October 2010


Performing “the newest music for the oldest instrument,” Ekmeles (ancient Greek music theory term for “disallowed tones”) is a new vocal group that performs solely contemporary music. I caught up with the founder and director of Ekmeles, Jeffrey Gavett, to ask him a few questions about the group:

I know you formed Ekmeles with the thought in mind that new vocal music needs an advocate in NYC. Who are some contemporary composers of vocal music that you feel people should know about?

“There are many established composers whose vocal works still go unperformed in this country. Salvatore Sciarrino‘s work with the voice informs every aspect of his instrumental music, yet excepting a few rare opera performances, his vocal music is not heard in the US. The fantastic Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart and Hilliard Ensemble are two groups that have commissioned countless works by great contemporary composers, few of which are ever performed in the US. I hope Ekmeles can bring these great works to New York, and inspire the imagination of local composers and concertgoers.”

How did you choose the other singers in the group? Are there plans to expand the personnel to perform larger choir pieces?

“I chose the other singers in the group from my colleagues in both New Music and choral singing circles. The group is conceived as flexible, allowing for a range of the number and kind of voices needed for a performance. Our first few shows are small, duos and trios, but upcoming performances involve four and five singers. Eventually, the core of the group will be six or seven singers, covering the range from coloratura soprano to basso. There is also a great repertoire of pieces for 12 and 16 voices, like Lachenmanns Consolation I and II, the Ferneyhough Mass, and Xenakis‘s Nuits, all of which I’d like to perform some day.”

You compose as well as sing — do you have any plans to write for Ekmeles?

“I don’t have anything in the works yet for Ekmeles, mostly because there’s already so much great repertoire that I want to perform with the group! Maybe if I find a program that has a place for me to fit into I’ll write a piece for the occasion, but right now I’ve got a spreadsheet open with 210 pieces for a cappella voices in it, and it’ll take a while to get through it.”

Here’s a clip from the first movement of Kaija Saariaho’s 1988 From the Grammar of Dreams, performed by Ekmeles’ own soprano Christie Finn and mezzo soprano Rachel Calloway.

Ekmeles’ next performance will take place on November 8th, 7pm, at The Tank.

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Meet Jenny Q Chai, a pianist who performs solely contemporary music.  I recently had the pleasure of attending one of Chai’s “lecture recitals,” in which she talks about the pieces she plays, and encourages the audience to share their reactions to the music.  On this particular evening, Jenny, whose playing is the perfect marriage of precision and passion, presented works by four relatively established new music composers, three of whom are still living: Hungary’s György Kurtág, France’s Olivier Messiaen (who died in 1992), Italy’s Marco Stroppa, and New York City’s own Nils Vigeland.

As you can hear in the video clip above, Kurtág’s piece sounds free-form, almost like stream-of-consciousness for piano.  That’s because his inspiration for this short piece (which is part of a larger collection) was the approach a child takes when playing piano, that is, experimental and spontaneous.

The next clip on the video is a piece by Messiaen, who derived the rhythms for this work from a 13th century Hindu rhythm book.  In the clip, you can hear one of these distinctive rhythms at about 13 seconds in.

The third clip features a piece by Marco Stroppa, which uses sympathetic vibrations of the piano strings to create nuanced, delicate textures. (This is achieved via the use of the piano’s sostenuto pedal.)  Listen closely to hear these shimmering notes vibrating the air inside the piano.

Last on the video is Jenny playing a piece by Nils Vigeland, who she proclaimed to be “one of the most important composers in America.”

Say hello to Kate Soper! Kate’s a New York City-based composer and vocalist and is a co-director of the Wet Ink ensemble.  She graciously agreed to answer a few questions about herself for me yesterday. Below is a video of my brief interview with Kate, which is followed by a piece she wrote this year, called Voices from the Killing Jar, where you can here her sing (the track playing underneath the interview is also by Kate, called Wolf).