Caleb Burhans: Evensong
Evensong, a collection of choral and ensemble music Caleb Burhans created during the past decade, can't be recommended highly enough. It's a remarkably assured collection of seven modern classical works performed by three ensembles—Alarm Will Sound (within which Burhans plays violin and electric guitar), Trinity Wall Street Choir, Tarab Cello Ensemble—that shows the NY-based Eastman graduate is not only a member of outfits such as itsnotyouitsme and Signal and a countertenor, violinist, and multi-instrumentalist but a distinguished composer as well.
There are moments when connections can be made between Burhans' music and the minimalism of early Glass and Reich (see the three-note organ patterns at the opening of “Magnificat” and the similarly Glassian opening of “Iceman Stole the Sun”) but minimalism is merely one small strain surfacing within a composing style that organically extends into the realm of pure composition. If there's a common thread unifying the seven pieces, it's Burhans' repeated use of glissando techniques, as vocal and instrumental tones swoop upwards and slide smoothly downwards during a number of pieces. It's an arresting gesture that can take the listener by surprise, such as when the vocal choir in “Magnificat” dramatically departs from conventional pitch via downward plunges.
Though Burhans is a young composer (he was born in 1980), a clear sign of his maturity as a composer is the confidence and control he shows in presenting his material using a modest palette of vocal and instrumental sounds when the need arises. He knows, for example, that the simple combination of organ and vocal choir in the stirring “Nunc Dimittis” doesn't require embellishment in order to make an impact. There's a refreshing absence of irony about the material, too, with Burhans fully committing himself to conveying genuine and sincere emotion (as heard in the choral writing of “Super Flumina Babylonis,” for example) and avoiding pastiche. When the Tarab Cello Ensemble cracks open “The Things Left Unsaid” with a series of gorgeous supplicating melodies, you know you're in the presence of a gifted composer.
The tone of the music is generally plaintive, though contrasts in dynamics abound, with some pieces more languorous in tone and others more aggressive (the album's rawest moment arrives when Burhans straps on his electric guitar near the end of “oh ye of little faith... (do you know where your children are?)”). In a notable display of energy, the opening minutes of “Iceman Stole the Sun” pump uproariously in a manner reminiscent of The Michael Nyman Band. Elsewhere, “Amidst Neptune,” one of three instrumental pieces performed by Alarm Will Sound, broadens out from a ponderous drone intro to a genre-defying blend of classical and jazz musics. The large ensemble patiently weaves vocal, oboe, saxophone, and percussion elements into a hypnotic, eleven-minute set-piece, with piano and wordless vocalizing helping to elevate the material. Starkly contrasting in mood, the lamentation “Super Flumina Babylonis” (“By the waters of Babylon”) likewise shows how effective the pairing of celesta, strings, and vocal choir can be in the right hands.
Finally, one of the more interesting dimensions of the recording concerns religion—the three settings for the Trinity Wall Street Choir are liturgical in nature and the album cover design subtly evokes a Bible's leather-bound cover. While a number of titles carry religious overtones and Burhans himself has sung in church choirs for almost two decades, he's agnostic, and thus much of Evensong draws upon his struggles with religion. But whatever conflicting feelings he might have about Christianity, he shows remarkable sensitivity to and respect for the church's texts and traditions, at least insofar as they form a foundation for the musical works featured on this exceptional recording.