The Sacramento Choral Calendar
VOX-ED: An Educational Outreach Project - February 22, 2015
by Dick Frantzreb
Every Vox Musica concert is completely different from all that have gone before, and this was no exception. Every Vox Musica concert is also educational, but this one was especially so. It was held in Vox’s new “home”: Beatnik Studios. It’s a converted industrial space that seems unfinished, with high ceilings, lots of windows – and excellent acoustics. With folding chairs and an audience numbering fewer than 100, there was already an atmosphere of informality, but Vox Musica founder and director, Daniel Paulson, emphasized the point saying, “Relax... enjoy yourself,” adding that we would be able to ask questions as the afternoon proceeded. He noted that this would be “an opportunity to explain what we do," and he started by warming up the 10 Vox singers.
I dare say it was a warm-up unlike any you have heard before – unless you're in one of Paulson’s Sac City College choruses. I've seen (and participated in) a lot of warm-up rituals, but this was unique. The warm-up began with the women vocalizing against a drone, and it proceeded into a series of exercises that included solfège. I couldn't take notes fast enough to be able to describe it further, other than to say that it clearly was based on research and a well-informed understanding of vocal production. Considering the educational theme of this event, I found myself thinking that participating in this ensemble would be an educational experience for any singer.
This concert was the culmination of a week of Vox Musica members conducting 10 workshops in 5 high schools (Antelope, Christian Brothers, St. Francis, Elk Grove and Oak Ridge), plus one middle school (St. Patrick Academy). The idea for this project came from an experience that Vox Musica had last year. The Tahoe Arts Commission invited them to conduct a series of workshops and assemblies that reached nearly 1500 elementary through high school students. To summarize the previous week's experience with Sacramento-area schools, Paulson showed us a 10-minute video that illustrated teams of Vox members listening to students perform, singing for them, and sharing their expertise about music theory and singing technique. (Capital Public Radio did a spot on the visit to St. Patrick Academy, which you can view at this link: http://www.capradio.org/42998.)
What followed was an educational experience for all of us in the audience. Paulson spoke a bit about Gregorian Chant, illustrating his points with graphics displayed on a large video monitor, which he controlled from his iPad. As he displayed graphically and then demonstrated the several modes of Gregorian Chant, I began to feel incredibly ignorant: there was so much more to this subject than I had imagined. The piece which the singers then performed, called "Magnificat (Tone VIII)" and arranged by Paulson himself, was unlike any Gregorian Chant I have ever heard. It had a constant pedal tone and notes sung by different vocal parts that were in such close harmony that their pitch had to be mercilessly precise. At the conclusion, Paulson mentioned that the piece had been "enhanced in the Vox style of modernizing." I should add that I think the whole piece would have been impossibly difficult for the average singer.
(Click here to open the program in a new window.)
After Paulson outlined the concept of the motet and its history, the ladies of Vox Musica performed "O Regem Coeli - Natus Est Nobis" by Tomás Luis de Victoria. As was everything in this concert, the piece was impeccably performed. Then Paulson outlined the evolution of musical notation and the forms that led up to the motet we had just heard. By this time, I realized that we were essentially getting a college lecture – not surprising since Paulson is Professor of Music at Sacramento City College.
The next topic of discussion was the canon, and to make sure everyone in the audience was on board, Paulson had us sing "Row, Row Your Boat" as a round. With that, he explained that Brahms' compositions in this form (e.g. his "Thirteen Canons," Op. 113) were much more complex, and to illustrate the point, the ladies performed No. 9 from this collection. From a listener's perspective it was engaging, to say the least. I had trouble identifying the repeated theme, but I did get a lot of enjoyment in following the different musical lines and hearing the harmonies produced by the intersection of those lines.
Next we were given a preview of Vox's next concert, "VOX-CHAI: A Jewish Choral Project." It was two Jewish folk songs arranged by Vox's composer-in-residence, Portia Njoku. It's hard to comment on this music. In my notes I wrote "This is a very cerebral experience," and I found myself struggling to hear and understand what was going on musically. It certainly left me wanting to hear the piece again at the upcoming concert, so I can perhaps appreciate it more in context.
At the conclusion of these two folk songs, Paulson asked members of Vox to talk informally about their experiences in the schools. Several of them did, even getting spontaneous comments from a couple of the students who been in their workshops and who happened to be in the audience.
"Maggie and Milly and Molly and May" was introduced as an example of "text painting," and Paulson noted that it is "one of our hallmark pieces." On the surface, it's a children's song, and Paulson commented that it indeed illustrates the idea of "play." But though it was clearly playful, it was also fascinatingly complex and thought-provoking.
The next suite of music, "My Love and I Are Talk Obsessed" was explained as a "madrigal of the information age" – not because it represented an innovation in the madrigal form, but because the subject of each of the 5 pieces was a social consequence of contemporary communications: a flirtation between cars stuck momentarily in traffic, a bad cell phone connection, being "talk-obsessed," turning off one's phone to avoid unwanted calls, and breaking off a relationship via text message. As you can guess from the subject, this music, though challenging to perform and musically interesting, was also absolutely hilarious. (Be sure to check out the lyrics in the attached program.)
Having illustrated an evolution or range of musical styles: chant, motet, romantic, world/folk, children's, and modern — the concert proceeded to "popular" with an example from the movie, Frozen. No, not one of the ubiquitous songs like "Let It Go" or "Love Is an Open Door," but "Vuelie," the opening song of the movie that is an example of the Norwegian singing style of "joik." Quoting from the program, "A joik is a type of chant traditionally in a pentatonic scale and usually with short repetitive words. It's not what you would traditionally call a 'song' but instead is an expression of the essence of something. You can joik the wind, a friend, your family and more." As with all the music in this performance – or in every Vox performance – it was interesting, engaging, and pretty much unlike anything I'd ever heard before.
The next piece, "Early Morning Blue," by Portia Njoku (Vox composer-in-residence who was present this afternoon) was something I had heard before – at a Vox concert last year of new compositions by local composers. It could be called a sound painting with prolonged tones that evolved through dissonances into new harmonies. Initially it was almost trance-inducing, and it required extraordinary precision from the singers in holding and moving their pitches until eventually more of a vocal line became apparent. At its conclusion, Paulson turned to us and said "Now that's Vox music, right?" He proceeded to talk about the difficulties in tuning the piece, and as he explained and demonstrated, I began to feel that Daniel Paulson hears things that ordinary people do not, or at least that we are not conscious of.
The last scheduled piece, “Knee Play” by Philip Glass and identified in the program as “minimal music” was indeed that. In introducing it, Paulson gave us some background on solfège, and noted that in this piece instrumental lines had been replaced with voices. In performing it, the members of the ensemble sang the numbers one through eight on particular tones, then solfège syllables, eventually progressing to a neutral “loo-loo.” It was simply mesmerizing.
With the concert at an apparent end, the ensemble sang an encore that was so different from everything that had gone before as to be as shocking as it was entertaining. The song was “Keep on Singing,” a masterful example of vocal jazz, complete with beatboxing.
“And now for something completely different” could be as apt a motto for Vox Musica as the one they have adopted: “Music worth sharing.” I came expecting to hear about their experience in working with local schools. I got that, but I got a lot more: they filled a lot of gaps in my own music education, and introduced me to a lot of music that was, indeed, worth sharing.