Review: Ekmeles Performs Martin Iddon, Alvin Lucier and David Lang

The Ekmeles vocal ensemble presented a program entitled "Resonances" on January 11th at The Tank. The concert featured works by Martin Iddon, Alvin Lucier and David Lang, composers whose unique aesthetics formed an engaging and surprisingly coherent triptych.

The evening began with Iddon's Αμαδρυαδες (hamadryads) (2010) for five voices and glass harmonica. The singers, 3 men and 2 women, were seated at a long table facing the audience. Each was amplified and equipped with three water-filled crystal glasses. Director and ensemble member Jeffrey Gavett explained that hamadryads involves the transformation of intervallic content from Josquin's Deploration sur la mort d'Ockegehm. After one hearing, I was most struck by the instrumental quality that persists throughout. Slow vocal glissandi coupled with the sustained tones of the wine glasses produce a string-like sound. Occasional hard consonants break through, reasserting the presence of voices. A somewhat limited dynamic range (primarily between mp and f) and a mercurial yet stable texture add to the atmospheric quality.

Prior to the Ekmeles concert I was unfamiliar with Iddon's works and searched online to learn more about him. I highly recommend visiting this site to view pdfs of his hand-drawn scores. As you can see from the picture of Danäe for string trio (each with two bows) at right, the beauty and inventiveness of Iddon's notation is striking. Additional audio samples are available here.

The second work on the program was Alvin Lucier's Theme (1994) for four voices and sonorous vessels. Each performer recites John Ashbery's poem of the same title into an amplified vessel (vase, bottle, etc.) producing a lulling counterpoint of noise, pitch, inflection and of course, text. I can't think of a better environment for this wonderfully strange poem. The first stanza reads:

If I were a piano shawl
a porch on someone's house
flooding the suave timbre...

I could read that stanza over and over again. It is difficult to imagine "setting" such a poem in the traditional sense. Thankfully, Lucier does not. In fact, speaking the text into various vessels further enlivens the already musical act of recitation. Each word activates the resonating frequency of its "tank" and thus the receiving space colors and even overwhelms the words. (If you have an Rdio subscription, you can listen to Theme here).

The spacious quality produced by the Lucier was followed by David Lang's the little match girl passion (2007), a work that draws upon the Hans Christian Andersen story as well as the passions of J.S. Bach. It was interesting to hear how this piece, the most conventional on the program, seemed to complement the mood of the Iddon and Lucier works. One reason may be that all three involve highly focused, slow-moving sound worlds. And like hamadryads, the little match girl passion requires the ensemble to play as well as sing. Ultimately, the repetitive nature of the little match girl passion strikes me as a bit tiresome. Nonetheless, Ekmeles' performance was quite convincing. 

Overall, Ekemeles performed with great sensitivity and precision. This is not an easy feat given the inherent challenges of functioning as instrumentalists and singers. Especially commendable is their aforementioned ability to highlight the unique aesthetic qualities of each composer while maintaining a sense of programmatic continuity.

Ekmeles will perform John Cage's Song Books along with pianists Vicky Chow and Randy Gibson and trombonist William Lang on February 12th as part of the Avant Music Festival.