“Shelter” was artistic director Beth Willer’s theme for Lorelei Ensemble’s concerts last weekend, the nine-voice female a cappella group charting a characteristically polished old-and-new mix of musical harbors. But two premieres, by Shaw Pong Liu and Carson Cooman, approached the theme from counterintuitive directions: One exposed the insecurity of seeming havens, while the other found its sanctuary in the open air.
The program’s ambitious center was Shaw Pong’s “Peace Is a Woman in a House,” part performance art, part sound installation. The title describes the ideogrammatic construction of the Chinese character for “peace,” previously the basis of public art projects mounted by Shaw Pong and calligrapher Mike Mei, with passersby encouraged to invent their own character combinations with oversize brushes and water. (A similar setup was outside Marsh Chapel before the concert.) Interviews with those participants provided the first movement’s texts; as Mei drew characters on large swaths of paper, singers recited their rationales, then, while imitating Mei’s brushstrokes, mirrored the movement with rustling vocal percussion and, later, melodic shapes.
The second movement, “Too Small,” an autobiographical memory of abuse and violence, unfolded its riposte to the ideogram’s optimistic domesticity in measured melodies over a repeating chromatic chorale. The finale, “Interbeing,” overlapped short, multilingual phrases extolling humanity’s interconnectedness into a Babel while harmonies waxed and waned as singers moved about Marsh Chapel. The movements surveyed a common musical vocabulary from varied angles: all three started out with speech, gradually moving into modal, triadic singing, but with half-step dissonance smudging chords into clusters or shifting melodies into oblique opposition. It kept everything on an interrogatory footing; even a final consonant cadence yielded to a ripple of uncertainty. “Peace Is a Woman in a House” reflected its surfeit of ideas: episodic, even fragmentary, but also covering impressive ground in a short time.
Lorelei’s sound locates the intersection of early and modern music, privileging purity and precision: carefully honed straight-tone intonation, precisely matched vowels, serene phrasing. The program likewise mirrored the new with selections from the 12th-century Codex Calixtinus and the 13th-century Las Huelgas Codex — music for pilgrims and postulants, respectively. “Portum in ultimo,” a plea for refuge at the last judgment, and “Belial vocatur,” a warning against trickery found outside friendly confines, set the parameters for “Peace Is a Woman.” (Following it, however, with a wordless rendition of the lament “O monialis concio” rather too neatly tied up Shaw Pong’s deliberately unfinished business.)
Similarly, works referencing nature and light (“Soli Nito-rem” and “Congaudeant cath-olici,” the latter finished with a bumptiously obsessive “Benedicamus Domino”) presaged Cooman’s “The Dawning Light,” setting Inuit-Yupik poems drawing sheltering skies and landscapes. The seven-movement suite skillfully played to Lorelei’s strengths, lacing sturdy harmonic progressions with a sirenic frost of close-harmony dissonance. A near-reflexive repetition of nearly every line or phrase often created a curiously tidy feel, but even that could be heard to reflect the concert’s theme. The etymology of “refuge” is Latin, for “flee back”; home, the music suggested, is whatever keeps you returning.
Beth Willer, artistic director
At: Marsh Chapel, Boston University, Friday
Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@