Stockhausen’s rarely performed Am Himmel wandre ich (In the sky I am walking)­ – a cycle of songs based on native American poetry – was staged in the basement crypt of Harlem’s Church of the Intercession, paired with a recent work by the Navajo composer Raven Chacon.

Elisa Sutherland and Charlotte Mundy © Jeff Gavett
Elisa Sutherland and Charlotte Mundy
© Jeff Gavett

Nothing about the evening sounded like what one might ordinarily think of as indigenous American music, however, nor presumably was it trying to be. The Stockhausen piece was performed a cappella by soprano Charlotte Mundy and mezzo-soprano Elisa Sutherland and the Chacon piece saw pianist Steven Beck accompanying the two. There were moments: the final beats of piano in Chacone's Asdzaa Nádleehé and Yoolgai Asdzaa (originally commissioned by the Arizona Opera) brought to mind a slowly beat drum, whether or not that was intentional, and the singers engaged in sorts of ritual and storytelling dance during the Stockhausen piece. That could have just been the projection of significance and the suggestion of context, but the pairing of the pieces set something of an agenda.

The Stockhausen, sung in English and titled in German, was conceived as a part of the 1972 happening Alphabet für Liège, 13 “musical scenes” which included sound installations and meditation spaces. Am Himmel wandre ich­ was the only notated work in the multimedia whole. Mundy and Sutherland began standing side by side, facing the audience, and the abrupt glissandos brought out a playful intensity in each of the singers. They soon sat on the floor, facing each other in focused concentration, almost as if the audience were interlopers, much like performances of the composer’s Stimmung but with a smaller cast.

Charlotte Mundy and Elisa Sutherland © Jeff Gavett
Charlotte Mundy and Elisa Sutherland
© Jeff Gavett

Members of the New York vocal ensemble Ekmeles, the two made for a strong and dramatic duo. Sutherland, dressed in black, displayed fantastic intonation, singing almost in plainsong at times, often serving as a continuo for Mundy's more animated lines. Mundy, all in white, was like an apparition. She can open her mouth and release a squall like a spirit trying to escape and in the next breath deliver a warm, rounded, unwavering tone. The greater the demand, it seems, the more at ease she is.

Some passages were reminiscent of Meredith Monk’s works (who indeed had presented eight or nine vocal pieces by the time of Alphabet für Liège). Other moments had the singers reclining on the cold floor, pantomiming birds, and Mundy showering Sutherland with flower petals. While they often read from scores, there were moments – as in the repetition of the final line "Friends, behold! Sacred I have been made" while they climbed the stone stairs and left the room – that it was hard to imagine there wasn't room for improvisation in the score, or at least that they found room for it. Either way, they possessed the strange cycle of songs.

The briefer Chacon piece opened the evening, a quick operetta about the origins of humanity with lengthy recitatives by both singers, underscored by Beck’s steadfast, dissonant piano. The text was delivered in shrill outbursts, beautiful harmonies, and unison, near unison and contrasting sections, Mundy and Sutherland shifting fluidly from one setting to another.

The small, reverberant, underground crypt felt warm, not empty, even with only a dozen in attendance. It’s a shame more people didn’t venture to Harlem to hear it. It was a wonderful program and, more than professional sporting events pantomiming conflict and acquisition of territory, should be an annual Thanksgiving event.