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New Music Choral Ensemble I
The New Choral Music Ensemble/Kenneth Gaburo
rec. live 1967, University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana NEUMA 124 [53.45]
Like it or loathe it, the late 1960’s was a period of incredible musical experimentation and freedom, resulting in music that could be as bizarre as it was fantastical. In 1967, the so-called ‘Summer of Love’, some young singers from Illinois under Kenneth Baburo started to search for a style of vocal music to complement the various developments and new techniques found in the use of instruments and in analogue synthesisers, and to be inspired by sounds emerging from pieces written for what was then described as ‘electronic tape’. They pushed the boundaries and shocked their audiences.
Taking as an example Sound Patterns by Pauline Oliveros, we find a brief work, which is structured around whistles, mouth popping, rolling of consonants and the use of extreme vocal ranges. She had been a pioneer in the post-war research into the application of electronic music. This experimental choral writing was a challenge for all, except for those strongly versed in its techniques. Likewise, Ben Johnston’s Ci-gît Satie, originally composed for the Swingle Singers, with its drum backing, had to wait until the NMSE was ready to perform it six years later.
It may seem curious to find in all this Webern’s Opus 2 which, incidentally, can translate as In SwiftLight Vessels Gliding, an a capella setting of Stefan George from 1908/9. Its meandering chromaticisms, despite its G major key signature, makes it a very demanding two and a half minutes. This, however, is where twentieth century choral music came of age and helps to link us to Luigi Nono and Messiaen.
Of course, it was Messiaen who, in composing his CInq Rechants, invented a language, just as, in a similar sense, Oliveros was to do thirteen years later. Messiaen’s work is a heady mixture of love symbolism, onomatopoeic syllabus and words based on Sanskrit. The five pieces (sadly, just allotted one track on this CD) are built on vibrant, rhythmic refrains interspersed with restrained sections, with rich harmony using rather obscure Troubadour love poems. I should add that this work, like all of the pieces taken from this live recording of fifty-three years ago, are performed exceptionally well. I can’t always say that I like the individual voices (proof of which you might find in this work) but as an ensemble the NCME were exceedingly impressive.
When you listen to the mesmerizing Lilacs by Robert Shallenburg, you could be overhearing a Webern late string quartet movement arranged for voices. Those late works have been called ‘pointillistic’, as per the dots of colour in the paintings of Georges Seurat (1859-1891); they are also serial or twelve tone, as in Shallenburg’s piece.
In the fifties it was not uncommon to find works in which not only the pitch but also the rhythms were serialised. This is what happens in Luigi Nono’s pointillistic Sarà dolce tacere; also lying behind this piece is Nono’s fascination with electronic music which, for example, can be found in his large-scale ‘Das atmende Klarein’, another work involving voices, completed in 1983.
For Nono, the silence between the notes is as important as the pitches. Curiously, Leslie Bassett’s Notes in the Silence #3, a setting of Dag Hammarskold, has no silences but feels its way towards the final silence.
A random outcome with conceptual ideas, found often in John Cage, is how Charles Hamm’s rather witty Round came together. He wired his score up to “a rotating turntable” to quote the notes “and had “the vocalists perform in canon as it sped by, feeding the tape back live after they had done so”. The effect is, surprisingly perhaps, emotionally quite powerful.
Kenneth Gaburo’s two works are the result of his playing around in an electronic music studio putting together sounds which he had gathered or assembled. These short pieces acted as breaks in a concert for the singers. So, The Wasting of Lucrecetzia uses what seem to me to be distorted jukebox recordings and Fat Millie’s Lament juxtaposes wind chimes with, in the middle, something like a jazz ensemble. These are quite arresting moments in the context of the CD but I must add, quite pretentious.
Bearing in the mind that the recording is of a concert over fifty years ago, the sound is not at all bad, although sometimes climax points are rather overloaded. The packaging is very economical, with the disc in a slim cardboard casing and the brief notes written on its inside. The music does give you a guided tour of twentieth century choral music as it stood by the late 1960’s and for that reason, especially for students, it is certainly worth exploring.
Gary Higginson Contents Ben JOHNSTON (1926-2019) Ci-gît Satie (1966) [3.28] Pauline OLIVEROS (1932-2016) Sound Patterns (1962) [3.23] Charles HAMM (1925-2011) Round (1967) [5.08] Kenneth GABURO (1926-1993)
The Wasting of Lucrecetzia (1964) [3.54]
Fat Millie’s Lament (1965) [4.40] Robert SHALLENBURG Lilacs (1966) [3.20] Leslie BASSETT (1923-2016) Notes in the Silence #3 (1966) [2.13] Luigi NONO (1924-1990) Sarà dolce tacere (1960) [7.04] Anton WEBERN (1883-1945) Entfliet auf lechten Kähnen (1909) [2.32] Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992) Cinq Rechants (1949) [18.03]