Fearless forays into choral hinterlands: Exaudi – Exposure

by 5:4
5 minutes read

Newly available this week from the thoroughly ambitious Huddersfield Contemporary Records is Exposure, a collection of choral works performed by contemporary music’s most adventurous cluster of vocalists, Exaudi Vocal Ensemble, directed by James Weeks. As with all of HCR’s releases (the rest of which are well worth exploring – details here), the featured composers are an eclectic mixture, demonstrating well the range of Exaudi’s interests and skills. It is by far the most radical disc of vocal music i’ve encountered in a long time, an exploration that takes real risks both in terms of choice of repertoire as well as the pressures brought to bear on the singers themselves.

Of course, going out on a limb is fraught with dangers, and there are pieces on this disc that work far better in theory than practice. Not many, thankfully, but Joanna Bailie‘s three-part Harmonizing—seeking to tease out pitched material from field recordings and meld it into corresponding vocal parts—lacks conviction in the attempted correlation, and the method (somewhat hackneyed in any case) only seems to emphasise its subjectivity and arbitrariness, narrowing the scope of these ‘artificial environments’. The second of the three succeeds best, but the other two are forced and boring respectively. Bryn Harrison‘s eight voices suffers in similar fashion, the twists of its repeating material (rather like a convoluted isorhythm) sound marvellous as an idea, but the piece displays minimal result from maximum effort, rapidly losing its ability to command attention. Here, though, Exaudi’s deeply impressive control and consistency frequently distract one from the work’s shortcomings.

The rest of the disc is very much more successful and thought-provoking. The processes at the heart of Richard Glover‘s Corradiation—lines moving up/down with almost infinite slowness—are also not in themselves terribly new, but the constant harmonic flux is fascinating, even hypnotic. It’s hard to think of another work that has so successfully pitched camp in the no man’s land between consonance and dissonance. James WeeksNakedness is just as focused on pitch, here emerging from the mouth of a soloist, directed towards an effort that Weeks’ describes as “impossible – an ever-quieter, longer, purer, single tone – that reveals the naked self”. Juliet Fraser’s rendition of this aim is mesmerising, her lines and indeed her entire self becoming like a sonic laser beam. The work comes across as a sequence of ‘attempts’, projecting an earnestness and vulnerability that at times feel almost intrusively personal. Stephen Chase‘s five Jandl Songs (settings of the Austrian poet Ernst Jandl) offer an interestingly abstruse relationship to their texts. If their focus and substance occasionally seem to drift a bit, this is more than made up for by the songs’ best moments, which are more to do with the interactions of the singers than anything else. There’s a nice ambiguity in ‘lied/song’—are the pair of voices working together or independently?—while ‘why can i not’ is like an oblique manifestation of Delius, the homophonic lines slithering semi-indeterminately into delightfully unexpected progressions that somehow seem just right.

Pitch is of far less importance in the disc’s remaining two works. Aaron Cassidy‘s A painter of figures in rooms, composed for last year’s Cultural Olympiad, extends into vocal territory his rigorous examination of music as the result of notated physical action. As such, the piece contains an incredibly diverse array of sound production and projection methods; the nature of these and their juxtapositions is what the ear cleaves to. As with Cassidy’s instrumental music, there are incipient dangers in this kind of material, and again the question of what constitutes ‘substance’ rears its head. Does this piece represent something being said? or, rather, is it a proclamation on the possibility of things being said in an entirely new way? Put another way: is it a message, or is it the messenger? This inner conflict in Cassidy’s music is almost too easy to set aside when confronted by such beguiling, multi-faceted material, Exaudi’s performance of which may well constitute the most technically outrageous demonstration of choral virtuosity ever recorded. Its implications remain debatable, but the piece is certainly heraldic. If Cassidy’s approach can be likened to advanced creative thought inviting a reimagined future, Claudia Molitor‘s lorem ipsum comes from the other end of the continuum, an enthralling sequence of episodes that practically discovers choral music as if from nowhere. She refers to a “sincere frivolity”, which is a perfect description for a work that is both primitive and utterly ingenuous. Above all, it revels in the sounds the body can make, exploring whistles, pops, sniffs and grunts in addition to sung pitches. The occasions when it sounds faintly familiar feel the product of serendipity more than anything else, but more telling is the gleeful sense of experimentation that pervades the work, presenting a group of individuals discovering together what sounds their voices and bodies are capable of.

Which is also a pretty good summary of the Exaudi Vocal Ensemble themselves. Their fearless forays into choral hinterlands have become the stuff of legend in recent years, and Exposure is a powerful, provocative testament to what composers can achieve in the hands—and mouths—of such courageous performers.

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alan munro

Is this CD available yet? I have tried Amazon, Exaudi website and Huddersfield contemporary records!

[…] A review of the CD appears on the 5:4 blog. […]

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