If not for the fact that new choral music is an “in the know” kind of thing, Volti concerts would be a hard ticket to get. The chorus has a sterling reputation among professionals, and its members perform with a dedication and verve that is winning all on its own.
Sunday’s concert at ODC Theater, by turns hilarious and beautiful, featured the premieres of works by Pamela Z, one of America’s greatest living composers in electronic and mixed media music, who seems finally to be receiving due recognition, and the prolific Caroline Shaw, who seems never to have written a piece that wasn’t instantly lovable. The performance was led by Valérie Sainte-Agathe, guest conducting in Artistic Director Robert Geary’s stead.
Z has been recently inundated with commissions, and she’s developed the practice of recording interviews with musicians in the group and weaving bits of those interviews together in perspicacious ways. She followed this procedure in Ink, a work created during the pandemic for streaming online and reconfigured into a score for live performance this past weekend.
However, the original inspiration for the piece lies in its last, eponymously titled movement, which is a fugue and quite a lovely one. Its text, compiled by Z from internet sources, runs, “Millions of microscopic droplets of water-based ink are precisely sprayed from a printhead onto the paper, producing photographic prints, but the text is not as sharp or as crisp because the liquid ink soaks through the fiber of the paper and bleeds before it dries.” If you have a sense of humor, you might guess what happens when you get to “bleeds before it dries.” The score, which was projected on a screen behind the singers, has lots of almost randomized blots that obscure the music and cause the singers of that line to resort to mumbling.
In writing the first movement, “drink,” Z asked the singers to give the recipe for their favorite beverages, from which she fashioned an entertaining collage. In performance, the choristers contributed musical echoes and responses and even used shakers and lemons, with one singer giving comic facial expressions and gestures to express her opinion on the shaken/stirred martini divide.
Probably the most arresting movement was “blink,” where Z asked the singers to gaze calmly into the Zoom camera for a minute or so and then had the chorus sing notes each time they blinked. For live performance, the composer had the lights turned up on the audience for part of the piece so that the music became briefly aleatoric before it ended with the video of a chorister who actually took a minute to blink. The other movements, “think” and “link,” were equally inventive.
This is the sort of music that reminds us, as John Cage taught, that music is all around us, we just have to listen to it. But it’s also a tour of the little things that make us human, such as the fact that when we’re asked a question, we tend to respond with some form of “I think.”
As a composer, Shaw cut her teeth with Roomful of Teeth, the choral group she sings with and for which she composed her 2013 Pulitzer Prize-winning Partita. No surprise that the stylistic preferences she showed there still animate her writing. As she wrote in a program note, she often composes whole movements without text, and when she does turn to words to get meaning across, she often compiles fragments from several sources into a single movement.
Shaw’s choral works are fluid, melodic, and deeply emotional and expressive, and Ochre is gorgeous, although technically treacherous for the chorus. To take one example, the score requires a vocal glissando down through several chords that have to remain precisely tuned. Fortunately, Volti’s singers are completely unfazed by such challenges, and this despite having received two of the movements at the last minute. Sainte-Agathe gave them the choice of whether to include those final movements or just to perform the music they felt safe with — so, of course, they chose to perform the whole thing. I doubt anyone could have guessed without being told in the post-concert talk that this was the case.
Ochre is a meditation on earth, the colors of earth, and our connection to it. The piece is inspired by Heidi Gustafson’s Dust to Dust: A Geology of Color, and photos from the book were projected behind the singers. Shaw’s interest in science has appeared in a number of her compositions. In Ochre, earth tones provide connections to Alfred Tennyson’s “In Memoriam A.H.H.” (“The solid earth whereon we tread / in tracts of fluent heat began”), to Goethe’s “Wandrers Nachtlied” (Wanderer’s nightsong), and even to Josquin des Prez’s “Mille regretz” (A thousand regrets), alluding gently to human-driven climate change. Percussionist Ward Spangler accompanied the singers with bass-drum heartbeats in the middle movement and quiet tolling on the vibraphone. This was a luminous score that also flowed purposefully and lyrically to a quiet fadeout on the word “soon.” I doubt that there was anything on offer this weekend that was as entertaining and moving as the hour and 20 minutes you could have spent with Volti.