Quartet offers traditional a cappella

New York Polyphony, a four-man ensemble that specializes in traditional a cappella, has performed in venues ranging from theatres to churches over the years, but the group’s residency at Dartmouth presented it with a new set of challenges.

“It was the first time we had ever performed in a sorority house,” New York Polyphony member Geoffrey Williams said, describing his ensemble’s performance with The Decibelles at Alpha Xi Delta sorority on Thursday.

New York Polyphony, which sings unamplified arrangements of early modern religious and folk songs, has spent the past week working with numerous groups on campus and in the surrounding community. From workshops to “drive by” visits, the ensemble has collaborated with The Cords, local a cappella group the Zephyrs, the Handel Society, the Dartmouth Glee Club and students at Lebanon High School.

“We’ve really appreciated the enthusiasm from the community, and their willingness to let us do what we want,” Williams said.

As self-described “nerds,” New York Polyphony members have an almost unmatched passion for their repertoire, and have united their differing music backgrounds through a common love of classical music.

The ensemble ended its stay at Dartmouth with a performance at Rollins Chapel on Saturday evening. The stark, earthy interior of the chapel provided a fitting atmosphere for the group’s performance, as the singers rely on the acoustics of their performance space and do not use amplification. They refer to their space as a “fifth member” of the group and admit that it can be challenging to quickly adjust their sound to a new acoustic environment.

“We experience the space and adapt to it,” ensemble member Craig Phillips said.

To demonstrate how their performance space affects their sound, the ensemble performed songs both in the front and the back of the chapel.

Although there are only four singers in the group, the ensemble sonically filled the chapel. The music was perfectly audible throughout the show, even when the group had to sing over the noisy sound of the chapel’s heating system.

The ensemble performed songs from its most recent album, “Tudor City” (2010) for the first half of the concert. The songs were religious in nature and the lyrics were all in Latin. While some might find the language barrier disconcerting, the singers believes that their use of the original Latin allows their music to be appreciated for its sound.

“It allows people to experience it as art, rather than words,” Phillips said.

The second half of the show was comprised of songs from a mixture of time periods and included pieces by German composer Franz Schubert, as well as two folk songs performed in English. One of the ensemble’s best pieces was “La Guerre (La Bataille de Marignan),” composed by Clement Janequin, which describes King Francis I’s victory in Italy. The ensemble members had a chance to show off their vocal ranges by approximating the sound of trumpets, arrows and battle cries.

“Think of us as four strings of an instrument, or like a string quartet,” Phillips said.

Because they perform a type of music that audiences may not be familiar with, the group members have been pleasantly surprised by the levels of interest in their work. Many of their songs are obscure and have not been performed for hundreds of years, yet they appeal to audiences everywhere from Kansas to New Hampshire.

“There’s something authentic about four guys standing in a building with sheet music and nothing else,” ensemble member Geoffrey Silvers said.

Their music’s appeal may also lie in the understated quality of the work. The music does not strive to manipulate the audience’s emotions and is meant to be performed in a calm, detached manner, the ensemble members said.

“I think there’s a real hunger for authenticity, now that so many songs have been amplified and auto-tuned and distorted,” Phillips said.

Though they perform songs that are several centuries old, the ensemble members in no way disdain modernity. Several of their pieces were rearranged by contemporary composers Greg Brown and Andrew Smith, and other composers have also been eager to arrange their songs. The ensemble also relies heavily on Facebook and Twitter for publicity an interesting choice for a group that favors archaic music.

After its time at Dartmouth, the group will embark on a tour that will stop in New Mexico, Texas and Mexico. On Nov. 18, the ensemble will debut an intriguing new work arranged by Brown, who is the choral director at Smith College. The piece uses the traditional format of the Catholic Mass but replaces the sacred text with selections from Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species.” Part of the layout of the piece will even reflect the DNA sequence of the Darwin finch.

Although they acknowledge the inherent controversy in the upcoming piece, the ensemble members assert that they merely want to celebrate the achievements of human kind.

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