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Chaucer’s Rooster 

Chanticleer is a musical group with 12 instruments who are also 12 human beings. This chamber vocal ensemble, which was founded in San Francisco in 1978, will perform a program titled “In Time Of: Songs of Love and Loss, War and Peace” at Vassar College on October 11.

Chanticleer is named for Chaucer’s rooster, of whom he writes: “His voice was merrier than the merry organ that plays in church.” A “vocal chamber ensemble” means a group whose voices are always unamplified, and which has no conductor (although one of the members may secretly cue the others—see if you can guess which one!). Almost always, they perform a cappella (as they will at Vassar). Singing without microphones requires a keen attention to acoustics. “Every place we go, that’s the majority of our time before the concert, learning the hall,” Oltman explains. “We often call the hall ‘the 13th member.’” It’s a rare joy, in the modern world, to hear an unamplified singing voice.

Chanticleer has a scholarly side. How many choruses hire a Middle English expert to teach them the exact pronunciation of words—as they were sung, which differs slightly from the spoken pronunciation? “A word like ‘mighty’ becomes ‘mikhty’ and a word like ‘cry’ is still ‘cri,’ and you have lots of diphthongs that we don’t use now,” observes Matt Oltman, the music director of Chanticleer. “One of the funnest words in the song to sing is, instead of ‘rue,’ you have ‘rewe’ [pronounced ‘ree-yoo-uh’].” A concert is a lesson in the history of the English language, without pedantry. The audience will hear English when it was still a rough conglomeration of German and French. (The piece in question is the anonymous 15th-century “Agincourt carol” celebrating the English victory over the French in the Hundred Years War.)

But “In Time Of” is not only in English. The program includes works in German, French, Chinese, Quechua (an indigenous language of South America), Spanish, Italian, Hungarian, and Greek. Chanticleer specializes in having no specialty. Other choral groups focus on Renaissance music or plainsong. Chanticleer does both, plus bebop, folksongs, and rounds. When auditioning new members, the group looks for unusual life experience—a singer who played jazz piano to earn his way through music school, for example. A new tenor, Matthew Curtis, worked on a project to record every Gregorian chant.

Chanticleer also commissions contemporary pieces, two of which will be performed. Steven Sametz’s “In Time Of” supplies the title for the evening. The composer scored E. E. Cummings’s poem “In Time of Daffodils,” which begins: “In time of daffodils (who know / the goal of living is to grow).” The group will also perform three movements from “Sirens” by young San Francisco composer Mason Bates, who is also well known as a trip-hop DJ. Bates’s work has high voices, undulating rhythms, and a sound much like harps—all created by 12 singing men.

Chanticleer will present “In Time Of: Songs of Love and Loss, War and Peace” at Vassar College’s Skinner Hall in Poughkeepsie on Sunday, October 11 at 3pm.
(845) 437-7294;

click to enlarge Chamber vocal ensemble Chanticleer will perform at Vassar College on October 11.
  • Chamber vocal ensemble Chanticleer will perform at Vassar College on October 11.

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  • Chamber vocal ensemble Chanticleer performs at Vassar College.


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