The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Voices in Poetry - February 18, 2017
by Dick Frantzreb
I think of myself as the eyes and ears of those who couldn’t attend a given concert but who are curious to know what it was like. So what was this concert like? I’d venture to say that it was unlike anything you’ve ever heard. But that is true of so many Vox Musica concerts. Each one is completely fresh, the product of a constant process of reinvention. I have heard concerts that focused on traditional music forms (e.g. Baroque or liturgical Slavic music), different ethnicities (e.g. Jewish or Native American), and there have been many concerts that wouldn’t fit in a convenient categorization. Furthermore, Founder and Director Daniel Paulson is a great collaborator, and nearly every concert I’ve witnessed involved a collaboration with someone, often an instrumentalist. Then there have been concerts that have highlighted local composers, as the current one, which consisted exclusively of new compositions by 7 mostly Northern Californian (if not Sacramento-based) composers ― plus a composition by Paulson himself.
(Click here to open the concert program in a new window.)
The initial collaborator for this concert was poet Renée Aubern. Over the course of a year she composed poems early in the morning and late at night for a 3-week period in each season. The resulting compilation was titled, To Swim in Your Hazy Head, and the poetry in this concert was drawn from this work. (Be sure to consult the attached program for further details, including bios and comments by poet and composer on each selection performed.)
The concert started with 4 morning pieces from each season, followed by an instrumental interlude and 4 evening pieces. Each selection began with Aubern reading the brief poem on which the music was based. I heard this concert in St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, and unfortunately the resonance of this space that is so flattering to singers obscured most of Aubern’s words for those who (like me) were sitting toward the back of the church. The commentary in the printed program helped somewhat to understand what was being presented. However, to fully appreciate this collaboration between poet and composer would have required hearing the poem itself (or reading it in the program).
I can’t really characterize the music I heard. Most of the harmonics were “adventurous,” often with innovative vocal effects and unexpected rhythms. To my ear, the music was certainly listenable, often engaging. And there was a lot that was thought-provoking, even arresting. Music is about emotion, but without being able to discern the words of the poem (or read them), it was difficult to interpret the emotion represented. Still, even without those aids, I recall passages that were beautifully haunting ― and another that was simply frightening. More than once I felt the melancholy in the music. Much of the poetry in To Swim in Your Hazy Head seemed to come from a place of pain, and that pain was often evident in the harmonic structure of the music.
Another key collaborator in this concert was percussionist, Laura Inserra, whose instrumental contributions were a feature of each choral piece ― and each contribution was different. Many, though, involved an intriguing instrument called a “hang drum.” Invented in Switzerland in 2001, it consists of what are essentially two steel drums joined at the rim and not too big to be held by the person playing them. Tapping on one side gives musical tones, and tapping on the other gives a percussive sound. There were other instruments: blossom bells, the khene, and one or two others for which I don’t have the name. All these instruments added a distinctive texture that complemented the women’s voices. And Inserra had an opportunity in the middle of the program to play by herself. I would characterize that performance as simply ethereal.
As always, the tone quality and blending of voices was nothing short of superb. And St. Paul’s was the perfect venue for these smart singers with their excellent sense of pitch. This music was essentially a cappella in that I don’t think pitches were obtained from the unusual instruments played by Inserra. I kept wondering “Where do they get their pitches from?” Or even more to the point, “How do they keep their pitches?” The answer, I guess, is talent and experience and coaching from Paulson. With that blend of elements, Vox Musica undertakes the performance of insanely difficult music ― and does so successfully, time and again.
For a couple of the pieces, there was a bit of staging. In “Dreamers No. 2” Inserra played the “blossom bells” ― a cluster of 6 metallic cones. Holding the apparatus in one hand, she walked through the audience striking the cones with a mallet and waving the instrument in the air. There was more staging in “Photo Lab,” the piece composed by Paulson. Poet Aubern came down the middle aisle reading her poem, while the singers slowly surrounded the audience, repeating a single word, I believe. Meanwhile Paulson sang from the altar, first by himself, then joined by Susanna Peeples. The music reflected a painful time in Paulson’s youth, and though there was much more to the composition, the pain came through in the performance. It felt like the surrounding singers ended the song in a sigh or perhaps even a moan.
To a large extent, the composers were the focus of the evening, and four of them were in the audience. Paulson made the fifth of 8, and I’d have to include Inserra in their number because much of her work was improvisational. The 7 composers were the “winners” in what has been essentially an annual competition run by Vox Musica. This year the work with the composers included an orientation to writing for women’s voices, interim feedback on their compositional ideas and then of course, consultation in preparation for the performance. Nathan Woodward’s comment in the program probably reflects the experience of many of the composers. “Setting the text to music was a process of listening ― to the sounds of the language, to the images the words brought to mind and the motions and sensations that accompanied them.”
This was not music that you could listen to casually ― while doing or thinking about something else. It demanded attention, analysis, introspection and imagination. And I guess that reflects the motto of Vox Musica: “music worth sharing.” That motto has always rung true for me, and I approached the music on this evening as a person with a negligible music education, not really understanding the nuances of what I was hearing. But you don’t have to understand to feel, and there was a lot to feel and experience in this concert. Still, I envy the director, performers and composers who understood more deeply what was presented and thus were able to appreciate it on a higher level.
Paulson addressed the appreciative audience at the end of the concert, inviting people to mix with the performers and read the poetry which was strung on sheets on either side of the performance space. He also invited people to reassemble after 10 minutes to ask questions of the performers and discuss the concert ― and about a third of the audience accepted his invitation, returning to ask questions about the instruments or questions like “Which piece was the hardest to learn and sing ― and why?” With performers, poet and composers sharing details of the creative process, this question-and-answer session generated a lot of positive energy. It was an unusual end to an unusual concert of music that was, indeed, “worth sharing.”