Heavenly rhetoric: Oracle Hysterical meets New Vintage Baroque, By Steve Smith

Heavenly rhetoric: Oracle Hysterical meets New Vintage Baroque.

On paper, The Passionate Pilgrim, a new collaboration between composer-performer collective Oracle Hysterical – Elliot Cole, Majel Connery, and Doug and Brad Balliett – and period-instruments ensemble New Vintage Baroque, is a fascinating prospect. The core notion is based on a collection of poetry once ascribed to Shakespeare, all but four selections from which subsequently were debunked. The Oracles fashioned the poems into a Baroque-pop song cycle, which they recently recorded with NVB; the album-release concert is coming up this Saturday evening, January 21.

(Obligatory disclaimer: The Passionate Pilgrim is being released on VIA Records, the National Sawdust house brand. The record-release concert will be held at National Sawdust. And New Vintage Baroque’s oboe ace, Lindsay McIntosh, is also National Sawdust’s programming associate – one of my everyday comrades.)

Still, I hope you’ll take me at my word when I offer a keen endorsement of this fascinating prospect’s results. The voices of Oracle Hysterical are sweet, fresh, and appealing, ideally suiting the poetry’s chaste ardor. New Vintage Baroque’s accompaniment is lively and lithe, without a trace of mustiness. Admirers of Joanna Newsom and Shara Nova will find plenty to savor, as will anyone enchanted by the chamber-pop tapestries of Van Dyke Parks or tickled by the bubbly bassoon line in “Tears of a Clown.” One song, “When As Thine Eye,” whispers especially Beatlesque in its breathy retro-pop intimacy. And I’m fascinated by the way disparate layers of melody and accompaniment float suspended in slightly uneasy detente in “If Music.”

But hey, don’t take my word for it. Listen to this.


Seriously: how gorgeous is that? And there’s more where this came from: on the Oracle Hysterical website and, soon, on disc and onstage. — Steve Smith


New York Times | Sep 16 2013

A Rap Imprimatur on Mythology, Exploring Hunters and Hunted. 

New Vintage Baroque Gives Modern Twists to Diana’s Legend


“Mr. Balliett’s vivid cantata concluded a thoughtfully conceived program, inspired by Diana and presented by the fresh-faced ensemble New Vintage Baroque.”

“Mr. Balliett’s texts, which he delivered with emotive precision using a microphone, reflected the pacing and mood of Ovid, with contemporary twists and instrumental interjections that mirrored the words. An agitated string accompaniment added tension to the heated verbal depiction of Actaeon’s being chased and devoured by his hounds.”

“The music making was polished and expressive throughout the intermissionless program, divided into sections: ‘The Deeds and Nature of Diana,’ ‘The Sacred King and His Tanist’ and ‘Diana the Lover.'”

“The nine-member instrumental ensemble played the Overture from Charpentier’s ‘Actéon’ and Rebel’s ‘Caractères de la Danse’ with buoyant pulse and appealing energy.”

“The soprano Mary Feminear and the mezzo soprano Thea Lobo sang expressively in selections from Nicolas Bernier’s “Nymphes de Diane.” The tenor Owen McIntosh proved a charismatic interpreter in excerpts from Bernier’s “Aminte et Lucrine.”

Interview with a Balliett

Where are you from and what do you do?

I come from a town in central Massachusetts called Westborough, went to school in Cambridge, MA, and lived for several years as an orchestral bassist in San Antonio, TX. Tired of playing the same old rep, I moved to New York City in 2010 to join Juilliard’s new Historical Performance program, and I’ve made NYC my home ever since. In general, I split my work into four broad categories: performing historical music on bass, violone, and gamba; performing contemporary music on the double bass and the guitar; creating projects with my band, The Oracle Hysterical; and composing music, most of which is vocal.

What is a rap cantata?

A rap cantata is a new way of presenting a dramatic work. It takes the traditional cantata, as codified by the masters of the 17th and 18th century, and infuses it with today’s language–rhyming verse for the recitative, and song for the arias. In some ways I’m inverting the original proportions; most of the story is told through the rhythmic language, while the songs are reserved for the characters’ reflective moments. It is intended, as opera originally was, to capture the essence of Greek tragedy–a form of fireside storytelling that combines speech, chant and song.

Why the Ovid Metamorphosis?

Ovid’s Metamorphoses, as poetry, is inherently dramatic.On my first read-through, it seemed perfectly suited to a treatment as a series of interlocking rap cantatas. In particular I was attracted to the way Ovid seamlessly moves from story to story with sometimes the most tenuous of connections. I excitedly imagined a large-scale work with ever-shifting instrumentation that would tell these stories in the same brilliant arrangement that Ovid created. “Actaeon”, my first piece for New Vintage Baroque, will be the eleventh in this series. I’ve found that writing these cantatas has helped sharpen my compositional language and given me some much needed experience writing dramatic music.

How do you start your compositional process?

I always begin with the libretto; a translation of a translation as it were. I take the original Ovid text and a very literal translation (I like Frank Miller for his rigorous representation of the Latin) and turn it into rhymed verses that are intended to be by turns, thumping, pathetic, or whatever the story calls for. There is a great deal of thought about meter and subdivision, but never for the sake of regularity. English is an irregular language, and while poetry made this development in the 20th century, hip-hop lags behind. This is why I call my verses “prose-hop”–allow the rhymes and alliteration to fall where they may, and put clarity of story and emotional intent at the forefront.

Once the libretto is finished, I hammer out a short score of through-composed accompaniment at the piano. Now I can compositionally dance on that first product. Most of the texturing comes at this orchestration stage. Once this is done, it’s simply a matter of tying up loose ends, and the rehearsals can begin.

What are some composers or artist you draw inspirations from?

The short list would include Monteverdi, Wagner, Schumann, Joanna Newsom, The Beatles, and Aesop Rock. The complete list is much longer!

What do you hope to achieve through your story telling?

These stories are timelessly engaging and instructive. I don’t think anybody would argue with that. On the modest side I’d say I hope to entertain, and, (dare I suggest it?) to move. On the less modest side, I like to think that this new genre could be picked up by other composers to drive the art of dramatic music-making forward as Caccini, Monteverdi, and Wagner all set out to do.

In light of this modern age why write for historical instruments?

The Renaissance of historical instruments has, in effect, given composers a whole new set of tools and colors to use in their work. A baroque violin with gut strings has a radically different color than a modern violin with steel strings, and a traverso is an entirely different sound than a flute. Why on earth should we composers limit ourselves when every day new virtuosos are born on these old instruments?!

What’s your favorite thing about New York City?

John Lennon, in 1970, described New York as the contemporary Rome. I think that assessment is still valid today. What he meant, of course, is that much of the world’s artistic and political energy radiates from this center. Like many artists I suffer from FOMO (“fear of missing out”), and every single evening in New York City is an absolute smorgasbord of inspiration and event. It is incredibly energizing to live in a city where one can choose from a variety of world-class happenings every night.