About this Recording
8.574124 - EŠENVALDS, Ē.: Choral Music (Translations) (Portland State Chamber Choir, Sperry)

Ēriks Ešenvalds (b. 1977)


Born in Priekule, Latvia in 1977, Ēriks Ešenvalds is a composer with such acclaim that his music is among that most often performed throughout the world. He has won multiple awards, including the Latvian Grand Music Award (2005, 2007 and 2015), the International Rostrum of Composers First Prize (for The Legend of the Walled-In Woman, 2006), and New-Composer Discovery of the Philadelphia Inquirer (2010). His works have been performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, the Utah Symphony, and the Britten Sinfonia. Ešenvalds has written for The King’s Singers, Latvian Voices, the Choir of Trinity College Cambridge, the Holst Singers, Imogen Heap, Polyphony and numerous choirs in the US. Ešenvalds’ compositions appear on many recordings and, to date, eight are exclusively devoted to his choral music. This album is the sequel to The Doors of Heaven (Naxos 8.579008, 2017), performed by Portland State University Chamber Choir—the first recording by an American choir.

Ēriks Ešenvalds often writes complex music, dividing the choir into eight or even sixteen parts, using an expanded tonality to create gorgeous, lush textures that nearly overwhelm the senses. This style may epitomise ‘21st-century choral sound’. But, unlike many of his contemporaries, Ešenvalds is equally comfortable writing in an angular, aggressive style that channels more stringent tonalities of the previous century. What makes Ešenvalds’ music so compelling is that he uses these two musical vocabularies side by side. His expertise shines through the uniqueness of the texts he selects and their powerful musical realisations.

This album features seven selections on the idea of ‘translation’ or the transformations that occur within us when we encounter the power of nature (Translation and The Heavens’ Flock), legends (The Legend of the Walled-In Woman and Vineta), or the divine (O salutaris hostia, My Thoughts (‘Мысли мои’) and In paradisum). Oregon Poet Laureate Paulann Petersen, whose poetry is set on the first two tracks of this album, stated:

‘Art is translation. Art translates the ineffable into what we can see and hear, what we can experience, what touches us. Art translates mystery for us without destroying that mystery. As translation, art truly is a vehicle for transformation.

Art enters and transforms us: lucky, lucky us.’

O salutaris hostia (2009) is a short, simple and exquisitely beautiful prayer for peace. It features two soprano soloists singing first antiphonally and then in duet, suspended above a choir that grows from the upper voices to a full eight-part divisi texture. The piece is assembled from short phrases continuously elided together, so that the next begins before the previous one completely resolves. The resolution is as elusive as peace has been for humanity, especially the Latvian people, who have endured nearly constant foreign occupation throughout recorded history. After over three minutes of continuous staggered breathing, the choir gets one communal breath before the final, ‘Amen’.

The Heavens’ Flock (2014) was commissioned by the Portland State Chamber Choir and served as Ēriks Ešenvalds’ introduction to Paulann Petersen’s poetry. The narrator wanders as a lowly shepherd lost on earth while the stars dwell separately above as Heavens’ flock. The narrator resolves to become more like a star by building a fire. And true to the ethos of America’s Pacific Northwest, the narrator creates the transformational fire out of discarded twigs and lichens—the refuse that appears to have been discarded by nature, but is actually the fuel of divinity. Ešenvalds’ sets this text as a newly composed folksong. The piece begins with wordless singing—the music of the stars. The text again is delivered entirely homophonically in textures ranging from six to eight-part divisi for the choir, with the melody almost entirely in the soprano line. The music oscillates between B minor and D major, which could be a simple allegory: humanity appears in minor and the divinity of the stars in major. But when the climax arrives and the translation is complete, the music is solidly set in B minor.

Translation (2016) was commissioned for The Crossing’s Jeff Quartets, a concert-length set of 15 new works for four voices dedicated to the memory of the choir’s co-founder Jeff Dinsmore. The text for Ēriks’ quartet is by Paulann Petersen; it focuses on the moon, noticing it seems to be waiting to be realised in art—like a poem, waiting to be found. Then beauty is translated into humanity. Communion with the moon is like ‘a thin wafer melting in the mouth’ and art is born, ‘words having found their tongue’. Translation is scored for a quartet of vocal soloists (as outlined in the commission) singing the text homophonically, accompanied by a five-part background choir, which envisions the changing scope of the night sky, and singing handbells, played like Tibetan singing bowls, shimmer into existence after words have ‘found their tongue’.

My Thoughts (‘Мысли мои’) (2019) is a setting of the preface of Saint Silouan the Athonite’s treatise My Soul is Crying to the Whole World. While the book itself is a collection of sayings, prayers and beliefs, the preface concerns the struggle of attempting to take divine perfection and write it down in words. Saint Silouan believed his thoughts came to him in perfect form from God, but the act of translating these divine ideas into human language made them human, and thus imperfect. Saint Silouan apologised to his readers for the imperfections of his work.

The piece begins with a three minute highly static section for the lower voices of the choir: the altos are divided into three parts alternating their singing with the tenors and basses in four parts. The sopranos enter alone, singing two separate themes that are each repeated in sequence through multiple keys, attempting to find home. The piece builds to crisis, a rare cadence to a pure minor chord, as the attempt to capture the divine has failed. And then, only after the failure, true inspiration arrives softly. Starting with just the soprano and alto voices, the choir’s texture peacefully expands to a final chord that covers over four octaves, from the lowest bass note to the highest soprano descant.

Vineta (2009) was commissioned by the Bavarian Radio Chorus, who also chose the text of the piece. Vineta is a legendary city consumed by the Baltic Sea because of its citizens’ hedonistic tendencies, and whose church bells still ring from beneath the surface of the waters calling sailors to their deaths. Wilhelm Müller, the 19th-century German poet whose poetry forms the libretti for Schubert’s famous Winterreise and Die schöne Müllerin, takes this story more as allegory, maybe even as a precursor to Freud’s death drive—the Ego’s struggle between giving in to or resisting its own basest desires. In his poem, these wishes call from within the depths of the soul, much as the church bells of Vineta call from beneath the sea.

Vineta begins very clearly on a pedal E, the choir accompanied by vibraphone and orchestral chimes, and emerges from and returns to that E, as if the sunken city is coming in and out of focus from beneath the waves. Many lines of the poem are followed by reflective music where the words fall away, and the choir shifts to tone syllables. Percussion takes the foreground as vibraphone (simultaneously bowed and played with mallets) and glockenspiel create space for the listener’s imagination to inhabit the mood of the story—to find the spaces beneath the surface of the water or perhaps the surface of consciousness. Following a stormy climax involving bass drum, the piece ends as the lower voices of the choir sink back to their pedal E while the sopranos soar to their highest pitches accompanied by a shimmer of suspended cymbal and a dozen triangles played gently with knitting needles.

The Legend of the Walled-In Woman (2005) was commissioned by the Latvian Radio Choir. It begins with a vocal quintet singing an ancient Albanian folk song that dates the time of the building of the Rozafa Castle (Albanian: ‘Kalaja e Rozafës’), near the city of Shkodër in northwestern Albania. The legend is that three brothers built the fortress to protect against Greek and Roman invaders. The brothers worked each day but found each morning their work had been mysteriously ruined in the night. One night their mother had a dream: one of the brothers would have to wall up his wife alive within the fortress to keep it standing. After telling her sons, they agreed to keep silent and let fate choose its sacrifice: the wife who brought food to the brothers the next day would be immured. The two older brothers broke the agreement and warned their wives, but the youngest kept his word.

The Legend of the Walled-In Woman begins with the mother urging first the wife of the oldest son, then the wife of the middle, and finally Rozafa, the wife of the youngest, to bring the men bread and wine. Rozafa picks up the bread and wine and makes her way to the site. The brothers sadly explain what must happen next. Rozafa does not protest and accepts her fate, asking that she be built into the castle while still alive. Her plea continues, as she asks for her right eye to be left showing so that she might still see her infant son, her right breast to be exposed so that she might still feed the babe, and for her right foot to be free so that she might still be able to rock his cradle. It is this authentic Albanian folksong which Ešenvalds has transcribed from an old recording, carefully notating every nuance of the unique Albanian Iso-Polyphony. He repeats this ancient music three times, juxtaposed with the full choir singing fragments of the same text in an otherworldly texture, static at first, but growing more rhythmically intense and tonally dissonant with each iteration.

After the third and most violent choral section, The Legend of the Walled-In Woman ends with a funeral march sung by the chorus and two soprano soloists. The soloists represent the wives of the two older brothers mourning Rozafa, who ask to join her in living memorial. Her three last pleas now are mirrored in three statements from Martin Camaj’s 20th-century poem My Land:

When I die, may I turn into grass…
(symbolizing her right foot on the grass to rock her son’s cradle)
When I die, may I turn into water…
(representing the sustenance of her right breast to feed her son)
When I die, may I turn into stone,
On the confines of my land
May I be a landmark
(the right eye to see her son, to be visible through the stone, to be a marker to others).

In paradisum (2012) was written in memory of Ešenvalds’ grandmother who passed away on the morning of the premiere. The beauty of paradise comes across in the mostly wordless choir, which accompanies the angelic strains of a solo viola and cello. Only rarely does the choir take the foreground, singing the Requiem Mass antiphon that would be sung as the body is taken from the church for burial. The choral writing is homophonic throughout, and except for the few brief places where the choir sings words, this piece is almost a concerto for viola and cello with the choir serving as the orchestra.

I have often thought of the tonal music of the 18th and 19th centuries as being the music of human construction, with major and minor chords representing the lines and blocks we construct to depict order within nature. Ešenvalds’ expanded tonality, though it includes dissonant tones, sounds to me even more consonant than major and minor, something like the next dimension of construction. Perhaps these are the harmonies of the Fibonacci sequence, the sounds of the spiral, or the way in which nature orders itself that remains beyond complete human comprehension. Perhaps this is why it works equally well to depict the wonder a human feels when translating the divinity of nature into oneself or when encountering the Divine in a religious context. Ešenvalds’ ability to write this music is a rare gift, one that allows us to be transformed, translated by the beauty and complexity of his compositions. Lucky, lucky us.

Ethan Sperry

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