Ekmeles, Cuckson bridge the centuries from Josquin to Sciarrino

Thu Feb 18, 2016 at 2:59 pm

Miranda Cuckson performed with Ekmeles Wednesday night at National Sawdust.

Music exists in the dimension of time, and also has the unique power to do away with time. When musicians play older music of any kind, the past collapses into the present, and the playing and listening experience live in the moment.

While hearing old and new music together is common, it is far less common to hear it in a way that recreates the experience of past audiences. That was the feeling at the rewardingly complex concert Wednesday night at National Sawdust, where the vocal ensemble Ekmeles and violinist Miranda Cuckson first demolished then expanded time and space.

The concert, presented by Cuckson, was titled “Luigi Nono and the human voice”–a somewhat generic way to connect the violinist’s second half performance of Nono’s La lontananza nostalgica utopica futura with Ekmele’s opening set, which had one piece from Nono.

Along with that, the atonal madrigal Sará dolce tacere, Ekmeles sang music that brought together 500 years of madrigal-based a cappella from Josquin, Ockeghem, Scelsi, and Sciarrino.

Ekmeles, led by baritone Jeffrey Gavett, delivered excellent performances, singing with intimate  clarity and exact intonation—even in the microtonal dissonances of Scelsi’s Tre canti sacri. The small group of voices, from four to eight depending on the piece, revealed a warm reflection in the National Sawdust space. The only flaw, a minor one, was that the group’s French pronunciation in Josquin’s secular pieces Mille Regretz and Nymphes des Bois was less than idiomatic.

The mix and flow of the music was engrossing. The set opened with Sciarrino’s 3 canti senza pietre. Sciarrino’s vocal writing itself melds eras into a singularity, with his unique style of micro-sounds. His permeable membrane between muttering and singing produces music that comes as naturally as thinking and breathing. In a typical theatrical touch, countertenor Tim Keeler began with a handkerchief wrapped around his mouth like a gag.

The easy flow from Sciarrino, Josquin and Nono to Ockeghem’s miniature Missa “Fors seulement” and then the Scelsi, revealed a commonality of means and sound. There was counterpoint and antiphony in each piece, and an emphasis on singing as a way to clearly express text, that brought the eras together. The transparent, deep concept and the wonderful singing seemed an embodiment of the intimate performances that Robert Craft produced for Stravinsky to hear, inspiring the composer’s excavation of Monteverdi and Gesualdo.

After a pause came Nono’s solo piece. The subtitle explains a great deal about how the music was made and how it works: “Madrigale per più ‘caminantes’ con Gidon Kremer, violino solo, 8 nastri magnetici, da 8 a 10 leggi.”

Created with and for violinist Gidon Kremer, the piece mixes live music with an 8-channel audio tape (or digital file). The soloist is a wanderer (“caminante”), moving slowly and seemingly at random to 8–10 music stands (“leggi”) that hold copies of the score.

The audio plays throughout and extends past the solo music in both directions. The sound of the violin connects the live and pre-recorded music, which features Kremer playing long tones, harmonics, tremolos, slides, and other musical events, often overlaid into an eerie, writhing mass. There are also random sounds from everyday life—bits of conversation, doors closing, footsteps—that have the effect of making the recorded music lifelike.

The music for the solo violinist is spare, and quiet, with sustained notes and harmonics, interspersed with a few rapid passages and energetic attacks. But the music has an intense, inward search. Nono uses particular devices, like having the soloist start a musical event and then turn it into a pitch, that demand a razor-edge concentration. In a non-showy way, this is a challenging piece, more so for the psychological demands.

Cuckson is a superb musician who has been performing La lontananza since the start of this decade. She brings a classic sound to the technical challenges, and an un-self-conscious commitment to the theatrical demands.

She slowly wandered between stands, lost, her destination random. Her playing drew one into the world of the piece, which entirely replaced the lived-in world for the duration of the performance.

Christopher Burns played the audio, with an emphasis on the verb. The music and sounds are on eight different tracks, each with its own quality, and the playback is part of the performance (no two will be alike). Burns, responding to the acoustics and Cuckson, chose which tracks to mix up and down, and his emphasis on quiet and leaving still points of silence, was a vital part of the overall marvelous and mysterious effect.

La lontananza literally connects the pre-recorded past with the present. Cuckson’s playing was an oasis amidst the wandering, moments of both solace and constructive activity amid what can be heard as the devastation of 20th-century history. Sciarrino himself considered the ambiguous title to be a reflection of a hopeful future, but in the words is also the memory of shattered dreams.


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