Ekmeles conjures practical magic with Lang and Gervasoni
Ekmeles’ concert Saturday night at the DiMenna Center turned out to be something of a séance communing with the mysteries of hermetic thought.
Augmented by the Mivos Quartet and additional string players, the vocal ensemble performed pieces from Bernhard Lang and Stefano Gervasoni, each one excavating some of the hermetic tradition.
They came at it from inside and outside. Lang, with his irreverent wit and his seamless integration of non-classical music and pop culture, was on the outside, while Gervasoni, using a mystical and fervent text from the 16th-century figure Angelus Silesius, very much on the inside. These two pieces, lasting together little over an hour, produced a substantial effect.
Lang’s Hermetica V – Fremde Sprachen is written for a vocal septet with an accompanying solo bass clarinet (played by Carlos Cordeiro). One of a series of vocal works that use hermetic texts, Lang described the work as “Dadaistic enigmatic codes…the vocal sounds of languages imagined, or listened to without actually understanding the meaning…”
Musically, Hermetica V is an exemplar of Lang’s style. He synthesizes key elements of non-classical music, especially jazz and electronic music, into his pieces. But unlike other composers who make a form of classical electronic dance music, or try to transform a classical ensemble into a jazz group, Lang is at the avant-garde edge of the classical tradition. Yet his attitude makes his work more entertaining than crossover music.
Hermetica V is built out of what Lang calls “difference/repetition loops,” phrases that repeat and are layered. Loop is the key word—his method comes out of the looping sounds of digital music making, and by interrupting them, moving them around, subtly altering them, he creates complex results while avoiding monotony. The loops make for harmonic structure without development, and a sense of time like a clock with a constantly sweeping second hand, but in which the minute and hour hands remain in place.
Opening with segments of soft vocal sounds and a repeated pattern from the bass clarinet, Hermetica grew into an engrossing musical world. There were two general sections to the work, which produced something close to a dramatic narrative—looped and layered music alternating with declamatory passages with nonsense text that were invigorating and hilarious. There’s often a conscious reflection of the pleasures of things like Boris Karloff horror movies in Lang’s work, and Hermetica could be heard as the audio portion of a particularly colorful, odd, but skilled and smart low-budget jungle adventure B movie.
On the serious side, Lang wrote a virtuosic bass clarinet solo that captured the improvisatory freedom of rhythm and phrasing heard from great players like David Murray and Eric Dolphy, but that nonetheless sounds like nothing but classical music. Cordeiro played brilliantly, not just with technical command but an understanding of Lang’s phrases. The ensemble performance was knife-edged and absolutely sympathetic to Lang’s aesthetic.
The string players joined Ekmeles for Gervasoni’s Dir in Dir, which has the two instrumental groups playing in parallel. Ekmeles director, baritone Jeffrey Gavett, described a criss-crossing structure, with each group playing the same music but in reverse direction. Dir in Dir came out sounding like an amicable counterpart to Lang, a musical Möbius strip.
Gervasoni’s time is that of the mystic, using contemplation via words and music to split open a seam and step through to a place where time has no meaning. That it comes to an end seems almost arbitrary—the music sounds like it could keep gliding along the loop.
The musical elements are precisely defined rhythm, pointillistic attacks, and occasional dissonant chords, which Ekmeles sang with a haunting sound. Gervasoni’s musical language effectively colors the text, which is the kind of fervent writing that can be felt more than understood.
In the end, the singers are vocalizing with their hands over their mouths. Like a yogic prelude to meditation, Gervasoni was not going to reveal the secrets of the universe. He prepared the ground, and left the discovery to each listener, so they might keep their own secrets. For what Gervasoni, according to Gavett, called his “most unfeasible vocal work,” the precision and color of the performance were excellent.