Members of Fonema Consort during the recording sessions for the new Fifth Tableau Credit: Arlen Parsa

Chicago’s bustling new-music community usually focuses on instrumental material—while there are a number of excellent, boundary-pushing singers in town, most ensembles don’t tackle vocal music. Over the past four years or so, that’s made Fonema Consort distinctive and important: the local group, directed by composer Pablo Chin, emphasizes adventurous new work that centers the human voice, even if the sounds those voices contribute don’t usually sound very songlike. On Friday, Fonema Consort releases its second album, Fifth Tableau, on Chicago cassette imprint Parlour Tapes, and on Saturday it celebrates the occasion with a concert at Experimental Sound Studio.

The performance is not only the ensemble’s final concert of its current season but also the last one before Chin moves to New York. His wife, composer Bethany Younge (whose work Fonema sometimes performs), will enter Columbia University’s prestigious doctoral program for composition this fall. Fonema vocalist Nina Dante is already based in New York, and Chin tells me the group will continue to work together—it’s already planned much of its 2017-2018 season, with a greater emphasis on performances in other parts of the world, including Los Angeles, New England, and even Ecuador.

Artwork for Fonema Consort's <i>Fifth Tableau</i>
Artwork for Fonema Consort’s Fifth TableauCredit: Marc Perlish

Fifth Tableau
is filled with unusual manifestations of the voice—primarily by Dante and Nathalie Colas—within various experimental settings. I can’t say I’m too crazy about the opening work, “Twinzies,” by California-based composer Clint McCallum, which features Colas and flutist Dalia Chin (Pablo’s sister) acting as twins. When they perform it live, they both hold Chin’s stand-mounted contrabass flute and wordlessly sigh, exhale, giggle, clear their throats, cackle, and cough in hysterical surges, laughing about something the audience isn’t in on; Chin intersperses these vocal sounds between serene long tones, key clacking, and various breathy extended techniques. The performance is precise and well executed, but I find the composition itself irritating.

Luckily, the rest of the album is much more satisfying, with work by four Chicago composers: Younge, Pablo Chin, Katherine Young, and Chris Mercer. Chin’s “Como la Leyenda de Tlön” uses “a non-existent language described in Jorge Luis Borges’ story ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius'”—a language in which Dante “wrote” a series of sudden glottal exhortations, grunts, and screams, all delivered over vibraphone shimmers and jarring percussion flurries played by Ryan Packard.

Young’s visceral “Master of Disguises” also deploys wordless vocal lines—piercing screeches and gurgles—alongside simpatico instrumental flourishes (including rheumy bass clarinet and snorting tenor saxophone, both of which borrow extended techniques from free improvisation) and the manipulation of handheld cassette players (not just prerecorded material being played, rewound, or fast-forwarded but also the sounds of tapes being inserted, ejected, and stopped). Toward the end Dante gently sings a quotation from the Kelly Link short story “The Girl Detective.” Mercer’s “Octoid,” the lone nonvocal work here, is a veritable smorgasbord of prepared piano, with Daniel Walden playing composed lines at the keyboard while three other members busy themselves with the instrument’s internal mechanisms.

Below you can hear Younge’s multimedia piece “Bodyscape.” In live performances, she asks audience members to “murmur descriptions of what they see” in response to a grainy video projection of a body alongside a body of water. The recording seems to enlist ensemble members to do the same, and their recurring scattered sounds fall among Dante’s leaping soprano (words, whinnies, sibilant breaths), disjointed phrases on oboe and bass flute, gentle rumbles of hand percussion, and sine waves. As is typical in the classical-music world, Fonema won’t actually perform any of the works on the album at the concert: the program features new work by Young, Younge, and Mercer as well as an improvised section led by clarinetist Emily Beisel.
Today’s playlist:

Mdou Moctar, Afelan (Sahel Sounds)
Jeff Parker, Slight Freedom (Eremite)
Luís Antunes Pena, Caffeine (Wergo)
Quince Contemporary Vocal Ensemble, Realign the Time (no label)
Allen Toussaint, American Tunes (Nonesuch)