Wendy Richman: vox/viola


Violist Wendy Richman, a founding member of the International Contemporary Ensemble, releases her debut full length recording of music she commissioned for voice and viola for one performer. Including premieres by Ken Ueno, Christian Carey, Arlene Sierra, Everette Minchew, José-Luis Hurtado, David Smooke, Jason Eckardt, Lou Bunk, and Stephen Gorbos, Richman significantly expands the repertoire for singing violist with this varied program.


# Audio Title/Composer(s) Performer(s) Time
Total Time 62:59
01He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven
He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven
03Scelsi Frammenti
Scelsi Frammenti
04Extraordinary Rendition
Extraordinary Rendition
06Palabras en alto
Palabras en alto
07"to be held..."
"to be held..."
09Song for Sendai
Song for Sendai

Wendy Richman’s “vox/viola” chronicles her evolving project commissioning works for singing violist. From conventional textures of melody and accompaniment (Carey, Ueno), experimental scores exploring timbral variation in both instruments (Hurtado, Bunk), compositions oriented around creating intentional clashes and beatings in pitch (Minchew, Smooke), works incorporating electronics (Gorbos, Eckardt), to Arlene Sierra’s character piece, each work on “vox/viola” discovers innovative ways of taking advantage of the added parameter of Richman’s voice to create a unique sound world. The repertoire for singing instrumentalist is a growing one, and these nine pieces significantly expand the available works for viola in the genre.

“vox/viola” opens warmly with Christian Carey’s inviting He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven. Setting a Yeats text, the work opens with a broad, processional solo viola introduction. The voice enters over a flowing instrumental line and rises in register over the course of the song, closing with a luminescent perfect fifth double stop. Stephen Gorbos’ Veiled is the first work including electronics on the album, and uses the different elements at play to explore textural and sonic distances. The vocal line chants wordless contours, the viola inhabits a more rhapsodic role, and the electronics create a shimmering, metallic environment which envelops both.

Read More

Giacinto Scelsi’s Manto III stands as an iconic precursor in the genre of works for singing violist, and Richman acknowledges its influence on this project in her notes. Lou Bunk’s Scelsi Frammenti is a direct homage to Manto III, as he excavates a rarefied vocabulary of over-pressure timbres, scratches, and high partial harmonics on the viola and deconstructed syllabic fragments from the text in the voice. The result is an intimate work that draws the listener in to a fragile set of delicate sounds and expressive gestures. As the climax of the work approaches, we hear the most sustained textures in the composition, sinewy glissandi in the voice and viola.

David Smooke’s Extraordinary Rendition uses drones, microtonality, beatings between closely spaced intervals, and angular rhythms to create an exotic severity worthy of its politically referential title (“extraordinary rendition” being the term used by Western nations for the dubious policy of flying suspects to nations with less restrictive policies on torture for interrogation.) Though the text is not based on an existing language, the meaning of the quick gasps for air in the vocal part are impossible to misunderstand.

Arlene Sierra merges two sources of inspiration in Cricket-Viol, an imitation of a cricket’s natural chirping song, heard in the opening viola figures, and the Renaissance and Baroque viol, or viola da gamba, the forebearer of the modern instrument we hear here, heard later in open fifths and resonant passages. The voice glues the contrasting material together with descending wordless sighs. José-Luis Hurtado’s Palabras en alto returns to the rarefied textures of the Bunk, but this time integrating pitch, extended technique, and noise into hyper-expressive phrases. Ritualistic whispering is accompanied by skittering col legnos, percolating tremolandi, and groaning over-pressure sounds. There is some hint here of George Crumb’s affinity for spacious examination of silence and theatricality, but in Hurtado’s music, sounds are filtered through a distorting lens, occasionally coming at the listener in surprising and unexpected ways.

Jason Eckardt’s “to be held…” is a meditation on incrementally shifting, sustained pitches in the viola, voice, and electronics part (pre-recorded material of Richman as well). The texture is both static and dynamic at the same time as intervals are always expanding or contracting between the voices. After a five minute registral ascension, the piece suddenly halts for a brief moment of reflection before a coda that fades away on a high viola double stop.

Everette Minchew’s Gakka establishes an independent relationship between an impassioned, freely notated vocal line and a strictly metered viola part. The text is created from syllables in Richman’s name, and suggests a ritual ceremony. Gakka closes with the voice singing a poignant major seventh high above a viola unison drone. Ken Ueno writes, “Song for Sendai is a personal response to the mythical scale of devastation of Sendai, Japan, on 11 March 2011, the result of the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami.” Ueno references Voltaire’s philosophical reckoning with the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, citing it as the conceptual foundational for the opening section of the work (“Voltairean contemplation”), set as a passacaglia, representing in his words, “a kind of psychological stasis.” The second half of the work is a simple song, titled “Boy’s Song”, from the point of view of a son who lost his mother to the sea in the tsunami. Wendy Richman’s “vox/viola” comes full circle from Christian Carey’s processional opening to Ueno’s resigned farewell, with a panoply of textures in between performed with equal mastery, troubadour songs if you will, sung by a chanteuse and her viol.

- D. Lippel

  • Recorded at Oktaven Audio, Mount Vernon, NY, May-June 2017
  • Executive Producer: Jacob Greenberg
  • Recording Producer, Engineering and Mastering: Ryan Streber
  • Editing assistants: Hans Hsu, Charles Mueller, Teng Chen
  • Cover art: Leah Asher
  • Album layout and design: Marc Wolf, marcjwolf.com
  • Artist photo: Tatiana Daubek

Wendy Richman

Wendy Richman has been celebrated internationally for her compelling sound and imaginative interpretations. As a soloist and chamber musician, she has performed at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center Festival, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Miller Theater, Mostly Mozart Festival, Park Avenue Armory, Phillips Collection, and international festivals in Berlin, Darmstadt, Helsinki, Hong Kong, Karlsruhe, Morelia, and Vienna. She is a founding member of the New York-based International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) and a member of The Rhythm Method, a string quartet of four performer-composers that strives to reimagine the genre in a contemporary, feminist context.

Hailed by The New York Times and The Washington Post for her “absorbing,” “fresh and idiomatic” performances with “a brawny vitality,” Wendy collaborates closely with a wide range of composers. She presented the U.S. premieres of Kaija Saariaho’s Vent nocturne, Roberto Sierra’s Viola Concerto, and a fully-staged version of Luciano Berio’s Naturale. Upon hearing her interpretation of Berio’s Sequenza VI, The Baltimore Sun commented that she made “something at once dramatic and poetic out of the aggressive tremolo-like motif of the piece.”

Though best known for her interpretations of contemporary music, Wendy enjoys performing a diverse range of repertoire. She regularly performs with NYC’s Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and has collaborated with fortepianist Malcolm Bilson, the Claremont and Prometheus Trios, and members of the Cleveland, Juilliard, and Takács Quartets. She has also been a frequent guest with the viola sections of the Atlanta Symphony, Minnesota Orchestra, and St. Louis Symphony.

Wendy is on the string faculty of New York University (NYU Steinhardt), where she teaches viola, chamber music, and a class on extended string techniques. She has also held teaching positions at the University of Tennessee, University of Alabama, and Cornell University, as well as NYU Summer Strings, Walden School Summer Young Musicians Program, Sewanee Summer Music Festival, and Music in the Mountains Conservatory.

Wendy earned degrees from Oberlin Conservatory (BM), New England Conservatory (MM), and Eastman School of Music (DMA).

She studied viola with Carol Rodland, Kim Kashkashian, Peter Slowik, Jeffrey Irvine, and Sara Harmelink, and voice with Marlene Ralis Rosen, Judith Kellock, and Mary Galbraith. vox/viola is her debut solo album.



AnEarful — Best of 2019: Classical

While I have heard string players vocalize along with their instruments, Richman’s debut solo album is the most sustained investigation of the practice I can recall. Richman, the founding violist for the International Contemporary Ensemble, commissioned all nine pieces, demonstrating not only superb taste in composers but an adventurous spirit that has her going all-in on whatever they dish out. It’s no surprise that her viola technique is beyond a compare, but her voice is equally controlled and flexible, whether as a honeyed mezzo on the British Isles folk of Christian Carey’s He Wishes For The Cloths Of Heaven (based on lines from Yeats), or gasping and ululating on demanding pieces by Lou Bunk and Everette Minchew. At some of the darker moments, the late work of Nico may come to mind, or even Diamanda Galas. The sequencing of the album is quite brilliant, too, giving you the feeling of being led through an experience, rather than being manhandled by the stylistic twists and turns. This is true right to the end, as the last track is Ken Ueno’s stately Song For Sendai, almost coming full circle to the mood of the Carey piece. On the whole, a triumph. Listen and hear a genre being born.

— Jeremy Shatan, 1.11.2020


Avant Music News

For vox/viola, her debut solo album featuring recent work for viola and voice, violist/vocalist Wendy Richman has chosen a most appropriate duet partner: herself. Richman, a founding member of the International Chamber Ensemble who specializes in new performance techniques, is an accomplished performer on voice as well as viola, as she amply demonstrates on this collection of engaging works engagingly performed.

The works appearing on the album were commissioned by Richman as part of an ongoing effort to build a substantial contemporary repertoire for vocalist/violist. Modern work for singing violist traces back to Giacinto Scelsi’s Manto III of 1957, an inventive composition that joined extended string performance techniques to a sung text drawn from the Delphic oracles. Composer Lou Bunk’s (b. 1972) Scelsi Frammenti (2010) self-awarely carries Scelsi’s work forward by setting a text of broken consonants and vowels over a viola part based on Bunk’s improvisations on a homemade bowed instrument made of Styrofoam and cardboard. The piece captures and refracts the radicalism of Scelsi’s vocabulary with a series of scratches, creaks, and harmonics on the one side, and sustained vowels and stuttering consonants on the other.

Also inspired by Manto III is “to be held…” by Jason Eckardt (b. 1971) a work composed in 2012 for viola, voice, and prerecorded media. The title is taken from poet Charles Olson’s manifesto “Projective Verse,” which articulated a notion of measuring the poetic line by the length of a breath; the sung text derives from poet Robert Creeley’s “The Language.” The piece comprises a slow, microtonal counterpoint made up of elongated sung, played and played-back tones that approach, meet and diverge in slowly moving sound masses that build and sustain tension before culminating in an extreme upper register fadeout. The first part of Extraordinary Rendition (2010) by David Smooke (b. 1969) also uses long-period microtonal movements, but then turns dramatically to staccato phrasing for bow and hard consonants. José-Luis Hurtado’s Palabras en alto exploits changes in dynamic range as a way to frame and throw into sharp relief the color contrasts and expressive force inherent in a mobile series of extended gestures for strings and voice.

The above works represent just some of the highlights of the album; the other compositions, by Christian Carey, Stephen Gorbos, Arlene Sierra, Everette Minchew, and Ken Ueno, exhibit a wide and stimulating range of creative approaches to having voice and viola interact through a single performer. All are certainly worth hearing.

— Daniel Barbiero, 2.18.2020


Take Effect Reviews

Perhaps best known as being a founding member of the International Contemporary Ensemble, Wendy Richman offers us her debut effort of recordings she commissioned for voice and viola and one performer, which allows us the premiere of artists like Ken Ueno, Arlene Sierra and Jason Eckardt, plus many more.

The album leads with the stirring and emotive He Wishes For The Cloths Of Heaven, where Richman’s expressive pipes glide along the meticulous viola in the Christian Carey composition, and Veiled, by Stephen Gorbos, follows with the addition of electronics to the sublime texturing.

Close to the middle, David Smooke’s Extraordinary Rendition is particularly interesting with its droning, atypical rhythm and manipulations of tonality amid the vocally acrobatic display, and Cricket-Viol, by Arlene Sierra, mimics a cricket’s natural chirping with much beauty in its wordless singing.

As we approach the end, to be held… benefits from lengthy pitches of viola, voice and electronics wrapped up in a soothing, meditative quality, and Ken Ueno’s Song For Sendai exits the listen with Richman’s strong viola prowess and inimitable vocals interacting together with much charm and eloquence.

Richman has an impressive resume that includes playing at Carnegie Hall and festivals around the world, as well as being an educator, and here she displays much ingenuity and unparalleled skill with her profound song craft.

— Tom Haugen, 12.19.2020



One performer, two (at least) voices: welcome to music for solo voice and viola, which frankly comes across as a window into another world. All credit to Wendy Richman, who uses her not inconsiderable powers of persuasion to enable this album to cohere into a wide-ranging, cogent, and ultimately very human statement.

The first calling point is Christian Carey’s He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven (2010). Perhaps inevitably the sound of voice and viola brings in memories of Berio Folksongs; the text here though is by W. B. Yeats (“Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths ... ”). It is a most poignant setting. A scholar as well as a composer (his work on Elliott Carter was presented at IRCAM in Paris and subsequently published), Christian Carey has a steady compositional hand. The loneliness continues, if of a rather more filled-in variety, in Stephen Gorbos’s Veiled (2011), a meditation on transitionary spaces between departing and arriving, and the emotions they evoke. An electronic component adds to the prevailing sense of darkened mystery.

Those, like myself, in love with the music of Giacinto Scelsi will recognize something of his characteristically splintered, otherworldly sounds in Lou Bunk’s Scelsi Frammenti (2010). What we hear here is a “re-interpretation” of Bunk’s own improvisations “on a homemade bowed instrument (fabricated from cardboard and styrofoam), filtered through the sound-world of [Scelsi’s] Manto III.” The whole concept sounds simply fabulous (styrofoam; whyever not?) and what we hear is miraculously ephemeral, with Richman’s vocal contributions entirely of this other world. This is music that is barely of this world. At nearly 12 minutes it is the longest piece on the disc; and just long enough to offer an immersive experience.

Two meanings of the term “extraordinary rendition” inform David Smooke’s 2017 piece of that name: the idea of superb performance, and, very much on the other side of the coin, a “euphemism for a state-sponsored torture program in which suspects are flown by the United States (and other western democracies that oppose torture) to other counties that allow abusive interrogations, where people are forced to undergo horrific abuses.” Lyric meets rhythmic in a performance that emerges on repeated listenings to be far more virtuosic than first impressions may lead one to believe.

It is fair to say I am as enamored of the title of Arlene Sierra’s Cricket-Viol (2010) as I am of the piece itself. Readers may remember Sierra from the fabulous four-composer chamber opera Cuatro Corridos, unforgettably performed by Susan Narucki and friends on a Bridge disc reviewed by myself and several other critics in Fanfare 40:4. While I described Sierra’s panel of that chamber opera as gritty and lean, here her voice is pure and rarefied. Double meanings operate again in José-Luis Hurtado’s Palabras en alto (2009), which literally means “words in alto,” playing on the alto (= viola) while having a translated meaning of “to have your voice heard.” The text is by Nobel prize-winner Octavio Paz (text is included, but no translation).

Writer Charles Olsen and composer Jason Eckardt agree that poetry and music are both “energy transferred”; but the title “to be held … ” (2012) contains other meanings too, from the simple holding of an instrument to a valedictory gesture upon death. There is a rawness to Richman’s viola sound here that speaks of pain. I was surprised to see that the last time any of Jason Eckardt’s music was reviewed in Fanfare it was back in 2001 (issue 25:1, when Peter Burwasser reviewed Echoes’ White Veil); I like his daring in allowing textures (and notes) to speak for prolonged, even uncomfortable, durations. And just when one thinks that end has been reached and the piece has finished, it starts right where it left off.

Like Smooke’s piece, Everette Minchew’s Gakka plays with beatings between pitches while creating a text based on the syllables of Wendy Richman’s name. It was created before the two met in person (this is a good use for the Twitter platform: outgoing Presidents should perhaps take note) and has a haunting quality that is most appealing. Finally, Ken Ueno’s Song for Sendai (2011) was a response to the earthquake devastation of Sendai, Japan in March 2011 (Sendai was the composer’s hometown in childhood). The piece also refers back in time to the Lisbon quake of 1755, which changed man’s perception of the Universe and his relation to deity, a reference made explicit by quasi-Baroque musical gestures to form a “Voltairian” meditation in passacaglia form. The second part arose from the composer’s self-medication of using singing as therapy, as a methodology of consolation. The composer has stated he can never return to Sendai; this is his song of mourning, but one that contains the kernel of possible transformation via the exteriorization of emotions. It is a brave piece, hauntingly performed.

Words can hardly express Wendy Richman’s eloquence; the virtuosity required goes unnoticed. All the pieces on this disc were commissioned by and for Richman. A most touching experience, well recorded.

— Colin Clarke, 1.25.2021

Related Albums