For many (admittedly myself included), 2013 is the year that "contemporary a cappella group" no longer meant clean-shaven, hopelessly romantic boys wearing white gloves and singing Billy Joel. It meant fascinating new sounds, challenging and beautiful new music, and even a Pulitzer. Last month, C4: The Choral Composer-Conductor Collective added to this excitement with their debut album, "Uncaged."
Built on a model that favors a "more democratic" system of running an ensemble, C4 is comprised of the composers who write much of their music, the conductors who conduct it, and a few designated singers. They exclusively sing music written in the past 25 years.
"Uncaged" opens with Hayes Biggs' setting of Gerald Manley Hopkins's The Caged Skylark. The idea from the poem that humans are trapped in their physical bodies manifests itself in melancholy during the piece's first half. Later, a shift closer to tonality is, the composer writes, "hard won and not without ambivalence."
In Jonathan Davis's setting of the 13th century text Stabat Mater, plentiful appoggiaturas convey sighs of the Mother at the cross. The result is a powerful beauty.
Karen Siegel was inspired by cacti to write the text and music for Saguaro. It's a colorful and at times groovy package of John Adams-esque operatic story telling, layered rhythmic complexity, and compelling soprano solos (executed gracefully by Elizabeth Durham and Melissa Wozniak).
Without Words, a setting of a text from the Tang Dynasty by Huang Ruo, forces the listener to slow down. Each Chinese sound receives the same amount of care as the chorus meditates through an "unspeakable feeling."
A spike of energy, in the form of overtones, grunts, and wordless text, is injected into the listener with Toby Twining's Hee-Oo-Oom-Ha. It's worthy of a dance.
The album comes to a quiet close in Ted Hearne's moving setting of an English translation of traditional Xhosa anti-apartheid lyrics, We Cannot Leave. The composer writes, "South Africa has a strong tradition of music being used as a tool to fight societal oppression and inequality. The setting is a tribute to that practice."
C4 has already built a steady following for their live performances, and "Uncaged" is hopefully just the first in a long line of recordings.
Audio is no longer available.