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REVIEW: NOTUS "What Is Ours: Music for an America in Progress"


Dominick DiOrio leads NOTUS in a shining collection of contemporary compositions that span genres and languages to paint a complex picture of twenty-first century America. A diverse set of composers and text sources are represented, embodying the nation's pluralism and wide range of experiences, and the choir deftly moves through several distinct timbres and styles.

NOTUS is rhythmically tight and unified here, often incorporating percussion (body or otherwise) to bring a sharp viscerality to the album. Guest instrumentalists make impactful contributions, particularly Roger Roe's English horn on DiOrio's "It Takes Your Breath Away" and Luke Acerra's cello on John William Griffith II's ethereal "First Light."

The two emotional centerpieces of the album are Moira Smiley's "Wire You Here" (a NOTUS commission) and Joel Thompson's "America Will Be!" The former, a reflection on the maddening disconnection brought on by the COVID-19 lockdown, incorporates heartbreaking spoken word from students longing for normalcy, underscored by an ever-building percussive beat and a minimalist choir texture that effectively (and uncomfortably) evokes the terrible banality of living in isolation.

The latter melds two iconic American texts--Langston Hughes's "Let America Be America Again" and Emma Lazarus's "The New Colossus"--with hopeful pleas in ten languages, the choir emotionally embodying those huddled masses yearning to breathe free. "America Will Be!" is a shakingly powerful anthem for a nation reckoning with its past and seeking hope for its future, and the ensemble's impassioned performance is a triumph.

Stephen O'Bent Redmond, WA

dominick smiling and looking out