Quince Contemporary Vocal Ensemble: Hushers
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Quince Contemporary Vocal Ensemble: "Hushers"

CD Button Music by Enström, Soper, Saariaho, and Scelsi. English texts. New Focus Recordings FCR177

REcordings Hushers Cover 717
Critics Choice Button 1015 

JUDGING BY THE EVIDENCE HERE, Quince Contemporary Vocal Ensemble is the Anonymous 4 of new music. They have a clear mission (in this case, commissioning, performing and advocating new and experimental work), superb blend, great versatility and a general fearlessness of approach. It’s hard to imagine that the fresh, daring, often forbiddingly difficult works on this disc could be performed any better.

It takes its title from the opening piece by Warren Enström. “Hushers” (2014), according to the composer’s notes, are four consonants in the Russian language, roughly equivalent to the English “sh,” “ch,” and “ge” (as in “garage”) sounds, as well as “shch” (as in “Krushchev”). As the four group members rhythmically toss around these consonants, it sometimes sounds like a choo-choo train, or a shaker. No actual pitches appear until about halfway through the five-minute piece; these are carefully calibrated sustained tones that form exquisite dissonances.

Kate Soper’s three Songs for Nobody (2006), from spare, evocative texts by Thomas Merton, flow freely from consonance to dissonance, but manage to stay tender even when the harmonic language is at its most acerbic. Soper has something very original to say with these surprising, otherworldly pieces. The third, in particular, “Song,” employs whispering, prolonged consonants, varied textures and vocal lines that seem to shadow each other, all to pronounced effect.

Kaija Saariaho’s From the Grammar of Dreams (1988) uses four excerpts from Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, plus fragments from Plath’s poem “Paralytic.” Saariaho’s music, always haunting, is a good fit for Plath’s often searing inner explorations (although for some reason these texts are not printed in the booklet). Saariaho’s setting is for two voices, and she conjures a distinctive sound world for each of the five movements. The style seems to feature both discipline and wild abandon. In the first entry, one of the voices intones relatively melodious, highly melismatic lines while the other declaims harshly in a kind of sprechgesang. In the second, one voice alternates stylized rhythmic utterances with singing. In the third, all sung and quite lovely, the two voices engage in hypnotic counterpoint. In the fourth, rhythmic panting and gasping yields eventually to singing but with a back-and-forth that evokes bipolar madness. In the final piece, both singers vocalize on “ah” with a certain controlled ecstasy; only in the last few seconds do we realize they are actually singing a two-word text: “I smile.”

Much strangeness surrounds Giacinto Scelsi’s Sauh I-IV, from 1973. According to the notes, Scelsi described himself as a “messenger,” not a composer, and he recorded improvisations until he found one he liked, then handed the tape off to a collaborator who would notate and orchestrate the sounds. Sauh uses strings of phonemes instead of texts, and the title refers to a type of phoneme used in Hindu and Buddhist mantras that “may or may not have meaning.” The pieces themselves, two for duo and two for quartet, are drone-like and slowly shifting but not at all unpleasant. The pace finally accelerates toward the end of the last number. 

No doubt it took great commitment and patience to decipher and learn these pieces. This disc is well worth hearing for its sheer novelty, and for the unusual, thoroughly impressive artistry of its four singer/members.  —Joshua Rosenblum 

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