Sound Garden

David Bratman on November 16, 2009
Some ensembles offering contemporary choral music specialize in the extreme “listener-friendly” end of the spectrum. Not so the San Francisco chamber chorus called Volti, which is interested in something more challenging, both to perform and to listen to. Sunday in Palo Alto’s All Saints’ Episcopal Church, a small, round, concrete bunker of modernist architecture that was extra dark (the fluorescent lights were off, because they buzz), Volti performed a well-rounded program of small, dark, concretely modern works of music.
Robert Geary

Volti is an extremely able choir of 20 voices who sing unaccompanied. Artistic Director Robert Geary pulls the sound out of the ensemble with grace and precision. The singers pay close attention to the purely musical quality of their work, carefully adjusting their pronunciation so that sibilants and plosives do not grate. The beauty of sound controls the music: It yields no quarter to intelligibility of the lyrics. In a work like Eric Moe’s The Crowds Cheered As Gloom Galloped Away, where the music is closely tied to its text — a prose poem by Matthea Harvey fantasizing on antidepressant medications, of all things — something is lost when the lyrics are difficult to make out, and more so when the lyrics are challenging to read in the program book in a darkening church late on a fall afternoon.

When you could make out the words, there seemed something essentially gimmicky about Moe’s treatment of them. On the word happier, for instance, the line jumps and goes up; on sadness it goes down. The word wobble wobbles; gloom is a low, held, gloomy note; trotting is sung to a dotted rhythm. During a line humorously evoking juvenile delinquency, the chorus snaps their fingers, as if this were an out-take from West Side Story.

Some of the other works did a bit of the same thing, though less blatantly or mechanically. Chorus member Joshua Fishbein’s The Poetry of Earth, set to a Keats sonnet, goes dissonant on the word dead and uses hopping dotted notes to describe the grasshopper and short, repeated chirping phrases for the cricket. Yet nothing in the program notes or in Fishbein’s spoken introduction to the piece suggests that he intended that particular expression of onomatopoeia, so my reaction may only have been the result of my bracing for it.

Comprehensibility of Lyrics a Virtue

Intelligibility depends on the composer, though, as well as on the singers. In Stacy Garrop’s Sonnets of Beauty and Music, to poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay — perhaps the most finely crafted composition on the program, full of varied antiphonal techniques — the words were clear, even when two sections of the chorus were moving through the same line of verse at different speeds. The second sonnet, on music, featured the program’s only solo part: a few fine lines for the low soprano of Pam Igelsrud against the gentle background of the chorus.

Mark Winges, Volti’s resident composer, set a greater challenge in Where Everything Is Music, by far the most chaotic work on the program, with individual lines flinging in various directions, full of chromatic chatter and fluttering murmurs, as if everyone in the chorus was trying to talk at once. Which, in a sense, they were, and sometimes you could even make out what they were saying. Winges fosters diffusion where his fellow composers are interested, at least in the end, in unity.

By contrast, Proverbs for Four at Fifty, settings of brief Hebrew biblical texts by Mark Zuckerman, was the most unified in sound of all the offerings: firm and hearty, alternating broad rich harmonies with canonical entrances and stark monophony. Two Poems by Delmore Schwartz by Wayne Peterson, the senior and best-known composer on the program, was somewhat similar, with gently smooth melodic lines and a satisfyingly effective use of sequential entrances on successive parallel phrases such as “I am tree, I am cat, I am blossom too.” Peterson, as well, can be closely imitative in word-setting: the word rage is suddenly loud; the word bang is emitted with a bang; when a little girl narrator confides a secret, the chorus briefly whispers.

Best of all were the Two Motets of William Hawley, settings of classical Latin poems. Even starker than Zuckerman’s work, pungently spiced yet quiet, these motets were sung as spatial music, with the chorus spread out around the circumference of the church’s walls. This created a much more delicate sound than when they were all bunched together on the raised pulpit area (as for the other works), where the strong voices were capable of overpowering the highly reflective space whenever all sang together at full volume. When the choristers of Volti are singing at All Saints’ in Palo Alto, they should find more such compositions: This is a venue made for spatial music.