Last Friday night, I began my evening at St. Joseph’s Church on the north of Capitol Hill, with The Esoterics concert “Sirene.” Founded and led by conductor/composer Eric Banks, The Esoterics are a choral group that sings a cappella, shunning musical instruments for the most part.
They’re one of the 45 member choruses of the Greater Seattle Choral Consortium, most of whom are continually popping in and out of churches (St. James, St. Mark’s) around Seattle. If you are interested in choral music, from religious pieces to show tunes to contemporary compositions, the Consortium’s calendar will give you an earful.
“Sirene,” weaving together a theme of kinds of callings, included Mason Bates‘ Sirens, Paul Crabtree‘s Thirst, and Ted Hearne‘s Privilege, along with Banks’ own composition Voices. Voices employs the poetry of Constantine Cavafy, to whom Lawrence Durrell turned as a touchstone for his Alexandria Quartet. Banks has his chorus sing the lines in Greek and in his English translation: “Voices, beloved and perfect, / Of those who are now gone.”
For his beautiful and moving Sirens, Bates has stitched together bits of Homer’s Odyssey, Heinrich Hennie, Pietro Aretino, Asunta Beltrán, and verses from Matthew. “Odysseus, great glory of the Achaians!” is how the work opens, and the chorus sings the “O” repeatedly, so that it sounds like wavelets on a greater ocean. (The Esoterics sing with a pitch and precision that’s almost hard to credit, and again and again, your ears are fooled by the way their voices blend in vocalizing, so that you could swear someone was working the pedal of an invisible pipe organ.) At the close, quoting Matthew, Bates has the singers deliver the line, “The kingdom of heaven is like a net, which was put into the sea,” with clear emphasis on the final “and took in every sort of fish.”
Crabtree’s Thirst, on Fleda Brown’s poem about Elvis and his temptations, gave The Esoterics a chance to sound like a completely different, gospel chorus, with soloists flinging exclamations roofward. Hearne’s Privilege, quoting in part the writer David Simon (“we pretend to educate the kids, but we don’t”) also contains Hearne’s gnomic “flashing window / empty street / burning tv song / stay,” which took on a Radiohead-esque majesty.
The #12 bus carried me across the Hill, to Neumos, where the rest of the night’s music was already in progress. I arrived too late for openers Reptet, “horn-heavy tone bandits,” Spekulation was about to come on, but I bought their CD At the Cabin anyway. You can give it a listen online. Spekulation is a hip hop artist who has assembled a number of jazz musicians (the self-titled EP lists nine players, plus the dj Absolute Madman). I know, if someone walked up to you on the street and said “hip-hop jazz,” you’d strike back and not a jury in the world would convict you, but Spekulation’s hybrid sound is infectiously appealing, before you add in the gutsiness it takes to sample Bob Dylan on “Something is Happening Here.” That was purchase number two.
By the time Zubatto Syndicate, the neo-big band jazz ensemble that likes to rock, was throwing down their cover of Metallica’s “Master of Puppets,” the restraining walls of genre had disintegrated completely. Composer/bandleader Andrew Boscardin has written a whole album of hyphenated jazz that makes you think hip hop and funk one minute, metal and power pop the next. Inside Neumos, with the speakers thundering and nary a glass of zinfandel in sight, there was the unusual sight of heads bobbing to jazz and a clarinetist shredding.