Founded in 2006, New York Polyphony has accumulated a plethora of accolades from music critics in a multitude of publications. Over the last decade, this ensemble has developed a world-class reputation for accomplished acoustical arrangements and delightful programming dedicated to a wide spectrum of choral acapella music that has a visceral impact on audiences. These singers—countertenor Geoffrey Williams, tenor Steven Caldicott Wilson, baritone Christopher Dylan Herbert, and bass Craig Phillips—are renowned for their exquisite harmonies that echo long after you have heard them. I recently spoke to one of their founding members, Geoffrey Williams.
KM: Where were you raised? And what are your earliest memories of hearing music or singing?
GW: I was born in Wisconsin. I have happy memories of sitting on an organ bench as my father played the organ. At that time my father was in a seminary studying to be an Episcopal minister and he played the organ for the seminary. When he became a minister, we moved about and lived in Indiana and Missouri. I currently live in Champaign, Illinois, where I’m completing my doctorate in choral music.
KM: I’ve read that you sang in the Westminster Choir at Rider University near Princeton. Was that a formative experience?
GW: Very much so. Westminster is a unique institution where every student sings every day, whether they are a voice major or not. I chose Westminster because I’m so fond of choral singing, especially singing in small groups. When I entered the school, I was singing as a tenor/baritone and my ambition was to become a high-school music teacher.
KM: Excellent countertenors are rare. How did you become a countertenor? And when did you begin training as one?
GW: After two years of voice study as a junior, I decided to become a countertenor. I had discovered the repertoire of Purcell, Handel, and other Baroque and Renaissance composers for voice and that ended up giving my life a different direction—the repertoire pushed me in this direction. My teacher warned me that since countertenors are rare, I needed to become a musicologist, so that I can explain to people just what it is I am doing.
KM: How did New York Polyphony come to be founded?
GW: I sang in choir at The Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Manhattan. Some of the singers endeavored to sing together outside our church responsibilities. We had the opportunity to record English carols at Christmas 2006 for public radio. We programmed a selection of ancient carols and modern settings of the same text which became the basis for our programming ever since. It was the situation of the cart before the horse, but we had a shared love of the repertoire that kept us going.
KM: Commissioning new works and discovering forgotten works appears central to your innovative programing. Where did your intense sense of scholarly exploration come from?
GW: From the beginning we had the concept of pairing classics with contemporary work. We especially like to work with contemporary composers who are familiar with Medieval and Renaissance music, so that there is an element of neo-Renaissance music in a new composition.
KM: Recently New York Polyphony performed Missa Charles Darwin—a newly commissioned secular Mass setting based on texts of Charles Darwin, performed at the Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin, Germany. What was the rationale behind this unusual project?
GW: That was born in a kitchen in Cape Cod. Our bass Craig Phillips had just seen a PBS documentary on Charles Darwin. We worked with composer Gregory Brown. He created a melody from the genetic code of Darwin’s finch studies, tracing the genetic code and using it as the basis for his composing. At the premiere in Berlin we met Darwin’s great granddaughter! It runs for about 22 minutes and it has been so popular that we have done over 30 performances of the work at different venues.
KM: Your next concert at Hudson Hall has a focus on the roots of Renaissance polyphony.
GW: Not exactly the roots; composers from Flanders went over the mountains down into Italy. They were called Oltremontani, which is the title of our concert. These choral composers brought to Italy the northern heritage of polyphony. As far as we can tell, the madrigal was born in Flanders. Those musicians from Flanders influenced three generations of Italian composers. They were the forbearers of Luca Marenzio, Carlo Gesualdo , Monteverdi, and Palestrina. In our concert we will be tracing the progression of the Flemish influence throughout the rest of Europe. Flemish Renaissance choral music is suited to a low pitch without a treble line and our voices are quite well-suited to this kind of choral singing.
KM: What is the aesthetic experience you hope to bring to an audience?
GW: First of all the sense of awe and mystery that pervaded medieval and Renaissance Christianity. We want to convey a profound sense of beauty. We’ve done our homework on these works; we know that it must be an emotional experience. We are not striving to present a subjective interpretation as you might find in Schubert or Schumann lieder. Our presentation may not be completely accurate from an academic point of view. We want to express the text in way that an audience can understand and we attempt to be as objective as we can, so that the audience may interpret the subject cleanly and pristinely, and draw their own conclusions in whatever way they wish.
KM: Thank you for your observations, frankness, and eloquence. I’ve heard New York Polyphony once before and wrote an enthusiastic review. In fact, I was really bowled over by your harmonies. I’m really looking forward to hearing your new work for the Leaf Peeper concert series at Hudson Hall on October 27th at 7 pm.