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The Esoterics: words matter as much as the music

Cover of the recording being discussed
Cover of the recording being discussedfrom Amazon.com

The character that interested me the most in Anthony Trollope’s satirical (but painfully accurate) novel The Way We Live Now was Hamilton K. Fisker. He was the man for whom having a business plan to construct a railway line was more important than building the line itself. Today’s “now” is not that different from Trollope’s. There are any number of Fiskers out there, who are extraordinarily adept at writing business plans and prefacing them with seductive mission statements. Concerns about whether or not the mission is feasible or, for that matter, desirable in the face of consequences that might ensue, are not part of the equation.

I chose to begin this article with the above paragraph because it is not often that I encounter an arts ensemble with a mission statement. When I do find one, I tend to reach to make sure that my wallet is still in my pocket, even if I am reading it on a Web page. In spite of my suspicions, I have to say that the mission statement provided by The Esoterics on the About Web page on their Web site deserves attention without skepticism:

The Esoterics is a Seattle-based vocal ensemble that is dedicated to performing and perpetuating contemporary a cappella choral settings of poetry, philosophy, and spiritual writings from around the world. While cultivating artistic expression and cultural understanding among its singers and audience alike, The Esoterics aspires to reflect the beauty, power, and significance that are inherent in the music of our time. (The Esoterics is a registered non-profit organization under section 501(c)3 of the US Federal Tax Code.)

As one who has accused certain composers (to be left unnamed) of using a text as little more than a prop on which to hang their notes, I have to say that the “mission” of The Esoterics is music (so to speak) to my ears.

At the end of this past May, The Esoterics released their latest recording, entitled Sirene: a modern answer to the ancient call, on Terpsichore Records. On the basis of this single data point, I am willing to trust that they take their mission seriously. Indeed, given the seriousness of their intentions, I feel sorry that Amazon.com pasted in the wrong description on the Web page for this recording, since that description begins:

Bruckner’s last mass is a masterpiece.

Fortunately, the curious listener will find much better assistance under the “Most Helpful Customer Review” heading with an extended account by Dr. Debra Jan Bibel.

As one might guess, the theme of this album is the phenomenon of “hearing voices,” which may or may not have concrete physical origins. The major work on the recording is a half-hour suite by Mason Bates entitled Sirens that draws on an impressive variety of sources. The suite is framed by the song of the Sirens as it appears in Book XII of the Odyssey, the same (Greek) text given different musical settings in the opening and closing movements. Between these two movements Bates provides the German tale of the Lorelei, a Gregorian hymn of prayer (in Latin) addressed to a star for safe passage at sea, a Quechua song about a trance-producing flute, and the appearance of Jesus after the Crucifixion as related in the Gospel According to Saint Matthew.

I have to confess that I was particularly interested in this composition, since my home town is San Francisco and Bates is based in the Bay Area. Furthermore, his music has received a generous amount of attention from the San Francisco Symphony. However, most of that attention has been devoted to his use of electronica (computer-based sounds controlled by interfaces designed by Bates to enable real-time performance), particularly as an addition to the resources of a full symphony orchestra. While I had not previously heard anything Bates had composed for an a cappella choir, I had attended the world premiere of his “Mass Transmission,” performed by the San Francisco Symphony Chorus accompanied only by pipe organ and electronica. I was impressed by not only his ear for choral composition but for his particularly innovative use of text (transcriptions of conversations on the first intercontinental wireless radio link between Java and Holland.

This is the context in which I listened to Sirens. My primary reaction is that the basic grammatical foundations of both melodic design and harmonic progression hold up very well without any support from electronica. Indeed, Bates has come up with some very powerful approaches to vocal sonorities that seduce the listener into paying very close attention to what he is doing, perhaps just as powerfully as the Sirens of Greek myth tried to seduce Odysseus. While I suspect that Bates is not thinking about cutting the cord (so to speak) to his use of electronica, Sirens left me with the hope that he will pursue future opportunities to work with a cappella choral settings.

The other relatively long composition on this album also has a San Francisco connection. This is the mini-suite Privilege, composed by Ted Hearne during his residency with Volti (based in San Francisco) as a result of his winning the group’s Choral Arts Laboratory competition. Volti subsequently recorded Privilege and included it on their House of Voices album. Thus, thanks to The Esoterics, I have enjoyed the “privilege” of listening to two different ensembles perform this relatively new work (a distinction I recently noted in conjunction with Pēteris Vasks’ violin concerto).

Privilege takes a rather interesting and contrasting stance to The Esoterics’ mission statement. While Bates grounded his libretto on tales best treated metaphorically, Hearne was bold enough to take a non-fiction approach to his choice of texts. The first and third movements are reflections on the nature of privileged life, written by Hearne and based on his own upbringing. The second and fourth movements, on the other hand, present the words of David Simon when he was interviewed by Bill Moyers on PBS on the issue of wealth separation. That concept of separation is then generalized in the final movement, which sets an English translation of the words for an anti-apartheid song from South Africa. The overall result is a piece of music that may come closer to the substance of a contemporary documentary than any other composition.

Sirene also includes a second Hearne composition. This one, “Ripple,” sets a single sentence taken from military logs of the Iraq War:

The marine / that engaged from Post 7 / was unable to determine / the occupants / of the vehicle / due to the reflection of the sun / coming off the windshield.

I was fascinated by this, particularly because this piece also has a connection to Simon. In this case the connection is a second-order one, since Hearne is pursuing the same domain that Simon took on in his HBO series Generation Kill. However, the language of that one sentence is so consistent with so many of the tropes that found their way into the Generation Kill script that the listening experience can be very disquieting for those of us whose knowledge about our military presence in Iraq was not limited to the storytelling of the mass media. (Since “Ripple” appears on this album immediately after Bates’ Sirens, I should emphasize that any resemblance between the storytelling of the mass media and that of Saint Matthew is purely coincidental.)

The opening selection on the album was composed by Eric Banks, Director of The Esoterics. The song, “Voices,” is a setting of an English translation of a poem by Constantine Cavafy. In this poem Cavafy reflects on the voices of the departed, remembered as if they had been heard in a dream. In terms of the overall structure of the album, this sets an intriguing context for Bates’ Sirens, particularly with regard to Matthew’s account of the voice of Jesus after his death on the Cross.

Taken as a whole, then, Sirene is an album rich in highly cerebral content. However, each of the four contributing composers clearly has a strong command of highly expressive rhetoric. As a result there is no trace of didacticism in the delivery of any of the texts. Music is the highest priority, and the members of The Esoterics perform that music with such clarity that the rhetorical strengths of each of the compositions carry the burden of the often weighty words with a highly compelling style.