The Meanings of Music, Part Two: Minding the beauty

In part two of three, we consider Resonance Ensemble's "Beautiful Minds" concert and its meaningful treatment of text, time, and texture

Several questions haunted this journalist’s mind during a series of fall concerts put on by three of Portland’s most excellent classical groups: Fear No Music, Resonance Ensemble, and Third Angle New Music. The music was all good, but was often upstaged by the concerts’ messages and the questions they raised. These questions ended up being so big we’ve decided to dig deep and interrupt your Thanksgiving weekend with a three-parter.

Yesterday, we started our investigation of music and meaning with FNM’s “Hearings.” Today, we continue with Resonance Ensemble’s “Beautiful Minds.”

It was a pleasant October afternoon, and intermission had just ended. Resonance Ensemble Artistic Director Katherine FitzGibbon led the crew back into Cerimon House’s cozy performance space, where they dispersed around the room and encircled the hushed audience. FitzGibbon looked around her band of singers, lifted her hand, and dropped it: and suddenly we were bathed in a bizarre nonsense chord, a shocking flash of sound-color, like something out of Ligeti’s micropolyphonic choral works or Shaw’s “Allemande,” a vast simmering “aaaaaaa” that soared beyond mere “consonance” and “dissonance” out into some alternate realm of abstract sonic glory. Over the course of five minutes that felt like five wonderful hours, the singers creeped around gradually shifting long tones while a groovy psychedelic sci-fi mandala rotated on the screen above the stage.

The music was one of the Sonic Meditations conceived by beloved composer, accordionist, electronic music pioneer, and Deep Listening guru Pauline Oliveros. Normally these meditations–essentially text-based scores–are meant for large groups of people to practice together; Oliveros once led 6000 women in a meadow through one of these, and I can personally attest to their power in informal settings. To hear it as a concert piece, though, put a new spin on the work–not least because this is one of the most agile vocal ensembles this reviewer has ever heard. Where large groups of participants with mixed musical skill levels can have a lot of fun with these meditations (try one with your family this weekend!), this small professional vocal ensemble gave a highly focused interpretation of Oliveros’ creation, transmuting it into something more like an aleatoric post-tonal soundscape drawn from the New Polish School playbook. That is, they turned a set of instructions into music.

After the singing was done, FitzGibbon explained that the main idea in this meditation is to start wherever and gradually coalesce toward a single tone. The directions, printed in the program, read:

Begin simultaneously with the others.

Sing any pitch.

The maximum length of the pitch is determined by the breath.

Listen to the group.

Locate the center of the group sound spectrum.

Sing your pitch again and make a tiny adjustment upward or downward, but tuning toward the center of the pitch spectrum.

Each time sing a long tone with a complete breath until the whole group is singing the same pitch.

Pauline Oliveros, Sonic Meditation XVI.

Now, it might seem like this sort of thing is as far as possible from the “meaningful” music we discussed yesterday–it is utterly abstract, devoid of the usual cues like lyrics and programmatic titles. Its full title is basically a catalogue number: Sonic Meditation XVI. But there is a profoundly meaningful philosophical idea behind Oliveros’ meditations, and Resonance’s performance of this one tied directly into the deeper meaning behind “Beautiful Minds”: the healing power of listening. This second half opener was, for all its wild Ligetian charm, an exercise in musical empathy. Its purely performative nature–excluding the audience–simply made it a training demonstration instead of a singalong. Now that you’ve observed one way of doing it, you can try it for yourself. I can think of few better ways of “metabolizing trauma” and practicing empathy.

Singing meaning

In terms of conveying meaning, vocal music has a clear advantage over instrumental music: words are baked into the idiom. Choirs, choral ensembles, solo vocalists, and singer-songwriters can hardly not embody meaning in their music-making, precisely because where instrumental music can easily be about nothing, words always have to be about something. Even nonsense syllables and solfege carry some degree of social and philosophical baggage.

Even then, though, this oldest form of music-making on the planet has evolved several strategies for burying or otherwise obscuring word-based meanings. Vocal music in the classical and church traditions is almost always presented, at least partially, in languages unknown to the majority of its audience. Counterpoint of all kinds distributes the words across layers of overlapping melody, a trend which became such a problem in the Late Renaissance that the Florentine Camerata had to come along and fix it (inventing opera in the process).

On top of all that, and more germane to this concert’s theme, neural diversity ensures that a certain type of listener (the present author included) will have difficulty tracking sung words in real time, generally giving over to the lush acoustic choral soundscape that local composer Bonnie Miksch has referred to as “a sensuous sound profusion.” All of this means that when meaning is encoded in musical text settings, the words and music have to work together if the meaning is to be audible. Even Fear No Music–who do produce the occasional vocal-centric concert but are generally known for their powerful instrumental performances–brought in singers for the bulk of the “Hearings” music.

In this reviewer’s experience, nobody in Portland matches word-based meaning and meaning-based music better than Resonance Ensemble, who (as we have often noted) enacts its social justice mission through exquisitely crafted programs of vocal music across a variety of genres and compositional styles. It also helps that they’re a vocal ensemble rather than a choir–I’ve mostly heard them in lineups of 12 or 16 singers, and a tidy octet was all they needed for “Beautiful Minds.”

As always, the concert was a rich balance of varying vocal traditions, from Tom Kitt Broadway songs to the meditative and improvisational Oliveros. Even poet-in-residence S. Renee Mitchell’s customary appearance–a highlight of every concert she’s done with Resonance–had a more overtly musical element than usual, joining students from her I Am M.O.R.E. program to give a group-poetry performance that was so musical it was very nearly a choral composition in its own right. At one point they even included a nice bit of guitar-and-electronics backbeat.

But most of the concert’s music fell under the broad “contemporary choral classical” umbrella, and as usual I came away with a newly discovered composer to get all enthusiastic about–Sarah Kirkland Snider, whose Unremembered dominated the concert’s gorgeous second half.

Along the way, we also heard from Resonance chum Melissa Dunphy, deservedly trendy Jake Runestad, Philip Glass Ensemble alum Lisa Bielawa, and the world premiere of a new work by local composer Brandon Stewart. The concert opened with Dunphy’s 2015 composition “O Oriens,” setting an O Antiphon the composer described as a “plaintive call for light in the form of love, knowledge, and peace both in the world and within each of personally, particularly for those of us who have suffered from depression or grief.”

Dunphy draped the traditional modal plainchant in close harmonies and chromatic colorations, making it both old-fashioned and new-fangled in a deliciously Cappella Romana sort of way. I always look forward to Dunphy’s contributions to Resonance concerts, and this one delivered magnificently.

Two of the group’s mezzos took back-to-back solo turns, scaling down from the octet’s deceptively large sound to a more intimate feeling. Sarah Maines–who we had recently heard singing Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s words at “Hearings”–gave the audience some context for the two songs she sang from Tom Kitt’s award-winning Broadway musical Next to Normal, about a mother who is in denial about her son’s death. Maines’ poppy, musical theater voice, so full of character, bounced around Kitt’s vivid music and Resonance accompanist Kira Whiting’s piano; her enthusiastic performance had the same palette-cleansing effect her solo numbers always have on these otherwise intensely classical concerts.

Next, Rachel Hauge–accompanied by FNM violinist Paloma Griffin Hébert–sang Bielawa’s “One Atom of Faith,” which floated creepy Bachisch violin chords under a dissonant and scattered vocal line. Hauge showed off her wide range and her command of post-tonal intonation (always tricky), ranging from low and somber to high and anxious with anguished intensity.

A pair of man composers closed the first half. Stewart’s “I Am Alone” brought a return to the close harmonies and drone-based tonality we heard on “O Oriens,” with the vocalists delivering lovely blended sound that supported clear individual vocal lines and dirgey harmonic twists, a series of dense chords finally condensing to single final note on the phrase “I am alone.” Runestad is a much more familiar composer to most audiences, with his accessible, pop-classical hybrid sound in full force on “Please Stay,” the concert’s first half closer. Runestad colored his poppy melodic line with sweet, lonely dissonances, a fine meld of two idioms that get friendlier every generation. Runestad’s “Peace of Wild Things,” which we heard on Resonance’s “Pre-Existing Conditions” concert in June, was the first time this reviewer had heard the composer’s music live; this is the first time we’ve heard Stewart’s music at all. And since my own tastes run toward the chewier side of choral music, it was “I Am Alone” that I went out humming into the lobby.

Following the Oliveros meditation, five scenes from Snider’s Unremembered made up the rest of the concert, and they were the most musically compelling songs of the whole show. Angular melodies, chromatic mediant harmonies, overlapping ascending scales, rich rhythmic density arising from Monkishly interlocking ostinati, a whole lot of stomping and clapping and even a little tambourine and some antique cymbals. A Renaissancey minimalism, and quite honestly some of the coolest stuff I’ve heard in a long time.

Text, time, texture

All of this music-meaning melding made the concert very open and inviting–comforting while it challenged. Where “Hearings” was deliberately confrontational, using solo and duo vocalists to put the words right out front where the meanings could not be ignored, “Beautiful Minds” did the opposite: with so much of its music cloaking the words in complex, polyphonic settings, it brought the meaning to a near-subliminal level. I don’t mean to suggest that the words and their meanings were obscured completely; only that they were sunk a little deeper into the psychoacoustic middle ground.

But the best part of all this music was that there was so much music in it. And, as mentioned above, this particular mind finds it difficult to parse text and music at the same time, preferring to leave the words right there in that middle ground and focus on the sounds themselves.

Fortunately, I now have the program handy and youtube open, so I can read along as I listen to all these songs again. One poem stands out: Nathaniel Bellows’ “Orchard,” the last song in Snider’s set and thus last on the concert. I’d like to leave you with the whole thing:

The trees held bells
The chimes the blooms
Each fruit a tongue
To taste the bruise

The bending bough
Upended how
We’d try to steal
What it allowed

This was our greed
And was its gift
We raised the thing
That died to give

Nathaniel Bellows, Unremembered

Videos of nearly the entire “Beautiful Minds” concert were posted just yesterday by Resonance Ensemble. Enjoy–and we’ll see you tomorrow, when we get “Back in the Groove” with Third Angle.

Melissa Dunphy, “O Oriens”
Lisa Bielawa, “One Atom of Faith”
Brandon Stewart, “I Am Alone”
Jake Runestad, “Please Stay”
Pauline Oliveros, Sonic Meditation XVI
Sarah Kirkland Snider, Scenes from Unremembered

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