New Irish vocal works

Ergodos Voices

Kevin Barry Room, NCH, Dublin, 8 December 20093.5 stars

Ergodos VoicesErgodos Voices are Peyee Chen, Marja Liisa Kay, Michelle O'Rourke and Robin Bier. Each of the four are young and at the outset of their career, and this was the group's inaugural concert. An overall solemn if not reverential affair, it saw them give voice and body to the musical imagination of a handful of Irish composers, a concurrent voice to a current musical moment.

Although the outlook was generally and welcomely forward looking, with the composers as well as the singers being quite young, a recurring theme was the searching backwards glance of the present to times past – 'the past inside the present', to quote a tune by Boards of Canada. The motto of Ergodos, organisers of the event, is 'Music for Now'; and it was the different possibilities of this 'now', its dark and lightening corridors and corners, that were explored by the pieces on display and by the vocal work of the four young women onstage. The past as its own future is perhaps what we find in the 'now' moment opened by music.

Formed three years ago and named after a work by the American composer James Tenney, Ergodos' activities take in individual concerts, an annual festival of music in Dublin and a record label showcasing burgeoning and eclectic music. Together with the Dublin Sound Lab and the Irish Composers Collective, they form an enterprising cadre for contemporary music in Ireland, primarily based in the capital. This bodes well, and later this year Ergodos will be releasing an album of new works by Irish composers performed by Amsterdam's Trio Scordatura.

The stage set-up saw the four figures clad in black and lit up from alternate sides by red and blue footlights, with plants lending some natural green along with the wooden-panelled back wall, in the middle of which was a projector screen.

This screen featured in the first work of the night, the first of four extracts that were aired from Benedict Schlepper-Connolly's The Sun Also Rises, featuring at intervals throughout the concert. Images shot with the characteristic look of super-8 film were projected, showing rural scenes of walled fields, children playing and the sea hitting the shore. The four voices in rhythmic unison intoned modal-sounding lines setting Biblical passages on the passage of time. The effect was nostalgic and offset the perhaps contrary feeling of time's passing as irrevocable loss. Alongside the lines from Ecclesiastes a ritualistic feel was further encouraged by the repetition of the extracts throughout the programme, along with a direction that had been given to the audience not to applaud until the end of the concert. Music has always been a ritual, something that was brought to mind.

Garret Sholdice's For Magister Léonin followed, a work using the medieval technique of organum to weave a contemporary web again recalling voices past. This time the performers were three, with some microtonal inflections in the singing not wholly successfully pulled off, the voices' amplification (which featured throughout) making tangible some vocal wobbles, which in any case didn't feature often. The voices ushered in tones that appeared from nothing and sounded the length of a breath before disappearing into the same nothing again, the absence as fascinating as the presence of each voice, the work's form having a cumulative effect someway reminiscent of Feldman, the vocal discourse gradually becoming a play of contrary-motion glissandi.

The solemn atmosphere was initially continued with the opening of Seán Clancy's Comedias Nuevas. Here three singers were stood on platforms, a device stressing the visual situation of the singers. The introduction of this work had the most interesting harmony of the night, held between the three voices as they articulated changing vowel sounds with their mouths; before all of a sudden with a clap from all three the spell was broken, pages of score cast up, and we moved into a theatrical scene, with the layout of the bodies playing across the onlooker's eye like a triptych in the visual arts. Music as a visual art was here being made manifest and explored, and the humour of the piece in the incomprehensible jabbering of the women was welcome. These harmonic and theatrical scenes alternated throughout, and the end came, after an allegorical playing out of the scene of the audience's gaze by the three women onstage, with a surprising perfect cadence (remember them?).

Hearkening explicitly back to the sixties avant-garde, Judith Ring's Mouthpiece puts a sole mezzo alongside a tape part of recorded vocal sounds and tones. At times the tones of this tape part, ebbing and flowing, sometimes lush and sometimes rough – just like the voice itself – the tones coalesced into what sounded like transcriptions of the mass chords of Ligeti's Atmospheres. Although interesting for a while the work dragged a bit, and the experimental vocal explorations weren't accompanied by any formal trope the general audience member could latch onto and engage with. Most striking perhaps was the performance of mezzo Michelle O’Rourke, intensely staring down the audience like the embodied figure of music herself, only there to disappear with the last note of her song.

The last full work on the programme was Linda Buckley's Númarimur, a slow-moving and finely wrought duo based on an Icelandic text from the tradition of rimur poetry. With each singer wearing headphones for their cues, the voices sang alongside an electronic part which occasionally outlaid the sung tones with resonators and other effects, their voices recalling, as they moved towards an ever-richer harmony, the glacial planes of landscapes both inner and outer.

By Liam Cagney

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Roger DoyleRelated articles:

Review: The Crash Ensemble at Dublin's DEAF 2009
Review: Exaudi at the Warehouse in London
Review: Two concerts by Dublin Sound Lab