Weeks’ ‘Primo Libro’ released by Ekmeles, on New Focus Recordings

James Weeks’ fascinating work Primo Libro, a set of 16 short madrigals, has been released on CD by Ekmeles vocal ensemble, led by director Jeffrey Gavett, on New Focus Recordings (CD fcr394 -‘We Live the Opposite Daring’).  Dan Lippel of New Focus writes that the new release references ‘the past through tuning systems, texts, extended vocal techniques, and poignant histories’ and describes Ekmeles’ performance of the works on the CD as ‘nothing short of sublime’.  Week’s ‘Primo Libro’ is inspired by Nicola Vicentino’s (1511-1575/6) madrigals, with which Weeks first became acquainted in 2010, whilst working on a project with selected members of the BBC Singers.  

Vicentino’s invention of the 31-division equal temperament, each note roughly 1/5 tone apart, was a logical extension of quarter-comma meantone temperament, a temperament commonly used in the Renaissance and early Baroque. However, Vicentino’s microtonal practice was one which successive composers did not embrace and the idea would have died with him, but for the survival of his theoretical work ‘L’antica music ridotta alla moderna prattica’, which contains fragments of these pieces. 

James Weeks writes: ‘To create my own iteration of ‘antica musica ridotta alla moderna prattica’ (‘ancient music adapted to modern practice’) I took Vicentino’s building-blocks - major and minor triads in root position - and added the neutral triad, midway between the two. To give harmonic variety I also squashed the triads into clusters, which appear in several pieces. As a rhythmic analogue to the tiny pitch shifts I used very small differences of duration, so the music never flows comfortably in predictable note-lengths but is constantly pushed and pulled around.

‘Through these materials I wanted to achieve a new expressive rhetoric. I tried to imagine myself exploring the possibilities of expressing a text through music for the first time, as if it had never been done before, using only these materials. I took conventional Petrarchistic lyrics from Arcadelt’s Il primo libro de’ madrigali (1539) and treated them in different ways, excising some or nearly all of their substance, reducing many to isolated words, phrases or even isolated phonemes in an attempt to find an essence, a kernel of primal expressive signification that would fit the music’s attempt to do likewise.

‘Like Vicentino, I tried to find an edge between the extremely simple, even crude, and the complex and subtle. The surface I made as stark and primitive as possible: successions of homophonic chords ascending and descending, sudden cuts from one madrigal to the next at regular, one-minute intervals, no internal dynamic shading. Underneath, the singers are entangled in a web of tiny nuances of pitch and rhythm, where the slightest false move can spell disaster, a game to tax even the most sophisticated of ears. More than a game, however, I am also trying to find a different way to express age-old feelings, starting from those minute inflections of vocal pitch with which we indicate fear, hope, love, anger, grief, desire and despair. This was the goal of Vicentino’s search, as for all vocal composers of the humanist Renaissance, and for my piece too.’

Read James' complete blog post ‘Vicentino and me: on Primo Libro’, on his website: https://jamesweeks.org/vicentino-and-me-on-primo-libro/.  

There have also been some excellent reviews of the CD.  On the ‘I care if you listen’ programme linked to the American composers’ forum Sofía Rocha writes: ‘We Live the Opposite Daring, the sophomore album from the New York-based vocal sextet Ekmeles, is immediately magnificent. Released Feb. 16 on New Focus Recordings, the album is a tour de force in contemporary vocal music, featuring a massive variety of techniques, approaches, and styles, while never losing sight of its expressive power in these technical pursuits.…… Every detail is immaculately rendered, creating vibrant, resonant harmonies that dazzlingly shift and slide about in this incredible work.’

AllMusic.com’s reviewer James Manheim explains: ‘The piece is written in 31-Division Equal Temperament, a tuning proposed by the Renaissance theorist Nicolà Vicentino that results in especially brilliant thirds, both major and minor. These are exploited by the composer, and needless to say, they require iron intonational control from the singers ... The entire performance is a high-wire act, and it is splendidly recorded, often with the composers themselves as producers, at suburban New York's Oktaven Audio; one has the feeling that care was taken at every turn. A marvelous release for fans of contemporary vocal music and even for those who say they don't like contemporary music.’  

Ron Schepper of Textura highlights the skill needed for singing Primo Libro: 'No work better illustrates the high level of difficulty involved than Weeks's Primo Libro, whose sixteen concise madrigals requires the group to painstakingly sing in thirty-one-division equal temperament. While it feels related to quarter-comma meantone, a temperament commonly used in the Renaissance and early Baroque periods, the micro-divisions separating the thirty-one intervals (which means all notes are approximately 1/5th of a tone apart) give the work a decidedly modern feel. At the same time, the scoring of these madrigals for one, two, three, and four voices strengthens that connection to an earlier time. The microtonal pitches that emerge over the course of the eighteen-minute performance are naturally riveting when so many are unfamiliar, and hearing the singers' voices spiral through the work is at times vertigo-inducing ... We Live the Opposite Daring is a more than credible follow-up. It also would be hard to imagine any other recording matching it for the sheer number of vocal effects and techniques it features. On its beguiling sophomore effort, this ever-intrepid outfit goes places few other vocal ensembles dare venture.'

Jon Sobel of Blog Critics describes a brave new tonal world: 'These shiny little pieces may be settings of 16th-century Italian lyrics, but they sound both alien and mechanistic, as if created by an advanced and robotically inclined otherworldly civilization. Weeks' score lets us hear solo and duo voices, where the "unnatural" intervals are plain to hear. We also hear sequences of four-part chords where individual parts move to adjacent microtones, altering the character of the chord in ways for which words don't come easily to mind because these chords don't trigger the specific emotions our brains have trained us to feel from music.'

Peter Margasak of Bandcamp Daily Best of Contemporary Classical enthuses: ‘New York’s Ekmeles are one of the most probing and experimental vocal ensembles in the US, a compact group with an outsized mastery of both ancient and modern approaches.  They delve into the past on opening gem Primo Libro by British composer James Weeks, the director of Exaudi – which often feels like a sister ensemble to Ekmeles.  Weeks created an uninterrupted collection of 16 brief madrigals – in solos, duos, trios, and quartets -written using a 31-tone scale once common in the Baroque era, placing meticulous demands on each singer.  The ensemble nails it, taking us back in time while also suggesting something futuristic, with forms and lyrics eluding any clear reference.’

Read some of these reviews in full, and listen to an interview with some of the composers on the CD, from the ‘We live the opposite daring’ entry listing at New Focus recordings, from which page you may also access various distributors for purchase of this unique recording.