For most of my life I’ve steered clear of choral music—I assumed it was antiquated, and my tastes in classical music leaned toward the contemporary (which usually means dissonance, unusual timbres, and odd structures). Of course, that assumption arose almost entirely out of ignorance. I’m still a novice when it comes to classical vocal music, but I’m coming around—not just because I’ve discovered the work of Baroque composers such as Henry Purcell but also because I’ve been programming contemporary music every week for nearly five years for my Frequency Series.
A few years ago I participated in a new-music conference at Northwestern University, and one of the speakers was Bienen School of Music professor Donald Nally. He talked about the Philadelphia choir he directs, the Crossing, which devotes itself to contemporary music but has the technique and knowledge to perform works from across the full spectrum of choral tradition.
Since then I’ve heard about the Crossing more and more often, and I’ve encountered its stunning harmonies on a diversity of recordings: they include the politically charged work of Ted Hearne on Sound From the Bench (Cantaloupe), John Luther Adams’s bruising Canticles of the Holy Wind (Cantaloupe), which comments on the decline of the natural world, and Gavin Bryars’s The Fifth Century (ECM), based on the texts of 17th-century mystic Thomas Traherne and employing an ethereal sound that draws on ancient traditions but still feels contemporary. The last of those three won a Grammy this year for best choral performance, and it’s not hard to hear why: the Crossing is astonishing in its control of atmosphere, technical precision, and richness of timbre.
Because large-scale choirs haven’t seen much use in secular classical music for the past couple centuries, most composers employing such ensembles now are going to write pieces that reference the past. Last year’s double CD Seven Responses (Innova), for instance, collects commissions from composers responding to the 1680 oratorio Membra Jesu Nostri Patientis Santissima by German Baroque composer Dieterich Buxtehude. I’m not familiar with that work, but I’ve been knocked out by what the composers involved—among them Caroline Shaw, David T. Little, and Northwestern professor Hans Thomalla—have come up with.
The Crossing is a big reason why: working with the International Contemporary Ensemble, it brings the works to life with heavenly grace. Shaw’s “To the Hands” collides centuries-old modes and disorienting contemporary techniques, while the lurching “Ad Cor” by Danish composer Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen (who died not long after completing the piece) sounds more purely modern. Only Lewis Spratlan’s “Common Ground” draws on opera, with a handful of singers taking extended leads—it’s also my least favorite piece on the album, though those two facts aren’t necessarily related. Below you can hear the piece by Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir, “Ad Genua/To the Knees,” which brings stark terror to an ancient sound.
A couple weeks ago the choir released a new album, If There Were Water (Innova), featuring a pair of dazzling a cappella works. Crossings Cycle, by Greek composer Stratis Minakakis, was inspired by the Syrian refugees who arrived en masse on the Greek island of Lesvos in summer 2015, and it incorporates texts from Homer, Sophocles, and Euripides as well as T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. Gregory W. Brown’s “Un/bodying/s” uses text by Todd Hearon to create a metaphor for displacement from the intentional flooding of the Swift River Valley in western Massachusetts, which provided fresh water for Boston. Below you can hear a portion of the Minakakis work, “Epigram 3.”
Dan Tepfer, Eleven Cages (Sunnyside)
Thurston Moore and Frank Rosaly, Marshmallow Moon Decorum (Corbett vs. Dempsey)
Eric Wubbels, Being-Time (Carrier)
Foils Quartet, The Jersey Lily (Creative Sources)
Rebekah Heller, Metafagote (Tundra/New Focus)