By Caleb Easterly
The C4 Ensemble (The Choral Composer/Conductor Collective) is made up of a formidable group of singers and composers, which made their informal concert Thursday night at the Church of St. Luke in the Fields all the more refreshing. The program, A Loss for Words, was developed around the idea of combining voice with alternative texts. The group performed ten short pieces, several written specifically for the group.
Without words to deal with, the chorus was free to use a wide variety of vocal sounds, including humming and throat singing as they shifted places and conductors. Several of the pieces were simple fun, such as Besh Besh Besh’m Sh’mo by Martha Sullivan, heavily influenced by Bulgarian dance music. The group stayed light-footed, keeping the piece lively and enjoyable. Hee oo oom ha, by Toby Twining, was a rollicking, enjoyable ride, with Twining as guest soloist leaping around registers in the counter-tenor solo.
A couple of the pieces seemed contrived, however, such as Nursery Miniatures by Karen Siegel, inspired by the sounds of the composer’s 5-month-old son. Exploring the intrinsic meaning of vocal music by eliminating discernible text is one thing, but composing a choral piece around a baby’s sounds is facile, not to mention pretty silly. In So Many Words by Timothy Brown was composed as a joke piece, but aspired to meaning by creating a “character” overwhelmed by too many words. Some words were spoken – “Keep New York City clean!” – and some sung, returning to a refrain of “Blah, blah, blah”. At its best, I heard echoes of the Knee Plays from Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach, but the piece droned on long after its point was made.
The chorus made the deepest impression with more serious pieces. The Blue of Distance by Zibuokle Martinaityte used gorgeous combinations of cluster chords, swells, and ebbs to. explore the title phrase, described by the composer as a “poetical-philosophical hint.” Without Words, by Huang Ruo (which can be heard on his home page here), began with gentle finger cymbal strikes. Sliding between jazz-like chords and murmuring textures, this piece was also the only one to use a text – a poem by the Chinese poet Li Hou Zhu that begins, ironically, “Without words….” It was the most alluring music of the night.