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Conspirare's 'Quarantine Madrigals' - If the member of a choir sings when no one is around, is there a sound? / The Austin Chronicle

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This new song cycle gives isolated singers music to build a choir with – a choir of just themselves

The Austin Chronicle's ROBERT FAIRES writes.....For many choral singers, that's become a real – and distressing – question this past year. If the reason you sing is to blend your voice with others, who are you without those other voices? Anyone?

The particular sense of loneliness and loss that choir members have felt during isolation is described in a new song cycle, Quarantine Madrigals, that Conspirare will premiere Monday, March 15. In eight pieces, composer Reena Esmail and poet Amy Fogerson trace the singer's emotional arc from first feeling the absence of community to the suffering of solitude to the hope of reunion. But that isn't the only thing that makes it special for choral singers. Esmail composed it specifically so an individual could record the different parts with a multi-track app and make a choir out of just themselves.

The idea came from Fogerson – also a member of the Los Angeles Master Chorale – who pitched it to Esmail last summer. The idea intrigued the composer enough that she asked Fogerson to provide a brief poem for the text. Fogerson gave her a haiku about isolation, and Esmail set it as a madrigal, a form using a solo voice for each part with no instrumental accompaniment. The result captured something distinctive about singers' longing for others in pandemic separation and yet was still universal. So the duo wrote another. And another. And another, and kept going until they had seven.

As this was happening, Conspirare Artistic Director Craig Hella Johnson was keeping his ear on the project. An admirer of Esmail's work for several years, he'd commissioned a piece from her for The Singing Guitar two years ago, and last spring, as the impact of COVID was beginning to be felt, he reached out "to see if we could commission her to create something for Conspirare singers, perhaps even something we could share with other singers around the country who were feeling such great loss at not being able to sing together." When Esmail let him know about the quarantine madrigals and asked if Conspirare might like to play a role in introducing them, Johnson "responded with an enthusiastic 'yes.'" Ultimately, he commissioned the entire work, asking for the addition of a postlude imagining the day when the choir reunites and voices join together once more.

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