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Originally published Sunday, May 5, 2013 at 5:58 AM

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Eric Banks: Esoterics founder an explorer of new vocal worlds

Seattle composer-conductor Eric Banks leads the choral group The Esoterics, which has garnered national honors and local distinction for its promotion of new works, works in other languages, and works that are just plain different.

Seattle Times arts writer

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Listen to the opening notes of Seattle composer-conductor Eric Banks’ “The Seven Creations,” and you’ll sense instinctively that you’re hearing something both ancient and utterly new.

Banks’ 73-minute “a cappella opera” is an astonishing work, and part of its wonder stems from its blending of some of the oldest known melodies in the world with a contemporary choral sensibility.

Much of its thematic material derives from the “Gathas,” Zoroastrian hymns first sung between 3,500 and 4,000 years ago. The text, which describes the world’s creation, destruction and restoration, is in Avestan, a sacred dialect given a written form in the 6th or 7th century A.D. by Zoroastrian priests.

At this point, you may be asking: Avestan? Zoroastrianism? A cappella opera ... ?

How much more esoteric can things get?

The question is apt, for the adventurous choral group that premieres and records Banks’ work is called The Esoterics. They’re celebrating their 20th anniversary this season and, in a city that’s teeming with sophisticated choral concert fare, The Esoterics have their own particular niche.

They champion the work of modern and contemporary composers, some you’ve heard of (Britten, Barber, Stravinsky) and some who, unless you’re immersed in the world of choral music, fly below your radar (Jaakko Mäntyjärvi, Donald Skirvin, Lars Johan Werle). They also steep themselves in a wide array of languages and cultures, as Banks has created choral settings for texts in Greek, Arabic, Swedish, Italian, Pahlavi, Estonian, Latin, Sanskrit, Hebrew, Japanese and Russian.

For such groundbreaking work, the Esoterics have been honored by Chorus America, a national organization that awarded the group the ASCAP Award for Adventurous Programming in 2001, 2003, 2006 and 2008. Ann Meier Baker, Chorus America president and CEO, says, “The fact that Eric is a very successful composer in his own right undoubtedly contributes to his success in presenting music that is current — both the better-known contemporary pieces or the hidden gems that Eric discovers.”

“There aren’t many choruses that actively search for the next masterpieces,” says Esoterics founding member Merideth Burness. “Many groups are content to perform music that remains in the past. There aren’t many groups that challenge their audience to think about social justice, other far-flung cultures of the world, the environment, or belief systems other than their own. Many groups are content to perform music for the single purpose of soothing our minds — but art has to have a greater purpose than that.”

Banks’ first large-scale work, “Twelve Qur-anic Visions,” premiered in 2005. “The Seven Creations” followed in 2008. Last year he had a triumph with “Approaching Ecstasy,” his collaboration with Olivier Wevers’ dance troupe, Whim W’Him. This year, he has a commission from Seattle Opera to compose three short youth operas on environmental themes.

The 44-year-old’s musical activities aren’t confined to Seattle, however. Last fall, he premiered a large work with San Francisco group Clerestory. He also is working on an instrumental piece for the VERGE ensemble in Washington, D.C., and has a commission from Kronos Quartet for a work for strings and female voices.

“I’m writing a piece in Latvian for a chorus in Atlanta,” he says, in his Capitol Hill studio. “I’m writing a piece in Cantonese for a chorus in Singapore. It’s kinda nuts right now.”

Banks’ endeavors seem so cosmopolitan that one might guess he enjoyed a peripatetic childhood that exposed him to all the cultures of the world. Army brat? Diplomat’s son?

Not exactly.

He was raised in Roscoe, N.Y., a small town in the Catskills known as “Trout Town USA” for its local fly-fishing. He graduated in a class of 18 students. There were no musicians in his family. Banks was left very much to his own devices when it came to seeking out the education he wanted and needed.

His first musical experience came at age 10, when he taught himself to play a neighbor’s piano. By the time he was 12, he earned enough money selling sweet corn at a farm stand to buy his own instrument.

After he taught himself to sight-read, he served as accompanist for a local chorus and as organist at his local church. He also played in his school’s concert band. It was a huge deal for him, he says, when he played in an actual orchestra at an All-State Festival during his junior year in high school.

At 17, Banks was accepted as a scholarship student at Yale where, for his first two years, he was an astronomy major. He also studied French, German and Russian “and other singing languages like Italian or Latin that I just couldn’t learn by osmosis.” Music eventually won out over his scientific interests.

He attended the University of Washington from 1990-1997, where he earned two master’s and two doctoral degrees. In 1991, he assembled a choral group to sing his Master’s recital.

By early 1993, the group had a name: The Esoterics, derived from the Greek adjective for “a close-knit community and the secret knowledge that its members share.”

The Esoterics didn’t start out as a vehicle for Banks’ own compositions. But in the last eight years, his work has made a high-vault jump in ambition and The Esoterics have embraced it.

“I have a group of willing singers,” he says modestly. “They like my music, I think, and they’re willing to do it. So I certainly don’t want to waste that opportunity.”

At the same time, he’s passionately interested in other people’s music. Each year, The Esoterics sponsor an international competition, Polyphonos, which awards $1,000 apiece to a U.S. composer, a non-U.S. composer and a young composer of any nationality who’s under 30.

They also have a busy recording career. They have their own record label, Terpsichore, which was picked up last August for distribution by esteemed classical label Naxos.

What is it about choral music that makes Banks so passionate about it?

“I think that the voice is probably the most expressive and vulnerable instrument,” Banks says. “I love the sound of many voices collected. I love the aspect of community that you get in a choir, even if it’s not a community choir. I love the universality of choral music, in that every culture on the planet sings together. They have different ceremonies, but there’s always singing.”

The challenges of the music, not to mention the challenges of singing in a wide array of languages, are taken in stride by the group.

Board member Bayta Maring, who joined the ensemble in 2005, jokes that after you’ve been in The Esoterics for a while, your attitude toward Banks’ cultural inquisitiveness and eclecticism can become blasé: “Zoroastrian mythology? Why not?”

It isn’t just The Esoterics’ repertoire, but Banks himself who’s a draw.

“I have never met anyone with a work ethic like Eric’s,” Maring says. “He truly thrives from work, and works constantly. And I think that in part comes from being such a self-made person.”

The group’s three-hour rehearsals, twice a week, are, she says, “like a workout for the brain.” The rigor of the music is bracing and has drawn The Esoterics a devoted local following.

That’s one reason he lives in Seattle, Banks says. “People are willing to pay money to hear art that challenges them rather than placates them.”

With The Esoterics, he has the vehicle to create and commission that kind of art and get it out into the world.

“What’s really great about The Esoterics is that they are fearless,” he says. “If you’re a singer and you want to be in a very comfortable community choir, this is not the one. ... If you want to be challenged by art and learn, and have the time to devote to it, then this is the right choir.”

Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@seattletimes.com

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