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Visionary chamber-music group Fifth House Ensemble of Chicago aims for the stratosphere with Excelsior, its adventurous debut album on Cedille Records. The title refers to an experimental, extreme-altitude U.S. Air Force project of the Cold War era.

Excelsior presents world-premiere recordings of works by Caleb Burhans, recipient of commissions from Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, and the Library of Congress; prolific, award-winning composer Alex Shapiro; and Jesse Limbacher, winner of the ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composer Award. The disc also includes a work by Chicago Symphony Orchestra composer-in-residence, Mason Bates.

Preview Excerpts

ALEX SHAPIRO (b. 1962)

Perpetual Spark (6:53)


Air (6:09)

MASON BATES (b. 1977)

Red River


I. The Continental Divide (4:20)
II. Interstate 70 (3:54)
III. Zuni Visions from the Canyon Walls (4:38)
IV. Hoover Slates Vegas (3:49)
V. Running Dry on the Sonoran Floor (2:48)

CALEB BURHANS (b.1980) / JOHN COLETTI, librettist

Excelsior (30:57)


1: Arranged for Fifth House Ensemble

2: Written for and premiered at the 2012 fresh inc festival

8: A New Music USA commission

What the Critics Are Saying

Few groups work as diligently as Fifth House Ensemble to logically incorporate complementary multimedia elements into their performances—Fifth House’s recent collaborations have included works with comic artist Ezra Claytan Daniels and video maker Buki Bodunrin. That openness to diverse approaches comes through in their repertoire choices too: On this album they bring a luminescent, airy touch to recent works by the likes of Alex Shapiro, Jesse Limbacher, and Mason Bates (a Mead Composer-in-¬Residence at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra). The highlight is Caleb Burhans’s Excelsior, which features gorgeous singing from New York-based soprano Martha Cluver; weightless and lyrical, it’s a musical response to Captain Joseph Kittinger’s 1960 parachute jump from 102,800 feet.

Luca Cimarusti, Chicago Reader

There was a time not so long ago when the new music offerings in Chicago were narrow in availability as well as aesthetic breadth. If recent years have seen a new music renaissance in the city, Fifth House Ensemble is surely near the front of the innovative pack.

This group’s versatility can be heard on their recent release “Excelsior,” an exceptional recording currently on offer from Chicago’s own Cedille Records.

Started in 2005 by three members of the CSO Civic Orchestra (current flautist Melissa Snoza, cellist Herine Coetzee, and clarinetist Jennifer Woodrum), Fifth House has clearly filled a musical void in the Windy City.
The ensemble is named after the “fifth house” in astrology, which, as many aging Boomers surely know is the house of creativity and joy. Since its founding, the Fifth House Ensemble has grown into a versatile team of ten formidable instrumentalists who are unafraid to engage in a variety of combinations for their public performances.

Perhaps the great genius of the so-called “Pierrot Ensemble” is its ability to generate an intimate chamber sound at one moment, and (with the aid of percussion) reach for an orchestral largeness in the next.

For the uninitiated, this variety of ensemble is named for Schönberg’s epoch-creating composition “Pierrot Lunaire.” The quintet of instruments used in the work became, according to a Wikipedia entry, “the core ensemble for many contemporary-music ensembles of the twentieth century, such as The Fires of London, who formed in 1965 as ‘The Pierrot Players’ to perform ‘Pierrot Lunaire.’”

In its simplest form, a “Pierrot Ensemble” consists of a flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano with the occasional introduction of a vocalist and/or a percussionist. It’s also not uncommon for such performers to occasionally double on another instrument as well.

Many new compositions employ variations on this ensemble arrangement to take advantage of the tonal shadings and nuances such groupings can produce.

In certain ways Fifth House has a “pierrot with friends” structure, with the additions of instruments such as oboe, horn, viola and bassoon giving the ensemble more potential timbral volume, all without exceeding the particularly intimate and detailed bounds of chamber music.
“Excelsior” presents this group at its very best, riding the wave of a predictably incredible production effort by the legendary Judith Sherman. The selection of music on this recording is diverse, but not so varied as to create a less than satisfying whole. One might even be so bold as to claim that this is a new music album that can lead to new music conversions, as it is simultaneously ambitious and approachable.

The first track, “Perpetual Spark,” comes to us from composer Alex Shapiro, and is a tribute to a deceased person who was dear to him. The vibrant track pulsates with the power of life, and Shapiro’s promise of music honoring “a spark from a life filled with passion and delight, burning brightly, intensely, and without end” is aptly fulfilled. This work deserves further public performances.

“Perpetual Spark” is followed by “Air,” a work by emerging composer Jesse Limbacher. It is the most avant-garde composition on the album, mixing key clicks, whispers and vocalizations, along with effervescent lines that sound like exploded bits of Persichetti being tossed playfully about.

Limbacher is suitably experimental for a young composer still developing his voice, but shows remarkable promise in his disciplined approach and sense of space. In the context of the CD, the work is a perfect palette-cleanser between the sparkling opening track and the more expansive expressions that follow.

Sometimes it is a bad idea to read program notes before listening to a new recording. This is certainly the case when it comes to Mason Bates’s “Red River.” A reviewer might be forgiven getting apprehensive about the promise of synthy textures and trip-hop beats when perusing this CD’s program notes on this composition. Far too many contemporary works simply abuse such soundscapes to the detriment of good taste.
Yet Bates delivers a surprisingly powerful and thoughtful musical package, whose electronic elements fuse seamlessly with Fifth House’s impeccable performance. These rhythmic electronic elements, for their part, are seated tastefully within the mix and never exceed their place in the musical architecture. Moving through a variety of styles and moods reflective of a great geographic journey, Bates’s “Red River” possesses an original yet truly American feel.

In the end, what praise can suffice for Caleb Burhans’ “Excelsior”? A towering work of bold simplicity and shattering beauty, it is easy to see why the album took its name from this marquee work and why it was chosen to finish this fine recording. Featuring the full Fifth House Ensemble, the work gently incorporates electronic textures, Burhans’ own famous electric violin playing and an unforgettable performance by soprano Martha Culver. While it is sparse in its language, it is unfair to label a piece that unfolds with such grand, Goreckian deliberateness and power as “minimalistic” as its effect is anything but.

It is difficult today to discover an ensemble that makes consistently great aesthetic choices. Indeed, many ensembles that specialize in (or occasionally condescend to) new music seem intent on reinforcing the old negative stereotypes that serve to drive audiences away. By contrast, the Fifth House Ensemble seems to have a consistent track record of seeking truly beautiful new works capable of growing new music audiences in America.

As for “Excelsior,” it may well be the new music album of the year. Chicago is a fortunate city indeed to host such an effort.

The Fifth House Ensemble is a large, extremely capable group of Chicago-based chamber musicians who play a great deal of 21st-century music. Alex Shapiro’s 2011 Perpetual Spark has a repeating pattern that is a musical representation of sparks permeating the density of darkness. Shapiro allows them to grow quieter in the middle section so that they can evolve into a moonbeam or an idea for a new vision. For the finale, however, her delightful lyrical sparks reappear to be as dynamic and elusive as ever. The ensemble, consisting of Melissa Snoza, flute; Andrew Williams, violin; Clark Carruth, viola; Herine Coetzee Koschak, cello; Eric Snoza, bass; and Jani Parsons, piano, plays with absolute glee. In Air, Jesse Limbacher deals with air as the life giving gas that makes us able to breathe, speak, sing, and play a wind instrument. Along with the expected instrumental sounds, Limbacher adds texture from the sound of air itself and what he calls “veiled” speech. In this rather jazzy Postmodern work, he invites listeners to listen to all that is borne on the air and regard the experience as life-affirming. Crystal Hall plays oboe, Jennifer Woodrum clarinet, and Karl Rzasa bassoon.

Mason Bates is a well-known modern composer, and major orchestras such as the Chicago Symphony play his works. Anne Akiko Meyers has recorded his violin concerto with the London Symphony conducted by Leonard Slatkin. In Red River, Bates combines the chamber ensemble with intense and dramatic electronics to depict the journey of the Colorado River from its beginnings at the Continental Divide. He traces its route across the state of Colorado, its trip through the Grand Canyon, its diversion by the Hoover Dam, and shows us its final destination as it plays out along the sands of the Sonoran Desert. In this work the artists from Perpetual Spark play violin, cello, and piano along with clarinetist Jennifer Woodrum. Red River impresses the listener with its ability to convey the huge spaces of the American West. Bates lets us hear the distances between the Divide and Western Colorado, and he introduces us not only to the width of the Grand Canyon but to its length as well. We hear the jazz from the casinos of Las Vegas as the river approaches the Hoover Dam. After much of the water has been siphoned off for agriculture and cities, we learn of the trickles of water that disappear into the sands of the desert. It’s a bumpy ride, but Bates fascinates us all the way with his musical colors and varied textures. The last piece on this disc is the title work, Caleb Burhans’s Excelsior. All the artists named above plus soprano Martha Cluver, Grey McMurray, percussionist, and the composer with his electric violin create a tonal description of Joseph Kittinger’s 1960 record-breaking free fall from 102,800 feet. After four and a half minutes of simply falling, Kittiger’s parachute opened and brought him safely back to earth. As with each of the selections on this disc, Excelsior is accessible but staunchly 21st-century. This disc is a good introduction to modern music for anyone who has just begun to investigate the music of contemporary composers. The sound is clear and the recording presents each instrument as separately as necessary for the integrity of each piece.

Maria Nockin Fanfare Magazine

Listeners outside of the Chicago area may not be familiar with the splendid young new-music group Fifth House Ensemble, whose activities seem to have been focused primarily around its home base. I wasn’t, but this debut recording makes a wonderful introduction. The repertoire includes a beguiling range of inventive post-minimalist music — three of the four pieces here get premiere recordings — and all of it is executed with a combination of tenderness and vivacious energy. The big headliner, Caleb Burhans’ “Excelsior,” unfolds in 30 minutes’ worth of patiently static harmonies and keening vocals that are alternately boring and ravishingly beautiful. The other works offer a zestier counterweight, from Alex Shapiro’s brisk and lovely “Perpetual Spark” to the technical bravado of Jesse Limbacher’s “Air” and the lush, expansive pictorialism of Mason Bates’ travelogue “Red River.” The whole undertaking is marked by spirited music-making of the finest kind.

Program Notes

Download Album Booklet

Perpetual Spark

Notes by Jani Parsons

This piece was inspired by the life, love, energy, and heart of Dale Mara Bershad, a gifted musician who often used her talents to share the joy of expression and wonder with young children. As a mother, teacher, and performer, Mara’s remarkable inner light cast an indelible glow. Her essence remains radiant and present: a spark from a life filled with passion and delight, burning brightly, intensely, and without end.

Perpetual Spark, scored for piano, strings, and flute/piccolo, began as a piano solo; and indeed, the piano plays a crucial role in establishing the rich harmonies and sparkling texture that make this work truly spectacular. The addition of strings and flute creates a new dimension — a sense of propulsion and lift in the sound inherent to Shapiro’s style, that can only be described as exhilarating. Perpetual Spark‘s opening section highlights a florid sixteenth-note pattern in the pianist’s right hand, repeated and manipulated to create a constantly changing harmonic landscape against longer melodic gestures in the left hand, and in the strings and flute. This gives way to an expressive middle section marked by calm repose while simultaneously reaching forward in all instruments. My favorite marking in the score, “the spark still remains…”, occurs as the first section’s texture returns with an explosion of energy to the finale, bursting with a surging light that is never to be extinguished.


Notes by Jennifer Woodrum

My reed trio is an essay on the plurality of meaning, musical and otherwise, inherent in the word “air.” The piece explores our most human uses of air in terms of breathing, speaking, and singing. As such, it incorporates the sounds of pure air and veiled human speech as well as instrumental lines and textures. The “journey” of the work can be heard as a gradual struggle from primordial mystery communicating many of the purest human actions and emotions, including fear, ecstasy, song, and dance. Listeners are encouraged to open their ears to the music in all of its sounds and to experience the piece, as a whole, as a life-affirming expression of the human condition.

We premiered Jesse Limbacher’s Air as part of the fresh inc festival in June 2012. Working on the piece was like nothing we had ever done before as a trio. The process of exploring the effects in Air truly made me feel as if I had taken up a new instrument, quickly going between key clicks, traditional singing sound, whispering with speaking voices, blowing air, and speaking with heavily articulated percussive syllables. We all fell in love with this piece. It takes the listener on a journey of sound from air to lyrical singing.


Notes by Jennifer Woodrum

In an attempt to test both techno-logical advances and human limita-tions, the United States Air Force began experiments in 1958 to design parachute systems that would allow for high-altitude ejection from planes. The third and final test, Excelsior III, occurred on August 16, 1960, when Joseph Kittinger began a free fall from 102,800 feet. After 4 minutes and 36 seconds of free fall, Kittinger’s main parachute opened at 17,500 feet, allowing him to land safely on Earth’s surface. Excelsior takes this important event in history and explores its impact on the human psyche. The relativity of time allows this four-minute jump to be experienced through a 30-minute multi-media work.

From the first reading of this piece, our ensemble unanimously fell in love with Excelsior. The writing is boldly minimalist, challenging each of us to play our acoustic instruments with the rhythmic, technical, and pitch accuracy of a sophisticated keyboard instrument. I find myself blissfully floating off into other worlds and dimensions during some my long periods of rest, only to abruptly “snap out of it” for my next entrance. It’s like Mozart in that it’s either right or wrong and there’s nothing in between; and then at times, as you groove in perfect rhythmic synchrony with the violin, you feel as though you are on stage with members of Pink Floyd.

It was a joy to have the entire ensemble on stage premiering this fantastic work with itsnotyouitsme and Martha Culver. Special thanks go to those who carried out all of the behind the scenes work that went into making the notes appear on the paper in front of us.


In broken crib. tape, your arm
rocked of moving and
closed it again
lacked so lowingly
solid water all receiving
yellow elms scattered in mobile arrays
an antique light
come to staring ridge
of mercy. practicing simple breathing
beads of sweat, floating pupil
moth staggers goes out
slipping down bolt-shattered
eye trails. a hill of salt
snap to will
eleven cue balls misaligned
powered by, switch
pillow, points, face-planting
cannot connect
cannot connect

Red River

Notes by Jennifer Woodrum

Combining a chamber ensemble with the rhythmic power and drama of electronics, Red River traces the journey of the great Colorado River to its various destinations in the Southwest — Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon, the California desert — where its overuse is a source of endless controversy. Perhaps no body of water better illustrates the age-old confrontation of humankind and nature than the great Colorado, whose very name embodies this struggle. Its early designation as Red River was a nod to the rich color arising from its special silt, which ultimately ended up trapped behind various dams erected along its way. The name was changed to pay homage to the river’s source, high up in the Colorado Rockies at the Continental Divide — and that is where this work begins.

The piece begins high up in the Rockies at the Continental Divide as various streams accumulate into a formidable body of water. Quicksilver figuration in the piano is echoed by the other instruments, and the electronica beats move from ambient trip-hop to energetic drum ‘n bass. These various musical streams unite in “Interstate 70,” an epic American freeway that parallels the Colorado through the State of Utah, and the electronics disappear as the ensemble falls into a bumpy and capricious ride.

As we arrive at the central, lyrical “Zuni Visions,” we find ourselves floating high above the river in the red rocks of Arizona’s Grand Canyon. The Zuni Indians once lived in caves up in the walls of the Canyon, and the atmospheric electronics and bending clarinet melody imagine us looking down at the river with them. This ponderous movement ends abruptly with the arrival of enormous machinery. The ensuing “Hoover Slates Vegas” uses all manner of industrial beats in the electronics to conjure the building of the Hoover Dam — the great sink of Las Vegas — with a nod to the razzle-dazzle of that thirsty city. Exhausted by all of this human activity, the river (and the piece) moves to its final resting place, the huge Sonoran Desert in southeastern California. The trickles of the opening have now run dry, and all we are left with is the buzzing of a Sonoran cricket amidst the vast emptiness of the desert.

Album Details

Total Time: 64:00

Producer: Judith Sherman
Bill Maylone
Chicago Recording Company on June 5, September 27-28, 2013
Front Cover Design:
DM Stith
Inside Booklet & Inlay Card Design:
Nancy Bieschke
SnoStudios and Fifth House Ensemble
Publishers: Perpetual Spark (© 2011 Activist Music); Air (© 2012 Jesse Limbacher); Red River (© 2007 Aphra); Excelsior (© 2012 Burning Hands / Good Child Music Publishing)

Excelsior was commissioned through New Music USA’s Commissioning Music/USA program, which is made possible by generous support from the Mary Flagler Cary Charitable Trust, New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and the Helen F. Whitaker Fund.

© 2014 Cedille Records/Cedille Chicago

CDR 90000 148