nedjelja, 20. listopada 2013.

Caleb Burhans - Evensong (2013)

Suludo dobra neoklasika.
Ateistička crkvena muzika.


Evensong, a collection of choral and ensemble music Caleb Burhans created during the past decade, can't be recommended highly enough. It's a remarkably assured collection of seven modern classical works performed by three ensembles—Alarm Will Sound (within which Burhans plays violin and electric guitar), Trinity Wall Street Choir, Tarab Cello Ensemble—that shows the NY-based Eastman graduate is not only a member of outfits such as itsnotyouitsme and Signal and a countertenor, violinist, and multi-instrumentalist but a distinguished composer as well.
There are moments when connections can be made between Burhans' music and the minimalism of early Glass and Reich (see the three-note organ patterns at the opening of “Magnificat” and the similarly Glassian opening of “Iceman Stole the Sun”) but minimalism is merely one small strain surfacing within a composing style that organically extends into the realm of pure composition. If there's a common thread unifying the seven pieces, it's Burhans' repeated use of glissando techniques, as vocal and instrumental tones swoop upwards and slide smoothly downwards during a number of pieces. It's an arresting gesture that can take the listener by surprise, such as when the vocal choir in “Magnificat” dramatically departs from conventional pitch via downward plunges.
Though Burhans is a young composer (he was born in 1980), a clear sign of his maturity as a composer is the confidence and control he shows in presenting his material using a modest palette of vocal and instrumental sounds when the need arises. He knows, for example, that the simple combination of organ and vocal choir in the stirring “Nunc Dimittis” doesn't require embellishment in order to make an impact. There's a refreshing absence of irony about the material, too, with Burhans fully committing himself to conveying genuine and sincere emotion (as heard in the choral writing of “Super Flumina Babylonis,” for example) and avoiding pastiche. When the Tarab Cello Ensemble cracks open “The Things Left Unsaid” with a series of gorgeous supplicating melodies, you know you're in the presence of a gifted composer.
The tone of the music is generally plaintive, though contrasts in dynamics abound, with some pieces more languorous in tone and others more aggressive (the album's rawest moment arrives when Burhans straps on his electric guitar near the end of “oh ye of little faith... (do you know where your children are?)”). In a notable display of energy, the opening minutes of “Iceman Stole the Sun” pump uproariously in a manner reminiscent of The Michael Nyman Band. Elsewhere, “Amidst Neptune,” one of three instrumental pieces performed by Alarm Will Sound, broadens out from a ponderous drone intro to a genre-defying blend of classical and jazz musics. The large ensemble patiently weaves vocal, oboe, saxophone, and percussion elements into a hypnotic, eleven-minute set-piece, with piano and wordless vocalizing helping to elevate the material. Starkly contrasting in mood, the lamentation “Super Flumina Babylonis” (“By the waters of Babylon”) likewise shows how effective the pairing of celesta, strings, and vocal choir can be in the right hands.
Finally, one of the more interesting dimensions of the recording concerns religion—the three settings for the Trinity Wall Street Choir are liturgical in nature and the album cover design subtly evokes a Bible's leather-bound cover. While a number of titles carry religious overtones and Burhans himself has sung in church choirs for almost two decades, he's agnostic, and thus much of Evensong draws upon his struggles with religion. But whatever conflicting feelings he might have about Christianity, he shows remarkable sensitivity to and respect for the church's texts and traditions, at least insofar as they form a foundation for the musical works featured on this exceptional

Ask composer, singer, violinist and multi-instrumentalist Caleb Burhans about his relationship to the Christian tenets of faith, and he'll give you a thoughtful but conflicted answer. "Despite the fact that I've sung in church choirs for almost twenty years, I'm agnostic," he says. "So a lot of my music deals with my struggles with religion."
Evensong is Burhans' defining statement of his complex connection to the church -- an "emo-classical" epic where sacred meets secular in a pure, dynamic expression of musical influences that range from classical to ambient to post-rock. While the album presents motifs from the Christian church service (book-ended with the opening "Magnificat" and the closing "Nunc Dimittis," recorded with the Trinity Wall Street Choir), it refracts them through the modern lens of new music and the avant garde.
This is Burhans' debut as a lead composer and recording artist, though he has long been recognized as a vital presence on the NYC new music scene. The New York Times has lauded him as "animated and versatile," a "sweet-voiced countertenor," and a "new music virtuoso." He is also a regular member of several groundbreaking groups and ensembles that have helped reshape modern classical music -- among them ACME, Alarm Will Sound, Beyondo, Bleknlok, Escort, itsnotyouitsme, Newspeak, Ensemble Signal and the Wordless Music Orchestra.
Alarm Will Sound, in fact, takes up the secular portion of Evensong, performing three pieces that test the very limits of a large ensemble's expressive capabilities. "oh ye of little faith" is the arguable centerpiece, described by none other than Steve Reich as "a lovely homage to Arvo Part's In Memorium Banjamin Britten." Further on, the Tarab Cello Ensemble infuses "The Things Left Unsaid" with contemplative longing. With whimsical and incisive liner notes by longtime friend, collaborator and guitarist Grey Mcmurray, Evensong marks Burhans' arrival as one of the most promising young composers to emerge from NYC's trial-by-fire proving ground. -

Composer/performer Caleb Burhans is set to release the first album comprised entirely of his classical compositions, Evensong, on July 30 through Cantaloupe Music. You can get your first taste of the album now with Q2 Music streaming the album in its entirety. (Player below.)
Burhans' compositions straddle genre lines — or, I'd say, blur them to the point of erasure — looking back toward tradition with choral arrangements like you'll find "Magnificat" or the psalm setting "Super Flumnia Babylonis," then verging on euphoric post-rock swells in "Oh ye of little faith...(do you know where your children are)." This makes sense as Burhans rides those lines in performance as well, performing with what might be considered more traditional classical ensembles as well as projects more oriented toward the indie-rock world, including his ambient music duo with Grey McMurray, itsnotyouitsme. The compositions speak to the tradition of minimalism that one familiar with Burhans' work might expect, but it also pushes that forward with surprising and unexpected moments scattered throughout the album.
The music on this album is performed by Alarm Will Sound, an ensemble who embody that ever-blurring line between genres. They have recorded music by minimalist composers like Steve Reich, but have also reinterpretted the work of electronic pioneer Aphex Twin on their album Acoustica. -
A number of us can relate to Caleb Burhans’ position of having agnostic spiritual beliefs yet having a fond attachment to church music. Evensong, the young composer’s first proper release, is an attempted reconciliation of these opposites. And it largely works. The music floats from chant-like choral arrangements accompanied by sparse organ to an unusually thorough blend of contemporary classical and jazz elements without calling attention to itself. The three ensembles presenting the music here, Alarm Will Sound, Trinity Wall Street Choir and Tarab Cello Ensemble, do an alarmingly good job of making the music blend across the board. Evensongstarts off in a derivative manner with “Magnificat”, echoing the sacred choral music of so many composers before Burhans’ time. By the second half of the third track, you’re in another place entirely. “Iceman Stole the Sun” wraps up with many sighing strings pitted against one another, a calming compositional technique that sounds like it could, and should, go on forever. You could say this about the slow crawl that haunts “Oh Ye of Little Faith…(Do You Know Where Your Children Are?)”.
The powerful music is undermined by the cutesy packaging, though. Flip open the digipack and there’s a photo of Caleb Burhans with a goofy fauxhawk atop his head. The liner notes start out like this: “Caleb Burhans is not a Christian. He is also not a vegetarian, though he does eat vegetables.” Huh? - John Garratt 

Evensong isn't Caleb Burhans first appearance on record—he plays violin in Alarm Will Sound and partners with Grey McMurray in itsnotyouitsme, and has appeared on three of the former outfit's albums and on two of the latter's (2010's Fallen Monuments and 2011's Everybody's Pain is Magnificent, both on New Amsterdam Records)—yet in certain key ways it feels like it. The recording, which features seven modern classical works performed by three different ensembles, shows him to be a composer of superior gifts (Evensong is reviewed here). Born in 1980 in Monterey, California, Burhans' involvement with music formally began as a nine-year-old boy soprano and continued on into formal study in violin, piano, music theory and composition, and eventually the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York from which the multi-instrumentalist graduated with a bachelor's degree in viola performance and composition. In addition to his involvement in the aforementioned Alarm Will Sound and itsnotyouitsme, the New York-based violinist-violist-countertenor-and-composer is a member of the Trinity Wall Street Choir and Philadelphia's Schola Nova, and the bands Dialects and Beyondo. textura is delighted that Burhans recently was able to spare a few moments to respond to five of our questions.
1. At the risk of sounding ingratiating, I have to begin by saying how impressed I am by your remarkable Evensong. Even though you've appeared on other recordings before it, such as ones by itsnotyouitsme and Alarm Will Sound, Evensong is the debut recording issued under your name. I'm wondering, then, if you could share what the experience was like for you to hear the completed CD for the first time. Did hearing your work presented in a single collection lead you to reflect on your music in a new way or hear things in your music you'd been less conscious of before but that now stood out in sharp relief?
Thanks. So glad you're enjoying it. That's a tricky question because we recorded the bulk of the album three-and-a-half years before it came out, so there was a lot of time for me to get reacquainted with these pieces before the release. Within that time I can't say exactly when I first heard it in album order, but I was extremely happy once I got that all figured out. Putting this album out had been one of my only goals in life and having it sit around for so long made me pretty nervous, so listening to it for the first time was not only satisfying but it also felt as if a huge weight had been lifted. Many years ago I decided to write music that helped me work through difficult and painful things in my life, and then when I would hear these pieces performed it was always very therapeutic for me. Finally hearing Evensong when it was finished was basically a really deep version of that.
2. In the promo video for Evensong, you describe your disdain for the terms ‘indie-classical' and ‘alt-classical' and explain why you've proposed ‘emo-classical' for your own music (of course that term is arguably problematic too as it invites association with ‘emo bands' such as Sunny Day Real Estate). Is this concern with labels more a critic- or media-driven thing, or is it something which is of genuine concern to you? Is it possible to get beyond labels altogether and just let the music speak for itself?
I was thinking more of a Death Cab for Cutie-kinda vibe. But honestly, I could care less about labels. For me the whole point of music is to create something that expresses what words can't say, so why would someone want to then go and attempt to apply words to that experience? It strikes me as a little odd. I've always disliked writing program notes for that same reason. I had gotten comfortable with the post-minimal label and then they busted out the indie-classical business so I decided to take it one step further to point out its absurdity. I actually don't mind the comparison to other emo bands since all of my music is extremely heart on sleeve. So people can call my music whatever they care to. At the end of the day isn't it all just sound on a canvas of time and silence?
3. As religion plays such a central role in Evensong, I'm wondering if you're familiar with Alain de Botton's Religion for Atheists? In his book, he describes how atheists miss out on many of the positive aspects of religion, such as architecture, fellowship, and, of course, music. Are there specific qualities of church music that you're purposefully wanting to work into your own compositions and if so what are they?
I'm not familiar with that book, but those are the elements of church that I always appreciated. Usually when people ask me what religion I am, I say, “I'm a musician.” When I create music with my friends we're working within a structure and partaking in a type of fellowship, so I tend to stand by that statement. From time to time there are elements of church music, specifically early choral music that I like to reference. For instance, in my Magnificat and Nunc dimittis the word “Amen” is being set over plagal and half cadences. In Super Flumina Babylonis I quote Bibel's Ave Maria and Howell's Magnificat in G. Unless I pointed out the exact spots, I don't think anyone would notice, but I enjoy paying my respects to those works in my own little way.
4. You comment in the video about how composers of your generation are saturated by the wealth of music that's so readily available today and that as a result all of the music you've been exposed to has perhaps seeped into your composing style and helped shape it into what it is today. At the same time, there are a few moments on Evensong where the influence of someone like, say, Philip Glass might be heard. When you're composing, do you consciously go out of your way to prevent the style of another composer from emerging or do you simply allow the composition to develop of its own accord? To what degree is your composing style affected by gear such as the looping device you're using in the video?
I don't believe that I've ever intentionally stopped myself from writing something. I'm pretty organic when it comes to the way I think about sound. I like sound to have natural entropy, so once I set something in motion I usually don't mess with it too much. I'm more interested in listening to it unfold and seeing what it has to offer. A lot of that may have to do with my use of looping pedals. In itsnotyouitsme we rely heavily on looping pedals to augment our sound, but when I compose the looping pedal influences roughly half of what I write. In a piece like The Things Left Unsaid, I was excited to really go that route since I had eight cellos at my disposal. The second half of oh ye of little faith… (do you know where your children are?) started its life as a loop; otherwise the rest of the piece is entirely through-composed. When I write for voice I always sing every part through to make sure the text setting and lines feel natural and are actually enjoyable for others to sing.
5. Listening to Evensong, I am especially struck by how free of irony it is and how powerfully and genuinely it registers on an emotional level. Is there a particular piece of music (classical or otherwise) that strikes you as representing the ideal marriage of emotional expressiveness and formal sophistication?
I didn't even have to think about this question. Hands down it would have to be Spiegel im Spiegel by Arvo Pärt. A buddy of mine always jokes that the piece isn't music, it's just form. That's the wonderful thing about it, though; the form is perfect, but it's still so completely melt-your-face-off gorgeous. And the elements are extremely spare; the melody is just an additive process applied to ascending and descending diatonic scales while the piano plays a simple three note arpeggio with a single note peppered throughout the high and low range of the instrument. All of Pärt's music is beautiful and particularly irony-free, but for me, that piece stands alone.

Caleb Burhans was born in 1980 in Monterey, California to Ron and Venus Burhans. He grew up listening to his father, who in the '60s and '70s had played rock 'n roll on tour with Ray Charles, Kenny Rogers and the Everly Brothers. Burhans' musical studies began as a boy soprano at the age of nine in Houston, Texas. In 1990, he moved to Janesville, Wisconsin, where he studied violin, piano, music theory and composition, as well as picking up viola, cello, bass, percussion, mandolin, guitar, electric bass and conducting. During his years in high school, Burhans participated in such musical endeavors as choir, orchestra and strolling strings, as well as jazz and punk bands. After graduating from high school in 1997, he attended Interlochen Arts Academy before moving on to the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. While at Eastman, he studied violin, viola, voice, composition, chamber music, orchestral music, baroque performance practice and contemporary music. Burhans graduated from Eastman with a bachelor's degree in viola performance and composition.

In the summer of 2003, Burhans and his wife Martha Cluver moved (with their lizard, named Buddha) to New York City, where they now reside. Burhans specializes in early music, contemporary music, pop/rock music, and free improv. His main instruments are violin, viola, guitar, piano and singing countertenor. In addition to his career as a freelance violinist, violist and countertenor, Burhans is a member of the Trinity Wall Street Choir, Philadelphia's Schola Nova and the new music ensemble Alarm Will Sound, as well as the bands Dialects, itsnotyouitsme and Beyondo. He has been heralded by the New York Times as "animated and versatile" and a "sweet-voiced countertenor."

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