Music for the adventurous from Ars Nova Singers

Photo courtesy of Ars Nova Singers

Tom Morgan wants to hear something new.

“As I get older I’m less interested in hearing the same sounds over and over again,” he says.

And as the director of Boulder’s Ars Nova Singers, he’s in a position to do something about it.

The program he chose for the group’s upcoming concerts explores the unusual territory of music for saxophone and chorus (Oct. 19 in Boulder, with performances throughout the weekend in Broomfield and Denver). The unique sound of saxes and voices might be enough in itself to attract the musically adventurous, but that’s not all.

The program, to be performed by the 36-voice Ars Nova Singers and the Colorado Saxophone Quartet, is as adventurous as the rare combination of sounds. The featured work will be “Amao Omi” (Senseless war) by the Georgian (Eastern Europe) composer Giya Kanchelli, who is not widely known here. There will be a world premiere of a work for choir by the Longmont-based composer Fred Jewell. There will be music from Philip Glass’s score for the cult-classic art film Koyaanisqatsi. And in the most unexpected development of all, there will be a sacred motet by the Spanish Renaissance composer Cristobal Morales performed with an improvised jazz saxophone solo.

In a classic understatement, Morgan affirms that “there are sounds in this program that people will not expect.” 

The linchpin of the program in Kanchelli’s “Amao Omi.” Known as one of the so-called “holy minimalists,” Kanchelli is Georgia’s best known living composer. His music is characterized by contrasts between long, subdued passages and more violent moments with brass and percussion, often with an implied spiritual meaning. Although performed less in this country than in Europe, he has composed a wide of variety of music, including symphonies and other orchestral pieces, music for chorus and orchestra, and chamber music.

“I’m always interested things that can provide the chorus with a unique sounds,” he says. “And this piece is really well-written that way — it kind of goes back and forth between the saxophones accompanying the chorus and the chorus accompanying the saxophones.”

The piece captured Morgan’s interest right away. “It’s pretty interesting because he uses little snippets of text that were chosen for their sound and not so much for their meaning, and essentially it’s almost a senseless text. There are themes that reappear in various guises, including folk-song fragments. There’s this little alleluia theme that comes back. And there are wonderful speaking silences where there are questioning moments and then just absolute silence.”

Morgan also enjoys the drama Kanchelli creates through music.

“There are a couple of places in the piece that listeners should really be prepared to be surprised,” he says. “There are a couple of just absolutely shocking moments, so while there are some really beautiful things that everyone will attach to, there are also some things that will really make people sit up.”

Closely matching the sound and style of Kanchelli’s score will be the music by Glass. Although he does not like the term, Glass is often identified as one of the original minimalist composers, known for music that unfolds slowly, with long repetitions of musical ideas that may be gradually varied over time in almost imperceptible ways.

One of the landmarks of the style was the music Glass wrote for Koyaanisqatsi, a plot-less art film that juxtaposes scenes of the natural world with ever-accelerating time-lapse images of factories, pollution and streaming traffic. Glass’s slowly-evolving music is a perfect match for the visual imagery, and its hypnotic effect has earned it a rapt audience apart from the film.

Morgan selected one portion of the score, “Vessels” for two saxophones, flute and chorus, both for its similar instrumentation and its stylistic compatibility with Kanchelli. And he notes, “This being [Glass’] 75th birthday this year, there’s been a good number of retrospectives of his work around the country.”

The music is challenging in many ways, but Morgan says both Ars Nova and the saxophone players have enjoyed putting the program together. “I had known a little bit about the Colorado Saxophone Quartet, and it really has been a pleasure to get together with them,” he says. “It’s been a rewarding experience for both for them and for us.”

And it is definitely not the same old sounds over again.

Ars Nova Singers perform at St. John’s Episcopal Church Friday, Oct. 19. Visit