An Argument for the Oral in Choral

May 17, 2014


VoltiChamber choir Volti closed its 35th season with world premieres of music by American composers Melissa Dunphy and Ted Hearne (who is the S.F. Symphony’s New Voices composer for next season), plus two earlier Volti-commissions from Kirke Mechem, in a concert titled (Ch)oral argument.

The concert title is also is the name of the central movement of Ted Hearne’s new composition Sound From the Bench, co-commissioned by Volti and The Crossing, Philadelphia’s new music choir, as well as the main focus of Saturday night’s concert.

The piece, in five movements, uses texts by poet Jena Osman from her book Corporate Relations, a collection of poems that follows the historical trajectory of corporate personhood in the United States.

Osman extracts her texts from all kinds of different sources. (Ch)oral argument consists of evocative snippets from the oral argument before the U.S. Supreme Court in the so-called ‘Citizens United’ case (about the relationship between corporations, political spending, and free speech) but she also takes parts of a how-to guide on ventriloquism from 1906, which Hearne uses to begin and end his cantata.

Hearne (b. 1982) builds on the underlying theme of human speech in the choral part of the score and contrasts the voices of the choir with the sound of two electric guitars and a percussionist on drums; then goes even deeper by quoting a motet by English Renaissance composer Thomas Tallis, written for Pentecost, in which the apostles speak in tongues.

In a recent radio-interview on KALW’s Open Air, Volti Director Robert Geary stated that he considers Sound From the Bench “richly complex and musically exciting. This piece has many layers and the only one who completely understands it right now is Ted Hearne himself. But we are having a great time sorting it out.”

The performance at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in San Francisco confirmed all of those statements. Hearne’s piece is an intricate assembly of rousing musical ideas, and Volti’s 20 professional singers — and Bob Geary — are clearly enjoying themselves greatly, even as it also leaves the listener with a lot of questions.

Hearne’s piece is an intricate assembly of rousing musical ideas, and Volti’s 20 professional singers — and Bob Geary— are clearly enjoying themselves greatly, even as it also leaves the listener with a lot of questions.

Sound From the Bench makes a statement, but I am not entirely sure what that statement is. Its strength no doubt originates from the powerful images in the text and the juxtaposition of the intensely divergent notions in music and language. But penetrating the deeper layers of the piece takes more time and perspective than a first listening allows for. And by that time, the electrical guitars may have already put you off.

In the KALW interview, Hearne said that he wanted to create a “crazy sonic world” by playing with “the insane differences in timbre between electric guitars and the unadorned human voice.” Personally, I didn’t care for most of the two guitars’ share in Hearne’s composition. In conjunction with the voices, they often drowned out the singers and detracted from the musical experience, rather than added to it.

In her a cappella piece The Oath of Allegiance, Australian-born composer Melissa Dunphy (b. 1980) shows her engagement and social commentary in the way she treats the text of the oath that immigrants must recite when they become U.S. citizens.

“The wording of the Oath of Allegiance reminded me that this country’s history has at times been fraught and controversial, and becoming an American citizen was not a decision to be taken lightly or without some reflection on the nature of American patriotism,” she writes in the program notes.

Dunphy’s musical commentary is straightforward and obviously very personal, and she uses a very rich and colorful musical language to reflect on the antiquated language of the oath and her own mixed feelings about it.

The concert opened with two pieces by Kirke Mechem (b. 1925). We can sing that! (2013) is a charming ‘instant concert’ in which the singers of Volti playfully prance through a kaleidoscopic range of emotions and musical effects, all mentioned in the text. Winging Wildly (1997) is a lovely song cycle with settings of three different poems from the early 1900’s, about birds and freedom.

It is quite astonishing to notice how Mechem translates the images and emotions of the text, how he paints with sounds and sound effects and displays a mastery of the medium that both Dunphy and Hearne have yet to reach when it comes to composing for an amazing instrument like Volti.

Native Dutchman Niels Swinkels is a freelance journalist, musicologist, and sound engineer. Before moving to San Francisco, he was the arts editor and senior classical music/opera critic for Brabants Dagblad, a regional daily newspaper in the Netherlands. As a freelance writer and sound engineer, he currently works for San Francisco Opera, KALW Local Public Radio, Elevation Online, Earprint Productions, and others.