Last year I posted an interview with Ekmeles director Jeffrey Gavett, which included a clip of a recording made by Ekmeles of the first movement of Kaija Saariaho’s From the Grammar of Dreams. A reader promptly emailed me to ask why I hadn’t gone into any detail about the Saariaho piece, as it was a challenging listen for her. Well, here’s my very belated response to that reader!

Background info: Kaija Saariaho is an internationally acclaimed Finnish composer, born in 1952; you can get a quick rundown of her life and work on her wiki page. From what I can gather on Google–and please, readers, correct me if I get something wrong here–From the Grammar of Dreams began as a five movement work for two sopranos, written in 1988 (you can see a page of the score here). It has since developed into a sort of mini-opera, with the original five movement work at the heart of a larger work that also involves instruments and electronics (see this track listing for example).

Back to the original 1988 work. The texts come from Sylvia Plath’s novel The Bell Jar as well as her poem Paralytic; Saariaho has fragmented these texts and distributed the fragments between the two soprano lines in an arcane manner.

Yes, Meg, but why does it sound like that? my reader seems to ask. Well, without having studied the score, I can say from listening to Grammar that it seems like Saariaho is channeling the troubled mind of her author, Sylvia Plath, in two ways: 1. Fragmentation: I especially like that she’s not only fragmented the text, but she’s fragmented the voice itself by splitting the text between two different sopranos, and 2. Extended Techniques: Saariaho is exploring the capabilities of the human voice beyond what is traditionally considered “singing.” My guess is that Saariaho, as a composer, wanted to challenge herself and the performers to come up with some unique sounds, and that the Plath texts served as a kind of springboard for this challenge. The extended vocal techniques Saariaho uses in this piece definitely bring to my mind the oppressive psychoses that Esther endures in Bell Jar.

Enough of my speculation, what do you think? Here’s the clip again:

By the way, you can hear Ekmeles perform live at NYU on Feb. 4  They are definitely worth the trip.

After interviewing Ekmeles director Jeffrey Gavett, I was eager to hear a performance by the group and get a feel for the type of music they perform. Luckily, I was able to attend a concert of theirs on Monday, which was part of the “Pairings” series at The Tank, in which groups perform a work by an established composer (in this case, John Cage) alongside new compositions (by Troy Herion and Jude Traxler). All three pieces were performed by Ekmeles’ Jeffrey Gavett and Rachel Calloway.

The concert started off with one of the new compositions, “Um, So,” by Troy Herion. Troy was inspired by the speaking-style of Alan Watts, whose lectures on Zen highly influenced John Cage (though Watts later “questioned the relation” between Cage’s music and Zen). “Um, So” explores the idiosyncratic nonsense utterances and noises Watts made when giving a lecture.

Cage’s piece, “Litany for the Whale,” was performed next. Jeffrey and Rachel sang on syllables like “lu” and “li,” in slow, repeating, and subtly shifting patterns that sounded like a sort of religious chant. Accordingly, the effect was that of lulling, trance-inducing music.

The last piece, clips of which you can hear in the video above, was written by Jude Traxler, called “When the Lights Change,” in which time-lapse videos of plants growing/decaying and weather moving accompany rhythmic, inexplicit-syllable singing. Jude wrote the piece by incorporating into “a constantly shifting structure of mobile forms” a series of “games” that the singers play during the performance. This game-playing is behind the actions you see the singers perform in the video (shifting a box, changing a setting on the effects pedal that’s hooked up to the microphone, etc.). At the very end of the piece, you can see Jeffrey and Rachel leaning over a toy piano and singing softly.

Ekmeles will perform again at The Tank on January 11th, 2011.

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.