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Catch a Ray with Variant 6

New Suns Variant 6 Open G Records 195269 164461 Total Time: 56:12 Recording: ****/**** Performance: ****/****

New Suns is the debut album of the vocal sextet Variant 6. The group’s focus on expanding chamber choral music tends to lead to a host of new commissions and collaborative efforts. The Philadelphia-based group’s program here consists of six works by five composers including two rewritten specifically for them.

The album opens with a stunning piece by Benjamin C.S. Boyle. Written in 2019 and with a new arrangement made for the group, Supplice (2019) us a lush work that shifts from close intervals into often gorgeous melodic writing in a quite colorful piece. The texts are based on poetry of Paul Eluard. Each vocal line is given a chance to shine a bit introducing us to the vocal capabilities of each member of the ensemble.

Two works of Gabriel Jackson are featured on the program as well. First is the near 12-minute exploration of women’s voices in Zero Point Reflection (2014). Here the lines merge into one another musically with a text that is a sort of stream-of-consciousness collection of first lines of poetry by Doris Kareva. It is quite fascinating to hear how the little motivic ideas are shifted through the different voices. They also blend into a single sonority whose effect is often quite stunning. The style has a blend of spiritual minimalist qualities with rich extended harmonies. Jackson’s Spring (2005) appears later and is an exploration of melismatic writing using a text by Gerard Manley Hopkins.

This blending of ancient and modern harmonies and vocal composition is explored as well in the three pieces from Bruno Bettinelli’s Madrigali a cinque voci miste. The textural ideas provide a bit more exposure to individual lines that are twisting about chromatically.

Jeremy Gill wrote his Six Pensees de Pascal (2017) for the group. The texts here come from Blaise Pascal’s Pensees. Gill focuses on a musical set construction that has an ascending and descending component pivoting in the middle where they meet. It also creates a restrictive musical universe in which Gill must explore within a finite pitch area. Pitch actually dissolves into spoken words and sounds as the work progresses.

The other commissioned piece is by Joanne Metcalf. The Sea’s Wash in the Hollow of the Heart (2020) is a setting of the poem of the same name by Denise Levertov. Here too we see how composers are weaving together these often intricate lines that eventually can collide and explode into glorious harmonic moments.

New Suns overall is an interesting collection of contemporary choral writing that features blends of ancient qualities blended with colorful harmonic shifts. It is quite interesting to hear how different composers have gravitated to this sound from different directions to further highlight Variant 6’s unique sonorities. The music floats across the soundscape and when the harmonies get a little crunchier from distant vocal jazz styles it makes for flashes of brilliance. Variant 6 manages to navigate these difficult shifts in tone color with great facility creating a pure vocal quality that blends well while also maintaining a good overall balance across the choir. One way perhaps to think of this is to imagine a blend of the Swingle Singers with the Hilliard Ensemble and perhaps Sequentia. These are the parallel ancestors to the advancements in our understanding of, and appreciate for chamber choral music. Here the vast repertoire of those groups collapses into and coalesces around the sonorities that these contemporary composers have arrived at for this new release.



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