June 2020 Preview of The Second Sight

It is now June, and the Sotto Voce team was originally planning to begin preparations for the premiere of The Second Sight at this time, but due to the COVID-19 postponement to June 26th and 27th 2021, we have decided to bring you a preview video instead! This teaser features a short musical clip from the opera – Act III Scene 1 “The Mourners’ Chorus” – and home-made visuals capturing aspects of the opera’s story and mood. Our Artistic Director and the opera’s composer Jessie Downs will be releasing more videos like this one on her Youtube page between now and next June, as well as videos of her classical performances with accompanying vlogs about the connections between her practice as a classical performer and new music composer. We can’t wait to share live music with you again, but in the meantime, stay tuned for these exciting sneak-peaks!



NEW DATES: June 26th and 27th, 2021

Due to the current health crisis, Sotto Voce and Nickel City Opera’s production of Jessie Downs’s new opera “The Second Sight” will be postponed to June 26th and 27th 2021, a year after initially planned. While we are sorry that we will not be able to share this new work with our audiences this summer, we believe that this extended incubation period will result in an even more special end result.

If you have bought tickets to the previously scheduled 2020 production, these will still be good for June 2021. If you would like your ticket refunded, or if you would like to donate your ticket purchase (if you know you can not make the 2021 show), please contact us at sottovocevocalcollective@gmail.com. We apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused, and hope to see you next summer!

Sotto Voce to perform at 2019 June in Buffalo Festival

Sotto Voce is excited to announce that 4 weeks from today – on Tuesday June 4th at 4:30pm in Lippes Concert Hall (on the University at Buffalo North Campus) – we will be performing Act I, Scene 2 from the opera-in-progress The Second Sight by Jessie Downs at the 2019 June in Buffalo Festival.


Act I, Scene 2 – otherwise known as “The Rain Scene” – prominently features the Sotto Voce Vocal Collective as rain spirits that call the rain and set the wheels of fate in motion. For this performance, Sotto Voce is the composer and our Artistic Director Jessie Downs (soprano), Mariami Bekauri (alto), and Blake Hurlburt (baritone) as the ‘Color Trio’ and Julia Anne Cordani (soprano), Suzanne Fatta (alto), and William Zino (baritone) as the ‘Base Trio.’ We are also lucky to have conductor Daniel Bassin helping to rehearse the group in preparation for the performance.

The scene also includes the entrance of the character Freyaria – a mother, an optimist – played by Claudia Brown, and the first meeting of Freyaria and Diskana – a young woman with the gift of the second sight, who was introduced in Scene 1 (watch last year’s BMP performance HERE) – played by Tiffany DuMouchelle.

Additionally, this will be the first time that an excerpt from the opera will be performed with its full accompaniment: a small 10-instrument sinfonietta. The ensemble will consist of piccolo (Michael Matsuno), English horn (Megan Kyle), clarinet (Michael Tumiel), French horn (Sara Petokas), percussion (Tomek Arnold), harp (Rosanna Moore), piano (Jade Conlee), violin (Hanna Hurwitz), violoncello (Katie Weissman), and contrabass (Megan McDevitt). Maestro Matthew Chamberlain will conduct and help with final stages of preperation.

We are excited to be involved in this wonderful festival and performing alongside many other wonderful musicians. We hope you can make it out to hear us if you’re in the area!

Voces featured at MuGSA Conference

photo courtesy Su Lee

This past Saturday March 30th at 7pm in Baird Recital Hall on the University at Buffalo’s North Campus, Voces Jessie Downs and Julia Anne Cordani performed an excerpt of Alex Huddleston‘s “The Sonnets”at the 2019 Buffalo Music Graduate Student Conference. “The Sonnets” was one of  Sotto Voce’s first commissioned work from our Spring 2018 season.

The duet that Jessie and Julia presented features intense registral leaps and undulating harmonies from this dramatic work’s grand finale, set to the fragmented text, “What was I looking at, not to see the wetness spread?” and the exclamation, “Water!” As many of Huddleston’s works, this piece seems to capture of the intensely disturbing beauty of the suffering split self. The full work consists of several “movements” like this one, that overlap and juxtapose different materials as performed by subsets of the full vocal sextet, as well as a noisy fixed electronics part. You can hear the full version of “The Sonnets” as we performed it in Cleveland last summer on our “Living Voices” tour through the link below.

Although the Voces do not have a spring concert planned as per usual, we are in the process of workshopping exciting materials for both a new opera and a new mass by current and former Voce composers. Further details about these upcoming presentations will be released shortly, so stay tuned!

Our Fall 2018 Concert Program Announced!

facebook event photo 3.jpgWe are thrilled to announce our Fall 2018 Program:

Science and Spirit
– Janet Oates – Atomic Choruses (2014, rev. 2017)
– Gabrielle Cerberville – Phases + Particle (2016 + 2018)
– Elizabeth Baker – @quantumloop_#love (2018 – SVVC COMMISSION, W. P.)
– Amanda Feery – Squarpushers (2012)
– Eva Maria Houben – Psalm 117 (2008 – W. P.)
– Igor Coehlo A. S. Marques – Ave Virgo (2018 -SVVC COMMISSION, W. P.)
– Gabrielle Cerberville – Ubi Caritas (2014)

We have commissioned two new works, one from Elizabeth A. Baker, who will be traveling from Florida to join us in the concert, and from Igor Coehlo A. S. Marques, a Buffalo resident and composer at UB.

You can purchase tickets in advance here.

Join us at the UUCB, the corner of Ferry and Elmwood on November 17, 2018 5:00 PM!


in barren lands, I linger bitter – HIGHLIGHTS VIDEO

A highlights video of the music on our Fall 2017 – “in barren lands, I linger bitter” – program is now available on our youtube playlist. The concert featured works by Osnat Netzer, James Weeks, Chaya Czernowin, Enno Poppe, Jamie Leigh Sampson, and Carola Bauckholt. As we count down the final weeks of summer before we begin work on our Fall 2018 program – “Science and Spirit” – featuring new works by Elizabeth A. Baker and Igor Coelho A.S. Marques and others, it is nice to both look back on how we’ve grown as an ensemble and to look ahead to the new challenges awaiting us! Set your calendars for Saturday November 17th, 2018 at 7pm to catch our next show in Buffalo!

der blumen – striving to become

by Jessie Downs

As we look back on the past year of Sotto Voce, I think it is important to talk about the only piece we performed this year with a full octet – Marianne Schuppe‘s “der blumen.” Although not commissioned by the group, we were lucky enough to give its premier on the Buffalo Living Voices program. Like myself (as well as several other former members of Sotto Voce) Marianne Schuppe is a vocalist-composer, and this unique double interest was a perfect fit for our ensemble. As a vocalist, Marianne can be heard on recordings of works by composers such as Giacinto Scelsi and Morton Feldman, as well as on releases of her own compositions under the Wandelweiser label. She is also a teacher of both voice and improvisation, and “der blumen” was written in part as a pedagogical exercise that captures something of her personal practice. I believe that working on a piece like “der blumen” is so important for a contemporary vocal ensemble because it makes the art of singing a central focus rather than an ancillary or even antagonistic factor. Through programming “der blumen,” I was able to open up a very friendly and fruitful dialogue with Marianne – exchanging emails and recordings – in which she shared with me her ideas about vocal tone production and the poetics of contemporary composition.

“The fact that a voice can move easily between pure sound and word is a continuing interest in my work.” writes Marianne. “der blumen came up from a fine resonance, left with me by the epitaph with dandelion with the text fragment ‘O fragile man, think of the destiny of flowers,’ dated 1470-1480. I found it some years ago in the Musée de l’Œuvre Notre-Dame in Strasbourg. [In performing the piece,] singers are asked to look for a corresponding resonance in their bodies through articulation of sounds. An unforced shimmering surface of sound may be the result of this concentration, which allows shades of individual colouring and texture. [Such an effect is] well to be observed in the captivating interpretation of Sotto Voce Vocal Collective.”


Epitaph: “o Mensch zart bedenck der Blumen Art.” Origin of the text sung in the final section of the piece.

The text score format of “der blumen” asks that the performers engage in a few deceptively simple tasks, and this opens up a space for the singers to attend to themselves amidst the otherwise very stretching work of putting together a program of contemporary vocal works. As tenor Suzanne Fatta puts it, “What is fascinating for me about ‘der blumen’ is that it is purely about singing on the voice. No distractions with words or rhythms or notes, just pure phonation, feeling the space inside and around your singing body, listening to the other voices.” The piece is written in three sections: the first asks the performers to hum on an “m” or “n” sound; the second allows for a slight opening of the mouth into an “l” position; and the last allows the singers to release onto singing the German epitaph shown above. All tones were to be sung “softly, but never so softly that singing becomes uncomfortable or the flow is disturbed” and sung for “the duration of an unforced breath.” Schuppe’s emphasis on not straining was notable in a culture of composition wherein vocal strain is sometimes thought of as desirable, or otherwise not understood or taken into consideration at all. Throughout the score, similar language emphasizes the agency of the singers, and encourages them to grow in their knowledge of themselves and their instruments.

While to some, Schuppe’s 3-part structure may seem uncontroversial, given the variety of pedagogical backgrounds present in the group, the procedure was something which we all had to chew over together. While some pedagogical methods encourage the use of voiced consonants (like “m” and “n”) to exercise the voice, others do not. I personally come from the latter school, but was interested to experiment with them in this context: particularly on a series of continuous long-tones over several minutes. For those in the ensemble who had executed the “hum to sing” procedure before, the progression from the first and last sections made sense, but still the “l” sound was almost universally challenging.

Why, you may ask? Well, because phonation happens in the throat, it is important that the throat be open and relaxed when singing. However, with voiced consonants, the closed position of the mouth can lead to closure of the throat as well. Likewise, your whole body is a resonator for vocal sound, but voiced consonants can overly focus a singer on one aspect of that resonance. Schuppe counterbalances both of these eventualities with her descriptions, such as that the lips should be “softly, not tightly, closed” and that singers should “let the body walls resonate, as if it were a diaphragm.” Still, creating a free vibration while “muting” it with the lips or tongue created a very pressurized environment. The group worked together to not only overcome these obstacles, but to do so by surrendering to the tasks and learning from them. In so doing, we discovered that gradually moving from muted to open vocal sounds helped us become more aware of some of the most basic bodily functions involved in vocal production.

Understanding the details of Marianne’s score and clarifying these details’ intentions was another important part of the rehearsal process. For example, the first of several instructions she gives says to “allow a very discrete slow pulse within the sound stream.” I ultimately came to understand this as encouragement to lean on the vibrato action (that natural pull between opposing muscles in the throat) but to pull more towards the falsetto (what some call head voice) so as to give the tone a gentle quality. I am sure that each singer came to their own conclusion based on their knowledge of their instruments; what was important was that we were invited to chew over the task. Another poetic phrase that gave us pause was, “There is always just one sound, except when there are two or more.” Marianne helped the group to understand that the piece should feature a continuous but gentle group sound throughout each section, and within that frame that one of the most important decisions becomes whether to repeat one’s own note, repeat someone else’s note, allow a new tone to enter, or to rest. “Performing der blumen forced me to be extremely aware of the sound I was producing. It was awesome to have so much time to really settle into a sound world and really connect with the other voices,” says alto Gabby Carr about the effect the work had on her.

The final result – as you can hear in the video above or on our soundcloud – was something that begins like ambient music but blossoms into song. As the title suggest, it was also very much like the slow opening of a flower, from an initial peripheral sound field into something more animated. As alto Helen Lowry expresses, “I thought it was a true meditation piece. I would get sort of lost and ‘zone out’ in the sound. I could contribute to the sound, or I could sit back and listen.” All of the Voces were very grateful both for Marianne’s guidance in shaping this unique work for performance, and to have this meditative space in which to explore our group sound.


From the Grammar of Dreams

This past season, Sotto Voce Artistic Director and soprano Jessie Downs and founding member and soprano Julia Anne Cordani were thrilled to present two of the movements from Kaija Saariaho’s song cycle “From the Grammar of Dreams.” Both sopranos are classically trained vocalists with a passion for new music, and they agree that Saariaho’s work creates an ideal environment for applying their classical techniques in creative ways. It was thus a true pleasure to take on the challenge of interpreting these works together.

Julia (left) and Jessie (right) catch the unsuspecting and still settling audience off-guard as they begin the program with Saariaho’s breathless forth movement of FtGoD.

On a technical level, the pieces require both a high level of vocal agility from each performer – grappling with known tasks like controlling rates of trills, managing stark registral leaps, and affecting clear dynamic and timbral shifts – as well as attentive musicianship as a duo. For example, in Movement IV, the singers are nearly always filling in the spaces between the others notes with notes of their own (or ‘hocketing’), requiring the two to find a almost biological non-synchronous synchronicity. In Movement V, the dense coloratura of both voices is notated in a somewhat open rhythmic fashion, suggesting something like different temporal worlds that nonetheless need to interlock in a compelling way. As Julia puts it, “Interpreting the scores was really challenging and required a meticulous approach, but I think in the end it was really fruitful. It taught me a lot about pieces that are notated very specifically and very densely. I really had to try hard to pay attention to everything on the page.”

Not only are the pieces technically challenging, but they also require a great deal of emotional investment. Set to fragments of texts by Sylvia Plath, each movement examines a different aspect of the claustrophobia of institutionalized disability. The particular movements chosen to bookend the “Living Voices” program focused on a panic-stricken suicidal episode, and a grotesquely floating state of detached bliss respectively. Jessie notes, “I love Plath’s texts and think that Saariaho’s music interacts with them in a special way. Both women have a subtlety to the way they convey emotion, whilst still being absolutely dramatic. As a singer, I want the sounds I make to express that same thing – a drama which is powerful in its subtlety. Too often I think drama and melodrama are confused, especially in vocal music.” As these are the last two pieces in the cycle, the rest of the “Living Voices” program could be understood as an opening up of that space between crisis and resignation.

Exemplary recordings of the two pieces were posted earlier this summer on Sotto Voce’s soundcloud page (see the Living Voices playlist), but videos from the premier performances in Buffalo are now available as well.

Jessie (left) and Julia (right) conclude the program with the intertwining coloratura in the final movement of Saariaho’s FtGoD.

In addition to capturing the faces of Plath and Saariaho’s haunted persons-within-a-person, these videos also demonstrate the artistic partnership that Jessie and Julia have developed over the past two years. Jessie – currently a PhD candidate in Composition – originally met Julia – an undergraduate voice major – as a student in her Aural Skills class. “When Sotto Voce was founded, Julia’s advanced listening and musicianship skills, as well as her fearless passion for performance, seemed a perfect fit for the ensemble,” says Jessie, “She’s like a sister to me. We’re very different singers but our different strengths and styles challenge one another to be the best and most complete musicians we can be. These duets really allowed us to play to our strengths as a duo. I’m so lucky to have such a good friend and colleague.” Julia says, “I really enjoy the experience of working with another singer like Jessie whose approach is very thoughtful, because it makes me look at a lot of the complex elements of pieces in a new way. I find that to be a common experience with Sotto Voce – we really dig deep into the composers’ intentions and motivations and ask ‘why’ and ‘how.’ ”

As September rolls around, Julia and Jessie – as well as all the Voces – are looking forward to kicking off a new season of unique contemporary vocal music programming. Stay tuned for more documentation from the past year and for news about the upcoming “Science and Spirit” program!