His and hers: the men of Chanticleer sing all the parts

The Irish Times

Between them the 12 men cover a choral spectrum of about four octaves. How?

By Andrew Johnstone

Sunday’s concert at the National Concert Hall, under the banner She Said / He Said for San Francisco-based vocal ensemble Chanticleer, seeks to embrace in equal measures the feminine and masculine sides of musical subjectivity and creativity. But in a programme that spans nine centuries and includes something for everyone, this lofty aim entails a little positive discrimination.

The best compensations that can be made for a still male-dominated roster of composers are found in female subject matter and associations. From three masters of Renaissance polyphony (Palestrina, Guerrero and Victoria) there are motets in honour of the Virgin Mary, while the madrigalists Andrea Gabrieli and Monteverdi are hard at work with the well-worn death-equals-detumescence metaphor. Brahms is lamenting lost love (Nachtwache), Barber and Steve Hackman are setting Emily Dickinson (Let Down the Bars and “Wait” Fantasy), and Ravel is depicting womanly avarice and infidelity (Trois chansons).

Women composers nonetheless get more than just token representation. From the earliest, the 12th-century abbess and mystic Hildegard of Bingen, there is a further and more intensely ritual address to the Virgin. There is harmless sibling rivalry from the Mendelssohns, in which a part-song by underrated sister Fanny (Schöne Fremde) gives another by her famous brother Felix (Wasserfahrt) more than a run for its money. There is a polished setting of Carl Sandburg, newly commissioned from Chicago-based composer Stacy Garrop. And there are numbers from American songwriters Ann Ronell (Willow Weep for Me) and June Carter Cash (Ring of Fire), the latter in an arrangement by Anúna boss Michael McGlynn.

With Chanticleer, however, protestations of gender equality have to be taken with a large grain of salt. Although the line-up spans the usual vocal ranges of soprano, alto, tenor and bass, all 12 positions in the ensemble are filled by men. Those men have backgrounds in opera, broadway, gospel choirs and rock bands. When they aren’t singing with Chanticleer (which isn’t too often), they are active as composers, conductors, and record producers. They are into mathematics, jazz, American poetry, Beyoncé, vintage wines and gourmet cookery. And between them they cover a choral spectrum of about four glorious octaves, making them every bit as panoramic as a fully adept group of men’s and women’s voices.

Helium-free zone
How do they do it? Certainly not with voice-bending doses of helium or digital sound processing. The answer is purely one of prodigious vocal technique, and specifically the cultivation of what is sometimes termed the “head voice”, a kind of laryngeal second gear that secures higher vibrations by using only a restricted segment of the vocal cords. Long ago, the Italians registered their distrust of this method by dubbing it “a little false”. But the capacity for making these so-called “falsetto” sounds is natural to everyone, women and men. Few humans develop skill in singing this way, but for those who do there is nothing false about it. And the men among them, whether they sing alto or soprano, are proud to call themselves countertenors.