Leuk 2016: songs for swinging singers, literally

The showstopper of the Leuk 2016 new music festival — Pendulum Choir — brought into Leuk church nine men singing a cappella while fixed to a hydraulic construction that pivoted them back and forth on 18 metal pistons.

The device and the music are the brainchild of the Décosterd brothers from Neuchâtel/Le Locle in the Swiss Jura: André (born 1967, a musician) and Michel (born 1969, an engineer-architect). They use the title Cod.Act for their work together.

Pendulum Choir has been featured in Huffpost (plus video), and falsely identified as Swedish. I guess the contributor just couldn't imagine such po-faced humour and originality from the Swiss. The critic asked web visitors whether it might "remind you of a warped sci-fi movie you never want to watch again?"

In fact, the composers use the phyical constraints on the singers to create unexpected sonorities. "Similarly," they note, "we sought to include phenomena due to gravity, gravity forces, and acceleration forces on the singers. These phenomena are well known in mechanics but still foreign to musical compositions."

The situation made them think of a human organ, the lung, with each singer one of the alveoli.

"The theme of the musical piece is the breath," the Décosterds write. "The movement of the choir constantly challenges the cohesion of the voices and their density."

A sound sythesizer captures an analyses the voice of each singer and then "dehumanizes" it while the device itself creates sounds that evolve with the singers.

The piece has nine sections, the same as the number of singers. One is entitled Exsufflare (exhale the demon). Along with Specessandi (hope to breathe), it refers to ancient myths and legends. Suffucando lymphatico metu (choking with panic) assembles Latin texts from Virgil Horace and Ovid on death and the descent to Hell.

"Melodies evolve in a looping harmonious structure, with no beginning and no end," the Décosterds explain.

The singers, members of the Jeune Opéra Companie from La Chaux-de-Fonds in the Jura, can tilt at angles of 45º on the pistons though they are placed close together and cannot easily see each other. Nevertheless, the piece operates without a conductor.

"A hydraulic system was essential for such a project [for] the source of power [to be positioned] far from the machine and [to] reduce the noise emanating from the pump," the Décosterds point out.

First produced in 2011, Pendulum Choir won a grand prize at the 2013 Japan Media Arts Festival in Tokyo.

The proof of such experiments is, of course, in how they turn out. The HuffPost piece suggested that Pendulum Choir could "revive your passion for the future of choral music".

Other reviews highlight its liturgical similarities, though the most obvious similarity to traditional a cappella singing came only when all the men were lying back at 45º for a short time.

For the rest of the piece, the audience was entranced and holding its breath (this time not literally).

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