In 1976, Kenneth G. Mills founded what became the unique vocal group The Star-Scape Singers. His vision for the group was clear and concise. Said Maestro Mills, “My great interest in tonal palettes was an impetus to exploring the sphere of voices set free.” Indeed this 10-voice choir was unlike anything else ever heard.
After one of seven concerts at Carnegie Hall, the New York Times critic Tim Page wrote: “this is a flawless, superbly trained ensemble. Collectively, the 10 solo voices make up an instrument of bright and extraordinary varied capacity. They function as one — singing with piercing purity, without vibrato, and in flawless pitch.”
Liza Minelli named them “the greatest singing group in the world.” Premier record producer Phil Ramone remarked, “Whenever I hear the music of Star-Scape, it brings me a feeling of tremendous serenity as well as an emotional high!” Vocalist Melissa Manchester exclaimed: “Incredible! This is absolutely luminous music. It is like a shaft of light breaking through the clouds.”
Star-Scape’s accomplishment has been described as “a twentieth-century renaissance in choral sound.” What made this orchestra of voices so unusual? Perhaps it was the open voices, which released the overtone spectrum in such a way that the group sounded like a choir many times its size. Perhaps it was because each singer had at least a three-octave range, enabling an overlapping of vocal territories that extended the boundaries of tonal possibilities. Or it could have been their exquisitely accurate intonation and exceptional unity.
Star-Scape’s musical material ranged from traditional classics to unique arrangements of contemporary classics such as “What a Wonderful World” and “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” With over 150 original choral works primarily co-composed by Christopher Dedrick and Kenneth Mills, the magic of Star-Scape was not only in what they sang but also in how they sang it. Maestro Mills spent countless hours teaching each singer how to free the voice to such an extent that the walls of traditional boundaries tumbled down.
Star-Scape made four extensive European concert tours, including performances in the most celebrated halls in the world, in Paris, Vienna, Munich, Frankfurt, Moscow, St. Petersburg, Warsaw, and Prague. The ensemble performed in Geneva at the 40th anniversary celebration of the United Nations and inaugurated the 1986 World Year of Music with two-full length programs on Radio Vatican. The singers made history with their performances. In 1991, Maestro Mills and Star-Scape led the first non-military Victory Day celebrations down the famed Gorky Street of Moscow lined with an estimated 500,000 cheering Russians. Within the Kremlin walls, the singers broke the silence of the churches by singing the first note in 76 years, and were the invited guests to perform at the Church of the Ascension.
The following excerpt from Maestro Mills’s memoirs The Candy Maker’s Son, provides a most eloquent description of his Singers:
“The legacy of The Star-Scape Singers was launched in its simplicity, just as the tulip in a tight bulb of promise gradually opens its petals to the wonder of unalterable birth. It is man’s destiny to be born again, and born again, but who has ever seen that in the fullness of the blossoming, a fragrance, a tone, embraces the atmosphere, and man is filled with wonder at the beautiful sacrifice of separateness as he gains the immutable and immortal unity of Wonder.
“As the bulb buried out of sight is ever encouraged to blossom, so was each singer encouraged to burst forth from the shell of belief and break through the mentality of limitation to find, and then offer, his or her treasure trove of sound to a waiting world a-thirst for the rapture of freedom — the fatidic and tangible, yet intangible, considerations surrounding the awesome formation of a tonal baptism.”
Kenneth Mills and The Star-Scape Singers recorded seventeen albums including their major work, The Fire Mass. It was premiered in March 1986 at Carnegie Hall in New York City. The Fire Mass received its European premiere in Lausanne Cathedral, Switzerland, in August 1986, presented by the City of Lausanne and recorded by Radio Suisse Romande. Performances in Poland and Belgium followed during The Star-Scape Singers’ fourth European tour in autumn 1986. On June 7, 1988, they presented this ninety-minute work at Roy Thomson Hall, Toronto. This performance was broadcast nationally by CBC radio. The Fire Mass was heard to great public and critical acclaim during the ensemble’s tour of the Soviet Union in summer 1988, in Riga (Latvia), Vilnius (Lithuania), Moscow, Leningrad, and Tallinn (Estonia).
“The Fire Mass is an extensive a cappella vocal setting of the full Latin text of the Ordinary of the Mass in its six sections. Interwoven with the traditional Latin is the English poetry of of Kenneth Mills which was chosen for its relevance to the universal essence of such celebration. Conceived for a ten-to-twelve voice ensemble, it is tonal yet avant-garde sonority, harmony and rhythm. The first edition was drafted in the first half of 1985. Throughout the year and into 1986, in rehearsal with The Star-Scape Singers and at the keyboard, Dr. Mills sculpted, edited and refined the work, polishing its facets and lifting the entire musical concept off the page and into the inspired realm befitting such a text. Thus, it is to him that this work is dedicated.” – Christopher W. Dedrick, Co-composer