Of all the Edmonton large-scale performance groups, Pro Coro, Edmonton premiere choirs, which are most likely to give viewers a glimpse of what's happening globally in contemporary classical music.
I am not talking about new works that follow the path of music that have gone well, however appropriate they are, but about works that consciously push the spearhead of new music.
Pro Coro is here again on Saturday, November 24, at a concert in a new place for them and for me: Orange Hub, downtown Edmonton for a non-profit group on Stony Plain Road. Theater proved ideal for the single contemporary work they presented.
I Eat Sun & Drink Rain is a multi-media creation by 50-year-old German composer Sven Helbig. This is the cycle of the choir song, connected by a short musical interlude to create continuous pieces that last around one hour.
Choir is supported by electronics. This includes pre-recorded electronic manipulation of the choir, and by playing directly (here by the composer himself) computer-generated sounds, which most clearly mimic tuning or piano tuning.
At the same time, this is a theatrical performance: the choir is dramatically dressed in black with a black hat. The only lighting came from their handheld tablet (containing their value), so that their faces faintly glowed. For each song, they rearrange themselves in different formations, from long lines backstage to circles around their conductor, Michael Zaugg.
They look like a group of shadow monks, or maybe actors in the game Samuel Beckett.
The last element in this range is a large screen that shows continuous video, taken in Iceland, by Icelandic video makers who are unpredictable. Basically colorless, except when there is fire involved, the video is almost exclusively a landscape scene, with occasional figures in the distance.
The basic elements are there – land, fire, air, water – but everything is rather dark, unreal, obscure and opaque. Overlaid are lines and scribbles and the spots seen by someone in a film that has been sitting on a tin for too long – are very annoying after a little, especially when the vertical white line continues to reappear in the exact same place on the screen. The pulsating light was interesting at first, then it became annoying.
Imagine taking a film camera to the north of Wall in Game of Thrones, smearing the lens with Vaseline, then filming it and you got it. That might not be surprising, because Iceland is the location for filming north of the Wall.
Indeed, if the video was given the title 'Winter is Coming', I wouldn't be surprised, and the same thing could be said about music. Seven of the songs use the words by Helbig himself, one by the 19th Italian philosopher Giacomo Leopardi, and two sets of parts of the Latin Mass.
The composer described the songs as "ten short stories from ten people who think of the meaning of life", and suggested that Latin texts are examples, such as "everyone seeks salvation." Indeed, those words reflect on different aspects of the search . , from love to the majesty of nature.
Helbig combines influences from the classical world – especially the lines of slow-developing polyphonic compositions such as Pärt – with electronic traditions. He later mixed in elements of popular music and rock, albeit in a very calm and minimal manner, mostly in the bass line and rhythm.
Of course there is nothing new in this matter. The opening reminded me of 1960s electronic music Arne Nordheim, popular elements from Sweden Ralph Lundsten. Contemporary elements lie more in the combination of these musical constituents with direct acclamation writing.
This, in the end, turned out to be a mixed blessing. This work is a kind of quiet meditation for one hour, and not an exploration of the very good variations that can be sought by the search for meaning in life.
Polyphonic dialogue lines that are long, dazzlingly soft, sometimes swollen to climax, spinning around a fairly traditional harmony, sometimes very beautiful, especially when joining some of the underlying electronics.
But they end up as monochromatic and as opaque eyed like Icelandic videos – apart from tuned percussion, there is no sharp edge to this music at all. The only moment of rhythmic help is when women have a kind of pat on the male voice that is deeper and slower in the third song, and in a very effective death row, against Ahs from the choir, in one later interlude.
In other words, this is indeed winter: often very beautiful, but in the end it leaves a rather cold one. At the same time, the actual performance is really the center of attention, because it clearly requires great choral skills, especially since music must be combined with the time settings in the video.
Pro Coro's appearance is highly valued by the audience, and it deserves it. This type of real-time interaction between electronics and singing is part of the future of choral classical music. I hope Pro Coro continues down this road, and introduces more, because even though I was left rather cold at the end of Helbig's section, I'm glad I had the opportunity to pass it.
Review: Pro Coro, I Eat Sun & Drink Rain
Organization: Pro Coro
Conductor: Michael Zaugg
Actor: Sven Helbig, Pro Coro
Where: The Orange Hub
When: Saturday, November 24