‘Cycles of Eternity’: In Mulieribus spins out a winner

Portland vocal ensemble's new recording features music by contemporary choral composers

by BRUCE BROWNE

A great CD needs to have at least four components: first, an excellent group of musician-singers; second, a great acoustical space; third, a gifted producer and fourth, a superb recording engineer. The latest release by In Mulieribus, Cycles of Eternity, boasts all these attributes.

  1. The nine women represented on the CD (some are on only a few tracks; there are usually seven total in concert) are first-rate singers, able to sing in the highest and lowest ranges with tonal beauty and nuance.
  2. The Proto Cathedral of St. James the Greater, in Vancouver, Washington, is one of the finest acoustical spaces in the Pacific Northwest. This recording takes full advantage of its resplendent ring time, which supports the singers’ voices throughout their ranges. 
  3. & 4. Producer Blake Applegate and recording engineer Rod Evenson are a talented duo who together help provide balance and focus throughout the recording process. Applegate is a long time director of Cantores in Ecclesia, and this year was guest director with Cappella Romana; Evenson has recorded most groups in town at live performances, and for CD.

This CD’s focus is a departure for the Portland women’s vocal ensemble, representing choral works by 21st century (and a few late 20th century) composers instead of the Medieval and Renaissance works that dominated their four previous recordings. Several have been commissioned over the past years by IM, and get their first “hearing” here. It’s a first class selection of composers, reflecting what’s been going on in the past thirty years on the choral scene, without pandering to the vox populi of, say, the Whitacre/ Lauridsen/ Gjeilo orbit. The former two are likely the most performed choral composers in the past 25 years.

First up is Columba aspexit (The dove peered in through the window), one of the “oldest” pieces (1999) on the CD, composed by greatly respected British/American Tarik O’Regan. Like most of the works here, O’Regan’s is largely tonal, with occasional dissonances. Chant lines alternate with wispy snippets of freely composed micro melodies. The chant is from the original sequence of the same name by the 12th century composer and polymath, Hildegard von Bingen, whose music the group has made a specialty.

John Vergin is a Portland composer, singer and keyboardist, and prolific composer of choral works. His Ave Maria contains modal inflections. IM’s performance here is a good marriage to the beauty of the piece, offering perfectly cloned vowels and gorgeous harmonies within sumptuous lines. 

Tracks three, four and five are a triptych of compositions, Cycles of Eternity, by Andrea Reinkemeyer, from which the CD takes its title. Reinkemeyer is a native Oregonian and currently Assistant Professor of Music at Linfield College. All three set the words of African-American poet Henrietta Cordelia Ray (1849-1916).

“Aspiration,” the first in the cycle, arises from the depths of the low altos, moving to a countrapuntal passage (hooray! Something other than static “soundscape” in a new choral composition); and moves through three tempo changes in the first 11 bars. This is a tonal language, but sometimes of dubious tonal centers, at other times with much ambiguity, so that when we hear a true triadic few bars, towards the end of the movement, it’s a nice surprise.

rwen Myers, composer Andrea Reinkemeyer, IM artistic director Anna Song.
L-R: Soprano Arwen Myers, composer Andrea Reinkemeyer, IM artistic director Anna Song.

Commissioned by In Mulieribus, the third of the triptych, “Life,” features soprano Arwen Myers in a dramatic and colorful solo — at first robust, then lyrical and compelling— sung over the other women of the chorus holding long pedal tones that the composer has specified to be sung “like a droned string instrument, emphasizing the overtone.” One peccadillo: to my ear, this performance does not quite honor the composer’s direction to change tempo suddenly three times in six bars, by 22 metronomic points at each turn (about 20 percent faster at each new tempo).

This rising Oregon composer embraces 21st century techniques, very freely and yet with specificity of musical direction, using words such as “stretch” and “freely.” Some of that freedom comes from the use of such techniques as sprechstimme (spoken singing) unvoiced singing (without pitch), and unsynchronized chanted text.

Hymn of Kassia (2012) is another piece that begins “from the depths,” setting the tone with the altos. Its South Korea-born composer Kay Kyurim Rhie, who now teaches at UCLA, employs “evasive tonality”; that is, one can hear a tonal base, but the feeling of being in a particular key is often clouded with added notes and tone clusters. There do exist strands of imitation in places, and at the close of the piece, we hear the original melody, from Kassia, a 9th century Byzantine abbess, originally called “Hymn of Kassiani.” This is a most effective part of this piece, as it provides a reference point for the cantus firmus, and a firmer ending. 

Our sixth track is one of the most evocative, in its wedding to the text of the great Spanish poet, Federico Garcia-Lorca. Cancion de las siete doncellas (Song of the Seven Maidens) written for the group in 2016 by Oregon composer Craig Kingsbury, uses this text, which is a metaphor for the seven colors of the rainbow. To flatter that image, he set the piece for seven distinct individual voices. 

Beginning with neo-medieval chant line with a pure, androgynous tone in the low alto voice, the Misterium Mirabile (1999) of British composer Nicola LeFanu is a ride on a speed train through several landscapes. The chant never disappears but is carried on a multi-textured journey at a constant but never driven pace. Skillful artistic timing prevents the brief “station stops” from breaking the forward motion, with the ebb and flow controlled but not contrived.

In Mulieribus
In Mulieribus singing at Vancouver’s Proto Cathedral. Photo: David Lloyd Imageworks.

The ninth track, a second Ave Maria (2016), this time by Robert Lockwood, is another soundscape type of piece, mostly triadic, and almost entirely homophonic. As in all of the pieces, the singers here are utterly in tune, and capture unisons and octaves with perfect traction.

The final track uses fully one-fifth of the CD’s space. The O Antiphons (2003) by Norwegian composer Wolfgang Plagge received its world premiere by In Mulieribus in 2008. Evocative of Medieval style with its use of parallel harmonies, this piece also displays wide use of contemporary styles ranging from bitonality (singing in two keys at once, rather than the usual single key signature) to added-note chords in extended harmonies. These harmonies range from simple fourths and fifths to unisons and octaves, and very widely spaced chords using high registers for sopranos particularly.

This CD’s contemporary compositions pose myriad vocal, musical and interpretive challenges, and Artistic Director Anna Song and the women of IM handle them expertly. How stimulating to hear fresh voices in choral composition — male, female, budding and established artisans — championed, with contemporary sounds layered atop the foundation of the craft. This recording helps to demonstrate the variety of what’s available to singers in this field when one really looks for it. Brava to Dr. Song for her careful curating of each of these works.

We tend to be faddists; it is part of human nature. Commendably, In Mulieribus dares to take a risk by resisting the mainstream pieces of the composer du jour, and instead taking on composers who risk. This truly is an exemplary recording of one of Oregon’s premier ensembles at the top of their form.

In Mulieribus’s Cycles of Eternity is available via the group’s website.

Portland’s Bruce Browne, who directed the Portland Symphonic Choir, Choral Cross Ties, and Portland State University choral programs for many years, has led choirs around the world.

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