The Sacramento Choral Calendar


Concert Review

Vox Musica

MAACAM: American River - February 20, 2016

by Diane Boul

Beatnik Studios in Sacramento, Vox Musica’s home base since 2014, was packed on this Saturday evening. The crowd was a balanced mix of older and younger concert goers. The younger age of the audience may have been due in part to followers of the two Millennial composers and partly due to the fact that often Vox Musica’s concerts are made up of compositions and/or arrangements of living composers. That was the case with Maacam (Nisenan for “Ten”), Project 2 of Vox Musica’s 10th anniversary season.  

One of these living composers was collaborative artist, Joe Kye, an award-winning Sacramento violinist-looper, whose works feature violin, string loops, and voice. For those not familiar with looping, a loop is a repeating section of pre-recorded sound material played electronically with a live music performance. This gives the effect of added instruments, like the difference between a soloist and a quartet, maybe. Another new composer, Derek Sup, is a Sacramento native and Vox Musica’s resident composer. His original composition, “American River,” was commissioned by Vox and Joe Kye to celebrate the spirit of Sacramento’s great waterway.

(Click here to open the concert program in a new window.)

Joe Kye opened the program with Bambam’s Lullaby on looped violin, which created a fuller sound almost like a string quartet. It gave the impression of a live classical violin against a plucking, folk-sounding, looped violin. Although I couldn’t understand all the words, the song was about Joe’s 95-pound Akita, a melody that put the dog to sleep. Using repetitive looping, the melody and vocals were superimposed in a layering effect. The lyrics are Bambam’s words: “Where are you and why did you go?”

A smooth segue into Michael Bojesen’s Eternity brought us a gorgeous piece with lyrics by Danish poet Ellen Heiberg. With the Vox choir, Derek Sup on piano, and Kye on violin, this 2004 composition is an example of the accessibility of modern music. Danish-born Bojesen says that “music must be relevant, so that it not only pleases but also inspires….” The simple text is about how finding a stone on the beach can feel like finding a piece of eternity. It was probably my favorite piece of the evening.

Adam Ward, a widely recognized member of the internationally acclaimed ensemble, Chanticleer, was commissioned to write a new work for this program. Based on a poem by English-born Anna Bunston De Bary, As Rivers of Water in a Dry Place featured soprano Stephanie Tomicich as soloist. I noticed that after listening to the beautiful voices of the Vox women that I hadn’t taken any notes. Here was another example of an older text set to modern music that could be appreciated by anyone. Hopefully, we’ll hear this piece again soon.

11-8 started as a simple scat duet by Vox singers. The lyrics reflected the mistake made by Kye of composing an 11-beat loop instead of the intended 12-beat loop. “I make mistakes; so do you.” Mistake or not, this piece was interesting. Even though it was arranged by resident composer, Derek Sup, it seemed very improvisational. As one member of the audience remarked, it was reminiscent of Dave Brubeck’s Take Five. Here was another example of the layering in Kye’s music, this time with the addition of the ladies of Vox over his live violin, looping violin and piano accompaniment.

Nisenan Drum Song was introduced by a drum-accompanied, incense-burning ceremony by director Paulson. Shelly Covert’s work was prompted by her remorse at the loss (by theft) of a very old and sacred drum, thought to be a messenger to her People. In sharing her song with Daniel Paulson and his choir, Ms. Covert became the unintended new messenger, describing her struggle to preserve the language and culture of the Nisenan people. Because of this connection, Ms. Covert gifted her song to Paulson and Vox Musica, so that it could be performed publicly. The looping violin sounded like crying, weeping, loss; the women’s voices like wind. The lyrics were sung and spoken, accompanied by violin and a traditional Nisenan deer-hoof shaker.

Next on the program was “Says.” This 21st century, avant-garde composition was originally written and performed by Nils Frahm for piano/looping piano. Daniel Paulson arranged the piece to include violin, looping violin and voices with soloist Ariel Couch, along with piano. This piece started with a rather haunting, classical feel and evolved frenetically into “a blinding force of raw, emotional energy.” I think I enjoyed this four-element arrangement better than the original version. Hopefully, it will be performed by others in the future.

The first half of this program was quite complete in itself and could have ended happily with the emotionally charged
Says, but there was still much more to come with the world premiere of Derek Sup’s American River, which was a multi-media presentation using the spoken word, props, vocalizations, interaction with the audience, and some music. There was a lot happening “in concert,” but I experienced it more as a coming-of-age ritual, a dedication ceremony, a rite of seasons, or a thanks to motherhood. Probably everyone in the audience had a somewhat different experience and that was the beauty of the piece.

In four acts plus an interlude, American River journeys through the life-cycle of a Chinook salmon, season by season. Each act (season) was preceded by a narrative describing the ecology of the region. Interspersed was an on-going conversation between two salmon sisters about their anticipated dedication and contribution as mothers, as well as their impending doom. This conversation was done by the Vox women as two unison choirs, rhythmically speaking, not singing. This seemed a bit cumbersome since the story got lost a few times when the text wasn’t quite in unison.

During the acts the choir sang the scientific names of a few of the plant and animal species that construct the ecosystem along the American River. Perhaps this part of the program could have been made more authentic had all the listed plants been native to the American River Parkway, and listed as blooming in their natural seasons. Towards the end, mothers and mothers-to-be (from the audience) offered stones to the riverbed as a symbolic tribute of unconditional love of the mother salmon for her offspring.

To enjoy this program meant to feel the nuances and interactions of all that was happening. You really had to be present to understand and appreciate the complexity and beauty of the works. Even then, with so much going on, it was hard not to miss something. Bravo to Daniel Paulson and Vox Musica for yet another high-quality, creative, educational, heartfelt, and inspiring program!!

The immediate future for our collaborative composers:

In March, Derek Sup can be heard playing the compositions of Frederic Chopin, as well as his own compositions. For more information, go to:

In May, Joe Kye’s original music project, Joseph in the Well, will be opening for Yo-Yo Ma at the Mondavi Arts Center. For more information, go to:

 All Reviews