C4 Volume 1: Uncaged [TrackList follows] – C4: The Choral Composer/Conductor Collective – 4Tay CD4038, 38:53 [Distr. by Albany] (10/8/13):

Based in New York City, C4 is a choral collective specializing in presenting works composed in the last twenty-five years. Bringing composers, conductors and singers together, the group focuses on commissioning and premiering new works and mentoring emerging musicians in the field of modern choral music. Their ambitious programming claims to fill an important niche in the cultural life of New York, and the group has a commitment to presenting high quality music in a nurturing and inquisitive atmosphere.

I must say that the programming grabbed my attention – they certainly delivered in terms of their niche! The programme notes (which were frustratingly short and artistically vague) left me wanting more, so I pressed play not knowing what to expect.

The Caged Skylark was indeed a bold opening, but I’m afraid that the first thing that caught my attention was the acoustic. It was terrible – dead, dry, and lacking any sort of discernible character, I felt it to be totally inappropriate for the kind of music on the programme. I realized straight away that this had been recorded in a studio, something I confirmed by having a glance at the disc’s case. This did not sit well with me, for two reasons: one, I’m a traditionalist when it comes to vocal acoustics – choral acoustics should be singer friendly and should allow the sung sound to expand and realize its full potential. I don’t believe that choral music benefits from having the voices shoved into a box and echo added during the editing stage. Two, I became worried that this disc was at risk of being over-produced and over-edited. So, the opening was bold to the point of overwhelming because I was slapped with a wall of sound that felt artificially closed in. This lack of acoustic was prevalent throughout the disc, and I feel that many of the musical features (which were plenty – there is no doubt as to the sophistication of the music on this disc!) would have benefitted from a more expansive acoustic.

That said the music is, for the most part, executed well throughout with nuance and a keen sense of musicianship.

The text of the Stabat Mater is one with which I am intimately familiar, having performed those of Palestrina, Pergolesi, and Vivaldi, so I went into this piece with high expectations. A gorgeous piece of music, the choir sings it very well. The soloist also sings beautifully for the most part, save a little suspect pitching and a slightly screechy higher register. The lack of acoustic also led me to be able to pick out individual voices quite prominently.

The opening solo entries of Saguaro were sublime, and the soloists continued to sing beautifully throughout the piece – they were a delight to listen to! Perhaps the least impressive piece chorally, the first entry of the men’s voices is suspect in tuning, and it didn’t settle for a good while. The composer, Karen Siegel, writes in the programme notes that the “seemingly endless expanses of this beautiful desert [in Tuscon, Arizona] are reflected in the music’s evocation of space.” This is certainly true – the music is expansive and gets us thinking about space, but given what I have already said about the cramped acoustic, the music and the performing space conflicted.

Without Words was certainly a highlight of this disc. A delicate start sets the piece’s introspective mood, and this is followed up with highly aware, highly nuanced and acutely tuned singing. This is particularly important in a piece whose ethereal harmony requires precise tuning. The sustained phrases and relative slow harmonic rhythm was very much reminiscent of meditative droning, and the choir gives a highly convincing performance. I found both the piece and the performance both relaxing and engaging at the same time, which is no mean feat. Brava!

Toby Twining’s Hee.oo.oom.ha is a wonderfully fun piece of music, an exploration of many of the sounds the human voice can make. Certainly the most unconventional of the pieces on this disc, Twining brings together a variety of singing styles from across world music, from droning to that of the Babenzele Pygmies to Tuvan throat singing. The choir accomplishes the piece’s execution of many styles effortlessly and in an expert manner. Of particular note here is the soloist, Fahad Siadat, whose vocalizing is crystal clear and possesses an innate sense of rhythm and excitement that becomes the vibrant life-blood of much of the piece. The tuning throughout is also great, and all of these factors come together to form a consummately musical and highly professional performance. I listened to this track quite a few times, such was my enjoyment of it!

The recording comes to a more conventionally choral close with Ted Hearne’s We Cannot Leave. The opening of the piece is simple – the entry of a simple theme from one voice part that is repeated and expanded into the other voice parts, the entries gradually building up until the whole choir is involved. The numerous overlapping entries of material are well executed and distinct from one another, but I couldn’t help but feel a little more musical sensitivity and dynamic contrast was warranted. The choir handles the many dissonances well, but I felt that at times the sopranos were pushing the tuning sharp (especially during their various entries of “is leaving me behind” – the sopranos have to jump through an interval of a fifth and there seems to be a little fishing for pitch going on!), leading to a loss of ensemble.

Overall, this is a very good disc filled with skillful performances. However, I can’t help but feel that the acoustic takes away from the character of the disc – a better, more singer-friendly acoustic would have made this disc very special indeed, and would have, I believe, increased the choir’s sense of character exponentially.


Hayes Biggs: The Caged Skylark

Jonathan David: Stabat Mater

Karen Siegel: Saguaro

Huang Ruo: Without Words

Toby Twining: Hee.oo.oom.ha

Ted Hearne: We Cannot Leave (from ‘Privilege’)  

—Jake Barlow