Lucid Culture


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