In a small studio in Lowertown St. Paul, contemporary treble quartet the Quince Ensemble broke the bounds of choral music on Saturday night in a program called “This A Changin’ World.”
The concert took twists and turns, skirting the edges of what voices can do. Melodies, humming, drones, sound effects, and rhythms billowed in intriguing and satisfying ways.
The performance took place at Studio Z, a venue decked out with geometric sculptural pieces that helped create an intimate sound, and added to the venue’s groovy vibe.
In the first half of the performance, the quartet featured music that took inspiration from Woody Guthrie and the Dust Bowl migration of the 1930s. They premiered “Dust Bowl,” (2021) by Evan Williams, set to Langston Hughes’ poem of the same title. The singers —Liz Pearse, Kayleigh Butcher, Amanda DeBoer Bartlett, and Carrie Henneman Shaw — demonstrated intense cohesion as a group, often using eye contact and body language to ride the music’s wispy crescendos and quick stops.
“The Smallest Gap,” (2019) came next. It was composed by Carrie Henneman Shaw, a familiar face around the Twin Cities as both singer and composer, as well as co-host the Outpost series at the Hook & Ladder. The piece utilized a large glass jar full of small clinking objects that Henneman Shaw rolled around. The singers created instruments of their voices, too. Even their breathing became music.
Michael Miller’s “Guthrie Songs” (2018), used text from two Woody Guthrie tunes — “Going Down the Road,” and “Do Re Mi,” with an additional coda to the former that featured DeBoer Bartlett doing a twangy dialect. It’s a tall order to take well-known lyrics by an American music great and set them to a new composition (Billy Bragg and Wilco did this aptly with Guthrie’s unpublished writings in their folk-rock “Mermaid Avenue” project.) Miller’s attempt succeeded best when it veered the most from the original — capturing a feeling in the abstract, through sounds and odd rhythms. The ending of the piece, using the “Do Re Mi” lyrics, was more performative than the more interesting first section.
Before intermission, Quince Ensemble performed the live premiere of “Dust to Dust,” (2019) by Courtney Bryan. The elegant piece, part of a larger work called “Requiem,” started out humming. The singers sounded rather like a harmonica. Later, their “s” sounds reflected the spirits evaporating into the dusty air.
The second half of the show featured the premiere of Asuka Kakitani’s “Songs of One’s Own” (2021) using texts by Akiko Yosano, Sappho, Mary Shelley, Virginia Woolf, Emily Dickinson, as well as Kakitani’s own text.