Three Vocal Ensembles in Music Spanning a Millennium

United StatesUnited States “Vocal Triple Bill”: The Ascoli Ensemble, Ergodos Musicians, Ekmeles. Issue Project Room, Brooklyn, 6.10.2011 (BH)

The Ascoli Ensemble:

Medieval Music of the Netherlands and Beyond

Ergodos Musicians:

Léonin (transcribed by Garrett Sholdice): Viderunt Omnes, Part I
Benedict Schlepper-Connolly: All the Ends of the Earth
Léonin (arr. Linda Buckley): Viderunt Omnes, Part II
Garrett Sholdice: Ritual for Magister Léonin
Léonin (arr. Benedict Schlepper-Connolly): Viderunt Omnes, Part III
Linda Buckley: Revelavit
Léonin (arr. Garrett Sholdice): Viderunt Omnes, Part IV


Peter Ablinger: Studien nach der Natur (1997, 2002)
Pascal Dusapin: Two Walking (1994)
Johannes Schoellhorn: Madrigali a Dio (2009, US premiere)
James Tenney: A Rose is a Rose is a Round (1970)
James Tenney: Hey When I Sing These 4 Songs, Hey Look What Happens (1971)

Three ensembles from the Netherlands, Ireland and the United States banded together in this program of vocal rarities, old and new, presented in the not-quite-ready-for-primetime venue that will become the new home of Issue Project Room. The space – an elegant Renaissance revival chamber with 40-foot ceilings – has a resonant acoustic that was ideal for this program (but I wonder whether the long sound decay will be suitable for a wide range of repertoire)

In their United States debut, five members of The Ascoli Ensemble (based in The Hague) began with works by John Dunstaple, Hildegard von Bingen, Oswald von Wolkenstein, and unattributed Flemish works, including one just recently restored with the help of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (where the group is currently in residence).

It’s hardly news any more, but many of these works from the 14th and 15th centuries sound disconcertingly modern, with unusual harmonic progressions that could have been written yesterday. The superb musicians, working with director and tenor Sasha Zamler-Carhart, offered thirteen examples from this tradition – sometimes in groups, sometimes as soloists – with careful attention to intonation and phrasing. And the liveliness of the room’s sound only enhanced their precision.

From Ireland, Ergodos Musicians created a seamless, meditative state of mind titled All the Ends of the Earth, based on Viderunt Omnes, a haunting set by Léonin from the twelfth century, interwoven with new works by young Irish composers Garrett Sholdice, Benedict Schlepper-Connolly and Linda Buckley. The clarity, pacing and low volume level at times made me think of Morton Feldman – whose works cannot have been too far from the minds of these composers. Léonin’s devotional simplicity was gently complemented to produce a glowing, resonant ebb and flow over the course of perhaps a half-hour. The musicians’ patience – coupled with the meditative atmosphere that the space encourages – must have left many in the audience in a peaceful, almost trance-like state.

The final segment featured Ekmeles, a six-member vocal group directed by Jeffrey Gavett, in some often striking works by composers whose vocal output is seldom heard – at least in New York. Johannes Schoellhorn’s Madrigali a Dio deploys whispering and shouting in its efforts to show the composer’s affinity for his religious faith, and two wisps by James Tenney closed the evening – A Rose is a Rose is a Round, and Hey When I Sing These 4 Songs, Hey Look What Happens – both with more humor than one might expect.

But I was most struck with Pascal Dusapin’s Two Walking, performed with rhapsodic exactitude by Mary Mackenzie and Lucy Shelton, often circling each other in hard-to-sing microtones. And the set opened with Peter Ablinger’s arresting Studien nach der Natur, in which the singers use a variety of vocal effects to create sounds of puffing smoke, an insistent mosquito, the low buzz of electricity, the faint “ploink” of water dripping and finally, a car starting and driving away. Using hissing inhalations and exhalations, lip pops and occasionally some actual musical notes, the group expertly demonstrated the depth and precision of Ablinger’s observations.

Bruce Hodges