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01 October 2018

NOTUS Interview and Review

by Ken Melder (Fanfare)

Of Radiance and Refraction features world premiere recordings of five works, commissioned and first performed by NOTUS, a chamber vocal ensemble comprising undergraduate and graduate students at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music.  The Director of NOTUS is Dominick DiOrio, a conductor, educator, and composer (one of his works in included on the disc).  I spoke with Dominick DiOrio about NOTUS, its legacy and mission, and the works on this captivating new release.

In your introductory comments for NOTUS: Of Radiance & Refraction, you note that the CD encompasses no fewer than six debuts.  Would you elaborate for our readers?

Certainly! The first is the most obvious, I’m sure: this is the first commercial album released by NOTUS, the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music contemporary vocal ensemble, in its nearly 40-year history. While my predecessor Carmen-Helena Téllez did create albums with the Contemporary Vocal Ensemble (“CVE” as it was known for many years), this is our first album under our new name and the first on a commercial label (Innova Recordings) separate from Indiana University.

The other five debuts are the world premiere recordings of the works on the album, three of them by composers who are having their debut foray in writing for a chamber vocal ensemble: Claude Baker, Aaron Travers, and John Gibson. While Sven-David Sandström and I have written extensively for voices, we also present world premiere recordings of two original works of our own. All five works were commissioned by NOTUS.

I understand this recording was made over a period of years, and with different participants in NOTUS. 

Indeed. NOTUS is a curricular ensemble of the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, and as such, its roster fluctuates every year and even a little bit from the Fall to the Spring semester. The five recordings on this album were recorded variously between March 2014 (Travers) and March of 2016 (Sandström), each with a different roster of student singers. As one reviewer pointed out, there are actually only two singers that can be found on every choral track! 

The Zorá String Quartet was the final piece of the puzzle, as they recorded the Stravinsky Three Piecesfor us in May 2016. D. James Tagg (the main audio engineer on the album) and I then took about 18 more months to review, edit, mix, and master the tracks before finally submitting them to Innova for consideration. So from start to finish, the process was nearly a five-year journey. 

Tell us about the history of NOTUS (including the source of its title), and its mission.

The Contemporary Vocal Ensemble, as it was originally known, was founded in 1980 by Alan Harler, then a professor of choral music at Indiana University. He left shortly thereafter and Jan Harrington took over the ensemble from 1982-1992, before Carmen began a 20-year journey with the ensemble. Throughout this initial 32-year history, the ensemble was unique among collegiate choral groups: nowhere was there a group singularly devoted to the music of the 20th century and forward.

When I arrived at IU in the Fall of 2012, I was asked to take over this ensemble, and I took a year to listen, rehearse, conduct, and observe what the group could be. The summer after my first year, I went to the Dean of the Jacobs School of Music and said that I wanted to rebrand the group, rename it, and focus its mission, so that we perform the music of living composers, with a particular energy toward premiering works by faculty and student composers. I suggested the name NOTUS, derived from “Notos,” the southern wind god—everyone knows Zephyr, the west wind. Notos was supposedly known for the wet, storm-bringing wind of late summer and autumn, in other words: the winds of change. It felt right, and it was brand neutral in the music world, which gave us the chance to define for the outside world who we are and what we do.

How large is the vocal ensemble, and who are the artists who participate?

On this album, NOTUS ranges in size from 24 voices at its smallest—on the Travers track—to 31 voices on the Gibson. Since the album has been made, I’ve been aiming for a slightly larger ensemble of 34-35 voices (with a few more sopranos and basses than altos and tenors). 

Part of the reason for this is the immensely musically diverse background of the singers in the ensemble. About half of the students in NOTUS are undergraduate music majors, and the remaining half are graduate/masters degree music majors (with the occasional few doctoral and PhD students in the mix). They are all singers, of course, but they are not all voice majors. Usually about one third of the ensemble (8-10 singers) are voice majors, another third or so are composers, and the remaining one third are students with a plethora of other music majors: piano, organ, guitar, education, theory, musicology, conducting, and in one case, German studies. We will occasionally have the rare non-music major, but it is indeed rare, as the bar for entry at the audition is very high.

As you might expect, the singers then come to rehearsal with a wide variety of musical training and experiences; it would not be uncommon for a first-year undergraduate organ major to be seated next to a graduate voice major, both singing the first soprano part. While this inevitably comes with challenges that have to be worked out in rehearsal, I find it invigorating, because what all of the singers share in common is a very high level of music literacy and sight-reading ability. This allows us to take a lot for granted—for instance, I can usually expect the pitches and rhythms to be read accurately at sight for most passages—and allows us to focus on other things, like phrasing, text, interpretation, and the ensemble tone, intonation, and sound. I like to say that ‘we get to start at a place where many other ensembles might spend weeks of rehearsal to reach.’ 

Tell us about a typical (if that’s a good word!) season for NOTUS.  How many concerts do you perform a year, and at what venues?  How many of your concerts include world premieres or second performances?

IU is such a rich place of musical happenings—over 1100 concerts and recitals every year, including 6 fully-produced operas—that there really isn’t a “typical” for us! We usually perform 2 or 3 concerts a year, with one or two in both the Fall and Spring. Every year, the singers in NOTUS also join with singers from the other choral ensembles to form the Oratorio Chorus, which sings major works with one of our symphony orchestras. (This means that there is usually a period of about 7-8 weeks every academic year where NOTUS as a group does not meet.)

What is usual for us is that on our 2 to 3 concerts—usually held in Auer Concert Hall on the Bloomington campus, the same venue where the tracks on this CD were recorded—, I always try and feature both faculty and student works each year. The student works in particular are chosen and curated through the NOTUS Student Composition Contest, which every year identifies 2-3 works for premiere in our final concert of the year. We also try and give performances of major modern repertoire for the chamber choir on at least one of our concerts each year. Recent concerts have included performances of David Lang’s “little match girl passion,” Sofia Gubaidulina’s “Sonnengesang,” James MacMillan’s “Seven Last Words from the Cross,” and this coming March, I’m quite excited that we will get to collaborate with the IU Chamber Orchestra to perform Steve Reich’s “The Desert Music,” one of my all-time favorite works.

Does NOTUS ever perform what might be referred to as “traditional” repertoire? If so, what are some examples?

Rarely, actually! Before I arrived at IU, the Contemporary Vocal Ensemble would perform music as early as 1900 or so, but to me that no longer felt quite “contemporary!” There was one program we did a few years ago with guest conductor Simon Carrington, which he titled “Atlantic Crossings.” This program was unique because it paired works of early music with works of modern music influenced by early music. It was a fascinating program, and a good example of when NOTUS might embark on repertoire outside our usual purview. 

What kinds of qualities do you think are unique or special to NOTUS as a performing ensemble?

I’ve grown as an educator in my now seven years working with the group, and while I was always ready to prioritize a student’s musical literacy or vocal ability, I also now keep an ear out in our annual auditions for a certain level of interest in or attitude toward new music… a certain courageousness of spirit. This compatibility with the mission of the ensemble leads to a work ethic and rehearsal demeanor that is optimistic, dedicated, and quite special, and it allows me to push the group to areas of achievement that they may not have thought possible. 

As you mentioned, Of Radiance and Refraction contains world premiere recordings of five works. I’d like to turn to your composition, Stravinsky Refracted (2015).  It’s a remarkable synthesis of musical history and influences, and different modes of artistic expression.  Tell us about this work.

I was so thrilled to receive an inaugural grant from the Ann Stookey Fund for New Music in 2014 that allowed me the chance to write this work, one I had been dreaming of for some time. I am deeply inspired by the works of others, and I frequently work to “actively quote” the music of other composers in my works, giving them a place of honor in my own music because they’ve influenced me. 

This work goes one level deeper: Amy Lowell wrote her poem after hearing a performance of Stravinsky’s Three Pieces in 1915. I wanted to complete the circle, setting her words to my own original music while quoting some of Stravinsky’s too. This “refraction” of the two original sources through the lens of my own writing is what makes Stravinsky Refracted so attractive to the listener. One hears Stravinsky, and Lowell, and—I hope—a little bit of me too!

To get the full effect of this referential play on musical themes past, we engaged the Zorá String Quartet to record the original Stravinsky work, so that it could be heard on the album before hearing my refraction of that work. When we presented the world premiere performance live, we also had a reading of Amy Lowell’s poem and a lecture by one of my music theory colleagues, Gretchen Horlacher, on Stravinsky and his music. We didn’t have time for all of that on the album, of course, but we certainly wanted to include the original Stravinsky work!

How did your collaborative relationship with NOTUS and familiarity with its musicians impact the music you wrote?

It was an absolute thrill to write for the voices I get to rehearse and conduct on a regular basis. The Jacobs School of Music is a very special place, and the nature of the place is that everyone there is exceedingly good at their area of specialty. Singers are no exception, and I knew that I would have four exceptional solo voices in Tabitha Burchett (soprano), Michael Linert (countertenor), Christopher Sokolowski (tenor), and Erik Krohg (baritone). So I wrote solo lines for each of them, and a quartet for all of them near the end, to showcase their extraordinary gifts. 

I also knew I could throw this subject and theme at them – admittedly not a mainstream one! – and that they would relish the chance to express the many dimensions of Lowell, Stravinsky, and myself in their performance. 

The remaining four world premiere recordings are of works by your composition colleagues at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music. Tell us about them, and the featured works.

Claude Baker is one of the funniest men I’ve ever met. His humor is leavened with his wit and intelligence, and he displays all of this exceptionally well in his re-imagining of a Monteverdi madrigal, Hor che’l ciel e la terra. While Claude takes Claudio as his inspiration, he offers up his own distinct sound world by writing for 24 vocal parts – not the usual SATB chorus – and for four percussionists, playing an array of drums, cymbals, gongs, temple blocks, and the like. One gets the sense of peering back in time as if through a haze, or of listening to an early music ensemble under water. The effect is magical and the work sublime.

Aaron Travers was the very first faculty composer to accept my invitation to write a work for the ensemble, and he created the concise but jam-packed Virginia: The West, a commentary on Whitman’s time in war from his Drum Taps. I remember that Aaron told me it was one of his favorite poems, and he wanted to create a journey for the listener that propelled us through the fast-changing emotions and dynamics of battle, and the different characters therein. To do that, we have the North and the South each represented by distinct musical figurations—including two solo tenors that produce an ancient organum effect in their singing—and finally two solo sopranos who represent the “Mother of All,” or the nation as a whole, not divided. It is a poignant image and message, still relevant today. (And it’s the only track on the album that mentions “Indiana!”)

Sven-David Sandström is one of the most prolific composers of choral music and probably the most famous Swedish composer of his generation. We have been so lucky to have him with us at Indiana University until just recently, when he retired again—a second time!—in Spring of 2018. NOTUS had already performed many of his works, including his Agnus DeiHear My PrayerLobet den Herrn, and others, and so I asked Sven to write us a new work, and I gave him the Lowell poem as a text to inspire him. He loved it, and provided us mere weeks later with The Giver of Stars, a virtuosic a cappella work that showcases all that NOTUS does best: fast and rhythmic writing, extreme dynamic contrasts, and dense chordal harmony.  

Finally, John Gibson’s In Flight deserves special mention. As the most substantial work on the album with five movements and a total time of 35 minutes, this was also the most boundary-defying project for NOTUS. The music speaks for itself, and is a broad inquiry into the concept of “flying” by five different poets, each set to riveting music by the composer. It’s a stunning artistic statement, and John received one of IU’s major creative grants (a New Frontiers Grant in the Arts and Humanities) to create not just this new piece of music, but also a new technology, which John himself coded and created. 

In the premiere live performance of this work, 12 of the singers had iPod touch devices that—when moved in performance through the air—would be picked up by sensors and thus change the resulting sound coming through the speakers and experienced by the listeners in the hall. This technique was used to great effect in the second and third movements during the live performance. Of course, on the recorded album, we had to proceed otherwise, and John created a “composed” version of these aleatoric electronics that would work for our album. 

That being said, recording this work in session was more challenging than the others, because the singers did not have the ability to hear the electronics. I had a headset and could hear them, but the singers had to follow my tempo and beat precisely, much as musicians do when making film scores. It was a new challenge for us and it worked out very successfully, but I think we had nearly 210 different takes for his work across all five movements! Needless to say, it took some time to get all of those sorted out into the best possible version, and then to line it up precisely with the pre-recorded sound, for which both John and Jamie should receive huge credit and accolade.

The quality of the recording itself is superb.  Was it made at a single venue?

All of the tracks were recorded in Auer Concert Hall at the Jacobs School of Music on the Indiana University Bloomington campus, and we had various members of the Audio Engineering & Sound Production faculty, staff, and students work with us to bring this album to completion, including faculty members Konrad Strauss and Mark Hood. The major contributor was faculty member D. James Tagg, a very good friend and engineer who has also worked on albums for the professional Miami-based ensemble Seraphic Fire. Jamie spent hundreds and hundreds of hours editing, mixing, mastering, and fine-tuning the soundscape for the album, including the daunting task of “placing” the singers and the electronics in appropriate sound spaces for John Gibson’s piece. His professionalism, dedication, diligence, and especially his musical ear were all deeply inspiring and humbling to me. I am indebted to him for the investment of his time and treasure in making this album come to life. 

The album art is also very striking. Who did the design work for you?

Remember above when I was talking about the exceptional talents of our students? Well, we have one soprano in particular, Jennie Moser, who is a fantastic vocal artist in her own right (she recently sang Zerbinetta in the IU Opera Production of Ariadne auf Naxos, to give you a hint of her abilities). Jennie also maintains a second professional life as a graphic designer, web designer, and consultant. I had seen her work in creating website for some of our student composers and singers, and I had also engaged her to make a concert poster for NOTUS on one occasion. Liking her work very much, I approached her with the task of creating the look and visual feel for our album. I think she succeeded with flying colors. You can read more about her at her professional design website: jenniemoserdesign.com 

Tell us about some upcoming projects for NOTUS.  Is there potential for more recordings?

Indeed! As I mentioned earlier, we have helped to create a number of beautiful student compositions through our NOTUS Student Composition Contest. Whereas this album was a spotlight on faculty works, I want the next one to highlight the exceptional promise and personalities of our student composers.

You have an active career both as a composer and conductor.  What projects are on the horizon for you?

I am very fortunate and deeply grateful to be able to do what I do on a daily basis. Living with new music, teaching students, and conducting and composing are my bread and butter. There are many projects upcoming, but perhaps the one I am most looking forward to at the moment is a collaboration between the Choral Arts Society of Washington and “The President’s Own” United States Marine Band, as they come together in March 2019 to give the premiere performance and recording of my new work, Silent Moves the Symphony True, in recognition of the 200th anniversary of Walt Whitman’s birth. I am looking forward to that with much anticipation. 

Dominick DiOrio, congratulations to NOTUS and you on Of Radiance & Refraction.  We look forward to hearing more!

Thank you, Ken, for taking the time to learn more about our work!

 

NOTUS: Of Radiance and Refraction • ¬óDominick DiOrio, cond; NOTUS; Zorá String Quartet, et al • INNOVA 002 (73:16)

 

BAKER Hor che’l ciel e la terraSANDSTRÖM The Giver of StarsTRAVERS Virginia: The WestGIBSON In Flight: Overture. STRAVINSKY Trois pièces pour quatour à cordesDIORIO Stravinsky Refracted.

Of Radiance and Refraction is the debut recording by NOTUS, a vocal ensemble based at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, whose performers include undergraduate and graduate music students. NOTUS was previously called the Contemporary Vocal Ensemble (CVE), and their recording of music by Mario Lavista and James MacMillan (LAMC 2012) was favorably reviewed by my colleague, Colin Clarke in March/April 2013 issue of Fanfare (36:4).  Of Radiance and Refraction includes the first recordings of five works commissioned and premiered by NOTUS.  In addition, since NOTUS Director Dominick DiOrio’s Stravinsky Refracted was inspired in part by Igor Stravinsky’s Trois pieces pour quatour à cordes, a complete performance of that instrumental work is also included.  There are two a cappella works (Sandström and Travers), one for chorus and percussion (Baker), another for chorus and electronics (Gibson), and finally, chorus, organ, percussion, and string quartet (DiOrio).  In the above interview with Dominick DiOrio, he offers considerable detail about the composers (all Jacobs School faculty) and the works themselves.  The works, all in a contemporary idiom, showcase the beauty and expressive potential of the human voice. If you have an interest in contemporary choral writing (or even contemporary music in general), I think you will find these works compelling and attractive.  They are also superbly performed and recorded.  The detailed liner notes, and the inclusion of texts and translations, as well as the original Stravinsky string quartet work, are models of how such a recording enterprise should be presented.  It is heartening to see that the commissioning, performance, and recording of new, persuasive works are thriving at great institutions like IU.  It’s an initiative well worth supporting, and in the case of Of Radiance and Refraction, one that I think will provide considerable pleasure.

Ken Meltzer