Take songs from the Middle Ages and present them using the heavenly voices of three female singers plus a pair of musical-genre-crossing instrumentalists and you have the group Voxfire and their new modern-meets-medieval-mashup recording, FONTIS, on Orenda Records.
FONTIS represents a novel collaboration that stretches back ten centuries to reimagine words and music from the chapels, churches, courts and countrysides of Spain and France in the Middle Ages, by spotlighting today’s technologies and instrumentation. The result is a timeless trip allowing listeners to enjoy the essence of passionate music from nearly a millennium ago transposed into a relatable contemporary musical setting.
The members of Voxfire are founding-vocalists Samela Aird Beasom, Christen Herman and Susan Judy, plus instrumentalists and arrangers Nick DePinna and Ross Garren. On FONTIS, each of the vocalists sings lead or solo on a pair of tunes, but also sings in unison or harmony on other pieces, as well as supplying a dash of instrumental support here and there (there is one instrumental track). DePinna performs on trombone, ukelele, piano, synthesizer, percussion, live effects processing and more. Garren plays piano, harmonica, electric piano, organ, synthesizer, accordion and other instruments. The group is joined by special guests Hitomi Oba on saxophones and flute, Jens Kuross on drums, Noah Meites on trumpet and flugelhorn, and Mark Beasom on percussion. FONTIS was produced by Grammy®-Award-winning Peter Rutenberg.
“We’re not musicologists,” explains Susan Judy, “but we do all have a love for what is usually described as ‘early music,’ and all three of us singers have studied and researched early music and performed it in a variety of groups and contexts. We really enjoy presenting music that most people do not commonly or ever get to hear. ‘Once a good song, always a good song’ – as the saying goes – and we feel it is worth revisiting some of the greatest songs that originated hundreds and hundreds of years ago.”
The 13 tunes of FONTIS are sung in several medieval dialects that were spoken in Spain and France in the 12th-to-14th-centuries – Latin, Galician-Portuguese, Provencal-Occitan, Ladino (Judeo-Spanish), and Arabic. The songs include church chants, secular troubadour tunes, music pilgrims might sing on religious treks, and romantic compositions – some with known, but more often, with anonymous writers. Lyric translations and details about each piece are available at the Voxfire website. But the appeal to modern listeners is much more direct and comes from the incredible beauty of the voices of three women soaring together and separately in a manner that evokes the passion, fervor, drama and deep-rooted feelings that the composers and singers imbued into the music in the distant past. Backed with modern sophisticated instrumentation, the music is elevated to a new level and becomes more universal in its appeal as elements of jazz, folk, classical, pop-rock, new age and avant-garde are heard.
More information on Voxfire is available at their website (voxfire.band) and their record company’s site (orendarecords.com). Their FONTIS CD and digital download tracks from that recording are available at online sales sites such as CDBaby, Amazon, iTunes, eMusic and many others. The music also can be heard (and Voxfire can be followed) at many major streaming platforms such as Spotify, Pandora, Apple Music, Google Play and more.
Founded as a soprano trio, Voxfire has performed extensively in concerts and festivals throughout the United States. The trio was initially inspired by the meaningful words and transcendent melodies of the 12th-century abbess and composer Hildegard von Bingen. Their earliest appearances presented music by von Bingen, Machaut and other medieval composers, later broadening to include the Baroque Era, often using instrumental accompaniment of each period. Two Voxfire recordings emerged from this repertoire – Songs to the Virgin and the live-performance collection Echoes.
In concerts Voxfire also has explored 20th-century repertoire, with performances of virtuosic pieces, such as Steve Reich’s Tehillim, as well as compositions written specifically for them. Eventually Voxfire expanded their focus to include non-western instruments and world music. In a Maria Rosa Menocal-inspired exploration of the Arab-Andalusian era, Voxfire collaborated with the Kan Zaman ensemble to do a series of concerts featuring songs from 14th-century Spain highlighted with Middle Eastern instruments including oud, Turkish clarinet and hand-drums.
“We have an affection for the 14th-century songs from that concert series,” says Susan Judy, “because the songs came from an interesting era, a time of relative religious tolerance, a mixing of cultures and a flourishing of the arts. They also lend themselves to improvisation, because so much of what they actually sounded like is shrouded in mystery and up to the modern performer to interpret, and we thought the music would make a good recording.” “We also felt we had to take the next step in our evolution as a group which was to make the music even more enjoyable for today’s audiences by using modern instrumentation and increasing the level of improvisation,” adds Samela Beasom.
“In 2015,” says Christen Herman, “we began working with two excellent musicians -- Ross Garren and Nick DePinna – who were versatile in a wide variety of styles, which was just what we needed. I always loved these ancient tunes in their original forms, and I was excited to see what would happen when we put them into the hands and minds of Nick and Ross. Nobody had ever done this before. Turns out what they created totally blew my mind! As we began collaborating, they expanded our arrangements and shattered the boundaries of what was possible for us. The culmination of this was an explosion of ideas, a new sound and a new album, FONTIS.”
Ross Garren continues, “This project allowed Nick and me to stretch in all sorts of unexpected directions. With a primary focus on ‘reinvention’ and only a handful of constraints, we went wherever our instincts took us. This has to be the most eclectic concept record I’ve ever been a part of and I’m thrilled with what we’ve created!” Samela Beasom laughs and adds, “Yes, and you can’t just listen to the first 30 seconds, because you never know what’s going to happen – each track is a seven-course meal!”
The five members of Voxfire each bring a wealth of musical background and exemplary prior performances to the group. In fact, the singers had often performed with one another in pre-Voxfire settings.
Samela Aird Beasom began her career as a soloist in Renaissance and Baroque repertoire, touring extensively throughout the United States and Japan with the Roger Wagner Chorale. She has since been featured with numerous other Los Angeles-based ensembles, including I Cantori, Los Angeles Master Chorale, Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group, and L.A. Opera, for whom she has performed in over 100 productions. Beasom has been a featured soloist at the Carmel Bach, Santa Cruz Baroque, Corona del Mar Baroque, and Ojai Festivals, and was one of the founding members and primary soloists of Musica Angelica Baroque Orchestra. Her extensive studio work includes sessions for composers Hans Zimmer, Danny Elfman, James Horner, Jerry Goldsmith, James Newton Howard, Thomas Newman, and John Williams.
Christen Herman has appeared as a soloist with numerous ensembles including I Cantori, Musica Angelica Baroque Orchestra, Paulist Boy Choristers, Los Angeles Cambridge Singers, Millennium Consort, and Artists’ Vocal Ensemble. She was featured in Long Beach Opera’s production of Charpentier’s The Imaginary Invalid, and in I Cantori’s production of Hildegard von Bingen’s chant-drama Ordo Virtutum in the lead role of The Soul. Recently, she performed with Tonality, a new vocal group dedicated to promoting social justice. Festival and series appearances include the Ojai, Santa Cruz Baroque, and Los Angeles Bach Festivals; Music at St. Matthew’s; Music at Armand Hammer Museum; and the Colly Soleri Series at Arcosanti. In addition to film score solo and ensemble singing, she has performed and recorded premieres of works by Steve Reich and Joan La Barbara.
Susan Judy has appeared as soloist at a variety of festivals and series including the Ojai, E. Nakamichi, Santa Cruz Baroque, and San Luis Obispo Mozart Festivals; Berkeley Festival and Exhibitions; the famed Monday Evening Concerts at Los Angeles County Museum of Art; and the Skirball Center and Diljian Chamber Music Series. She has debuted a number of new works, including west coast premieres by Steve Reich, John Adams, and Otto Luening, and as a soloist with the California E.A.R. Unit. She performed for many years with Los Angeles-based ensembles Musica Pacifica, I Cantori, and Musica Angelica as a soloist, and as a principal in staged productions of medieval and Baroque works. More recently, she sang with the Los Angeles Master Chorale, Millennium Consort, the Los Angeles Chamber Singers & Cappella, and American Bach Soloists.
Composer and multi-instrumentalist Nick DePinna studied music composition at UCLA and completed his M.A. there. He counts James W. Newton, Paul Chihara, David Lefkowitz, and Kenny Burrell among several important mentors. DePinna’s compositions and arrangements are performed with regularity by professional ensembles and universities across the country. His independent film and commercial scores are frequently heard on HBO, NatGeo WILD, Fox Sports, VH-1, and CMT. In addition, his orchestrations and music productions air on the Disney Channel, Disney Junior, Lifetime, and ABC. A versatile trombonist, Nick has performed and/or recorded with many top artists including Brian Setzer, Kenny Burrell, Gerald Wilson, Jon Jang, John Daversa, Long Beach Opera, Pasadena Pops, Moses Sumney, Jerry Lee Lewis, Kenny Loggins, Dream Theater, and M83.
Ross Garren – best-known as a pianist, harmonicist, and composer – received his B.M. from USC where he was named Outstanding Graduate in Composition. He is a member of the duos Garren & Cohan and the Sheriffs of Schroedingham, and has his own solo project, Taggart. Named a Sundance Institute Music and Sound Design Fellow, Ross has also been awarded three ASCAP Young Jazz Composers Awards. He has arranged for B.B. King, Haim, and Lyle Workman, and has performed on numerous recordings with artists such as Kesha, Ben Folds, Lupe Fiasco, Jim Keltner, Benmont Tench, and for composers Marco Beltrami, Alf Clausen and Mark Mancina. Ross has served on faculty at the Musician’s Institute and as an expert guide on David Barrett’s Bluesharmonica.com. Ross’s film score work includes CMT’s series Sun Records, and Love and Crashing on Netflix.
“Expanding the group to five members was the perfect move for us,” says Samela Beasom. “Especially entering the realm of improvisation was new and exciting. Because Ross and Nick have a lot of jazz improv in their souls and seldom play a solo exactly the same way twice, the way in which we prepared and rehearsed for the recording was fresh and challenging. On some of the tunes we tracked parts separately, but on others we all laid it down live in the main studio.”
“Finding working scores for this music is easier than it used to be,” Susan Judy explains. With today’s internet breadth and access, transcriptions can be found now that everyone used to have to dig up in dusty corners of university libraries. Over the years, we’ve done a lot of transcriptions and transpositions ourselves from updated ancient chant notations, for example – but we’ve left instrumentation up to the players, who generally must create their own accompaniments based on their own research.
“Regarding the instrumentation,” Nick DePinna muses, "Ross and I are both performers and producers/arrangers, so naturally, we each play a LOT of different instruments. It was really fun to go through our studios together to pick out the most mismatched and goofball combinations of instruments to use on these arrangements of very old and very beautiful songs. One of my favorite moments is on "Tu Secreto" where Ross had the idea for me to pick up a pair of plastic toy trombones to create some really zany sounding parts sliding around all over the place."
The FONTIS album begins with the title track and its lyrics are a riddle-like text describing a ruler’s strong leadership flowing from a source of wisdom that must be tended with care. “Vella e Mina” and “Sen Calar” are ancient Christian praise songs honoring the “Holy Mary.” “Ondas” is a lament sung as if by a mournful maiden asking the sea if her loved one will ever return. A noble lady with a broken heart and wounded pride rebukes her faithless lover in “A Chantar.” “Laudemus I,” “Polorum” and “Rosa das Rosas” were all sung by travelers making pilgrimages to shrines of the Virgin Mary, often using the simple techniques of call-and-response and round singing. “Esta Montana” chronicles a heartbroken woman sitting on a mountainside growing more and more desperate, despondent and, at last, sorrowfully resigned. “Laudemus II” revisits the melody of the original vocal version in a new and mysterious telling and serves as the only instrumental tune on the recording. “Ya Viene” tells the sad tale of a group of slaves being led away with the procession going by one slave girl’s home where her mother wails in agony. “Tu Secreto” (originally in Arabic, and also translated into the Judeo-Spanish language of its time) has its message sung by a group of courtesans saying: “Don’t divulge your secret because the enemy is watching you.” The album ends with the timeless story of “Por Deus” in which a young girl pleads with her parents to allow her to go to town with her girlfriends in hopes that she will be chosen by the man of her affection and will live happily ever after.
“The title FONTIS means ‘source’ in Latin,” according to Christen Herman. “It also means ‘water source’ or ‘fountain,’ and we all loved that metaphor for the music on this recording. For us the meaning of FONTIS as an album title is that it represents the source of the ancient words and melodies now pouring forth in a new way into a new era.”