Choral music has always been deeply uncool, at least as long as I can remember, definitely since I was belting out the Ave Maria in grade school, and it seems even further back than that. In the 1960s, with the growing enthusiasm around electronic and avant garde music, there was “a general feeling that the voice was a very limited phenomenon, unreliable, and possibly not as interesting with regard to exploration as were other sound domains,” recalls conductor Kenneth Gaburo of the time when he formed the New Music Choral Ensemble at the University of Illinois. The group of 16 student singers was the first in the country to tackle contemporary works for voice.
This CD, collecting ten of their works recorded live in 1967, exhibits the stylistic range and technical difficulty of their repertoire, starting with Ben Johnston’s challenging jazz piece “Ci-Git-Satie” (T1) and Pauline Oliveros’ abstract collage of moans, shrieks, bleeps and groans on “Sound Patterns” (T2). Two of Gaburo’s compositions appear here, distinctive with their brass band freakouts and tape music insanity (T4 and T9). In contrast, other pieces have a solemn, beautiful air: Shallenberg’s “Lilacs” (T5) and Bassett’s “Notes in the Silence #3” (T6). The best pieces are saved for the disc’s end: Luigi Nono’s stunning “Sara Dolce Tacere” (T7) and Oliver Messiaen’s blend of French/Quechua/Sanskrit into an abstract dream poetry on “Cinq Rechants” (T10).