20 May 2014

Volti: Mechem, Dunphy, Hearne

Last Sunday I went to Berkeley to hear Volti doing what they do, which is present enticing new choral music.

The venue this time was the Marsh Arts Center, which I had not been to before. I found it poorly ventilated, but I guess it had been hot earlier and I had a mild headache anyway, which made it mildly uncomfortable for me. I was the first person in the auditorium. I took my seat, and then after about ten or fifteen minutes someone from the Marsh (not Volti) told me to move since they were going to reserve those spots for wheelchairs. I moved. No wheelchairs showed up, but two women who came in right before the concert started slipped into the chairs. So much for arriving early to get your choice of seats.

Other than that irritation, it was another excellent afternoon with the talented twenty choristers who make up Volti (along with Bob Geary, their conductor and artistic director). The first half opened with two pieces by Kirke Mechem. The first, We can sing that!, in the premiere of a revised version, was a brief, witty display (with lyrics by Mechem) of the emotional range of a chorus – kind of like a less sardonic version of A Wandering Minstrel I, ending on a sanguine note, claiming harmony, in senses musical and otherwise, as the soul of the universe, hoping that humanity would sing along. This was more than an amuse-bouche of a sentiment; it heralded the more overtly political nature of the pieces that followed.

The second Mechem piece, Winging Wildly, set three different bird-related poems. Richard Collier, a former English professor at Cal, read each poem before the performance, which is a great idea. Stephanie Blythe did the same thing at her recent recital here, and announced that "soon everybody will be doing it," and, not that I am one who would doubt Stephanie Blythe anyway, but I guess she was right. The first poem was Sara Teasdale's Birds at Dusk (the original title is Dusk in June), in which she hears the birds singing joyfully as dusk descends and hopes that she, too, can sing before night falls (which is suggestive poetry-speak for hoping that she can give voice to her artistic vision before death takes her). The second poem was a more somber reflection on the need for artistic expression in the face of repression: Paul Laurence Dunbar's The Caged Bird (which is the source of the famous line "I know why the caged bird sings"). The set concluded with Sigfried Sassoon's Everyone Sang, in which the joy felt at the end of the first world war freed the everyone of the title and filled them with exultant song like birds let loose from their cages. Collier prefaced this one by saying that it was written about the armistice, which was useful because that is not immediately apparent when you hear the poem out of context. He might also have pointed out that Dunbar was an African-American who lived in the late nineteenth-early twentieth centuries, which has much to do with what he's saying and why he's saying it in traditional forms. The settings are vivid. You can feel the voices beating like wings, throwing themselves against cages. This chorus is just consistently excellent; you know this if you've heard them, and if you haven't, you can get some CDs here, though of course that's not quite like the live thing. It's inspiriting to hear singers as accomplished as they are adventurous.

The first half ended with The Oath of Allegiance by Melissa Dunphy, this year's Choral Arts Laboratory Composer for Volti, which means she is a young composer commissioned to create and workshop a new piece with the chorus. She talked briefly beforehand, first praising the chorus and then describing the context of her piece: born in Australia, she became a United States citizen in 2008 (in time to vote in the presidential election, she noted). Realizing that most Americans are not even aware of the oath new citizens must take, she decided to set it to music. I was a bit skeptical of this idea, and of the political framework she put it in – that is not a coded way of saying I disagree with what she expressed of her political views, which are apparently identical to mine (anti-militarism, pro-equality, general support of tolerance and skepticism about the role of the US in the world); in fact, it's exactly when the politics are the same as mine (and, we can pretty much guess, the rest of the audience as well) that I'm skeptical of the purpose of "political" art: isn't it just patting ourselves on our collective backs for our superior enlightenment? But her piece turned out to be fascinating – beautiful and emotionally probing. Just as some baroque composers would set texts about twittering birds and purling streams by imitating bird and stream, so she reflected the more abstract words and phrases of the oath: The opening "I" repeated individually, a multiplicity of times, reflecting the many individuals all taking the same oath; the way the opening phrases ended with a strange wistful downward curlicue, as if looking back on the native lands being left behind; the word "freely" floating upward, untrammeled; the majestic granite sound at the first mention of the United States of America, the militaristic marching of "bear arms on behalf of the United States," with the phrase shortened into a repetition of arms, arms, arms: it was an interesting perspective for a native son to hear the emotions of someone who chose to believe in American idealism enough to become a citizen.

After the intermission came Ted Hearne's Sound from the Bench. Hearne has recently been named this season's New Voices composer (the residency is shared by the San Francisco Symphony, the New World Symphony, and music publishers Boosey & Hawkes), and just as in Homer the sea is always wine-dark and Hector the tamer of horses, so "recently named the New Voices composer" now inevitably follows Hearne's name, his very own Homeric epithet. His five-movement piece is based on texts from Corporate Relations by poet Jena Osman, in which, using modernist techniques of collage and "appropriation" (Hearne's word), she pares, cuts, and juxtaposes a variety of sources (generally dryly instructional or legal) into a truly poetic and provocative examination of the American history of seeing corporations legally as  people (with an emphasis on the notorious Citizens United case). In his remarks before the performance Hearne was very enthusiastic about the text, and urged us to buy a copy of the book (and what Osman did was interesting enough so that I would indeed buy the book). He was clearly interested in getting the words across, and not just in using them as the basis for musical pyrotechnics; his handling of them was by and large – I don't want to say straightforward, but clear, as if sung in a block (as opposed, say, to the rising beating combinations of phrases that evoked the fluttering bird-wings in Mechem's piece), so that the words could come through, though he certainly also played with them at other times, as when the phrase "these corporations have a lot of money" ended up, in another evocation of martial marching, as a repetition of money money money (which reminded me of Money Makes the World Go 'Round from Cabaret).

The first movement of the cantata, how to throw your voice, is taken from a 1906 book with instructions for aspiring ventriloquists. The second, mouth piece, taken from the case First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti, is just the phrases No mouth. / The very heart. The third and longest section, (ch)oral argument, is taken from Citizens United. The fourth, simple surgery, is a poem by Osman about seeing a drop of water fall one foot in front of a piece of metal and, her eye eliding the distance between the two, misperceiving the drop as a chip in the metal. The fifth, when you hear, is taken from the book on ventriloquism used in the first movement: "when you hear that distant sounding drone, / you know you have your mouth as it should be" – in its original context the drone is a vocal technique when making your dummy talk, but in the context of today drone is also an implicit reference to the remote-controlled death/spying machines we send with increasing frequency out into the monitored world.

Unlike most of Volti's pieces, this one is not a cappella; Hearne brought with him percussionist Ron Wiltrout and two electric guitar players, Taylor Levine and James Moore. I have realized over the years that I mostly dislike electric guitars, and not just because I lived in too many apartments in Boston where I was tormented by Berklee College of Music's aspiring rock gods: I find them perversely anti-human, taking an intimate instrument and turning it into a stadium-shaker. But that's part of Hearne's point. Usually I don't get much out an artist's statement of purpose, feeling that the work should speak for itself, and if we're not interested in figuring it out, then the work has failed (or, equally possibly, we have failed the work) – but in this case I was glad to have Hearne offer the context of the tension between the electric guitar and the human voice to guide me out of my prejudiced dislike of the instrument and into an openness to what he was doing with them. And he does get interesting sounds out of both instruments and chorus. He doesn't keep it a simple division, though; it's not just a bad/good opposition, and at times it's not an opposition at all. The lines blur. Sometimes (as in the money money passage referred to earlier) it's the voices that sound mechanical, while the guitars (which are of course designed, built, and played by humans with the intention of expressing musical ideas and emotions) can offer subtle washes of sound and poignant melodies. The drums can sound like a heart-beat. The voices rise above the instruments, and sometimes the instruments drown out the voices. It all ends with a soft, mysterious, distant drone.


Civic Center said...

Nice job.

I've still got a phrase from (ch)oral argument section in my head where the chorus just starts swooping up like a flock of birds,

I've been assaulted by too many electric guitars in this lifetime too, but this was a fascinating use of the instrument, and the guitarists were seriously good musicians. Glad you had a good time, despite the authoritarian ushers who pushed you around for nonexistent wheelchair users.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

The ushers were all extremely nice and helpful. It was someone associated with the Marsh, who probably should have marked the chairs much earlier, who had me move myself, so that I had to spend the concert staring at the back of the head of the woman who took MY seat.