Now that I’m working with a regular vocal sextet, I’m starting to explore writing for this configuration of voices, and so far I’m loving it. I’ve organized the group a little oddly; instead of an even male/female split, I’m using two women (one soprano and one mezzo) and a counter-tenor to create flexibility in our writing. This configuration is allowing us to do typical trio/trio type voicing, but also duet with four-part accompaniment, and sometimes trio on bottom, duet on top, and a solo line cutting through the middle. We also have the flexibility to jump straight into 6 part jazz style voicings, which is a ton of fun.
My first piece for the group, The Vast Sea (black waves, green foam) is partly an exploration of these different arrangement possibilities, coupled with my continuing interest in microtonal tuning and extended vocal techniques. Specifically, I was listening to a lot of Stockhausen’s seminal vocal work Stimmung, which uses the first 7 notes of the overtone series (essentially a Mm7 chord) as an ostinato harmony with textural and rhythmic variations among the singers. The piece asks for a few different vocal timbres that help bring out overtones, further emphasizing the overall structure of the harmonic series, which is then punctuated but declarations of ‘magic names’, religious figures from traditions all over the world (vishnu, Azazel, Yahweh, etc).
Something about the piece also reminded me of the Tenores Di Oniferi, an Italian tradition of male singing with an amazing ensemble sound. A male trio sings this tight, perfectly tuned harmonies using a bright sound to help produce/pop overtones, while a soloist stands separately and sings melodic lines.
Check out this sample, it’s amazing.
I started putting together this piece using similar structural ideas, building harmonies from the overtone series and rhythmic variations between singers to create a sense of propulsion and rhythmic energy. The piece really came together when I decided to focus the lyrics and ‘story’, as it were, around the angel Gabriel and his association with mercy. It’s still pretty abstract, but I see it as a sort of sailor’s prayer. The first movement is the swift motion of the ship across the waves and an invocation to Gabriel to show them mercy on their journey. The second movement (entirely sung with tongue tremolo) is the ocean at night, and the last movement is a sea storm. I’ve left ambiguous how the sailors fair at the end of the storm when it finally breaks.
Here’s a sample I put together of the piece that I created by overdubbing myself a few times. It shows a sample of the first and second movement.