From all of Edmonton's larger executive groups, this is Pro Coro's premier choir, which will most likely give the audience a glimpse into what's happening globally in modern classical music.
I'm not talking about new works that follow well-trained music tracks, no matter how worthy they are, but about works that consciously push the blade of new music.
Pro Coro were again on a Saturday, November 24th, at a concert on site, new to them and to me: Orange Hub, Stony Plain Road's non-profit Edmonton city center. The theater proved to be ideal for the unified contemporary work they perform.
I eat Sun & Drink the Rain is a multimedia work by 50-year-old German composer Sven Helgig. This is the chorus cycle of the song, linked to short musical interludes, to create a continuous piece that lasts for about an hour.
The choir is supported by electronics. These include electronic manipulations of pre-chorus recordings, as well as live play (here by the composer himself) of computer-generated sounds, most obviously emulate-tuned percussion instruments or piano.
At the same time, it is a theatrical performance: the choir is dramatically dressed in black with black hats. The only lighting came from their hand tablets (containing their results) so that their faces shone. For each of the songs they are rearranged in different formations – from the long line on the back of the stage to the circle around their conductor Michael Zugg.
They looked like a group of shady monks, or maybe actors in a play by Samuel Beckett.
The final element in this mix was the big screen showing a continuous video shot in Iceland by an incorrect Icelandic video maker. Essentially devoid of color, except when there was a fire, the video was almost exclusively on landscape scenes, with some figure in the distance.
The main elements were there – land, fire, air, water – but all rather shady, insignificant, obscure and blurry. The lines and rustling were seen in a movie that sits in the box for too long – annoying after a while, especially when the vertical white line continues to appear exactly at the same spot on the screen. The pulsing light was interesting at first, then it became irritating.
Imagine taking a film camera north of the Game of Thrones wall, smearing the lens with petroleum jelly, then take a shot and take it. This is not surprising, as Iceland is the place to shoot north of the Wall.
Indeed, if the video was titled "Winter Comes", I would not be surprised, and the same can be said about the music. Seven of the songs use words from Helgig himself, one of the 19th Italian philosopher Giacomo Leopardi and two sections of the Latin Mass.
The composer describes the songs as "ten short stories of ten people who think about the meaning of life" and suggests that Latin texts are an example, as "all seek salvation." In fact, words look at different aspects of demand, from love to the awe of the greatness of nature.
Helbig combines influences from the classical world – particularly slowly developing polyphonic lines of composers like Pärt – with those of electronic tradition. It then blends with elements of popular music and rock, albeit in a very slim and minimal way, mostly in bass lines and rhythms.
Of course, there is nothing new about it. The discovery reminded me of Arne Nordheim's electronic music of the 1960s, the popular elements of the Swedish Ralph Lunden. The modern element lies in the combination of these musical compositions with the live choral script.
This eventually turned out to be a mixed blessing. The piece is like a clock melody, not a study of the wonderful variety that can encompass the search for the meaning of life.
These long polyphonic chorus lines, slightly hypnotized, occasionally bloated to culmination, revolving around relatively traditional harmonies, are sometimes very beautiful, especially when they merge with some of the basic electronics.
But they end up as monochrome and as vague as this Icelandic video – apart from the tuned percussion, there are no sharp edges of this music at all. The only moment of rhythmic relief was when women had a sense of deeper, slower male voices in the third song, and in the very effective fast, dead, march against Achs by a choir in one of the later interludes.
In other words, it was really winter: often very beautiful, but in the end it leaves a very cold. At the same time, the actual performance actually occupied a central place because it obviously required a great choir skill, especially when the music had to be combined with time in the video.
Pro Coro's performance was greatly appreciated by the audience and deservedly. These real-time interactions between electronics and live songs are certainly part of the future of choral classical music. I hope Pro Croo continues on this road and introduce more of them, because even if I had been quite cold to the end of Helgig's song, I'm glad I had the chance to get through it.
Review: Pro Coro, I Eat The Sun and Drink Rain
Organization: Pro Coro
Conductor: Michael Zaugg
Artists: Sven Helbig, Pro Cor
Where: The Orange Center
When: Saturday, November 24th