The Choral Composer/Conductor Collective (C4) Volume 2: Cornerstones

Founded in 2005 as a democratic collective of composers, conductors, and singers working together to create, workshop, perform, and present new choral works, C4: the Choral Composer/Conductor Collective has become an important mainstay in the NYC choral music scene.  Performing only new works by members of their own ensemble, their talents and innovative programming have granted them twelve successful seasons, and saw the release of their first CD C4 Volume 1: Uncaged in 2013.  Their second release, C4 Volume 2: Cornerstones came out in 2016 as a worthy follow-up. 

The Spheres at Play by Bruce Saylor features three settings of poetry by Emily Dickinson.  Led by conductor Timothy Brown, the ensemble performs with crisp precision and excellent diction, each entrance and cut-off unified and every chord cluster secure in its intonation. The balance is especially laudable with no voice part overpowering the others, allowing the many colors of the piece to unfold organically from one tonality to another. Timothy Brown also conducts the following selection, Pitter patter, pitter patter; and then, by Daniel Andor-Ardó depicting the tragic story of a Dwarf caught in a raging flood and rejected by a rainbow. The opening’s sustained humming is pure and seamless, providing harmonic support to the contrapuntal, staccato “pitter-patter” sung and whispered in alternation. The story continues in syncopated bursts that draw to a crescendo upon the rainbow’s cruel rejection, and subsides in the whispered conclusion, “…pitter patter; and then…?” 

Joseph N. Rubinstein’s How She Went to Ireland on a text by Thomas Hardy follows, conducted by Martha Sullivan. Featuring “fixed harmonies…[and a] glacial Irish jig,” this piece offers a modernized unfolding of a travel narrative, with consonant and dissonant harmonies driving each syllable of the text forward while supporting the melody, rendered with senza vibrato simplicity. The simultaneously contrasting stasis and evolution of Dora’s trip are best expressed through the dynamic contrasts rendered with great care throughout the piece so that the listener feels the ebb and flow towards climactic peaks and moments of repose. In contrasting style, “The Campers at Kitty Hawk,” a movement from USA Stories by Michael Dellaira (conducted by Billy Janiszewski), is a masterpiece of declamation and storytelling. From the outset, the boldly homophonic recitative morphs into complex, syncopated polyphony as the voices break away, repeating, advancing, expanding, and commenting on the Wright Brothers’ story. The percussiveness of the text and the strong chromatic bass line are rendered with pizzazz by C4.

Donald Crockett’s Daglarym/My Mountains is inspired by the sounds, textures, and harmonics of Tuvan throat singing (although the piece does not require this challenging technique). The bright, striking cries of “Barypla, bazala” evoke the resonant call of children herding goats across an open plain, underpinned by the warm sustained lines of the lower voices and the ever-changing harmonies. Daglarym/My Mountains is a standout for its wide range of colors, both harmonically, and with regard to vocal production. Andor-Ardó leads the ensemble deftly through the dense and mutable landscape, unifying the work’s many diverse parts.

C4: the Choral Composer Conductor Collective

C4: the Choral Composer Conductor Collective

Next is Martha Sullivan’s Tyger, Tyger!, a piece based on the Lydian Flat 7/the Harmonic Series Mode with a “catchy melody” and soprano solo. It is a playful and unique setting of this Blake text. Gordon Williamson’s Tape Recorder (conducted by Perry Townsend) is “a roughly five minute soundscape” of dissonant clusters, glissandi, hums, sighs, vowel mixes, crisp consonants, and an atmospheric blurring of the line between noise and pitch. Inspired by the “distinctive delivery almost stream of consciousness [of texts by]  Zoë Skoulding,” Tape Recorder captures the many elements that go into a reading, and by slowing them down, the listener appreciates each component individually.

With a text by Emily Dickinson, Bettina Sheppard’s Love is Anterior to Life emphasizes the poem’s fragmentation by assigning each of the upper voices one line of the poem with its own melody, while the basses sing the entirety of the text. The piece begins and ends with a unison chant-like exclamation of the text “Love is anterior to life,” providing both a unified starting point to break away from and a final resting place after the long period of textual and musical fragmentation between the voices. Under conductor Colin Britt, the ensemble gives a balanced and ardent performance.

Cornerstones ends fittingly with Allégories by Philippe Hersant. Based on Rimbaud’s “Illuminations,” these three movements capture moments from a life as it travels through various stages from childhood (“Enfance III”), young adulthood (“Jeunesse III”), and old age (“Depart III”).  Each movement is distinct, moving from the sensory wonders of a child’s world, the turbulent emotions of the adolescent mind, and finally, happy old age bringing a jubilant sense of having lived a life of plenty in this world, and the excitement of entering into a new place, a “departure into new affection and noise!” Hersant’s music (conducted by Colin Britt) is mysterious, tender, and melodic. C4 captures the colors of each movement gracefully, particularly in “Enfance III,” where each new observation is truly a revelation.

In a city teaming with exceptional vocal ensembles of every kind, C4 is a standout, not just because of their fine programming and unique collaborative structure, but also for their consistently beautiful and balanced sound, excellent precision, warmth, and energy. C4 Volume 2: Cornerstones is a testament to the growth of this fine ensemble. I am looking forward to hearing their evolution and eagerly await their next release.