Ēriks Ešenvalds ‘Stars’: A State of Permanent Ecstasy

Happy Sunday, readers! I hope you’re all having a restful Sunday, and I’d like to contribute to your calm states with an extremely wonderful piece of choral music by the contemporary composer, Ēriks Ešenvalds. I recently reconnected with his work, Stars, and since then I couldn’t wait to share it with you all. So I hope you’re sitting comfortable and are ready to delve into this magnificent work with me on this restful Sunday.

Ēriks Ešenvalds is a Latvian composer and was born in 1977. He studied at the Latvian Baptist Theological Seminary, before attending the Latvian Academy of Music where he received a Master’s degree in composition. Ešenvalds sung in the State Choir of Latvia until 2011. Since then he has held a two-year position of Fellow Commoner of Arts at Trinity College, Cambridge. He now teachers composition at all levels, hoping that his expertise will help those who want to pursue a career in composition. Ešenvalds has also won a plethora of awards for his compositions, including the Latvian Grand Music Award (3 times) and the International Rostrum of Composers First Prize Award. Ešenvalds has had the pleasure of working with a wealth of different ensembles including: The King’s Singers, Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Miami University Men’s Glee Club and City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.

Ešenvalds’ music covers a wide-range of different genres, from choral to orchestra. Due to this, he has worked with different recording labels and also different music festivals. At the 2014 World Choir Games, Ešenvalds composed the Games national anthem. His latest commission is for his second multimedia symphony, focusing on the natural phenomenon of volcanoes – which is set to premiere in 2018. Alongside his successful composition career, Ešenvalds is also a public speaker and writer.

Ešenvalds’ choral composition Stars is an absolutely breathtaking piece. It is written for SATB – with an extra addition! A lot of choral work in this style is unaccompanied, or if it does have an accompaniment it is likely to be either a piano or organ. Stars, however, differs from the norm and is accompanied by…glasses! You can make these sounds at home – find a glass, put some water in it, wet your finger, then run it around the rim of the glass. It’ll make this beautiful pure sound, which is out of this world! So to get different notes, Ešenvalds puts a certain amount of liquid into each glass, which gives a corresponding pitch. The effect of this is just heavenly! This glass effect is definitely resonant on what the lyrics reflect within the piece – stars and heaven. Ešenvalds uses the words from Sara Teasdale’s 1920 poem Stars. Below are the words:

Alone in the nigh

On a dark hill

With pines around me

Spicy and still,

 

And a heaven full of stars

Over my head,

White and topaz

And misty red;

 

Myriads with beating

Hearts of fire

That aeons

Cannon vex or tire;

 

Up the dome of heaven

Like a great hill,

I watch them marching

Stately and still,

 

And I know that I

Am honoured to be

Witness

Of such majesty.

This composition is exhaustingly beautiful and the musical language that Ešenvalds uses certainly makes him one of the most sought out choral composers of this time. As aforementioned, this work is written for an SATB choir and water-tuned glasses. I will give you a brief walk-through of the piece, but really this particular work is best left to when you have some private time, where you can close your eyes and let Ešenvalds take you to that heavenly place.

The piece begins with the water-tuned glasses playing the sequence of cluster chords, which are heard throughout the whole work. The use of the glasses creates such an evocative effect, which is both imaginative and inventive. Ešenvalds uses ‘mm’s’ and ‘ahs’ which add to the overall texture and timbre of the work. This work leaves you in this permanent state of ecstasy, and it is with Ešenvalds sonorous choral writing that this is possible. With the upper voices soaring above the cluster chords that lay below, creates this wave of sound, which makes you feel like you’re floating. Which seems to be exactly what Ešenvalds was going for. The climax of piece happens when the sopranos sing a top A, which just give so much colour to the work. It has been suggested that Ešenvalds is one of the leading composers in producing ‘musical mysticism’ which can certainly be supported by Stars. The texture is rich and the colourful timbre adds to the ‘other-worldly’ feel of the whole piece. The unrelenting cluster chords from the water-tuned glasses creates a metaphysical presence within the music. The waves of sound are also made by the fluctuating crescendos and dimminuendos, which are placed throughout the piece. The work ends with a short interlude from the water-tuned glasses, until the voices all end on a spine-tingling cluster chord. Part of this atmosphere is made by the overtones created by the glasses, which give such a heavenly and spacious sound to the work.

I absolutely adore this piece, it’s calmly cosmic, yet very mysterious, mystical and spiritual. The words are sensitive and the use of the water-tuned glasses really adds another dimension to the work. I do hope you’ve found some time to listen to the piece – it’s only about 4 minutes long! This truly is one of the purest choral works I’ve ever heard. If you like what you hear I couldn’t recommend listening to Ešenvalds enough! His music is ever so clever and such a joy to listen to.

I’d like to dedicate this blog to one of my favourite people, Ben Evans. I hope that if you don’t already know this piece or composer, that you enjoy this music! You’re an absolute star yourself so enjoy your Sunday!

Happy Reading!

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