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  • Jonathan Widran


Whether you are new to the expansive sonic world and vision of Kevin Keller and his ambient chamber music or a longtime fan from his three decades of critical and promotional love from the syndicated Hearts of Space and Echoes programs, you don’t necessarily need to understand the history of religious choral music to appreciate his epic song cycle Evensong.

Yet as he captivates your imagination and sweeps your heart and soul along from the soothing, hypnotic and alternately immersive and soaring opener “Evensong 1” through the lush, gently caressing final piece “Evensong 8,” it’s likely you’ll feel so opened up to the sense that something sacred and eternally binding is happening, you’ll want to know about the unique inspiration behind Keller’s first project based on vocal music.

So first, the title: an Evensong is a church service traditionally held near sunset focused on singing psalms and biblical canticles, loosely based on the canonical hours of vespers and compline. Old English speakers translated the Latin word “vesperas” as æfensang, which became 'evensong' in modern English. It is typically used in reference to the Anglican evening liturgy, or the services of evening prayers from other denominations. Keller builds the concept around the works of Hildegard of Bingen, aka Saint Hildegard and the Sibyl of the Rhine, a German Benedictine abbess and polymath active as a writer, composer, philosopher, mystic, visionary and even a medical writer and practitioner during the High Middle Ages. While considered to be the founder of natural scientific history in Germany, she is one of the best-known composers of sacred monophony.

Keller builds the intricate, fascinating universe of Evensong on plainchants written by Hildegard. He creates spacious, soulful and often infectiously rhythmic soundscapes and bold, exciting productions around her plainchant melodies – including her original Latin texts – on four of the eight tracks, including “Evensong 1,” “Evensong 3,” “Evensong 4” and “Evensong 7.”

Again, listeners don’t have to enhance the grand emotional and spiritual pleasures here with heavy duty historical references, but for the curious, Keller takes the Early Christian concept of canonical hours (divisions of the day by music) and reads them as a microcosm of life as it moves from beginning to end and possibly beyond. This is consistent with themes in his previous works where he has incorporated into the peaceful flow of his music concepts that are jarring, disturbing and even terrifying, like life itself. He has long reveled in using music to talk about such topics as death, decay, and the possibilities of an afterlife. His procession from Evensongs 1-8 guides us through the church modes and the scales (based on those of the ancient Greeks) used before the idea of major and minor began to dominate in the Baroque period.

Although like many new age ambient collections Evensong is perhaps best enjoyed as a sweeping aural-historical journey from start to finish, for those looking for a specific entry point to best apprehend the majesty at hand, a few logical spots present themselves. Keller’s vision for the vocal grandeur manifests via the contributions of four of the world’s most renowned sopranos – Danya Katok, Elisa Singer Strom, Katherine Wessinger and Wendy Baker.

“Evensong 3” begins with an otherworldly solo spotlight of Wessinger before a larger choir enters and soars over Keller’s blend of caressing ambience and percussive synth patterns. He inserts a lengthy instrumental passage that rings of classic electronic new age before blending these sounds with the octave climbing choir. Katok is featured on “Evensong 4,” which begins with an inviting and often dazzling melodic motif that continues as the singer presents a few emotional solo vocal lines leading into the larger sweeping choir and then back and forth from solo to choir from that juncture. Driven by the surreal vocal choir blending with a passionate symphonic synth energy, “Evensong 7” doesn’t have a featured vocal soloist but features a gorgeous, melancholy-tinged solo by guest cellist Laura Metcalf.   

In line with his eclectic muse which always leads Keller down a unique creative path from recording to recording, Evensong is a bold entry into a sacred-historical vocal realm his fans will no doubt hope he explores again in the near future.  




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