Ekmeles, with, from left, Mary Mackenzie, Rachel Calloway, Patrick Fennig, Eric Dudley, Steven Hrycelak and Jeffrey Gavett, at Roulette.
By CORINNA da FONSECA-WOLLHEIM
Within the contemporary-music scene of New York, the vocal ensemble Ekmeles inhabits its own neighborhood on the border between music and linguistics. The name of this ensemble, which is dedicated to music by living composers, refers to the Greek term for notes of indefinite pitch and intervals with complex ratios that destabilize the perfect proportions of harmony theory, elements that in ancient Greece were considered inappropriate for music.
On Thursday evening Ekmeles presented a selection of vocal works by six living American composers at Roulette in Downtown Brooklyn, as part of the Interpretations series, that brought forth sounds from the human body that were at times painful, alienating, startling and haunting, but always fascinating.
Sometimes they were even gorgeous, as in “Shiroi Ishi,” an a cappella work by Ken Ueno. Mr. Ueno is a composer on the faculty of the University of California, Berkeley, who in his own singing explores and expands the eerie overtones created by techniques like Tuvan throat singing.
Here, too, he drew unusual sonorities from the singers in a setting of his own poem, in Japanese, about a white stone sinking into a moonlit ocean. Quiet sustained chords and shifting harmonies that sometimes brought Gesualdo to mind floated in and out of pitchless vocalizations, ghostly exhalations and percussive consonants.
Consonants took on a life of their own in Aaron Cassidy’s “I, purples, spat blood, laugh of beautiful lips,” a work that requires extraordinary virtuosity on the part of the vocalist. In an onstage discussion before the concert, Mr. Cassidy spoke of his interest in the “involuntary aspects of speech, which are so very legible,” elements like moans and croaks and stutters. Here it was Jeffrey Gavett who delivered this explosion of meticulously notated sounds.
Bryan Jacobs’s “Do You Need, Do To Me, 18 Me, 18 Mean,” for vocal ensemble and electronics, uses text resulting from the imperfections of voice-recognition software. Mr. Jacobs read the phrase “In the beginning there was light” into it and then continued to read the computer’s successively more garbled understandings back into it. The piece further distorts these texts with high speeds and sharply chiseled rhythmic outbursts; it ends on a note of whispered mystery.
Three fragments from Petrarch formed the text to “Three in, ad abundantiam,” by Evan Johnson, a work so quiet that it hovers at the limits of audibility, requiring singers to create the illusion of notes that have no discernible attack or end. Mary Mackenzie, soprano; Rachel Calloway, mezzo-soprano; and Patrick Fennig, countertenor, brought out its fiercely concentrated, if tiny, doses of emotion.
Two “Orphic Hymns,” by Louis Karchin, represented a more conventional singing style, with elegant vocal lines and skillfully layered harmonies. Two folk songs arranged by the composer Ben Johnston called on the ensemble’s extraordinary sense of pitch with their use of just intonation, a tuning system built on the pure pitch ratios defined by the Greek mathematician Ptolemy: the very opposite of ekmeles.