Music For Writers: New York Polyphony’s Grammy-nominated 'Nowell'

Image - New York Polyphony | Photo: Chris Owyoung
Image – New York Polyphony | Photo: Chris Owyoung

700 Years Of New Music

 We start from the Medieval carols from England, those are 14th and 15th centuries.  We also have Renaissance music from the 15th and 16th centuries. Then we sing some pieces, actually, from the 19th century and 20th century, America. And then from the 21st century.

That’s baritone Christopher Dylan Herbert, talking about the seven-century breadth of the music that he and his three New York Polyphony colleagues have recorded on their new Sing Thee Nowell release.

Update: New York Polyphony’s new album has just been nominated for a 2015 Grammy in the Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance category.

Sing Thee Nowell coverNew York Public Radio’s 24-hour specialized stream Q2Music is featuring the new CD as a timely Album of the Week.

Herbert’s associates — countertenor Geoffrey Williams, tenor Steven Caldicott Wilson, and bass Craig Philliips — have collaborated since 2006 and, as one of them says in the album’s promotional video, performed hundreds of times together.

In an interesting moment in the tape — well worth watching if you’d like to know more about the group — Wilson, the tenor, talks of how in a quartet of voices like this you want each member’s sound to retain its distinctive presence, just as you would in a string quartet. That’s in opposition to a choir effect.

As Phillips puts it, the effort in this type of work is to maintain each voice’s individuality “and balance our sound, not blend our sound.” No mean feat. This is a demanding, intense type of performance.

To get a sense for what I mean, listen to this music as you read.WQXR‘s Q2 Music is making the entire album available to you during its Album of the Week stint, and it’s thanks to them that I can give you this chance to listen.

Over the years, @NYPolyphony (should you see them on Twitter) has made a strong case for the revisitation of ancient music as a contemporary point of reference. Indeed, one of the early slogans of Q2 Music — which focuses in “contemporary classical” music, perfect for so many writers — was “500 years of new music.”

All this music was new once. And some of it is comparatively new now, including a suite of “Five Carols” by the late Richard Rodney Bennett. In that section of the album, the quartet is joined by sopranos Elizabeth Babar Weaver and Sarah Brailey.

Almost immediately in “There Is No Rose,” the first of these five carols, you hear the gentle tone clusters, the peculiarly melancholic dissonance that much of Bennett’s work stamped so indelibly on modern music’s character. This quintet of work sung by a sextet of such voices will, in itself, be worth the price of the album for many.

But the real surprise here may be in how the a cappella arrangements used by the quartet continually seek and fine the contemporary potential in even the oldest music. So distinctive are these selections, arrangements, and compositions that “There Is No Rose” is heard three times on the album — two times back-to-back — and it is, each time, a different experience.

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There’s more: Read the full story at Thought Catalog

By Porter Ander­son | @Porter_Anderson

Writing on the Ether: Music For Writers: New York Polyphony’s ‘Four Naked Voices Singing’

Originally published by Thought Catalog at



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