by Steven Pisano
Since 2011, the Ecstatic Music Festival at Merkin Concert Hall has presented collaborative concerts by performers and composers in the alternative and classical music scenes. On Thursday, Julianna Barwick and ModernMedieval teamed up for a night of ethereally beautiful vocal music.
Barwick revealed in her on-stage interview with WNYC's John Schaefer that she came to her style of music after several failed attempts at traditional pop music, which left her bored and unfulfilled until somebody introduced her to a loop pedal. Actual words are besides the point in Barwick's gorgeous vocals, which are all about sound. At one point, Schaefer asked her about Meredith Monk, whom Barwick said she admired but who she only came to know after she had been singing her own way for quite some time. (Monk is in her mid 70s, Barwick in her late 30s.) Barwick's singing is dreamy, crystalline, and pure--as you might expect from the daughter of a Louisiana pastor who started singing in church--but it is not at all spacey or annoyingly precious like many New Age singers. There is something deeply sacred about the music, even in its secular-ness.
Barwick's set ended with "The Harbinger," one of the standout tracks from her 2013 album Nepenthe. Barwick recounted how she has performed this majestic song dozens of times with different groups of back-up singers, ranging from a group of 10-yr-old boys to a group of teenage girls, each time the performance taking on a slightly different character. At the same time, she said that her loop pedal has allowed her to perform it many times alone. (One can only imagine the "Hallelujah Chorus" performed with such a gadget.)
ModernMedieval, a new a cappella group consisting of Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek (formerly of the vocal group Anonymous 4), Martha Cluver and Eliza Bagg (both members of Roomful of Teeth), led off the concert pairing music by the 12th-century abbess Hildegard von Bingen ("Caritas Habundat", "O Virtus Sapiente") with world premieres by Caroline Shaw and Caleb Burhans. They also paired "Par Maintes Foy" by the 14th-century French composer Jehan Vaillant with David Lang's "I Live in Pain" (from 2010). Despite the gap of nearly 1,000 years, the musical affinities between these medieval and contemporary composers were clear, even though the older works were written more for religious reasons. Horner-Kwiatek, Cluver and Bagg sang exquisitely together, their voices so tightly intertwined that they often sounded as one clear strand.
After intermission, ModernMedieval and Barwick joined forces on the stage for the world premiere of Barwick's new work, "Adder." And no, although John Schaefer guessed it might, it has nothing to do with snakes. The four singers sang in four parts that was sometimes in 4/4 measure. It was a perfect end to an evening of gloriously clear voices singing exquisitely wrought music spanning centuries.
The Ecstatic Music Festival concludes next Thursday, 4/26 with a performance of avant-garde piano music by John Cage, George Crumb, Kelly Moran, Suzanne Farrin and Toby Twining by powerhouse pianist Margaret Leng Tan. Tickets and info on the Kaufmann Center website.
More photos can be found here.