Mycale, a four-woman a cappella group, appeared at the University of Albany’s Performing Arts Center Thursday evening in a program devoted to interpreting John Zorn’s “Book of Angels.”
This book, which is Book Two of Zorn’s Masada project, draws from material as diverse as Rumi, the Hebrew Bible and Heraclitus and required the vocalists to sing in a variety of languages, including Hebrew, Yiddish, Ladino, French, Spanish, Portuguese and Arabic.
Zorn put Mycale together in 2009 for the purpose of interpreting vocally the instrumental pieces he’d written.
Since that initial gathering, Mycale has toured North America and Europe and produced one disc with another in the works.
The singers, who each has her own career, come from multi-ethnic backgrounds.
Basya Schechter has a Hasidic background and lives in Brooklyn; Ayelet Rose Gottlieb, who is from Israel but lives in New York City and has recorded for Zorn’s record label, is also a composer and works with theater; Sofia Rei is Argentinian with a strong jazz connection; and Malika Zarra is Moroccan, who often incorporates her native Berber, Gnawa and Shaâbi cultures into her music.
On Thursday, the women sang 14 selections without intermission. No explanation was given for any of the songs other than the titles the program provided, except for one, “Melech,” that Gottlieb said was based on the Tower of Babel but they had morphed it into a paean to peace.
More explanations would have enriched the crowd’s understanding.
As it was, listeners could enjoy the ethnicity of the foreign languages, although there, too, who knew which was which?
Arabic, some Yiddish, and Hebrew could be discerned, but little else.
Their voices were used as instruments with vocals often done in syllables, clicks, pops or sibilant sounds.
Harmonies were close, many times with three of them acting as an instrumental bass line to the fourth singing a melody. Sometimes the rhythms were catchy or syncopated and they got into a good groove; other times they seemed almost under rehearsed and were listening to each other to determine which way to go and how to blend.
That they all had big ears, agile voices, large ranges and a strong inventive streak that gave substance to the improvisations and almost free-form presentation.
Only now and again they crooned together in four-part harmony, which was especially pleasing, but unfortunately it didn’t happen often enough.