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Stitch a new garment: Resonance Ensemble and the nature of Nature

The vocal ensemble partnered with Indigenous artists for a rained-in festival at Lewis & Clark’s Agnes Flanagan Chapel.

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Nancy Ives and Ed Edmo performed "Songs for Celilo" at Resonance Ensemble's "Earth's Protection" festival at Lewis & Clark College. Photo by Rachel Hadiashar.
Nancy Ives and Ed Edmo performed “Songs for Celilo” at Resonance Ensemble’s “Earth’s Protection” festival at Lewis & Clark College. Photo by Rachel Hadiashar.

Mother Earth did not get the memo from Resonance Ensemble. Certainly, if She had, the Portland rains would be held off to allow the arts and music festival (Resonance’s first, titled Earth’s Protection) on the Lewis and Clark College campus to proceed as planned–picnicking, food trucks, drum and dance performance followed by an indoor choral/instrumental concert by Resonance, and a concert in honor of Her, no less. But such is the nature of our coexistence with, uh, nature. 

At least the couple dozen hardy picnickers didn’t get soaked as they awaited the performance by Nez Perce drumming and dance ensemble Four Directions. But food was snarfed and quickly stowed when the decision was made to move the performance to the Agnes Flanagan Chapel. This changed the dynamic, and the vision of a communal experience was stifled at first. And yet, some magic happened that helped meet the occasion.

Less than ideal was the Chapel sound system, which did not serve any of the evening’s presenters well–including Four Directions leader Harold Paul, who shared the story and purpose of each dance. His voice was muffled; important details were lost. Very present were the drums, however. At audience level to the right of the stage, they were at times painfully loud in the 460-ish seat chapel.

To advantage, however, was the way in which the chapel’s natural acoustic enhanced the sound of the jingle dresses worn by three Four Directions dancers: Sweet Song Spotted Eagle, Aurora Spotted Eagle and Violet Wilson. Watching the dances and hearing how each tread of foot or subtle raise of body evoked a sound from the hundreds of bells stitched to the jingle-dress fabric revealed that this was more than costuming. Like the dry autumn leaves of a quaking aspen in the wind, this was purposefully natural and enchanting. 

Four Directions dancer Sweet Song Spotted Eagle with jingle dress. Photo by Daryl Browne.
Four Directions dancer Sweet Song Spotted Eagle with jingle dress. Photo by Daryl Browne.
Four Directions dancers Violet Wilson and Aurora Spotted Eagle (in background). Photo by Daryl Browne.
Four Directions dancers Violet Wilson and Aurora Spotted Eagle (in background). Photo by Daryl Browne.
Four Directions dancer Aurora Spotted Eagle. Photo by Daryl Browne.
Four Directions dancer Aurora Spotted Eagle. Photo by Daryl Browne.

And then the performance venue and those therein became a community. Oh, it took a few moments to encourage passive observers to become participants, but Paul and the dancers and vibration of the drums coaxed all to join the chain, which became one circle and another counter-rotating within until all were sharing smiles and shaking hands. It was magical.

To deliver the Land Acknowledgement Statement, Cherokee artist Joe Cantrell–whose photographs were on exhibit in the adjoining meditation chapel–did what artists do. Using a long and weighty rope he represented the longevity, past and future, of Northwest tribes. It was not the pro forma recitation that seems to be normalized in recent years. Cantrell’s statement had substance.

Photographer Joe Cantrell. Photo by Daryl Browne.
Photographer Joe Cantrell. Photo by Daryl Browne.

Resonance Ensemble began the “concert” portion of the festival with what Artistic Director Katherine FitzGibbon called a “Renewed Premiere” of Normal Never Was by Jasmine Barnes. The a cappella work, set to text of Sonya Renee Taylor, was the first offering on Resonance’s pandemic series “Commissions for Now.” It was an excellent appetizer to the theme and the quality of performance yet to come.

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Oregon Cultural Trust

Taylor’s text, a stinging indictment of human attitudes toward each other and the Earth, does proffer the solution: “Stitch a new garment.” If it matched the music it would be a bit jazzy, with a few angles, a few parallel lines and lots of pops of color. Or perhaps a great shawl that resonates nurture and caring or at least jingles with joy. Enjoy the original video premiere here:

More verse, this time by Shoshone-Babcock poet Ed Edmo, was set to song by Nancy Ives, in Songs for Celilo (premiered in Portland in 2022). In the four poems performed on this program–about the obliteration of Celilo Falls in 1957, which brought sorrow to so many people–Edmo recited his poetry and Ives performed on cello and sang the soprano role. This solo “duet” was musical and well programmed for this Earth’s protection concert.

This work could have a place in the vocal recital repertoire or maybe the cello recital repertoire. Either way, it deserves many hearings. (Oregon Arts Watch review of the premiere includes insights by the composer about her work; read that here).

Ed Edmo. Photo by Joe Cantrell.
Ed Edmo. Photo by Joe Cantrell.

As the intermission approached, the audience observed tabla artist Shrikant Naware tuning the instruments–to many, an exercise of minimal import. Not in this next work by Reena Esmail (read Angela Allen’s profile of this sought-after composer here). The text is poetry of Amy Fogerson, frequent collaborator with Esmail. In The Tipping Point the tabla’s voice – yes it must be called a voice in this piece – sang with the choir, then soloed, then laid down layers of rhythmic pattern (14 against 9, is that even possible?) that synchronized with the choir’s Hindi Raag Vibhas on which the piece was based.

This work knocked me off of the granite obelisk my Western Eurocentric Sitz Bones have been perched on for, well, quite a while. The moment the piece finished I wanted to learn more about it and discovered others in the audience felt the same. How did Esmail notate it? Did Naware have the whole thing mapped out or is each performance brand new? Did Esmail pitch the voice parts to match the instrument? Listen to this 2021 video in which Esmail, on the occasion of the premiere of this work by Santa Fe Desert Chorale, answers some of those questions.

Tabla player Shrikant Naware with Resonance Ensemble. Photo by Daryl Browne.
Tabla player Shrikant Naware with Resonance Ensemble. Photo by Daryl Browne.

Naware’s tabla artistry was dazzling. Resonance Ensemble’s singing was exquisite–passionate and expressive, tough to pull off the folder-gripping precision required in this work. I was certain it would be the apex of the concert. It was not.

“We Believe”

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Resonance and their 22-23 Season Partners Fear No Music filled the stage for Sarah Kirkland Snider’s Mass for the Endangered. The instrumentation joining the 16 singers was a quartet of strings plus winds, harp, percussion and piano. And it is the voice of the piano that opens the work with an angular motive that frames the gentle dissonance on which the chorus enters with the “Kyri-” stretching out the invocation to the Lord several times before completing the plaintive plea, “Lord”, and adding the “Eleison” (Have Mercy). The poetry of Nathaniel Bellows is played out in fragments with “Mercy” and “Forgive” serving as foundational words above fully blossomed instrumentation. 

Unfortunately, it was in this first movement that the only shortcoming of the performance became clear. The choral sound, particularly the tenor/bass, was overshadowed by the full complement of instruments. Could the singers have been positioned on the steps to the stage, with orchestra elevated behind? Perhaps to one far side of the stage with orchestra to the other? More difficult for FitzGibbon, but she’s got the conducting prowess for that. Her conducting is clear and clean and she has consummate professionals before her. One of the hallmarks of this group, after all, is finding better ways to make voices and words heard.

It was the harp, with unison treble voices chanting the “Gloria,” that invited the audience into a musical experience both ancient and contemporary. The trebles begin in unison chant, then divide to trade entrances until lower voices enter on the “Qui sedes.” A thicker, agitated and more dissonant middle section in full SATB retreats to allow treble unison chanting, concluding the movement as it began, with the harp. The unisons in all voices unfurled like bolts of silk. 

Snider’s design is kind to performers, particularly to the singers. Only the harpist, who in this performance was mystical, might disagree. This is a 45-minute work without the solo movements usually included in a choral Mass, but the composer provides moments of respite for sections. The lower voices, for example, begin the “Alleluia,” the trebles entering only at midpoint before stepping aside for the lower voices to end the movement.

And everyone needed to be fresh for the “Credo,” the longest, most intricate and fascinating of the six movements. The meter is primarily 5, based on a 5-note ground (a repeated motif) attributed to Caroline Shaw. But Snider dabbles with mixed meters to create an instability as the text grapples with creed versus reality. The players go “around the horn” with Shaw’s ground (so cool when the bassoon grabs it), a wonderful flute soars above the fray, excellent vocal solos pop out of the full SATB voicing as the mantra “We Believe” is repeated with increased dynamic and texture, with tension relieved with the final words “And I await…”

Conductor FitzGibbon’s skill on the podium might just go unnoticed. She is contained, steady and never performs. She serves the music and musicians. But dang, she deserved a standing ovation all her own for her pacing in the Mass. She never allowed the energy to drop between movements, courageously propelling performers through the entire work. This enabled the Mass to have a continuity and shape, from beginning to end, in text and music. It is written that way, she conducted it that way.

Resonance Ensemble's "Earth's Protection" festival at Lewis & Clark College. Photo by Rachel Hadiashar.
Resonance Ensemble’s “Earth’s Protection” festival at Lewis & Clark College. Photo by Rachel Hadiashar.

The “Sanctus,” which begins with a serene tenor solo, was worth the wait. Several more solo lines were delivered beautifully by tenor, soprano and violin. “Sanctus” movements of a choral Masses are often exultant; Snider follows suit evoking the ringing of chimes to portray a light exuberance, a lilting joy to lead into the final movement, “Angus Dei”.

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It was at this point that the sheer beauty of the piece overwhelmed me. As I allowed the sounds to just wash over and I became aware of the role of the video being projected above stage left and right. It, too, had a voice in the production; there was a profound symbiosis between the visual and audio elements. I think I was trying not to become attached to the video, that it was there was enough, until the “Agnus Dei” embraced me. Shapes and colors, abstract and representational, so beautifully done. It made sense.

Zounds! Just imagine if there had been a way to project film onto the entire back wall just above the musicians, or a panoramic screen… ah, no, not yet. Let the work stand on its own power, for power there is. Perhaps keep that blockbuster film idea on hold a few years until Snider’s Mass for the Endangered has been rightfully heralded as a modern masterwork. 

This is not a Mass “adaptation”; not just the traditional liturgy blended with modern text that has found a modern harmonic voice. Certainly it has a theme which resonates in today’s world, but Snider hasn’t shoehorned the Latin Mass text to serve that theme. The music, the way in which respects all text, Latin and contemporary, proves that. It is a Mass.

Mass for the Endangered is substantive and intelligent as are the two performing forces, Resonance Ensemble and Fear No Music, who brought it to us. Such a wonderful success, even with the rain, was this entire festival dedicated to our “love of our Planet and all of its People.” Such purpose.

This concert will be available on-line through Resonance Ensemble Access Project (REAP) later this summer. Sign up – REALLY, DO IT – to get be notified of that release date right here. For now, read more about the program and artists in this concert at Resonance’s website.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Daryl Browne is a music educator, alto, flutist and writer who lives in Beaverton, Oregon.

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