NEA Arts Magazine

American Voices

Cantus Records New Choral Collection

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Members of the chorus all in dark suits and red ties sitting casually in front-row auditorium seats

The nine-member vocal ensemble, Cantus, based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Photo by Jen Cress

For a vocal ensemble like Cantus, recording an album serves many purposes. There's the exposure on classical music radio stations, the opportunity to sell CDs while out on tour, and the potential that one fan will recommend the disc to several friends. What Cantus did not know, going into the studio in June 2007, was that recording While You Are Alive would make them a better ensemble.

Artistic Director Erick Lichte co-founded Cantus in 1996 when he was studying music at St. Olaf College in Minnesota. At the time, his primary instrument was the cello, not his voice. But one day he and three friends put down their bows and started singing together. They realized they could harmonize, both literally and figuratively. Ever since, Cantus has been an all-male, a cappella ensemble dedicated to collaborative singing. The nine-member group remains based in Minneapolis, but performs some 70 concerts around the country each year.

While You Are Alive is Cantus's eighth professional recording and its first album dedicated to new American music. Although they have received NEA grants before -- including support for in-school residencies and collaborations with other Twin Cities choral groups -- this was the first time Cantus requested funding for a recording. In 2007, the ensemble received a $12,500 NEA grant toward their ambitious project.

"This was an opportunity to allow some American voices -- both the singers within our group and especially these composers -- to be heard in a different light," Lichte said. "This grant was a perfect fit for what we wanted to do."

Musical ensembles have to think pragmatically about their recording projects, he explained. Cantus burned just 2,500 copies prior to the August 2008 release, and shipped about 200 of those to classical radio stations. The album features music by Eric Whitacre, one of America's most prominent choral composers, as well as works by lesser known names and pieces written by Cantus members. Several works were commissions, including "A Sound like This," an extended piece by Edie Hill, with texts by the Indian mystic poet Kabir as translated by Minnesota poet Robert Bly. That commission was funded by Chamber Music America, and as per that grant's requirements, Hill composed one part for each voice. While You Are Alive also includes Maura Bosch's "The Turning," a three-movement work that delves into the dark consequences of domestic abuse, commissioned in conjunction with the American Composers Forum.

"This repertoire pushed us in so many ways," Lichte said. "That recording session made us better, and that has infused everything else that we've done, whether that be working with over 10,000 students, as we do every year, or singing pop concerts, or whatever it is that we are doing to bring our music to our audience."