Vancouver Cantata Singers look to Björk for cosmic sonics of Musica Universalis

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      Considering its undeniably cosmic content, the Vancouver Cantata Singers’ next concert program came out of the most mundane of circumstances: trying to fulfill the Canada Council’s three-year planning criteria with a grant deadline edging ever closer.

      “I was looking for threads—vertical threads, as opposed to horizontal, the way you’d program a season—by which I could align our concerts in a larger way,” VCS artistic director Paula Kremer explains, on the line from her South Surrey home. “And I thought of doing a series of concerts around what some people might refer to as the elements: fire and earth and water… And this originally had started out as the ‘air’ concert, air being the space around us.”

      This, we should explain, is Musica Universalis, a collection of 14 choral works that examine, in one way or another, the music of the spheres. Some, like Björk’s Cosmogony—here arranged by VCS alumnus Kristopher Fulton—address the founding myths of the universe, tales that involve egg-bound Sanskrit gods and shining silver foxes. Some invoke more contemporary legends; Robin Salkeld’s I Am Voyager, for instance, pays homage to the space probe Voyager 1, sent on an endless journey into interstellar space in 1977, bearing a golden record encoded with music and text from many earthly cultures. A few of the pieces are more about inner space, local composer Jordan Nobles’s Stasis being an especially poignant meditation.

      The choral program created by artistic director Paula Kremer ranges from Robert Schumann to Depeche Mode.

      Although the program delves back into the Romantic era through its inclusion of Robert Schumann’s An die Sterne, its focus is primarily contemporary—and Canadian, with half of the featured works coming from B.C.–based composers. Beyond that, the pieces will range from fresh takes on familiar tunes—Kremer takes particular pleasure in noting that the Cantata Singers will perform Eric Whitacre’s arrangement of the Depeche Mode hit “Enjoy the Silence”—to unabashedly avant-garde tests of technique like German composer Wolfram Buchenberg’s Klangfelder Raumschwingungen Oszillationen.

      “That means ‘sound fields, spatial vibrations, and oscillations’,” Kremer notes. “And it’s all in German nonsense syllables; it sounds almost electronic, in a way, if we do it well. The idea is that these voices are just making sound oscillations; there’s no real poem attached to that.”

      Adding particular resonance to the program is that it will be held in the atrium of the Blusson Spinal Cord Centre, one of the most unconventional yet vibrant spaces in the city. “I think it’s a great spot for this concert,” says Kremer. “We love the space; we love using the ramps and the height, so we’ll be singing the first half close to our audience.…but we’ll begin the second half of the concert higher up, and then get higher and higher as we go through our repertoire, until, at the end, we’re going to sing from the very top.”

      The symbolism is obvious: even in these dark times, it’s still possible for the human spirit to reach for the stars.

      The Vancouver Cantata Singers present Musica Universalis at the Blusson Spinal Cord Centre on Saturday (February 23).