Nachtwanderung: A Musical Night-Journey with the Cantus Domus Choir

Nachtwanderung

With this year’s summer in full swing, we, the ECLA of Bard students, having much more free time on our hands, unrelentingly start searching for diverse activities to occupy ourselves with. Far from being obligatory, these would provide a relaxing counterpart to the flow of deadlines we were exposed to during the past academic year, and would only enrich our student life experience. However, concomitantly with the break from deadlines, came also the regretful summer pause in the choir rehearsals, which are not to resume but until the start of the new academic year. Still, a few ‘singing birds’ and lovers of music – some ECLA of Bard choir members and the choir director – were not to be discouraged by this daunting circumstance. Ready to offer ourselves a special musical treat, upon the invitation of our choir director Yvonne Frazier we reveled in the unique chance to attend one of the ‘concept-concerts’ of the Cantus Domus choir: Nachtwanderung (‘Night Walk’).

Since Yvonne Frazier is the voice instructor of the young singers constituting the Cantus Domus choir, she heartily believed that our experience of the concert would be a special one, and rightfully so. Most of the singers in the choir do not pursue a musical education as professionals, and yet, endowed with exquisite voices, and an unswerving devotion to music so perceptible in the unified sound they create, they do not fall short of professional performing standards, and are a quite well-known choir of Berlin. Under the direction of conductor Ralf Sochaczewsky and assistant conductor Tobias Walenciak, 57 individual voices gracefully blended with one another that night in order to absorb the audience fully into the secret world of dreams, premonitions, and intuition. Not only did I feel drawn into the otherworldly atmosphere the choir created, but I also came to reach, under the spell of the unusual setting and performance, a particular level of self-consciousness as a listener, spectator, and solely as a human being whose surfacing thoughts, lingering hopes, and concerns found their echo within the choir’s impeccable ‘a cappella’ rendition of musical compositions from four different centuries, evoking the mysterious concept of the night. Delightful works of Adam Krieger, Johannes Brahms, Richard Strauss, Robert Schumann, Peter Cornelius, Carlo Gesualdo, Helmut Barbe, Christian Lehnert, and Eric Whitacre found themselves conveyed in yet another remarkable interpretative form, this time by the Cantus Domus. 

Imagine an old red brick building, not without a subtle historical aura pertaining to it – a ‘Kühlhaus’, which having formerly served as a cold-storage depot, is now home to various artistic and cultural events and projects. Replace the idea of the conventional formal division between stage and audience with the image of soft, yet steady cardboard-box seats arranged in four squares to form two empty lines meeting in the centre, where the conductor, visible to all, offers the audience a glimpse into the close, authentic, and present musical relation between him and the choir members. Envisage a balcony or gallery-like upper structure, mirroring the square perimeter of the main floor and extending over two floors above, where the choir members find freedom to move, pleasantly surprising the seated audience below by creating the dream-like perception of sound as approaching and departing, as continuous and interrupted. Complete the vision with the presence of darkness, protruded by colourful flashing light from all angles, which brings grouped members of the choir into visual focus. Later, swallowed once more by its dark competitor, the light unwillingly abandons the singers into the engulfing shade. At other times, marking its presence for longer, it settles onto particular areas, and seems to reflect and accompany the steady and continuous sound created by the choir. Having the visual and auditory effects intermingled, allowing dominion of darkness and light, silence and sound interchangeably, and creating a balance between them, the choir’s presentation exuberantly managed both to appeal to the senses and attenuate them, bringing forth correlating elements which define the phantasmagorical concept of night: ‘dark dreams’, ‘golden shadows’, ‘presentiment of death’, ‘dream lights’…

The musical compositions themselves reveal these elements, through which we conceive of night. Effortlessly carrying one along the flow of their verses, which speak of the intangible period between sunset and sunrise, they serve as musical mediators in our dream-like journey to discovering the trajectory that commences with birth and ends in death. Along this life path that the musical pieces trace, one finds sorrow and joy, war and peace, greeting and farewell, lost and found love. With Nun sich der Tag geendet hat (‘Now the Day Has Ended’) of the seventeenth-century composer Adam Krieger as the threshold to a subsequent conceptual musical progression, the musical works were brought together to transmit a gradual, yet complete immersion into the barely perceptible, yet still self-aware state of sleep, in which the primary senses and deep emotions are given full reign.

Undoubtedly, the concert was remarkable in the way it uniquely delivered the splendour of the classical works, yet it proved to be even more special due to its role in premiering the performance of the musical piece Am Abend, am Morgen (‘In the Evening, in the Morning’) by the German composer Frank Schwemmer. For the first part of the work, the composer chose verses from the cycle of poems of Christian Lehnert––a cycle, which bears the same title as the musical composition, and for the second, he referred to the text of Johann Heermann.

In the aftermath of a traumatic event, an injury, a subsequent surgical intervention, the body finds itself drawn into the state of half-sleep. Evocative of the fleeting and imperceptible state between sleep and awakening, the piece attempts a translation of internal physical and mental tensions into sounds and music, denoting the unfeasibility of distinguishing reality from dream. In the opulence of the tonal spectrum of the voice parts, singing and speaking claim equal rights as being the intermediaries between the physical reality of the human condition and the mental journey of the human imagination. Divided into the ‘speaking choir’, ‘solo ensemble’, and ‘8-voice main choir’ by the composer himself, the singers brought to light, and to hearing, the beautiful tension arisen from mingling the three parts. Yet, the voices were not the only ones to convey the all-enveloping tension of the piece: amongst the many elements that rhythmically evoked disconcertment were the percussion elements employed by the choir members through the clashing of metal and ceramic objects as sound sources, body percussion, and heavy breathing sounds which ‘painted’ the background with the omnipresent sensation of struggle. Within this tense amalgamation of sounds, an exceptional harmonious blend originated, making this musical composition worthy of being regarded as one of the main highlights of the night.

Along with it, the utmost delight to my senses was brought by the two musical compositions of Eric Whitacre, one of the most well-known contemporary composers, performed by the choir towards the end of the concert – Nox Aurumque and Lux Aurumque. The latter piece, a musical composition for the Soprano, Alto, Tenor and Bass voices, and the first of the two composed by Whitacre in chronological order, received much success and popularity by having been performed by a ‘virtual choir’.

The ‘Virtual Choir’ project, initiated and carried out by the composer in 2009, gathered 185 enthusiastic singers from 12 countries, and although it didn’t physically unite them together in one space, it brought their voices in overwhelming harmony. In order to accomplish this project, the composer provided the music and text, written in Latin by the poet Charles Anthony Silvestri, for each voice part, as well as videos with him conducting, on the Internet. In response, the viewers recorded their singing, and, with the help of an editing programme, each voice was blended into one virtual performance to create a musical piece of profoundness and beauty that astonishes every listener.

Whereas I was deeply affected by this music when I first heard it as a ‘virtual choir’ performance, little did I suspect the extent to which it can astound me if heard in a real setting, with the physical presence of the singers, and with their acute awareness of each other as a united group. The story of the golden shimmering light and the angels’ singing to the newborn child, which the text together with the music tell, immediately acquired a paradisiacal vividness in the constancy of sound carried along by the bass voices, providing a steady harmonic support throughout the piece, as well as in the brilliant chant of the solo voices, prominently emerging, like pure golden light, out of the darkness, and fetching the listeners to far-from-earthly dimensions.

Containing similar musical patterns and motifs to Lux Aurumque, Whitacre’s work Nox Aurumque tells of a darker vision: a vision of an angel, who, in his sleep, dreams of sunset and war, shedding tears at the dreadful calamities. In cooperation with the same poet, the composer once again manages to create a work which makes one obliviously shudder upon listening to the uplifting dissonance so marked in it. Surrendering myself to the intricate music heartily created by the choir, fascinated, I cling on to the meaning of it, and amidst its beauty, it strikes me that it tells of such a dark and unfortunate human tendency to destruction. It is war that makes the angel sob, yet it is also this sobbing and grief that seem to inspire in the composer the creation of such marvellous music. Sublime harmony, haunting dissonance, unified sound, angelic voices: all these fuse together in the contrasting feelings of bliss and sorrow, concepts of beginning and end, life and death, awakening and dream.

With deep appreciation for the immense effort of the choir in creating such beautiful moments for us, I had no doubt that attending this ‘concept-concert’ was one of those enlightening aesthetic experiences of mine which tend to linger on long after the present moment of music is gone and the sound ‘vaporizes’ into the night… Losing the usual sense of measured time, I realized after the concert had ended that it was time to travel back to the dorm and immerse myself into this strange world of sleep. I did so this time much less reluctantly than usual, in hope of re-living this wonderful musical experience again.

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