Oerknal Ensemble portrays Lewis Nielson, a ‘thinking man’s composer’

I must confess: when I opened the envelope containing the new CD Canto by the Oerknal ensemble, I was completely surprised. I had never heard of Lewis Nielson, to whose music the disc is dedicated.

That his name did not immediately ring a bell is not really surprising though, since Nielson moves somewhat outside of the regular modern music circuit. If you link his name to renowned ensembles such as Klangforum Wien, Musikfabrik or Asko|Schönberg, you only find him in the capacity as a teacher-of.

Conductor Gregory Charette also studied with Nielson, and now honours his teacher with a musical portrait. Significant detail: the album contains three compositions which have never been recorded before.

Yet the American has been around for a while. He was born in Washington D.C. in 1950. When he was nine years old, he moved with his parents to England, where he studied at the Royal College of Music.

Nielson continued his studies at the Universities of Massachusetts and Iowa, and was himself a teacher of music theory and composition at the University of Georgia and the Oberlin Conservatory of Music for many years; he retired in 2015.


In the CD booklet, Nielson is called a ‘thinking person’s composer’, because in his music he tirelessly broaches topical and philosophical themes. In a polemical manifesto on his website, he rails at just about everything and everyone. He calls himself a ‘sociopath’, who ‘fights against the society that confines him or her’, and refuses to accept ‘the rules that govern society’.

However,  those who expect to get a dose of uncompromising protest music will be disappointed. The three compositions are very subtle and pleasing to the ear. The thirty minute long Cilice addresses the theme of penance and forgiveness. It combines texts from the Psalms with poems by such diverse poets as Baudelaire, Hölderlin, Celan and Dante. The title refers to the rough-haired robe that Catholics used to wear as a form of self-flagellation.

For the performance, Oerknal joins forces with the Damask Vocal Quartet, that presents a stunning range of flawlessly intoned dissonant harmonies. At other times, they employ a recitative that is reminiscent of Gregorian chant, then again declaim spoken texts, sing virtuoso melismas, or produce rhythmic percussive sounds, to an equally punctilious accompaniment from the musicians.


The instrumentalists sometimes also sing. The combination of their untrained voices with the four professional singers of the Damask Vocal Quartet offers a varied palette of timbres, which remains captivating from beginning to end.

The other works on the disc, Crisis of Consciousness and You Choose are both based on verses by the El Salvadorian poet Roque Dalton, a communist activist who was executed by his own comrades.

In Crisis of Conscience, the instrumentalists recite the text in a folkish, husky voice; You Choose is more pointilistic and consists of a succession of short instrumental eruptions and ditto voices. Mysterious and oppressive, and excellently performed.

Oerknal and Gregory Charette can’t be praised enough for choosing to honour this underexposed composer. – Lewis Nielson, remember that name!

About Thea Derks

I am a Dutch music journalist, specializing in contemporary music, and a champion of women composers. In 2014 I wrote the biography of Reinbert de Leeuw (3rd edition in 2020) and in 2018 I published 'Een os op het dak: moderne muziek na 1900 in vogelvlucht'.
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