Western Wind Vocal Ensemble Delivers Buoyant Meredith Monk and Eric Salzman

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When you initially hit play on the Western Wind Vocal Ensemble’s latest album, featuring Meredith Monk’s Basket Rondo and Eric Salzman’s Jukebox in the Tavern of Love, you may think you’re listening to a bonus track off of a Roomful of Teeth situation. However, as the album unfolds, theatrics take shape to reveal talents that are a testament to the sextet’s unique sound.

Since 1969, the Grammy-nominated, New York-based vocal group has performed styles ranging from rock 'n' roll to religious music to jazz. They are active educators in the New York City public school system and have over 20 recordings to their credit.

In Monk’s eight-movement Basket Rondo, acrobatic a cappella parts weave together in a colorful work that will have you swaying along. (Much of the work is in five though, so your swaying will be of a quirky variety.) Often the voices hocket up a storm to form one melodic line, yet their differences are meant to show through. In Monk’s words, the piece paints a picture of “a pre-industrial community of people working together, doing handwork together.”

Basket Rondo was written after Monk demonstrated to the Western Wind members how to sing the material within her own very specific parameters, including using phonemes in a different style than they were used to. She added in an e-mail, "As the years went by between rehearsal periods, I composed additional sections that I brought into rehearsal. One very challenging aspect was that  sometimes the personnel had changed in the group so if I created something for a particular singer and that singer had left the group, I had to re-think and re-write."

Eric Salzman’s madrigal comedy Jukebox in the Tavern of Love, with a libretto by Valeria Vasilevski, features an unlikely crew in a bar on a rainy night during a Con-Ed outage. We meet a Broadway dancer, a nun, a Rabbi, a poet, a utility worker and a bartender with a pseudo-Italian accent, all of whom are inspired by the real-life personalities of the members of Western Wind. 

The characters each tell their stories, which are centered on the theme of love, and these stories lead into songs, which range from a feisty rendition of the Dies Irae to a dance set to old school Harlem jazz, complete with hand clap accompaniment.

The two pieces on this album are quite different and may be best geared towards two separate audiences, however they share important similarities, such as a strong influence from Renaissance music and a high level of performance. This is an album that’s worth a listen. Listen to the entire album below. 

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