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A Howl, That Was Also A Prayer

by Ekmeles

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Hailed as a "brilliant young ensemble... defining a fresh and virtuosic American sound" (The New Yorker), vocal ensemble Ekmeles celebrates the release of their first solo album” A Howl, That Was Also A Prayer.” The recording consists of three innovative looks at what singing could be in the 21st century. Extremely fine microtonal gradations of pitch, innovative electronics, and imaginative vocal techniques and timbres come together to express Ekmeles's unique contribution to vocal music. The album includes Ekmeles commissions by Christopher Trapani and Taylor Brook that highlight both composers’ innovative approaches to microtonal composition. Rounding out the album is Erin Gee’s Three Scenes from Sleep, music that integrates extended vocal techniques and taut rhythmic gestures within a long range harmonic progression.

Taylor Brook’s Motorman Sextet explores the limits of microtonal writing for unaccompanied voices, mixing spoken and sung inflections to moving and humorous effect in a massive thirty minute suite of movements. The text is taken from David Ohle's surreal, cult novel, Motorman; the six voices simultaneously narrate the story and create an atmosphere through myriad vocal techniques and styles. Oscillating chords melt, descending in pitch as if we were listening to a recording as the tape speed was slowing. Brook’s palette is expansive, creating contrapuntal textures reminiscent of choral music though through a distorting prism, using extended techniques to imitate foley sounds, and spinning weightless harmonies suspended in thin air. The narrative voice changes from male to female, at one moment delivering text with thespian formality and the next in a lackadaisical, slacker style, sometimes shrouded in a halo of imitative, sung text in the background. The variety of textures within a narrative frame reminds one at times of radio dramas from the 1940’s, but with a dystopian twist. This is one of Ekmeles's most ambitious commissions, and a landmark work for Brook's microtonal style.

Christopher Trapani's End Words is a novel venture in the relationship between the oldest and the newest forms of musical expression; six human voices are paired with electronic counterparts in an innovative method of electronic music-making. This evocative work posits a new intersection of voice and computer in the 21st century, as Trapani’s manipulations of pre-recorded vocal fragments combine with the live performances to generate shimmering vowels, percolating consonants, and hallucinogenic voicings. The final movement is framed by a tintinnabulating electronics part, with the text largely being delivered in sighing unison rhythms passed through the ensemble in rich, technicolor harmonies. Taking inspiration from an archaic poetic form, Trapani uses texts from sestinas (a thirty nine line form) for the piece, as well as borrowing aspects of its structure to frame the organization of the composition (he even takes it one step further, writing his liner note for the piece in the form of a sestina).

Erin Gee’s Three Scenes from Sleep are wordless vignettes that skitter with pops, clicks, and
whistles, charmingly deploying the composer/performer’s battery of idiosyncratic vocality,
through a crystalline harmonic structure. Gee puts the listener inside a playful laboratory of sounds in these pieces, subtle percussive glitches trigger static open voicings, while hissing air sounds suggest air released from pressure valves. Tonal structures provide a magnetic center around which glissandi, microtones, and non-pitched material pushes away before being pulled back. These three short movements are part of a larger piece including texts drawn from Vedic scriptures, Joseph Campbell, and Robinson Jeffers. The wordless movements heard here capture the unconscious mind in various stages of sleep.

Ekmeles’ "A Howl, That Was Also A Prayer” is a landmark album for contemporary vocal music, with the ambition of the compositions only matched by the stunning virtuosity and symbiotic cohesion of the ensemble.

-J. Gavett/D. Lippel


released January 3, 2020

Ekmeles; Charlotte Mundy, soprano; Elisa Sutherland, mezzo-soprano; Tim Keeler, countertenor; Steven Bradshaw, tenor; Jeffrey Gavett, baritone; Steven Hrycelak, bass

Engineer: Ryan Streber

Recording Location: Oktaven Audio, Mt. Vernon, NY

Recording Dates: Motorman Sextet, May 23-25, 2019; Three Scenes From Sleep, August 21, 2019; End Words, August 21-23, 2019

Produced by Taylor Brook, Erin Gee and Christopher Trapani

Motorman Sextet text from Chapter 1, 2, 7, 9, 11, 34, 49, 56, 61 and 92 of Motorman by David Ohle

Three Scenes From Sleep text compiled from Vedic Scriptures, the myth analyses of Joseph Campbell, and Robinson Jeffers

End Words text from the poems They Raised Violins by Anis Mojgani, Sestina by Ciara Shuttleworth, and The Painter by John Ashbery




New Focus Recordings New York, New York

New Focus Recordings is an artist led collective label featuring releases in contemporary music of many stripes, as well as new approaches to older repertoire. The label was founded by guitarist Daniel Lippel (who is the current director), composer engineer Ryan Streber, and composer Peter Gilbert in 2003-4, and features releases from many of new music's most active performers and composers. ... more

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