NOTUS: Of Radiance & Refraction
Originally called the Contemporary Vocal Ensemble when founded in 1980, NOTUS was renamed in 2013 when composer/conductor Dominick DiOrio was chosen as its fourth director (the name itself refers to Notos, the Greek god of the south wind “who brings cleansing storms for a new season”). A champion of living composers, the prestigious chamber chorus has given premiere or second performances of over 150 new works in the choral repertoire. Yet with almost four decades of acclaimed music-making behind it, NOTUS has never issued a commercially released album—until now.
A diverse collection, Of Radiance & Refraction features five world premiere recordings, including new pieces composed for them by teachers at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music. The recording is not only a showcase for the work of the composers but NOTUS itself, comprised as it is of student singers at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music (the performances on the album feature five different student groupings). The album is especially noteworthy for composers Claude Baker, Aaron Travers, and John Gibson, whose respective contributions mark the release of their first major works for vocal ensemble. Along with settings by DiOrio and Sven-David Sandström, the album includes a short, three-part work by Stravinsky performed by the Zorá String Quartet that served as the inspiration for DiOrio's composition. One of the more appealing aspects of the recording is that in addition to a cappella performances of the pieces by Travers and Sandström, those by Baker, Gibson, and DiOrio augment the chorus with other musicians, percussion for Baker, electronics for Gibson, and organ, strings, and percussion for DiOrio. Not that a full album of chorus-only settings wouldn't be rewarding, but having the other sounds included makes Of Radiance & Refraction all the more engrossing.
In Hor che'l ciel e la terra (2014), Baker reimagines the second work in Monteverdi's eighth book of madrigals, 1638's Madrigali guerrieri ed amorosi (Madrigals of War and Love) by coupling the choir with four percussionists. During this seven-minute setting, choral utterances are punctuated by cymbal shimmer and batterings of timpani and drums, the voices in some moments escalating to a seemingly glossolalic pitch and in others intoning angelically. Ranging between mournful and ecstatic passages, ample ground is covered in a short time, making Baker's setting an excellent scene-setter. Subtly tinged with dissonance, Sandström's The Giver of Stars (2015) blossoms like the most beautiful flower, its twelve-part chords rising and falling gracefully as the singers give voice to Amy Lowell's text and seamlessly segue between hushed episodes and declamations. Set to Whitman's “Virginia: The West” from his Civil War-related Drum Taps, Travers' Virginia: The West(2013) orients its design in part around specific characters, such as the noble sire (symbolizing the South), noble son (the North), and Mother of All (the country itself); the voice of the latter, for example, is given to two sopranos. In slightly less than four minutes, Travers deploys contrasts in texture, density, and tempo to reflect the dramatic, mercurial shifts in mood, character, and setting in Whitman's text.
A five-part setting for chorus and electronics, Gibson's In Flight (2015) is the album's thirty-five-minute centerpiece. Using texts by William Carlos Williams, Margaret Atwood, Elizabeth Bishop, and others, Gibson explores his theme from multiple angles, among them the fall of Icarus, a goldfinch's flight, and the private musings of air travelers. Such textual variety naturally lends itself to equally varied approaches in the musical design. In “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,” hocketing, wordless voices, and computer-generated atmospheres are used to conjure the image of the sea, while a tenor solo recounts the details of Icarus's plunge and witnesses' reactions. “July” and “Flying at Night” reveal a similar sensibility in play in the way short phrases suggest the rapid flight of the goldfinch in the former and how electronics and hushed vocalizing evoke the mystery and majesty of the universe in the latter. “Flying Inside Your Own Body” riffs on the flight theme, this time as a merciless segue from the wondrous dream experience of floating above the earth to the cruel reality waking brings: “your heart is a shaken fist, a fine dust clogs the air you breathe in.” Electronics again figure prominently in the brooding “Night City” when a vocoder-like voice recites the text and the choir completes glassy, computer-generated phrases.
All four of these composers acquit themselves admirably, yet, tellingly, it's the Stravinsky piece that proves to be the most memorable, as short as it is. The reason why is both simple and instructive: of all the album's pieces, Trois pièces pour quatuor á cordes (1914, rev. 1918) is the strongest melodically. The opening movement's but a minute long, for instance, yet its rustic folk melodies (heard also in L'Histoire du soldat, if I'm not mistaken) resonate long after the recording's over, and much the same could be said of the oft-contemplative second and plaintive third. A baton of sorts is passed from him to DiOrio for the concluding Stravinsky Refracted (2015), an encompassing musical treatment of Lowell's poem “Stravinsky's Three Pieces ‘Grotesques', for String Quartet.” Those same melodies re-emerge in DiOrio's fourteen-minute offering, which is enhanced greatly by the presence of four vocal soloists, organist, percussionists, and string players. That being said, DiOrio's setting more than anything else benefits from its incorporation of Stravinsky's material. There are many reasons why his music, more than a century after his first works were written, surfaces with such regularity in the typical symphony orchestra's concert programming, but certainly his melodic genius is a central part of the explanation.