelus (New Focus FCR 261) is well situated in a post-Serialist High Modern zone so not exactly a surprise but then there is some greatmess to it all, the work, the performance by vocalist Nina Guo and the chamber Ecce Ensemble directed by Jean-Phillippe Wurtz. It occupies a place in a lineage that includes Pierrot Lunaire and Le Marteau sans Maitre. That is it features a chamber ensemble of modest proportions, a singer, singer-speaker, or (for Schoenberg) a Sprechstimme vocal part that is unified in a literary segmented-sequential manner.
The music is High Modern in tone and texture. It has that widely ranging would-be Serialist expansiveness like the Schoenberg and the Boulez. The texts bring out dimensions of human experience as Aylward recalls a trip to Europe he made with his mother--her first since fleeing during WWII, and involved with that experience is the Paul Klee painting Angelus Novus. Texts are meant to illuminate this experience and include enlightening textual excerpts by the likes of Adrienne Rich, Walter Benjamin, Nietzsche, Jung, Weldon Kees, etc.
There is a haunting moodiness to the music that raises it in my mind to some of the earlier chamber-literary classics mentioned above. Soprano Nina Guo has an extraordinarily clear and bell-clarion suchness to her voice on this. The Ecce Ensemble (which Aylward is the director) sounds born to the music.
On this rainy Easter Monday of the Pandemic Lockdown here in New Jersey I while writing this review was visited by four wild turkeys looking for food in the back yard that adjoins my apartment. All writing can have time-capsule aspects and this one does purposely because the time is so unprecedented. The deserted-of-humans realm outside during the sheltering-in-place happening now no doubt encouraged the turkeys to come forth. They never would be expected to come so far into the human zone otherwise as far as my experience goes. The excellence of this music contrasts with the unknowns of the future, the ramblings of the turkeys and the juxtaposition of those three makes me appreciate the human achievement of Angelus all the more.
I do very much recommend this album. It is a triumph, a chamber work one hopes NOT for the end of the world but for a new beginning? Listen if you can.
— Grego Applegate Edwards, 4.13.2020
A cinematic work inspired by his mother’s escape from Germany and other like situated experiences, this dramatic reading with progressive music underpinning it is a must for the eggheads looking for a deep experience that goes way beyond the pale. A very high minded work that pushes the envelop for high brows, even those not so predisposed can appreciate the pure art on display here. Certainly another vector of music that comes directly from the soul.
— Chris Spector, 4.07.2020
A New Focus Recordings release of John Aylward's Angelus, performed by the Ecce Ensemble, has come my way. In the pre-dawn hours of yet another day of pandemic isolation, I put on my headphones and listened to the 40-minute work; I found it to be an engrossing sonic experience.
Among the composer's sources of inspiration for this work were the Paul Klee painting Angelus Novus, the stories of his mother's experiences of fleeing Europe during World War II, and the words of great writer-philosophers from which the monodrama's texts are drawn.
Adrienne Rich’s “What is Possible” is the first of the work's ten movements, and also the longest. A setting of the poem by Adrienne Rich, it calls for both spoken and sung passages from the singer. Nina Guo has a wonderfully natural speaking voice, devoid of theatricality or affectation. The sung lines reveal Ms. Guo's wide range, and her mastery of it. Coloristic writing for the instrumentalists will be a notable feature throughout the entire work; in this first section, the wind soloists dazzle. From this single track onward, the watchword of the enterprise seems to be clarity: it is perfectly recorded.
For the second track, the composer turns to Walter Benjamin’s “Angelus Novus”, a description of the Klee painting. The music is insectuous, the vocal line sometimes has a melting quality.
"Dream Images", drawn from Nietzsche, opens with lecture-like spoken words, and an undercurrent of muzzled speech. Ms. Guo’s rhetoric can suddenly transform into flights of song. She speaks of the "...need for untruths..." and goes into a repetitious loop at “...our eyes glide only over the surface of things…”
Deft instrumentation sets forth in "The Abstract", inspired by Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation. The concrete (cello) contrasts with the abstract (oboe), mixing with Ms. Guo's voice. The singer steps back for the closing lines (“...you are like an actor who has played your part...), spoken in a state of detachment.
Percussion and voice mesh in the miniature "Supreme Triumph" to a D.H. Lawrence text. This flows directly into "Secret Memory", from Carl Jung’s Aion: Researches into the Phenomenology of the Self. The oboe is prominent and the voice flies high, with some uncanny sustained tones. The flute then joins the soprano in a kind of cadenza, ending with a wispy swoop.
This carries us into the seventh movement, Anima, a setting which blends words by the composer and Thomas Mann. As the flute warbles, the vocal line becomes quirky indeed - with clicks, hisses, and shushings. The text morph to German, with more vocal sound effects.
Plato’s Phaedrus, and phrases from the Catholic Angelus prayer, are sources for "Truth". with its evocative instrumentation as the singer embarks on a sort of fantastical mad scene. Strings, winds, and percussion swirl along before subsiding to underpin the singer's chanted prayer.
Plato holds his place for the ninth movement, the voice in lyrical flights interspersed with fragmented spoken lines. The music becomes intense, with ominous drums and screaming winds, as bells signal a warning before fading to stillness.
The final movement of Angelus is the most marvelous of all. A brooding prelude for the woodwinds emerges to a setting of excerpts from Weldon Kees’ A Distance from the Sea. The speech/song is pensive and illusive, with Ms. Guo in a reflective lyrical state. "Nothing will be the same..." she sings, in a moment now so strangely timely. "The night comes down..." she speaks, as the music turns soft and hazy, and then vanishes into air.
Nina Guo's performance of Angelus is so impressive, and her colleagues from the Ecce Ensemble make the music truly vivid. The players are Emi Ferguson (flutes), Hassan Anderson (oboe), Barret Ham (clarinets), Pala Garcia (violin), John Popham (cello), and Sam Budish (percussion). Jean-Philippe Wurtz conducts.
— Oberon, 4.18.2020
One of the better-known works by Swiss artist Paul Klee is Angelus Novus, a 1920 monoprint that was once owned by essayist Walter Benjamin. Klee’s angel is a bird-like figure facing the viewer, eyes open and slightly cast down, hand-like wings thrown up and mouth open. In a much-remarked upon paragraph in his Theses on the Philosophy of History Benjamin, on the basis of a more or less fanciful interpretation, identified Klee’s angel as the Angel of History, facing away from the future and toward the past in order to bear witness to what Benjamin characterized as the “one single catastrophe” of history.
Klee’s picture and Benjamin’s interpretation provide the background for composer John Aylward’s Angelus, a ten-movement cycle of vocal chamber music performed by soprano Nina Guo and the Ecce Ensemble, for which Aylward is artistic director. Aylward saw Angelus Novus during a trip to Europe with his mother, who had fled the continent during World War II and was returning there for the first time since then; the composer describes the music that experience inspired as a “treatise on the human experience” as reflected through a series of texts selected from the philosophy, depth psychology and poetry of “various cultural histories” of different eras. Aylward’s choices do embrace a multiplicity of ways of addressing and assimilating experiences of both extreme and more ordinary circumstances from perspectives ranging from the tragic to the transcendental.
Fittingly, one of the texts Aylward chose to set to music is drawn from Benjamin’s meditations on Klee’s image, which he used for the cycle’s second movement. Aylward serves Benjamin’s text well; with both the writing and orchestration the composer conveys the tragic power and seeming inevitability of the human capacity for destruction. Guo speaks, chants, and sings the words against a confusion of strings and winds in a swirling whirlwind of sound; one can readily imagine the sight of a disordered scattering of ruins.
At the other end of the experiential spectrum is "Truth," the eighth movement. The source texts here are Plato’s Phaedrus, a dialogue on beauty and the good, and the Catholic Church’s Angelus devotion, a message of hope commemorating the annunciation and incarnation. The section opens with a flourish of pitched percussion and then settles into a sonority dominated by the interactions of violin and cello on the one hand, with flute, clarinet, and oboe on the other. Aylward’s setting of the Angelus text to the cadences of the missa cantata is especially evocative.
The composer himself provides one of the two texts for the seventh movement, titled "Anima." (The other text is Thomas Mann’s Freud and the Future.) "Anima" is primarily a duet between Guo and flutist Emi Ferguson. Both voices contrast with and complement each other while sharing the same range; both also draw on extended techniques, Guo exploring extremes of dynamics and glissandi, and Ferguson using tongue trills and plosive breathing. The cycle’s final movement is "The Distance," whose slowly rising and falling lines are score in lower ranges. Guo speaks and sings the movement’s text, taken from the poem A Distance from the Sea by Weldon Kees.
It’s a real pleasure to hear these and the other texts—by Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Jung, D.H. Lawrence, Adrienne Rich—set to music of a matching depth and complexity. The Ecce Ensemble plays with an appropriately calibrated range of feeling, while Guo delivers her demanding parts with the strength of commitment suited to the words.
— Daniel Barbiero, 4.25.2020
Paul Klee’s enigmatic work “Angelus Novus” never ceases to inspire reflections and further artistic interpretations – among the most recent ones is a track by Ulver contained in their tragic historical excursus The Assassination of Julius Caesar. The American composer John Aylward reconnects the allegorical figure imagined by the German painter to his own mother’s experience as a Second World War refugee, which together with texts by philosophers and writers of the twentieth century constitute the ample and suggestive theoretical corpus at the base of the monodrama Angelus, defined by its author as a “treatise on the human experience”.
Inevitably, thoughts return to Schoenberg’s most famous kammerspielen, Erwartung and Pierrot Lunaire: but the rigorous formal tension of the Austrian master, at the time the primary outpost of a profound aesthetic revolution, unfolds here in a typically contemporary ease between extremely varied styles and melodic figures.
A fundamental role is obviously attributed to the formidable interpreters of the Ecce Ensemble, of which Aylward is also the artistic co-director. The talented Nina Guo stands out above all: endowed with an incredible eclecticism, the singer melts the sprechgesang in infinite shades of theatricality, moving in a matter of instants from a cold and impassive recitation to the most dizzying lyrical warbling, up to the onomatopoeic coloring in close dialogue with the extended techniques of the winds and strings – apart from the Second Viennese School, in fact, the echoes of Salvatore Sciarrino are some of the most recurrent.
Each movement is informed by extracts from different authors: among them Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, D.H. Lawrence, Jung, Mann and obviously Walter Benjamin, in his lifetime the owner of Klee’s work as well as the author of the essay of the same title. While following in broad lines the mood of the presented texts, the instrumental comment never closes itself into a mere imitation: indeed it shapes itself the tone of the verses in an unpredictable way, distorting the perspective also with momentary, flickering immersions of single voices on the whole.
It’s impossible to deplete the thematic and expressive density of Angelus in a single listening: in just over forty minutes John Aylward manages to condense with absolute originality the linguistic innovations that have evolved over more than a hundred years of avant-gardes, while never resorting to sterile twists and turns nor to exaggerations suitable only for épater le bourgeois. With the complicity of a precise and close-knit ensemble, the young composer finds here a very rare balance between the fin de siècle decadence of the last Romantics and the irrepressible exuberance of the contemporary.
— Michele Palozzo, 5.04.2020
In the new album “Angelus” by the contemporary music group Ecce Ensemble, journey, displacement, resilience, despair, feelings of transcendence and unreality reverberate through a stunning 10-movement monodrama.
Composed by Ecce Ensemble artistic director and Clark University associate professor of music composition John Aylward, the work for voice (soprano Nina Guo) and chamber ensemble could be called quite uniquely appropriate for this very time and place amid the coronavirus pandemic. Of course, that was not Aylward’s intent as he began composing “Angelus” in 2014, but he acknowledged that it may strike those unexpected chords during a recent telephone interview from his home in Cambridge.
“I had no idea when I was writing this piece that anything like this could happen, and yet here we are,” Aylward said. “In a way I’m kind of speechless about the timing.”
Ecce Ensemble, which is based both in New York City and Massachusetts but draws musicians and composers in from far and wide, was to have been in residence at Clark University this spring. Those plans have had to be canceled, although the ensemble has a close relationship with Clark. The composition process for “Angelus,” released April 24 by New Focus Recordings, began in a specific time and place.
In 2014, Aylward accompanied his mother, Monika, on her first journey back to Germany since she was a World War II refugee. They visited the towns and villages in Western Germany where the refugee replacement camps she was living in after being moved from Berlin in 1945 were located. “It was an incredible experience,” Aylward said. While in Europe, they also spent a couple of days in Paris, including visiting Centre Pompidou and viewing Paul Klee’s striking 1920 monoprint “Angelus Novus.” Inspired by this painting and specifically its central image of the Angel of History, Aylward discovered German Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin’s text that powerfully describes this work of art and his own interpretation.
“I started the work without even knowing what I was doing,” Aylward said. “I was writing small pieces at the time that were not stand alone.” Benjamin had described the angel as “looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating.” But a storm “irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.”
Benjamin committed suicide in 1940 after thinking he was going to be deported from Spain back into Nazi-occupied France and fall into Nazi hands. “Walter Benjamin’s journey did not end well. My mother was incredibly lucky to survive,” Aylward said. Over the course of four years, Aylward wrote pieces with selections from Benjamin’s texts as well as adding other authors ranging from Plato do D.H. Lawrence and American poets Adrienne Rich and Weldon Kees. “I started to sew this together,” Aylward said.
“This work is dedicated to my mother and to all those who have been displaced by violence and war, to their resilience and search for meaning in darkness,” Aylward said. Furthermore, “I look on this piece now as a spiritual, psychological and philosophical treatise on the human condition.”
Always atmospheric, with sometimes a brooding discordance and an occasional frenzied crescendo, “Angelus” begins with Rich’s “Clear Night” and Guo speaking the words ″This is what is possible.” You also hear the words “Never” and “Cannot.” Later, an angel does seem to descend to Earth, echoing Plato’s words “the soul which has never seen the truth will not pass into human form.” By the concluding movement, based on Kees’ “A Distance from the Sea,” the mood is subdued, if calm. In the poem itself, Kees suggests the journey has been worth it but comes with after thoughts: “It seems I am experiencing a kind of ecstasy/Was it sunlight on the waves that day? The night comes down./And now the water seems remote, unreal, and perhaps it is.”
After coming to the United States, Aylward’s mother, now 79, joined a convent when she was 14 and became a Catholic nun. She left the convent and met her future husband in Chicago. After getting married, they moved to Arizona. “They decided to get away from it all.” Aylward grew up in Tuscon, and has five siblings.
People are comparing the current situation to World War II with the displacement, death and numbers, Aylward noted. Monika described her experiences in Europe to her children “as fairy tales,” Aylward recalled. A magical truck appearing with food, for example. In reality, lines of starving refugees were outside the camp watching trucks go by all day in the hope some food might fall off of one of them. “I had to find what the realities of these stories really was and then my mother really did open up on how hard it really was,” Aylward said.
“She is incredibly calm and wise. We (the siblings) were all blessed to have this resilience. We all have the sense that life is incredible because of my mother’s experience. You get the sense that not only is everything fragile but things are volatile all around. The fragility I wanted to explore in the piece is really radiating right now, which is why I’m speechless.”
Aylward’s music has embraced solo works, chamber music, orchestral work and music for film. With his Southwestern background, his music has often explored concerns related to that landscape and culture such as ancestral concepts of time, appropriations of indigenous cultures into surrealism and impressionism, and the connections between native traditions and Greek and Roman mythology. He has received a number of commissions including from members of Klangforum Wien and Court-Circuit, Icon, the Washington Square Contemporary Music Society and from Open Space. The Boston Globe has described him as “a composer of wide intellectual curiosity” who summons “textures of efficient richness, delicate and deep all at once.”
He came East to be a graduate student at Brandeis University, where he earned a doctorate in music composition and theory.
Aylward co-founded Ecce Ensemble (“ecce” is a Latin word meaning “behold!”) 10 years ago. “I wanted to make performances more available to composers. I needed to workshop my material, listen more,” he said. With Ecce he is also director of the Etchings Festival for Contemporary Music, which has been held every summer. “We bring composers in and spend a week on a piece,” he said.
With regard to teaching, “I really do feel like a natural educator and that aspect of my work is really complementary.” Bringing in Ecce Ensemble is part of that process, he said. “I’m very happy that students at Clark have that window into my work.”
Ecce Ensemble has previously been in residence at Clark. Aylward is also involved with the local music scene here, including helping host the Worcester Chamber Music Society at Clark.
“Worcester’s great for classical music, but you can hear great music of almost anything in Worcester,” he said. His hope with “Angelus” is that “the piece would be a tonic for anyone’s psychological searching and the fragile psychological state we find ourselves,” he said. “I think the hope was that the listener would go on this journey with me. I’d like the listener to think that there are aspects of their personality and psyche that they haven’t explored and this piece is touching them.”
— Richard Duckett, 5.03.2020
Written from 2014 to 2018, Angelus is a contemplative monodrama for voice and chamber ensemble. The ten texts are by Larence, Nietzsche, Plato, and others; the central idea comes from a painting by Paul Klee owned by Walter Benjamin along with Benjamin’s striking observations on the transcendence and transience of angels. American composer John Aylward describes the piece as “a raw exploration of life felt through the lenses of various cultural histories, represented in the pastiche of authors that inhabit the work’s landscape. My mother’s own life as a refugee after World War II is the foundational inspiration.”
Given this description, one might expect this to be a grim piece of modernist expressionism, but for the most part it is delicate and poetic, with subtle, shimmering, imaginative colors conjured by the Ecce Ensemble, which specializes in new interdisciplinary commissions, and heroic work by vocalist Nina Guo, who speaks, sings, and chants in a voice that is at once ethereal and powerful. Aylward dedicates the piece “to my mother and to all those who have been displaced by violence and war, to their resilience and search for meaning in darkness.: Angelus is worthy of this dedication and ideal for these troubled times.
— Sullivan, 7.01.2020
As compelling as Angelus (2014-18) sounds in this forty-three-minute iteration by the Ecce ensemble, the background to this monodrama by American composer John Aylward (b. 1980) is as fascinating. The project's genesis originated in a 2014 trip to Europe he undertook with his mother, who hadn't been back since fleeing from Germany as a refugee during WWII. Inspired by a viewing of Paul Klee's Angelus Novus at Paris's Centre Pompidou, Aylward discovered text by Walter Benjamin about the 1920 monoprint (which the writer once owned, in fact) that the composer then set to music, as he also did with extracts of writings by Schopenhauer, Jung, Plato, Adrienne Rich, and others. In grappling with existential questions, the ten-part vocal chamber work, in Aylward's words, constitutes “an exploration of life felt through the lenses of various cultural histories [and] a kind of treatise on the human experience.” Stated otherwise, his piece aspires to examine human experience through the filters of physical, spiritual, and psychological prisms. The leap from Klee's angel to the weighty thematic material of Angelus derives from Benjamin, who regarded the image as the “Angel of History,” one bearing witness to the horrors of the past and the destruction wrought by humanity.
For this recording, Ecce ensemble conductor Jean-Phillipe Wurtz puts Nina Guo (voice), Emi Ferguson (flutes), Hassan Anderson (oboe), Barret Ham (clarinets), Pala Garcia (violin), John Popham (cello), and Sam Budish (percussion) through their paces. All are integral to the presentation and acquit themselves superbly, but it's Guo who deserves special mention. Angelus demands so much from its singer, who's at once vocalist, speaker, raconteur, and witness, one imagines her both lusting after the part and experiencing no small amount of trepidation in taking it on. With so many vocal techniques called upon, the work becomes an incredible test of the singer's range, but it's a test Guo clearly passes. She repeatedly alternates between monotone recitation and theatrical outpourings, her shifts precisely attuned to the music. Hear, for example, how fluidly she segues, in the Nietzsche-based third movement, from an impassively delivered spoken part (“We must value the force…”) to singing in the upper-register (“… that forms, shapes, simplifies, …”), such transitions repeated seamlessly throughout. Or, in the fifth part “Supreme Triumph” (its text from D. H. Lawrence's Apocalypse), consider the various vocal treatments the word “now” receives—the first spoken, the second shouted, the third whispered, the fourth leaping high—as well as the equal degree of attention given the other text in the movement. Guo's performance in “Anima,” from whispers and dry utterances to stutters and tongue flutters, is remarkable, as is Ferguson's flute playing in the way it mirrors the singer with extended treatments of its own.
The vocal dimension is central in another way too. Aylward fashions the instrumental writing so that it follows, accents, and complements the singer's lines, with the composer acutely sensitive to the timbral properties of the instruments. The result is gripping music of a high order, and dense too despite being performed by a chamber group of modest size. Consistent with the texts, Aylward's music invites close listening to appreciate how carefully the vocal-and-instrument configurations have been devised. It's as common for Guo to be accompanied by a single instrument, be it cello, oboe, flute, or percussion, as the full ensemble. The work's climax arrives at the end of its penultimate part, “The Wing,” which otherwise presents Guo's rendering of Plato's Phaedrus with a virtuosic violin display by Garcia as accompaniment. The final movement, a subdued treatment—welcome after the preceding part's frenzy—of excerpts from Weldon Kees' A Distance from the Sea, provides a satisfying resolution, Guo musing calmly against a dreamlike backdrop of alto flute, clarinet, and vibraphone.
Angelus possesses no formal ties to any particular tradition or school, but its expressive stylistic character and spoken-and-sung vocal dimension suggests it would naturally appeal to devotees of Berg and Schoenberg. The manner by which Aylward conjoins his vocal and instrumental elements in the work sometimes calls to mind Berg's handling of orchestration in Wozzeck and Lulu—a comparison any living composer, I'm guessing, would be happy to accept.
— Ron Schepper, 7.10.2020