Time signatures and space

Ars Nova Singers aim for the unusual

Photo by Jonathan Castner

Going boldly where few choirs ever do, Boulder’s Ars Nova Singers and conductor Thomas Edward Morgan love to explore strange new worlds of vocal performance.

“Extended Voices: Modern Masterworks,” the concert they are offering in Boulder and Denver April 25 and 26 (details: http://arsnovasingers.com), travels at least as far as neighboring galaxies, with a piece by Mason Bates titled “Observer in the Magellanic Cloud.”

In fact, the program covers a stimulating array of styles, from the fairly traditional “Reincarnations” by Samuel Barber, to music by the deeply spiritual 20th-century composer John Tavener, to his Renaissance musical ancestor John Taverner, to a meditative setting of the “Heart Sutra” by Boulder composer Robert Gass. To complete the journey of exploration, Ars Nova will perform music by the three winners of their Sixth Colorado Composers Competition.

Morgan seems confident this is the kind of musical adventure his audiences relish. “They’re not really expecting to hear Mozart,” he says.

“Even though we have a lot of modern music on this program, there are things that will be very connective for different people. The Renaissance John Taverner appeals to a certain portion of the audience, and provides for a sonic experience that the modern pieces don’t.

“Samuel Barber’s music is much more familiar to us, although a couple of sections are very adventurous. And then some of the modern things have really unusual sounds that people don’t usually hear, but I think the way they are presented is very appealing and will entrance people.”

When talking about “really unusual sounds,” Morgan is thinking of two pieces in particular. As he explains, “ ‘Observer in the Magellanic Cloud’ starts with the sound of a metronome beeping. The composer’s image of this piece is that a lost satellite is floating in the Magellanic Cloud and picking up ancient light from Earth and looking at the indigenous people of New Zealand. We hear some chanting in the Maori language, and then we hear the satellite, which is based around the beep of the metronome.”

Gass also combines chant and electronics for his “Heart Sutra.” As Morgan describes it, the piece starts with Buddhist chant as “a kind of loop music with one phrase repeated and then other things added on top of that and continually evolving that way, (and also) incorporating some live electronics. It’s challenging to do in the live environment, but it really makes for a meditative experience.”

The modern John Tavener — the one with no “r” in the middle syllable—is likely the best known composer on the program. He became celebrated in 1997 when his “Song for Athene” was sung to close the funeral of Princess Diana — coincidentally the same week that Ars Nova issued a recording of the piece on their CD “A Shadow and a Dream.”

Since the funeral, “it’s gotten to be a very popular piece,” Morgan says. “We sold a lot of CDs over the first few years.”

Morgan decided to remember Tavener, who died last November, by performing the “Song for Athene,” as well as a piece evoking springtime called “Village Wedding.”

“We wanted to acknowledge some of his really wonderful work,” he says. “The piece that’s going to separate the two [pieces by the modern Tavener] is a motet by the early John Taverner. It has a really wonderful soaring soprano line. It’s an Easter season motet, so we’re presenting it both seasonally as well as for its connection to the modern John Tavener.”

Ars Nova has sponsored a composition competition every few years since 2001. “We wanted to do a competition just for Colorado composers.” Morgan says. “It is something that appealed to my background in composition, and I wanted to connect to other composers locally.”

This year the contest had 18 entries, an unusually large number. Based on the quality and distribution of entries, the judging panel selected one winner in the professional division — University of Colorado Boulder graduate student Nathan Hall — and two in the high school division — Boulder High sophomore Leigha Amick and home-schooled senior Joseph Goodhew.

Hall’s piece has a special challenge for the singers: it’s a setting of a poem in Icelandic. “This piece stuck out from the beginning” Morgan says. “Of course, nobody else submitted anything in Icelandic.

“Undoubtedly the hardest part of the piece is just reading and getting used to the language. Nathan provided a nice recording of the text spoken in Icelandic that’s been very helpful for the group to hear. Of course, there’s not going to be a lot of native speakers in the audience, but we want to do as good a job as we can.”

Icelandic may not quite be the final frontier, but if you are up for musical adventures, Ars Nova offers a genuinely enterprising concert.

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