Saturday, October 22, 2011

Events NYC | Madrigals and Metamorphoses

Out of tune? If your ears like the (artificially) fixed pitch of piano keys, they would have been spinning on your head last Saturday evening as the group Ekmeles presented Madrigals and Metamorphoses at the uptown Italian Academy.

Not everyone’s ears crave such tidiness, and Ekmeles sang their way through a largely 20th-century program of songs by composers known and well-known. But the opening madrigals were by Carlo Gesualdo, a 17th century Neapolitan-born nobleman, murderer, composer. He tuned his music to scales supposedly based on those of the ancient Greeks called “genera”, which leads to intense chromaticism (think pitches between the keys on a modern keyboard).

These were followed by three madrigals by Carl Bettendorf who “decomposed” to various degrees some of Gesualdo’s original music. Folllowing Gersualdo’s model, and in true 20th-century style he added a number of “theatrical” effects, including clapping, laughing, whisperings by the group on the text dealing with Joy and happiness (“Gioia che tutto gioia”). The singers, playing on woodblocks, hammers and metal bowls accompanied their own fine singing.

Thoroughly decomposed was Margin Iddon’s hamadryads. The text was purely phonetic and the pitches were all over the place, relying on heavily experimental tunings. The singers sat at a table as for a banquet, with wine glasses with water at each setting which they used to provide their own accompaniment by running their fingers around the glasses’ rims.

And Elliott Carter, an American composer who will celebrate his 103rd!!! birthday in December was represented by his Mad Regales composed when he was 99 years of age. May we all have such sure-footed creative skills in our 90s. The text by John Ashbery provided the perfect vehicle for Carter’s a capella sextet setting.

Then Peter Ablinger’s Studien nach der Natur took us into the realm of music ecology, where the singers presented sounds of the freeway, the sea, mosquitoes, smoking, a quartz watch, the wind, water drops, etc. Who needs digital sounds when a human voice can create such descriptive sound effects?

Pier Pasolini’s thoroughly baroque texts were set by Johannes Schollhorn in his Madrigali a Dio. Pointillistic notes by the individual singers hovered in microtuned pitches, words were reiterated, repeated and delivered in intense rhythmic declarations, and all at odds with each other. The poet’s vilification of the creator-God leads to his final rejection: “Tua, ch’è in me, a Te non mi conduce.”