I heard Voices of Ascension and ShoutHouse in concert on May 17, 2022. The performance was at a venue in Brooklyn called Roulette. The audience was younger and hipper than your typical V of A audience. These were not people who would have the Berlioz Requiem on LP. I never thought I'd be at a V of A performance that was so damn FUNKY, let alone one that had such a strong rap element. Yes, rap.
The instrumental ensemble was ShoutHouse, a music collective led by artistic director Will Healy, who also composed all of the music. They consisted of two violins, viola, flute, clarinet and bass clarinet, saxophone, EWI, electric guitar, string bass and electric bass, synths, drums, and piano (Healy himself on piano and conducting).
The first piece opened with sparkling textures and developed into something frothy and funky. The first rapper did a section and I couldn't understand most of his words but loved the energy. I noticed that I wasn't just tapping my foot, I was swinging my head with the rhythms. I had an easier time understanding the words of the second rapper.
The second piece went by so fast I didn't have a chance to write about it. The third piece had an alto sax solo by a skinny bearded redhead. He had smiled at me on the sidewalk outside the venue. He knew what he was doing, in his sax solo and in his smile. This piece, all of Healy's music actually, had inventive and surprising harmonies, rhythms, and instrumental textures. One rap solo in this piece had a beguiling underpinning on bass guitar.
The solos in the first half seemed to be doled out in an admirably equitable way. Everyone seemed to have a chance to shine, with the exception of the three string players, who seemed to always play as a unit.
One piece had the bass clarinet, bass guitar, and drums playing a rumbling, angular solo line in unison. They repeated it and the redhead sax player played a fierce solo above it. Healy has a great talent for scoring the backup to an improvised solo - - the ensemble supports the solo, gooses it, but never overpowers it or draws too much focus.
You may have noticed an EWI in my list of instruments above. What is an EWI, you ask? I had no idea myself. The guy walked out onstage and was holding something that looked a bit like a clarinet. He played a solo and it sounded nothing like a clarinet, it sounded more like an electric keyboard. You blow into it like a wind instrument, use the finger pads like you would on a sax or clarinet, but you can program whatever electronic sound you want. I grabbed a moment with that redhead sax player in the intermission and he gave me the 411 on the EWI. Pronounced "ee-wee."
The second half opened with "New York Revisited," a piece Healy wrote for the Voices ensemble (four women, four men), piano, and the three string players. I was impressed with the vocal arrangement but the sound design was a problem. They sounded tinny and synthetic. But they had the warmth, precision, and polish that we've come to expect from Voices of Ascension. It was super cool hearing them in such an unusual context, it was a delicious juxtaposition.
The next piece was a movement from *Astronautica,* a piece that Voices had commissioned as part of their Voices of The New series (this concert was the second in that series). This movement, "A Day with Mae" by RaShonda Reeves, was originally written for three women, a cappella - - one of the singers from *Astronautica,* Hai-Ting Chinn, did a new arrangement, for this concert, for the eight singers. The jazzy harmonies and clean, pop sound made me think of Singers Unlimited, who I adore. The audience started cheering for this piece while the singers were still holding the final chord. That was sweet, and something you would probably never encounter at a V of A concert.
The focal point of the concert was a new piece commissioned by V of A, *Orbits,* written by Healy and spiritchild. Like much of Healy's music that we heard that night, it featured frequent shifts of mood and texture, but the tone was consistent so the changes never felt random or disruptive, there was always a sense of a larger design. The guy who played the EWI in the first half played an alto sax in this half and it was not as impressive. The rapper's lines (spiritchild was the rapper in this piece) were more integrated than in previous pieces - - often he spoke a repeated word at the same time as the vocal ensemble.
Here’s a video of one of the movements in the piece:
Let me tell you that band was TIGHT. The second to last movement of *Orbits* had many turn-on-a-dime shifts from loud to silent, frenzied to gentle, and the band was always crisp and precise. That's impressive, and it doesn't just happen on its own.