Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Obscure Church Music Recording Knocks Lady Gag Off the Charts

The big story is that a self-released album of a 400-year-old Italian choral work by a couple of respected but little-known choirs from Florida and Michigan knocked Lady Gag off the top of the charts. It happened last month: the independently-released album of the Monteverdi Vespers of 1610 by Seraphic Fire with the Western Michigan University Choir actually reached the top of the itunes charts and then, after a little help from NPR, settled into the top ten of the itunes classical chart alongside the London Symphony Orchestra and Yo-Yo Ma. As welcome as this news is, there’s considerable historical precedent for it. As far back as the 1950s, high-quality recordings by symphony orchestras from such unlikely spots as Rochester, New York and Louisville, Kentucky reached sizeable audiences, at least for the pre-internet era. And 2010 just happens to be the 400th anniversary of the Monteverdi Vespers, spurring renewed interest in a piece which has been a staple of the choral music repertoire practically since the year it was written.

The early music movement sprang from the desire to take medieval compositions out of the museum and play them with the same verve and raw energy with which they were created. This album is a sublime example of how well a group can bring that desire to life. Seraphic Fire director Patrick Dupre Quigley empasizes in the cd liner notes that Claudio Monteverdi, being a resourceful composer, wrote the piece with sufficient flexibility to make it suitable for ensembles both large and small. The intimacy of this performance vividly spotlights one of many possibilities offered by its writer, and one that’s been overlooked. Chorus master James K. Bass leads the choir along with understated accompaniment by Joel Spears on lute and theorbo, Philip Spray on violin and Scott Allen Jarrett and Karl Schrock on chamber organ. Plainly and simply, this rocks. The joyous, hypnotic insistence of the opening cantus firmus, the energetic counterpoint of the Dixit Dominus, the pinpoint inflections of the Duo Seraphim and the alternately lush and energetic dynamics of the Nisi Dominus are just a few of the highlights. By contrast, the Magnificat-a-6 here is rapturous and tersely otherworldly. As old as all this is, it’s amazing how modern it sounds. Over the centuries, the ideas in this piece have spread from Bach to Mozart to the art-rock bands of the 60s and many other places besides, testament to how far ahead of his time Monteverdi was.

So far the popularity of American Idol and all its spinoffs has not translated to renewing interest in early music as it has in the UK, with the popularity of Stile Antico et al. But it’s not out of the question to think that this album might help spur a resurgence on this side of the pond. After all, you can do this at home: the Choral Public Domain Library is the perfect place to start.

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September 8, 2010 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

CD Review: Tim Eriksen – Soul of the January Hills

This is definitely not folk music for the faint of heart, but it’s heaven for fans of gothic Americana. Tim Eriksen is one of the world’s more fearless performers: long admired as a singer, steeped in Americana and particularly the eerie northern New England tradition, the multi-instrumentalist is no stranger to singing a-cappella. What’s most impressive is how this album was made: Eriksen sang all fourteen songs solo with neither band nor instrumentation, in a single take, in a tower along the wall of the Benedictine Abbey in Jaroslaw, Poland. His slightly twangy baritone is a potent instrument, but he doesn’t overdo it: this is an album of interpretations, a voice alone setting and maintaining a mood with the lyrics. Yet it also doesn’t offer the impression that he’s holding anything in reserve, waiting til the end when he knows he can empty the tank and blow out his voice if he wants. And what technique! Eriksen is pitch-perfect, working those blue notes with a sorcerer’s subtlety. Tenacity in the face of hardship, mourning and even gruesomeness is the feeling that links most of the often centuries-old songs here: many of them, even a hymn like Son of God, are absolutely macabre. Most of them are in minor keys; and to Eriksen’s credit, he doesn’t sing them all in the same key. The tension lets up a little at the end of the English folk song Gallows Tree, where the prisoner at the end of the rope is finally rescued as the hangman is paid his bribe (for another, absolutely lights-out solo vocal performance of this song, check out the version on Robin O’Brien’s album The Apple in Man).

By contrast, Eriksen gives the narrator of Drowsy Sleeper – dying of food poisoning – a chance to make a forceful last stand. He works segues between several of the songs so seamlessly that it’s hard to tell when one ends and another begins. A couple of them are traditionally sung by women, but Eriksen pulls them off, notably the ominously gleeful A Soldier Traveling from the North, where the girl begs the traveling soldier not to leave (the implication is that she’s pregnant). Eriksen recasts Amazing Grace as rustic Appalachian folk, and finally lets the clouds dissipate with a rousing, revival camp-style version of Better Days Coming to end the album. This ought to appeal to a wide audience, from fans of groups like the Handsome Family to otherworldly Balkan-Applachian singers Æ.

June 18, 2010 Posted by | folk music, gospel music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Black Sea Hotel’s Debut Album

Using only their voices, no autotune, synthesizers or computerized effects, Black Sea Hotel’s four singers – Joy Radish, Willa Roberts, Sarah Small and Corinna Snyder – have created the most haunting and beautiful cd of the year so far. Black Sea Hotel are Brooklyn’s own Bulgarian vocal choir, taking both ancient and more modern Bulgarian folk music to a lot of very otherworldly places. It would be easy to say that since they play most of their shows at rock clubs,  they’re sort of the punk rock version of le Mystere Des Voix Bulgares, but that wouldn’t be giving them enough credit. Not only are the group extraordinary singers, they’re also arrangers. As the four members revealed in an enlightening interview here recently, they’re doing new things with an impressive repertoire of haunting old songs, paring down large-scale pieces for just their four voices, embellishing works for solo voice as well as folksongs typically played with instrumentation. The result ranges from chilling or hypnotic to downright psychedelic, gorgeous washes of sound panning across the spectrum, moving in and out of the mix, from one harmony to another in places. Sometimes all four voices harmonize. Sometimes they work in pairs, or a single voice against two or three in counterpoint. Between them, they cover the sonic spectrum from contralto to high soprano with an astonishing ability to go from the lowest to highest registers and vice versa in a split second, using Balkan and Middle Eastern scales, eerie microtones, magically precise melismas or sometimes just a pure, crystalline, fullscale wail. But rather than always going for the jugular with the wild whoops and embellishments for which le Mystere Des Voix Bulgares are best known, they choose theirs spots judiciously, saving the most elaborate and ostentatious ornamentation for when they really need it.

The cd mixes sixteen songs in both Bulgarian and Macedonian from literally across the centuries. There’s a polyrhythmic dance; a mysterious number about witchcraft with a quite operatic bridge; a dirge about a girl swept away in the river; a Middle Eastern-inflected cautionary tale; the sad story of a drunken pasha; a wistful, Celtic-tinged waltz; the suspenseful account of a singing competition between a young girl and nightingale; and an insistent taunt that with all four voices going full steam becomes practically a sonic lynching. If this album doesn’t end up making the top ten in our Best Albums of the Year list at the end of December, 2009 will have been the best year for music in recorded history. Not bad for a quartet of American women who probably never heard a word of Bulgarian until they were in their teens. Black Sea Hotel play the cd release show at Union Pool at 9 on June 4 on an excellent bill with Sxip Shirey, Veveritse and Stumblebum Brass Band.

June 3, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment