Ember offers groundbreaking cantata in New York and New Jersey
by Dan Zanella for Vocal Area Network
Posted November 13, 2023

Ember: Beyond the BinaryEmber Choral Arts will be kicking off the 2023-24 season on November 17 and 19 with a very special performance of Andrea Clearfield’s groundbreaking cantata, Beyond the Binary. These presentations represent the first of five programs that will explore life in a world increasingly impacted by Artificial Intelligence (A.I.) through the theme of “On Humanity, Amidst Machines.”

Andrea’s brilliant piece, looking at the initial human reaction to the introduction of robots just over a century ago, was commissioned by Philadelphia’s Mendelssohn Club, and premiered on May 15, 2022. The original score called for a very large body of singers, four very busy percussionists, playing a huge and glorious array of percussion instruments, on a very large stage! Many of the percussion instruments were created specifically for this work by the talented instrument builder, David Kontak.

Recognizing the importance of this monumental work, but realizing it would be difficult for most organizations to mount due to the sheer magnitude of forces required, Ember’s founder and artistic director, Deborah Simpkin King, reached out to Ms. Clearfield to suggest a new arrangement of this important work, not just for Ember’s performance this season, but a new arrangement, scored with additional ensembles, stages and audiences beyond its own.

Said King, “When I see a score that is of real significance, I always wonder where it will be performed next. Andrea’s eyond the Binary IS such a score! It carries an important message about human possibility and (sometimes, self-inflicted) limitation. The world needs this Art! Hence, the notion that the work might be able to be re-scored for smaller forces, leveraging the creativity made possible through sampling and digitization, the interest on the part of creative artists eager to engage in a multi-media production, and the genius of the composer herself to think outside of the box.”

Over the course of nearly four months, Ember’s team has been working with both Clearfield and Kontak to re-create the cantata for smaller forces. This Herculean task has involved not just the extensive re-scoring of the piece by the composer, but also the complete reconfiguration of the percussion battery for performance with one percussionist and one MIDI-keyboard player, thereby requiring much less stage space. To do so, Ember’s own James Mosser -- director of operations, marketing and public relations, who also happens to have extensive experience with creating keyboard programming – and instrument builder David Kontak have collaborated to create a MIDI-generated experience as envisioned by the composer for her Beyond the Binary, V2.

Kontak first undertook the tedious process of digitally sampling the many sounds produced by his unique instruments. Said Kontak, “In its original performance, Beyond the Binary was a beautiful, albeit challenging, project. I created over thirty original instruments for the premiere performance, and each one required performance training, level balancing and technical support. The new process of re-creating my original sounds via a set of samples offers a manageable way to perform this work in smaller venues and allows it to reach a much wider audience. I can't wait to hear the result.”

Mosser then spent countless hours coding Kontak’s extensive digital library of sampled sounds into a score playable by a MIDI-keyboardist. Mosser commented, "By harnessing the essence of David's instruments and pioneering using sampling and keyboard programming, we've empowered a single keyboard virtuoso to not only replace a multitude of instruments but also assume the roles of several musicians. This step was a natural evolution for this composition, as it delves into the intricate interplay of music, technology and human creativity. In the ongoing journey of this piece, technology breathes new life into its musical fabric."

This exciting artistic undertaking is both a labor of love, and a particularly fine example of Ember Choral Arts’ longtime commitment to helping composers acquire post-premiere performances of worthy compositions, a commitment most prominently demonstrated by the international renown of PROJECT : ENCORE of Ember Choral Arts, a deeply vetted on-line catalogue representing (currently) 203 composers from fourteen countries, and close to 500 contemporary, post-premiere choral compositions.

Said Andrea Clearfield, “Although creatively and logistically challenging to reconceive a previously-composed work, it is well worth the time and effort to know that with this new arrangement, the piece will have the opportunity to be more widely performed. With smaller forces, Beyond the Binary might be performed in venues that might not have had room for the plethora of percussion instruments in the original work. I am so grateful to Deborah Simpkin King who suggested this arrangement, and her strong advocacy for the music of our day to enjoy continued performances. I am very much looking forward to hearing the New York City premiere of this new version with Ember Choral Arts!”

This has been an amazing collaborative journey and we hope you’ll also play a part by supporting our efforts through a donation and/or purchasing tickets at www.EmberArts.org to hear Ember’s performance of this remarkable work.

Performances will be held Friday, November 17, 2023 at 7:30 PM at The Actors’ Chapel, 239 West 49th Street, New York, NY, and Sunday, November 19, 2023 at 5:00 PM at The Unitarian Universalist Congregation, 67 Church Street, Montclair, NJ.

Dan Zanella works in operations for Ember Choral Arts.