The Bang-on-a-Can composers Michael Gordon, David Lang and Julia Wolfe may well have broken through in their collaborative composition Shelter, which has just come out on CD (Cantaloupe 21083).
It has a probing, insightful libretto by Deborah Artman. The work is performed with energy and care by Ensemble Signal under Brad Lubman with Martha Cluver, Mellissa Hughes and Caroline Shaw as the vocal soloists.
The theme of the piece is the home, as conceived through time, as culminating in the American house. There are vocal refrains that describe a sort of evolution of attitudes one takes on entering a home in various cultures and periods. The libretto goes on in successive movements to enumerate the materials needed to build a typical house today, the evolution and de-volution of life on the porch, the impermanence of a dwelling over time, and some impressionistic imagery that relates to it all as experience.
There is an apocalyptic feel to it. As in any good libretto that has a modern bent, it is in the context of the music that it all comes together, as sung lines in a musical universe that gives it totalized wholeness, if the work is to be effective. In this case it is definitely so.
And so to the music: it is a captivating mix of modern, post-minimal, even rock-edged sounds with the three voices entering at critical points. Ensemble Signal is a 17-member chamber orchestra providing the instrumental parts.
The electric guitar and bass have much to do with the metallic jolt one experiences at key points, but the score is quite a bit more than just jolt. There are contrasting sections of modern turbulence, expressive forward motion, suspended mysterioso qualities, some minimalist cycling of motifs at times and more else.
Taken together as a total package it is triumphant, a work of significant depth, expressive power and singular form. The performance is exciting, the music essential, a sometimes disturbingly poignant impression of edginess, of suburban existence at the edge of its current possibility.
Maestros Gordon, Lang and Wolfe have created one of their most interesting works, ever. It may indeed define the downtown classical zeitgeist for many years to come. In any event it is an important work to hear for anyone who wants to keep up with the newest new music and where it may be going.