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Ekmeles choir
Photo from Ekmeles.com

Music Review: Ekmeles – A Choir Pushes Boundaries with ‘We Live the Opposite Daring’

The avant-garde chamber choir Ekmeles has just six members, but can attack the sound front like an army. They kick off their second release with a sonic ambush, showing off their skill with microtones and nontraditional tunings in Primo Libre by James Weeks.

Why Settle for 12 Tones?

This 17-minute tour-de-force is a set of 16 modern “madrigals” written in 31-division equal temperament (31-ET). That scale dates back to the mid-16th century but is rarely (to say the least) heard today. The tuning divides the octave not into the common 12 tones but 31 evenly spaced frequencies. It allows for chords and intervals that sound very weird and “out of tune” to our modern ears, accustomed to the 12-tone scale. An example that a non-musician can imagine is a neutral triad – a three-note chord that sits in between a major and a minor, sounding a little like each but not quite like either one.

It’s not hard to play microtones (tones in between two of the typical 12) on a fretless string instrument like a violin. It’s not hard to detune a guitar or piano to sound like a keyboard might have sounded before J.S. Bach popularized the well-tempered tuning (or to just sound eerie). Singing in an alternate tuning is another matter. A vocalist must cast off their intonation training to teach their vocal apparatus entirely new notes and intervals, then sing them consistently, correctly, and in harmony with others.

That’s what you’ll hear in the Primo Libre madrigals, written for one, two, or four voices. The ensemble’s name, Ekmeles, according to its website, means, “in Ancient Greek music theory, tones of indefinite pitch and intervals with complex ratios, tones ‘not appropriate for musical usage.'” But the group shows that what may seem “indefinite” actually has distinct meaning, with intriguing effects on the human ear and brain.

Ekmeles: Back to the Future

These shiny little pieces may be settings of 16th-century Italian lyrics, but they sound both alien and mechanistic, as if created by an advanced and robotically inclined otherworldly civilization. Weeks’ score lets us hear solo and duo voices, where the “unnatural” intervals are plain to hear. We also hear sequences of four-part chords where individual parts move to adjacent microtones, altering the character of the chord in ways for which words don’t come easily to mind because these chords don’t trigger the specific emotions our brains have trained us to feel from music.

So yes, the piece shouts “I’m demonstrating something” more than “I’m seeking to make you feel something.” But it can certainly make you feel that you’ve experienced something new.

The four-movement title piece is a new work by Zosha Di Castri setting fragments of poems by Sappho. Glissandos, ululations, sprechstimme, body percussion, and other effects elaborate a creepy sound palette that’s twisted and dynamic. Unapologetically weird, this music outlines a strange psychedelic journey from ancient Greece to an uncertain and scary future.

Airy harmonicas in gently clashing tunings usher in “this is but an oration of loss” by Hannah Kendall. This Ekmeles commission sets an M. NourbeSe Philip text about a 1730 legal case concerning the deliberate drowning of 130 enslaved Africans. Aesthetically the most powerful piece on the album, it’s a melange of lamentations including shouts, cries, mournful vocal harmonies and dissonances, and anxious spoken readings.

Shawn Jaeger’s “love is” features intriguing microtonal harmonies and humorous spoken-word interjections. It also shows off the vocal skills of individual singers. But overall it smacks of quirkiness for the sake of quirkiness.

Cut and Paste

The album closes with two studio efforts. The first, “Waves,” has three short movements created by Ekmeles’ artistic director and baritone Jeffrey Gavett. The piece is a vocal realization of music originally performed on artist Oliver Bear’s “vessel orchestra” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Gavett’s stitched-together vocal samples add up to compelling vocalise: introspective sighing; assertive chanting; then a haunting darkness with an inconclusive resolution.

For the four short segments of “Mouthpiece 36,” Erin Gee employs recordings of the singers scatting, humming, growling, swooping in glissandos, whistling, going nasal, articulating nonsense syllables, and even indulging in rich, natural-sounding harmonizing. Enough of the sounds resemble animal utterances that their having being “improvised in nature spaces” rings true. These are curious and funny little pieces that don’t seem to take themselves too seriously, even if the composer’s liner notes do.

All told, We Live the Opposite Daring cements Ekmeles as one of our foremost experimental vocal ensembles. The album comes out February 16, 2024 on New Focus Recordings. I can’t wait to hear what they record next.

Their February and March 2024 concerts take place in New York City and include performances of music by Karlheinz Stockhausen and Arvo Pärt. Hannah Kendall’s piece from this album is on the menu for a free concert March 23 at St. Paul’s Chapel, Columbia University.

About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is Publisher and Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to our Music section, where he covers classical music (old and new) and other genres, and to Culture, where he reviews NYC theater. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at http://www.orenhope.com/ you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at http://parkodyssey.blogspot.com/ where he is on a mission to visit every park in New York City. He has also been a part-time working musician, including as lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado.

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