Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Christmas Album for Everybody

We finally found a Christmas album we like. Optimistic, anthemic and upbeat, Stile Antico’s new album Puer Natus Est is Renaissance choral music at its happiest and most un-gothic. It’s not particularly Christmasy and it doesn’t evoke images of blazing chestnuts, but it also doesn’t evoke images of catacombs full of dead monks (fans of Joy Division will have to look elsewhere). Subtitled “Tudor Music for Advent and Christmas,” it’s a festive holiday album for everyone, and at this point in history, far removed from its original context, it’s essentially nondenominational unless you speak Latin. It’s a mass that never would or could have happened, spanning the centuries, interpolating segments of Thomas Tallis’ unfinished Christmas mass, Puer Natus Est with selections from William Byrd’s Gradualia, a comprehensive and imaginative series of plainchant arrangements for the various church holidays. The fourteen-piece ensemble – the world’s most popular Renaissance vocal choir – blend voices more soaringly and considerably less hauntingly than on their death-fixated previous cd, the John Sheppard collection Media Vita.

Tallis’ Videte Miraculum makes a good natured “look what we have here,” in Latin, a characteristically rich arrangement lushly performed with a brief, stark solo for tenor. The oldest piece here, John Taverner’s sixteenth century Audivi Vocem de Caelo (I Heard a Voice in the Sky), with its bright high harmonies, may have been written exclusively for the choirboys. A hint of the season reveals itself in Tallis’ Gloria; contrasting austere and warmer folk melodies appear in later Byrd selections: the roots of Fairport Convention! The dramatic major/minor shifts of Tallis’ Sanctus et Benedictus pair off against the mysterious grandeur of Byrd’s Ave Maria; a rousing, anthemic holiday theme finally appears at the end of Tallis’ Agnus Dei. The second-oldest piece here, Robert White’s Magnificat, is the most exuberant, the contrast between the crystalline highs of the sopranos and the charcoal and chocolate of the lower registers at its most striking here. The album concludes with a work by one of the group’s favorite composers, John Sheppard. Translated as the Holy Word, its harmonic complexity and slowly unwinding  resolutions probably make more sense in this century than when they were written practically half a millennium ago. The album is out just in time for the holidays on Harmonia Mundi.

November 17, 2010 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Stile Antico’s Otherworldly Voices Defy Death in the Heart of Manhattan

Stile Antico’s concert Saturday night at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in midtown was a vivid illustration of the kind of entertainment found inside the velvet rope in 1550 – or in the death chamber of a composer’s dreams, in 1474. In the earlier case, Guillaume Dufay couldn’t hold out long enough for a choir to be assembled to sing him the dizzying counterpoint of his Ave Regina Caelorum, which he’d written for the hour when he lay dying: the work made its world premiere at his funeral instead. It was a vivid echo of the night’s theme: the world’s most popular early music choir had brought along a series of Renaissance compositions associated with death, in a program optimistically entitled In Paradisum. As much as Stile Antico’s recordings are otherworldly and gripping, this concert was paradise for the ears. And as tenor Andrew Griffiths had explained over the phone a couple of weeks prior, it was hardly all gloom. In medieval Europe, death may have been a far more constant presence than it is now, yet the music the group had assembled was a celebration, albeit one made in the midst of despair. So good to be alive while the whole world is dying.

Stile Antico are conductorless, like a string quartet: members of the ensemble take turns setting the wheels in motion and directing the occasional change. Such an arrangement no doubt not only explains the group’s striking chemistry and collaborative spirit: it makes those qualities prerequisites. William Byrd’s Retire My Soul was the opening piece, one of his final works. The group creatively assembled themselves to allow the call-and-response of its harmonies to pan around the semicircle, creating a stereo effect similar to his well-known organ compositions. Dufay’s requiem for himself was one of three pieces where the ensemble stashed members of the group out of sight to further enhance the sonic spectrum. The most extraordinary portion of the night was the roughly twenty-three minutes of John Sheppard’s Media Vita (centerpiece and title of the group’s album from last spring), a titanically lush, majestic wash of six-part harmony punctuated by disarming, ominous cadenzas whose subtle dissonances added a wary edge that bordered on the terrifying. Soprano Rebecca Hickey led the ensemble from the center of the stage with a seemingly effortless, potently resonant, crystalline clarity. Sheppard, composer at the Queen’s Chapel, wrote it about a year before died in 1558: even today, its ethereal harmonic sophistication is stunning. In the middle of the piece, Sheppard inserted a somber plainchant, perhaps to give his choir a breather, or to enhance the immensity of the finale. After that marathon, an intermission was the only option.

The rest of the program could have been anticlimatic but it wasn’t, as the group explored more diverse emotional terrain. Josquin des Prez’ O Bone et Dulcissime, written to placate a warlord, had a gentler feel, almost a lullaby in places, basses Oliver Hunt and Will Dawes taking on a more prominent role and exhibiting impressive range alongside the tenors and altos. Alto Carris Jones used a similarly striking upper register introducing the fifteenth century Alonso Lobo’s Versa Est in Luctum, somber but with soaring highs, one of many places where soprano Helen Ashby’s diamond-cutter voice carried the crescendos to new summits. While the spirit of the group seems to be a clearly democratic one, if there’s one star here, it’s her – her two sisters in the group, soprano Kate and alto Emma, would probably not dispute that. The concert wound up with the fugal, funereal In Paradisum, a seventeenth century piece by Heinrich Schutz, and the outright anguish of sixteenth century Orlande de Lassus’ Vide Homo, the words of Christ on the cross, pierced equally by the pain of the nails and his followers’ lack of appreciation for what he endured. After three standing ovations, the group rewarded the sold-out pews with a richly warm, comparatively brief Byrd antiphon from their brand-new advent-and-Christmas cd Puer Natus Est. On one level, it was impossible to watch the concert without feeling somewhat vicarious: after all, when these compositions were current, many of those who heard them live were probably also singing them. On the other hand, it was a stunning reminder of how colossally much musicians of the era did with so little, and especially with so little time.

October 18, 2010 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

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

CD Review: John Sheppard: Media Vita – Stile Antico

Stile Antico, the world’s most famous early music choral group, have outdone themselves. You probably know them – their most recent album Song of Songs topped the classical charts last year. Their latest is their best yet, a lush, majestic, hypnotic collection of works by cutting-edge sixteenth century British choirmaster John Sheppard. This isn’t the first all-Sheppard album – the Tallis Scholars did one over twenty years ago – but it is unquestionably the best. And hopefully the first of several more. In some ways, Sheppard was your typical hardworking church choir leader – never published during his lifetime, his work was performed by whatever group he happened to be working with…including the singers of the Queen’s Chapel. How could such a high-profile artist have fallen so far into obscurity? Lack of available manuscripts, many with missing parts; widespread availability of other perfectly good material to sing; the stubborn fact that Sheppard’s lavish scores are so challenging; and perhaps most plausibly, the fact that many of Sheppard’s works are in Latin, created for Mary Tudor’s Catholic liturgy, hardly a canon that your typical Anglican choir would have any desire to revisit. Technically speaking, Sheppard went for a giant wall of sound, utilizing six-part harmonies and even greater permutations along with dizzying counterpoint, but the six women and eight men of Stile Antico seem to relish the challenge (you can try this at home – there are scores at the Choral Public Domain Library) .

The centerpiece here is Sheppard’s colossal, haunting, death-fixated Media Vita. In an age when early mortality was the rule rather than the exception, it made sense (Sheppard himself probably never made it to fifty). It’s essentially a plea to be spared from impending death. Opening dramatically and continuing with an unrelenting intensity, the piece goes on for over twenty-five minutes – if you think the Messiah is difficult, try this on for size. What’s most amazing about this is that unlike an instrumental group or rock band, a choir can’t just punch in and record over a mistake: Stile Antico sing this all the way through, live.The other pieces here vividly illustrate the diversity of Sheppard’s compositions, notably the far more lively, soaring and only slightly less titanic call-and-response of the opening antiphon, and a couple of English-language hymnal arrangements which probably date from earlier in Sheppard’s career but already find him pushing the envelope. One of them was contemporaneously transcribed (or perhaps even originally written) as an instrumental for strings, testament to both Sheppard’s popularity during his lifetime as well as the melodic strength of his writing.

Not only is this album exquisitely sung, it is also exquisitely produced. The location where it was recorded doesn’t seem to be common knowledge (maybe the group are keeping it a secret!), but wherever it is, the natural reverb and slow decay time richly enhance the otherworldly – some would say heavenly – sonics.

March 1, 2010 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: The Orchestra of Tetouan’s Auspicious New York Debut

Tetouan is sister city to Tangiers, and is historically connected with Granada across the water since this is where many Spanish Muslims and Jews fled the terror of the Inquisition. And they brought their music with them. In a concert that was heaven for early music fans, the Orchestra of Tetouan made their New York debut at Judson Memorial Church in the West Village a memorable one. Their repertoire is medieval Andalusian suites, eleven of which survive. With oud, violin, viola, kanun (hammered zither), tar (tambourine) and darbouka (hand drum), the six-piece ensemble ran through lengthy excerpts from four of them, taking up the better part of two hours and engaging what looked like a sold-out crowd enthusiastically when the pace picked up. From the audience response, much of the lyrically-driven material (sung rousingly and passionately in Arabic) has considerable cultural resonance.

What does it sound like? Like Palestrina with Middle Eastern instruments – no surprise that the adventurous revivalists Gotham Early Music co-produced the concert. The earliest Andalusian music has a definable western feel without the otherworldly overtones and chromatics that have come to characterize pretty much everything radiating from Jerusalem outward for the last several centuries. With a stately sway, pulsing along with the bassy boom of the darbouka, the group would go up from a central key for few steps in the major scale, then back down again and then work around the theme introduced by a brief instrumental overture. Polyphony and antiphony were joyously abundant. The group’s not-so-secret weapon is eighteen-year-old violinist/singer Brahim Idrissi, whose powerful baritone and impressive range dominated the mix. Oudist/bandleader Mehdi Chachoua, a leading Moroccan music scholar, took all of one taqsim (solo) all night and limited his embellishments to a few subtle slides. Likewise, kanun player Hicham Zubeiri’s taqsim could have been a Renaissance-era English reel if given a more straight-up rhythm.

Throughout the Arabic-speaking world, poetry is accorded a vastly higher space in the literary pantheon, and likewise far more of a role in daily life (the day that Bush invaded Iraq, the #1 bestseller there was a book of poetry). From the point of view of a non-Arabic speaker, the passion and longing voiced by all six singers translated viscerally, aided substantially by translations supplied in the program notes. The group concludes their American tour with shows tonight and tomorrow in Bloomington, Indiana; watch this space for upcoming NYC appearances.

September 25, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 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

The Lucid Culture Interview – Black Sea Hotel

One of New York’s most unique and exciting musical acts, Black Sea Hotel are Brooklyn’s own Bulgarian vocal choir. They’re releasing their debut album, a starkly beautiful, otherworldly cd of traditional Bulgarian and Macedonian choral music, much of which they’ve imaginatively adapted and arranged for four voices. The cd release show is June 4 at 9 PM at Union Pool. The group’s four women: Joy Radish, Willa Roberts, Sarah Small and Corinna Snyder took the time out of their busy performance schedule to discuss their upcoming album with Lucid Culture:

Lucid Culture: What’s up with the scary black octopus on the cd cover? 

Corinna Snyder: Joy had an encounter with a jellyfish in the Black Sea when we were all in Bulgaria a few years ago, and when we started thinking about images for our album, we kept thinking about unusual sea creatures, and kept coming back to the image of the octopus. We love our octopus. You know, they are insanely flexible, and they are very smart, very soulful animals. We want to stick pictures of octopi on everything Black Sea Hotel.  We also like that octopi have 8 arms. And, in total, so do we. We like that the 4 of us are in one creature—the octopus. 

LC: And how about the eerie horror-movie soft-focus pictures of the four of you on the cd booklet?

CS: Well we sometimes do have an otherworldly kind of sound, don’t you think? And we were going with an ethereal, watery feel for the album art, which makes some sense of a band named after a body of water…

LC: Let’s introduce the band. On your myspace page in the upper lefthand corner that’s – I think: left to right – Corinna, Joy, Willa and Sarah, right? –

CS: MMM…no. It’s Sarah, Corinna, Joy and Willa. And now we’re totally intrigued as to why you thought differently….

LC: I’ve seen you live a couple of times and one of you called Joy by name onstage so I know who she is – but the rest of you, I’m completely lost…

CS: But anyway I think the myspace changed.  On the back of the cd it’s left to right Sarah, Corinna, Joy and Willa.

LC: My favorite album track that’s up on your myspace page is Vecheraj Angjo, which is the third cut from the new cd. Who’s doing the lead vocal?

CS: The song starts with Joy and myself sharing the lead vocal line, so it is actually two of us glued together on one part. Then we move the melody across the voices over the course of the song.  We do that sometimes with our songs, maybe especially on the ones Joy arranges, now that we think about it. Sometimes we move songs back and forth between two lead singers too, trading verses, which is a traditional form for two voiced songs from the south west region of Bulgaria, so there’s something old embedded in that new arrangement.

LC: And what does the title mean? I think it’s a nocturne of some kind, right?

CS: You know, traditional titles of songs in Bulgaria are the first few words of the song – which means that sometimes you have many many different songs with the same name, because many songs start with the same opening images, like “They were gathering,” as in, they were gathering up a crop, which is also a very traditional way to start a song. It’s typical of oral poetry traditions, really – and that’s really what these songs are. When you talk to the great Balkan singers they really focus their emotional energy on the powerful stories that they’re telling.  

The actual title means Eat up, Angjo.  It’s not really a nocturne: it’s a dance song.  It’s a mother urging her son to eat up and get going – they have a long way to go with their bride, and on the way she’s afraid of passing Gjorgija, who will be standing in a doorway, bottle of rakija in hand – in that rakija there’s magic, and she’s afraid it will ensorcell the bride.  Rakija is the brandy they make in the Balkans. And it does have its own kind of magic, it’s true. 

LC: Did you ever in your wildest dreams imagine that Black Sea Hotel would ever exist?

CS: We all have such wild dreams I guess we could imagine anything.  

LC: Is it possible that New York is the only place – other than, say, Sofia – where this group could have actually come together?  

CS: Actually, it’s probably more likely to find a group like ours outside of Bulgaria. One of the things that distinguishes us from a lot of other groups is that we create most of our own arrangements.  Many other groups mostly stick to singing arrangements composed for the official Bulgarian choirs, a compositional practice that started in the 50s.  I don’t know of any other vocal group in Bulgaria where the singers get to be the arrangers too – that’s also a little different.   

LC: Do any of you have Balkan ancestry, a connection to the area?

CS: None of us have any Balkan background, which many Bulgarians find completely fascinating and flummoxing.  

LC: Is there a cute backstory to how Black Sea Hotel got started? Something like, Joy hears Corinna swearing under her breath in Macedonian on the subway and says to herself, “That’s just the girl I want to start a band with!”

CS: That would have been so cool. But it was way more pedestrian. We met in another Bulgarian singing group – that group disbanded, and we four started singing together as Black Sea Hotel almost two years ago.

LC: Obviously – educated guess – the Bulgarian Voices aka Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares are an influence, right? Was that the first exposure that you had to Balkan music, or specifically to Bulgarian choral music?

CS: Each of us has a different “first time'”story. I heard the Music of Bulgaria album by Nonesuch when I was about 10 years old and was totally taken. I grew up in Cambridge where I was lucky enough to join a Balkan choir when I was 12 – it continues to be the most physical music I have ever made, I think that’s what first connected me to it, and what keeps me connected.   

Sarah Small: I grew up with musician parents who played in opposingly different musical traditions – an atonal/modern piano player/composer, and a Renaissance lutenist mother. Those were my first musical influences. But it was not til college when I heard Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares while listening to music at the Providence Public Library and fell madly in love with Bulgarian music. Then, after moving to New York in 2001, while looking on craigslist for a goth-rock band to sing and play cello with, I came across auditions for start-up Bulgarian women’s choir. I ran right over to audition immediately. 

Willa Roberts: I’ve always had a serious love of ethnic and folk music from all over the world.  My mother was a bellydancer when I was born (in fact, it’s my earliest memory), and I grew up with Middle Eastern music in the house, which had a profound effect on my musical tastes.  She also plays piano and sings, and my whole family is musical.  I heard Le Mystere at some point in high school and fell in love.  Eventually I found my way into playing violin in the Mid East/Balkan ensemble at the College of Santa Fe, and the moment I had the opportunity to sing this music with them, I was totally hooked.  It was like a dream come true.

LC: How long did you study it before you started Black Sea Hotel?

CS: We all come from different backgrounds, but all of us have been musicians of some kind since we were kids. And we had worked together on this music in our previous group for almost two years.  

LC: What were you singing before then? 

CS: Joy was a big musical theater kid. Sarah studied classical cello. Willa studied Turkish violin and sang in a rock band. I studied classical voice and played standup bass.  We continue to do other music as well – Sarah writes trippy goth rock on Logic; Willa plays and sings with a Turkish band and a Balinese gamelan; Joy has a kirtan band; I sing with a Macedonian wedding band – we all do different things. 

LC: I described the music on the cd as otherworldly. Do you agree with that, is that an accurate assessment?

CS: We think the otherworldliness of our sound comes about for a few different reasons. One is that if you don’t speak Bulgarian, you have no lyrics to latch on to. Another is that we do work hard to blend our voices really tightly. The melodies themselves can also be undeniably haunting. And lastly, the timbre of the voice is different in Balkan music – as are the intervals and the rhythm. All together that does create a more otherworldly feel.

LC: There’s a lot of longing in those songs: one girl misses her home and family, another really wants a husband – or a boyfriend – another woman cries because she’s been having trouble conceiving. Is this a representative cross-section of your typical Bulgarian and Macedonian folk music, or did you deliberately go out looking for sad, beautiful songs?  

CS: There really are a lot of sad songs in this tradition. There are of course more light hearted songs out there, but the soulful old stuff usually tells a hard and heartbreaking story.

LC: How old are these songs? Do they still resonate culturally in Bulgaria or Macedonia, or are you reviving them? 

CS: Our source melodies come from all over. Many of our arrangements are based on melodies from Shopluk, in the southwest of Bulgaria, which is one of the few places where women sing melodies and drones together, and where there is a very rich tradition of work and field songs. Some songs in our repertoire are very obscure – Vardar Muten is based on a ritual melody that was collected by an ethnomusicologist in the 70s — and some are extremely well known – the melody for Makedonsko Devoiche [on the cd] was written in the 20th century and every Macedonian knows it.  Our arrangement, though, is totally different than the arrangement that usually accompanies this song – it’s as if a Macedonian completely rearranged the Star Spangled Banner.  This song is our most popular download, too.  

LC: I understand you’ve arranged a lot of these yourself. Sarah in particular gets credit on the cd for a lot of the arrangements. Are all of you arrangers?

CS: Sarah was the first to start arranging, and I’m the  last – I’m in the middle of my first piece now.

LC: How did you learn the songs? From albums, from hearing the songs live? I assume all of you read music. Anybody in the group with conservatory training?

CS: OK, so only one of us really reads music. But this is an oral tradition – the old songs are almost never transcribed.  The complex ornamentation, microtones and rhythms don’t really lend themselves to transcription.  So almost all the melodies we learned from other singers, or from recordings. When it is an existing arrangement, we either search long and hard for the sheet music, or we try to figure it out from the recordings that we have.

LC: Wow! On the cd, I hear all of you taking what in rock music would be called a “lead vocal.” In addition to your own parts, do you ever swap, for example, Willa and Sarah take over the other’s part? 

CS: Not sure what you mean – we sometimes trade the melody, like in Ja Izlezni, or Spava Mi Se, when the two pairs sing back and forth, or two voices trade verses, or in Momche and Vecheraj Agnjo, where the melody moves across our voices

LC: How about trying your hand, your hands at songwriting? You’re so good at the traditional stuff, have you ever thought of trying your hand at creating something new, adding to the canon?

CS: We are working on a new arrangement now that will be mostly in English.  It’s been really challenging, though, as the tradition of storytelling in American and English songs is totally different than in the Balkan tradition – the way stories work, the way phrases are repeated, the impact of certain images. It’s hard to sing Balkan in English. 

LC: How about improvisation? Does that factor at all into what you do, or into Bulgarian choral music in general?   

CS: OK, I’m gonna get pedantic for a sec. Bulgarian choral music was created by a cadre of very talented, classically trained composers in Bulgaria starting in the 50s.  They found extremely talented traditional singers from every musical region in Bulgaria and formed the national Radio choir, and they were the first to perform the multipart choral works.  A classic example of that compositional style is Dragana I Slavej. With a composed piece, the only room that there might be for improvisation is in something like Bezrodna Nevesta, another example of the “classical” folk pieces.  There the lead voice, when establishing the melody, might vary the way she ornaments and stretches the melody – but beyond that, there’s no room for anything more. 

There’s not much room for improvisation in this choral form, but there is lots of room for it in the old songs, especially the ballads, which are usually sung by one singer, and are unmetered. Our arrangement of Mome Stoje is based on that kind of ballad. There a singer will work with ornamentation, she’ll create tension by stretching lines and tones, she’ll work back and forth across fast and slow phrases, and every singer will have her own interpretation.  

LC: Can we be upfront about this: none of you are native Bulgarian or Macedonian speakers, right? I can tell right off the bat if somebody is speaking Spanglish, or bad French, or mangling one of the romance languages, but I haven’t got a clue how good your accents and your pronunciation are…

CS: Apparently we kick ass in the pronunciation department. This spring we performed in Philadelphia and a Bulgarian singer came to the show, and she said that usually, when she hears Americans singing in Bulgarian, there are always little give-aways – the pronunciation of the letters T, D, and L, in particular – but that we didn’t have any. We’ve even been told that our regional accents in songs are dead-on.  A couple of times we’ve had Bulgarians come up to us after shows and just start talking Bulgarian – they assume we must be fluent given our pronunciation.  That’s really gratifying, because we work hard on that part of our work. We don’t get caught up in maintaining authenticity in much of what we do – it would be ridiculous for us to do so, as contemporary American singers – but we do want to speak the language correctly.

LC: In addition to singing the part, you also look the part. Where do you get your stagewear, and are your outfits really Bulgarian? 

CS: We do have some seriously heavy and heatstroke-inducing old costumes that we bought in Bulgaria, but we don’t wear them that often because they often fit weird, they weigh as much as two sheep and are hard to wash. But they are cool looking. We’re thinking of reconstructing them at some point, so that we can wear them without passing out.

LC: As a lot, but I think not enough people know, there’s a very active Balkan music scene, a sort of Balkan underground here in NYC. I know you’ve played with Ansambl Mastika, a great band who you mention in your shout-outs in the cd package. Who else are you fans of? Here’s your chance to plug all your friends…

CS: Oh – so many! Raya Brass Band, Slavic Soul Party, Veveritse, Kadife, Zlatne Uste, Luminescent Orchestrii, AE, the Kolevi Family, Merita Halili and Raif Hyseni, Which Way East, Ivan Milev, Ansambl Mastika, Ljova and Inna’s various bands – Ljova and the Kontraband, Romashka, Barmaljova, etc.  Also we love Stagger Back Brass Band..I’m sure I’ve forgotten some already.

LC: This happens to me once in awhile: somebody hears something I’m listening to, makes a face and says it’s quote-unquote weird. Has this happened to you, and how do you respond to that?

CS: When people see us live it’s harder to call it weird because we look normal. But it does wig people out sometimes when we’ll do a really old-style song that’s totally dissonant and arrythmic and has lots of yipping and shaking sounds.  I guess we’re lucky so far that the audience who sees and hears us is usually one that’s open to this, or knows something about it. But we want to branch out. We’re waiting for the first gig we do where the audience just doesn’t get it – and seeing how we deal with that.  

LC: Where do you want to go with this? It seems to me that you have an extremely high ceiling. I mean, you could dump the dajyobs and support yourself by touring cultural centers across the country. Maybe around the world. Especially since le Mystere des Voix Bulgares don’t tour much anymore…

CS: We talk about doing a college road show, leading workshops and doing concerts.  It would be lucrative…but it might not be the most interesting thing for us to do musically. I guess touring never is. We’re talking a lot now about what to do next – thinking a lot about collaborating with other sounds, traditions, styles, to see what happens.

LC: Besides Balkan music, what else are you four listening to these days? I know for example, Willa, you’re also into gamelan music from Bali, being a member of Gamelan Dharma Swara, New York’s very own gamelan. How about the rest of you? 

CS: The other day in practice, Joy exclaimed how much she’s been loving listening to Moroccan desert blues. Then Willa concurred – and she’s into Mauritanian desert blues as well. So apparently half the group’s obsessed with desert blues.

LC: So am I! I just saw Tinariwen at le Poisson Rouge, they were great!

CS: Sarah tends to listen to a lot of beat driven heavy rock with blankets of vocal harmonies and likes listening to Philip Glass when editing photos. Willa’s been discovering more rock bands that have interesting harmonies, like Panda Bear and Dirty Projectors – she always wondered why there weren’t more bands that had dense and complex vocal harmonies, and recently there seem to be more emerging.  I am obsessively listening to this cd of Greek festival processions where men wear enormous sheep bells. You gotta hear it!

LC: You’ll probably laugh when you hear this, but has anybody suggested, “Hey you should try out for American Idol?” You’ve got the chops, there’s no doubt about it…

CS: Um, that would probably be the gig where the audience doesn’t get it. Actually we HAVE thought of this and it has been mentioned before. NOT kidding. It would be pretty wild and maybe stir things up. 

LC: You’re all fully capable of fronting pretty much any band you might want to sing for. Any interest in doing that – obviously while keeping Black Sea Hotel together of course!

CS: We are working on ways to take what we do best – sing close strange harmonies in weird rhythms — and do it in other genres, outside the confines of Balkan music. It would be a dream come true to be involved in something with a group like the Kronos Quartet, or collaborate with a composer like Tod Machover, or work with a rock band. 

LC: Here’s a conundrum that I hear all the time from all the promoters and publicists trying to get their world music acts some press. How do you cross over, out of a niche market? “If we could only find a way to get all the Lucinda Williams fans to listen to Angelique Kidjo,” etc. etc. Do you have any thoughts about building a following with what you do, considering how radically different it is from American music, especially the pop music coming out of the corporations these days?

CS: We struggle with this like many of our compatriots in that awfully named “world music” genre.  We get told that we could get booked more if we were more accessible. One of the challenges is the lyrics, and we’re actually working on a piece now that will combine English and Macedonian. But we’re not really sure what ‘more accessible’ really means – and how much we would have to change to get there. You could say if we sang in English we’d be more accessible, but I’m not sure that’s really honest either. Maybe more, but not a whole lot more.  

LC: Have you ever wondered what might happen if girls were exposed to what you do early in life? What I mean is obviously what you’ve achieved is a result of talent and brains rather than simply looking good. Would you consider yourselves role models in that sense? 

CS: Yow! Never thought about it that way. The music industry production mill for girl singers sucks, but at this point it’s just about as bad for boys too.  

LC: Since you started doing this, have Bulgarian guys started hitting on you?

CS: Not particularly. We have yet to meet the enormous émigré Bulgarian guy population that is into Bulgarian roots music.

Black Sea Hotel play the cd release for their debut album on a great bill starting at 9 PM at Union Pool on Thurs, June 4 with Sxip Shirey opening, then BSH, then Veveritse and Stumblebum Brass Band.

May 30, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

CD Review: A Company of Voices – Conspirare in Concert

For a new group, coming straight out of the chute with a great album can be as much curse as blessing. For better or worse, it’s Austin, Texas-based choral group Conspirare’s cross to bear. Both their debut, Requiem, as well as their 2007 follow-up, Threshold of Night, an adventurous collections of works by British composer Tarik O’Regan, share a subtle and frequently not so subtle brilliance, pushing the boundaries of where vocal music can go. Conspirare’s pioneering director Craig Hella Johnson’s claim to fame is his collages, as he calls them, intricately polyrhythmic arrangements of two or more choral works simultaneously. One literally exhilarating example here on the new cd (also available as a dvd) blends segments of an Appalachian folk tune with Motown, a Roy Orbison hit, medieval plainsong and Broadway. Anyone who might think choral music can’t be psychedelic ought to hear this. Since recording a choir utilizes pretty much the same techniques in the studio and in concert, calling this a live album is somewhat beside the point. And in contrast to the often haunting, starkly beautiful sound of the ensemble’s previous release, this frequently has the feel of a PBS special…maybe because it was recorded for one.

Conspirare particularly excels at spirituals and soul music. They also ably explore both country – notably Dolly Parton’s Light of a Clear Blue Morning – and contemporary gospel with a surprising majesty and depth. To their infinite credit, the performances generally transcend the more commercial material here, for example, finding the inner poignance in an otherwise forgettable Annie Lennox top 40 hit. Yet unsurprisingly, it’s the edgiest material here – Eliza Gylkison’s stoic Requiem, the title track from their first album; an excerpt from Triptych by Tarik O’Regan, and an often spine-tingling take of Samuel Barber’s Agnus Dei that spring the latch, voices and arrangements soaring free of a Pandora’s box of schlock (Johnson should leave writing power ballads to those who sing them – with their bands, that is, not with this unit).

Yet the sheer craft and unabashed joyousness of the group raises even the most lightweight material here above the level of a tune-out – although Lucid Culture’s resident jazz critic walked by the front desk when this was playing, scrunched up her face and announced that “This sounds like what my mom would listen to around Christmastime when she’s baking cookies.” Well, at low volume, maybe: all the voices here turned up to ten will rock your stove. And it’s reason enough to look forward to Conspirare’s next album, hopefully making a fullscale return to their paradigm-shifting roots.

May 12, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment