Creative & intriguing sonic explorations on Santa Ratniece’s new album

The works of Latvian composer Santa Ratniece defy categorization or even description at times. A combination of music and sonic explorations, liberal use of sound effects and electronic instruments, her works eschew traditional structures and forms, and can be at times bewildering, at times unnerving, but always creative and intriguing. She finds inspiration throughout the world – the Middle East, Asia, Armenia, and from cultures such as the Ainu and Tibetans, among many others.

Performing Ratniece’s complex works requires a commensurate amount of skill and talent, and, on the album Vigilia del Mattino, a collection of Ratniece’s choir compositions released in 2021, such an ensemble is enlisted – the Latvian Radio Choir, conducted by Sigvards Kļava and Kaspars Putniņš. The Latvian Radio Choir is perhaps the premier interpreter of modern Latvian choir music, and the choir considers itself a ‘creative lab’, in that they actively encourage composers to push the boundaries of what is possible and what is expected of the human voice.

The work ‘Vigilia del Mattino’, with text from Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, begins with a rumbling sound in the harp, performed by Jekaterina Suvorova. The rumbling alternates with an rising cascade, perhaps suggesting a duality between the low, ominous sound and the more positive, perhaps even heavenly, higher sound. The sound of the choir is almost formless and shapeless, with various voices flowing in and out, giving the work a kind of dreamlike quality. Alighieri’s words, from the ‘Paradise’ of the Divine Comedy, are about a man waking up and seeing the rising sun, and the text has a kind of disorientation about it, and Ratniece’s music evokes that sense of confusion of waking, but also wonderment at the sight of the light.

‘War Sum Up: Music. Manga. Machines.’ Is an avant-garde opera created by Kirsten Dehlholm, of the Danish theater group Hotel Pro Forma, and includes music by three different composers, including Santa Ratniece. Ratniece’s contributions – seven brief scenes or stories, are included on this album. Themes of war, light, dark, and the supernatural are woven into the performance, inspired by Japanese culture, including Manga art. The work, at times shrill and abrasive (perhaps to indicate the horror of war), but at times quiet and contemplative, is an unnerving listen, especially when the otherworldly electronic sounds are included in the mix. The voices of the Latvian Radio Choir are at times ominous, at times ethereal, and give the work a kind of pulsation or even punctuation as the voices pop in and then fade away. The metallic sounds in the sixth section, along with the undulating voices of the choir, adds to the uneasiness, even dread, that often appears throughout the work.

‘fuoco celeste’, the text of which is taken from prayers by St. Francis of Assisi, is a swirling, soaring work, enhanced by the cello performance of Guna Šnē. There is a sense of flight throughout the composition, which is appropriate, considering that much of the text is about birds. The choir even reproduces the sound of birds throughout the work, creating an atmospheric prayer.

Ensemble Sarband, a collective that specializes in Middle Eastern music and instruments, appears on ‘nada el layli’, a work that uses texts in Arabic from the Songs of Solomon. Here Ratniece creates a mysterious, exotic atmosphere with the sounds of the Middle Eastern instruments like the kemenche, and adds many sonic dimensions to this ancient song of love.

Santa Ratniece has established herself as a unique voice in choir music. Drawing influences and inspiration from all over the world, she synthesizes ancient texts with modern sounds, creating a sonic journey throughout many cultures and religions. The music is challenging to listen to – there are nuances and intricacies throughout the works, and this music necessitates the performance of a world class ensemble like the Latvian Radio Choir. The talent of the choir and the expertise of conductors Sigvards Kļava and Kaspars Putniņš help create a diverse, immersive listening experience on Vigilia del Mattino.

For further information, please visit the Latvian Radio Choir website and Santa Ratniece’s website.

Latvian Radio Choir

Santa Ratniece: Vigilia del Mattino

LMIC/SKANi 086, 2021

Track listing:

  1. Vigilia del Mattino

War Sum Up: Music. Manga. Machines

  • I.
  • II.
  • III.
  • IV.
  • V.
  • VI.
  • VII.
  • fuoco celeste
  • nada el layli

Egils Kaljo is an American-born Latvian from the New York area . Kaljo began listening to Latvian music as soon as he was able to put a record on a record player, and still has old Bellacord 78 rpm records lying around somewhere.

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