CD Review: Voices of the Pearl, Vol. 3

Voices of the Pearl, Vol. 3

Anne Harley

Various Artists

Voices of the Pearl, Volume 3 is one of a series of albums featuring song cycles dedicated to the rediscovery, through contemporary music, of the voices of women from ancient times to the present.. According to the organization website: “The project commissions, performs and records musical works from composers across the globe, setting text by and about female esoterics from world traditions throughout history, reclaiming these lost voices and the tradition of female spirituality.” Volume 3 in this series contains five new works, based on Buddhist, Chinese and other Asian texts dating from as far back as 800 BCE. The compositions were all written between 1995 and 2018 by contemporary composers and feature soprano vocals with a variety of instrumental accompaniments. Anne Harley and Stacey Fraser are the soprano soloists and the accompanying ensemble is made up of a number of prominent Los Angeles area musicians.

The first track is the world premiere recording of Persevere (2017) by Karola Obermüller. This consists of nine movements of vocal music based on texts in Pali and Tibetan dating from 817 BCE to the late 20th century. Anne Harley is the soprano, accompanied by Barbara Poeschl-Edrich on harp and the composer on live electronics. The first few seconds of the opening movements begin with mysteriously indistinct whispers followed by ominous electronic sounds and a strong vocal entrance. The harp provides sharp chords that precede the vocal phrases and add to the tension. The chant-like incantation in the voice compliments the prayerful text that dates from 500 BCE and is attributed to two Buddhist nuns.

The movements in this piece run together, sometimes separated by silences or by stretches harp and electronics. The second set is sung in Tibetan from Lady of the Lotus-Born by Yeshe Tsogyal, ca. 800 CE The vocal phrasing is strong and clear while the supporting accompaniment is perhaps a bit less menacing, and this results in a more confident feel. The later movements return to the mysterious whisperings in contrast with a high, arcing soprano tone that increases in volume, eventually dominating. This piece convincingly brings to life the ancient texts with resolute singing and a spare accompaniment that vividly conveys the historical setting without sounding alien or contrived. The Pali and Tibetan words were sung with precision and a bright assurance so that Persevere artfully connects us to the emotions of a distant past.

Still Life After Death (1995) by Chinary Ung follows, and this piece describes the journey of a soul facing the ultimate reality of death as related by ancient Buddhist texts written from the perspective of a woman. From the liner notes: “In the face of death, the Soul searches for insight into the great beyond. Although it may feel frightened or abandoned, the soul does not journey alone: a monk, represented here by a bass-baritone, chants short phrases from a Buddhist scripture…” The somber opening tutti chord immediately sets the feeling. Soprano Stacey Fraser, as the Soul, enters in a deep register with solemn vocal expressions that soon devolve into a series of yelps and cries. The distress is underscored by a lush instrumental accompaniment while the voice alternately dominates with strong sustained tones and short snappy phrases. The singing by Ms. Fraser is precise and controlled but always powerful, even in the panicky stretches as the Soul feels increasingly vulnerable. The instrumental accompaniment by Brightwork newmusic is extraordinary, with vivid coloration and strong dynamics. Towards the finish, the entrance of James Hayden, singing bass, changes everything with the chanting deep tones of spiritual calm and reassurance. The soprano repeats these lines, absorbing a final sense of release from fear as the piece concludes. Still Life After Death is a dramatic portrait of the emotions experienced at the end of life and the timeless reassurance of prayer.

My Spirit is Chanting (2011), by Yii Kah Hoe is next, inspired by Makyong, the traditional Malaysian form of dance-drama. Low bass clarinet tones open, followed by rapid, spiky passages, masterfully played by Brian Walsh. Anne Harley’s soprano enters with steady, chant-like phrases that counter the uncertainty in the clarinet and percussion. The singing is strong, but reserved, and the voice gradually dominates with a sustained power interspersed with great jumps in pitch and dynamics. The combined effects of the clarinet, voice and percussion slowly build tension as the piece progresses. The voice is ultimately heard at high volume and in a high register – with strong and impressive singing. There is an exotic and imposing feel to this at times with good ensemble of the three elements, each contributing just the right dynamic. Now a quiet stretch towards the finish arrives with soft squeaks and breaths from the clarinet – a good contrast between this and the earlier sections. My Spirit is Chanting is an impressive combination of artful composition and virtuosic performance.

You Moving Stars (2017), by Emilie Cecilia LeBel is on track 4, and this is based on early Therīgāthā texts in the Pali language. The composer writes: “The Therīgāthā (Verses of the Elder Nuns) is the earliest known collection of women’s literature, and it collects spiritual poems by and about female disciples of the historical Buddha (from approximately 5th century BCE).” The soprano voice is Anne Harley with Steve Thachuk accompanying on electric guitar.

The opening is a low drone with occasional solitary guitar notes. The soprano soon makes a strong entrance with slow, deliberate phrases and later, a high cry. This has a sacred feel, with repeating vocal passages and a steady, unhurried accompaniment. The singing throughout is solid and purposeful with just the right touch for each segment – powerful when reaching upwards and softly intimate in the quieter sections. The guitar tones are exotic and the notes are sparingly used, serving to increase their impact. The singing is both confident and expressive and music of You Moving Stars is a well-crafted frame for the text. There is a distinctly ancient feel to this, yet never foreign or alien – a masterful imagining for the important historical voice of The Elder Nuns.

The final track is Therīgāthā Inside Aura (2018), by Chinary Ung and at a little over 22 minutes this is the longest piece of the album. It is a world premiere recording and features large musical forces: two soprano voices, viola, clarinet and percussion, all conducted by David Rentz. The texts are sourced from the Therīgāthā – the collection of early Buddhist sacred material attributed to The Elder Nuns ca. 600 BCE. Bright bell tones open this, quickly followed by a lush tutti chord and text spoken in English. Strong singing by Anne Harley and Stacey Fraser together follows, and this has an almost fugal character while the instrumental accompaniment sustains a pleasing combination of mysticism and confidence. The vocals – sometimes spoken, sometimes sung – interweave with each other and the various instruments, adding to the exotic feel. All sorts of combinations of voice, percussion and instruments are heard, and the singing by the two sopranos is operatic in scale and power with complex and independent melody lines. The entire ensemble bursts with energy, surrounding the listener in a full embrace.

Later in the piece, there is a fine soprano solo soprano that simply brims with strength and confidence, and this seems to sum up the entire album. There are several recording engineers credited on the various tracks but Scott Fraser mastered the finished album. The sound engineering deserves mention because the soprano voices – even apart from their obvious vocal power and virtuosity – are always in the forefront. This perfectly compliments the ideals of the Voices of the Pearl project – the historical female voice is heard clearly and on its own terms. It becomes a living presence in our own time, and not treated as some curiosity of the distant past. Voices of the Pearl, Volume 3 vividly recreates the dynamism and influence of neglected female artists of ancient times and so becomes an important creative reference point for our own contemporary culture.

Voices of the Pearl, Volume 3 is available at Amazon Music and Apple Music. For further information about the Voices of the Pearl project, visit their website.

The musicians vary from track to track – here is a summary:

Track 1 – Persevere (2017) by Karola Obermüller
Anne Harley, soprano; Barbara Poeschl-Edrich, harp;
Karola Obermüller, live electronics

Track 2 – Still Life After Death (1995) by Chinary Ung
Stacey Fraser, soprano; James Hayden, bass-baritone
Aron Kallay, piano; Sara Andon, flute
Brian Walsh, clarinets; Tereza Stanislav, violin;
Maggie Parkins, cello; Nick Terry, percussion
David Rentz, conductor

Track 3 – My Spirit is Chanting (2011), by Yii Kah Hoe
Anne Harley, soprano
Brian Walsh, bass clarinet; Nick Terry, percussion

Track 4 – You Moving Stars (2017), by Emilie Cecila Lebel
Anne Harley, soprano; Steve Thachuk, electric guitar

Track 5 – Therīgāthā Inside Aura (2018), by Chinary Ung
Anne Harley and Stacey Fraser, sopranos
Susan Ung, viola and voice; Brian Walsh, clarinet and voice
Nick Terry, percussion and voice; David Rentz, conductor