Well today was an interesting morning. I don’t think I’ve ever woken up and left the house to go to an early morning concert (except for when I used to work at the Royal Albert Hall, when we had some freaky early starts at times). So the prospect of starting the day with a piece by Steve Reich was unusual to say the least!
Here’s the programme:
Steve Reich: Proverb / Theatre of Voices + Amadinda Percussion Group
Roger Marsh: Not a Soul but Ourselves / Theatre of Voices
David Lang: Little Match Girl Passion / Theatre of Voices (London Premiere)
Johann Johannsson: A set containing music from The Miners’ Hymns / Johann Johannsson ensemble
The opening piece by Reich was gloriously linear and aurally complex. Proverb does come out of the school of serial writing and as with most US minimalist composers, he finds interest in sonorities and using repeats as the almost direct metaphor of a retinal afterimage turned into music. The feel of the piece is generally sombre but in a mellow, soothing mould, not surprising since Perotin’s Viderunt Omnes was his inspiration for the piece. That very quality made it a great opener to the concert. It was also remarkable that Reich himself was present at the upstairs control box looking rather happy, with the performance and the reception by the audience. I can only imagine how long this weekend must have been for him as this was part 4 of a 6 part weekend-long bender in his honour!
The piece by Roger Marsh was an interesting concoction back from 1977, setting of texts from James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake for two male and two female voices, (which was commissioned by the Extended Vocal Techniques Ensemble, San Diego, while he was studying at University of California). An a capella / narrative piece that was using a conversational format between the female soloist and three person homophonous choir. Theatre of Voices did have the vibrancy required but somehow it was difficult to shed the very old fashioned fabric of the piece.
The third piece in the first half was for me a definite highlight. David Lang had a brief conversation with Nico Muhly about Little Match Girl Passion and he explained how he used Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion as the guiding light. He wilfully removed the references to Jesus, due to his Jewish faith, and substituted them with another victim, a literary one (the little match girl by Hans Christian Andersen). He also commented that when he went out, as an impressionable young man, and bought all of Reich’s albums he realised that he was a contemporary Christian composer (in essence making religious writing fair game for other modernist composers). The piece was commissioned by The Carnegie Hall and won him the 2008 Pulitzer Prize in Music the size of the space at St Luke’s just seemed perfect for it, as it is dominated by the sound of a bass drum, tubular bells and a glockenspiel marking each passage of the story.
The intimacy of the venue accentuated the drama and gave it an extra dimension. Passages of dense narration were interspersed with more luxuriant singing in a more neo-medieval form. The change of pace and at times breathless delivery were a great dramatic device that really moves forward the storytelling. One moment of reflection is afforded in part 9 (Have mercy, my God) where the singers are allowed to weave an intricate melody that creates a suitable moment for contemplation on the terrible fate of the heroine. And in true minimalist fashion it is at such a length that it reaches the end of the endurance of both singers and audience, creating a unique impetus for the completion of the Passion. The work may seem at first grim but he does highlight an alternative reality for the little girl, by pondering on her unification in glory with her beloved grandmother. And the piece concludes with essentially what is a universal end of one’s life next to the person they love. For the little girl that would be her grandmother for the audience/listener it could be dying next to their beloved partner in total peace and harmony with the world. A very interesting feeling of catharsis that I really did not expect. I’m hoping that his piece will be taken on by other ensembles as it is really worthy of many more performances.
After a brief interval of about 15 mins, we returned for Johann Johannsonn’s part of the concert. I have been a great fan of his since the release of his ibm1401 album. The completed film titled The Miners’ Hymns was premièred a couple of weeks ago at Tribeca Film Festival and will be released on DVD in the UK next month. And he presented selections from the soundtrack.
The playing of his ensemble was accompanied by semi abstracted coal mining footage, given a more graphic look by the use of a bright blue filter. It was a mix of pre recorded samples that were sequenced with a live string quartet and the composer playing the piano at particular moments. The score for the film has an elegiac tone with a march-like pacing but also has much more dreamy, softer passages. The finale was reinforced by a drum player who added an ever faster, more urgent pace to proceedings. Unfortunately due to the long length of the morning at St Luke’s about one third of the audience had departed by the end of his portion, which must have been disappointing for his troupe and Johannsson himself. The selections he played were very atmospheric, but in my view, not quite as transportive as his ibm1401. Which is a paradigm of extreme elegance, while elevating a kooky idea, creating a soundscape that is emotionally satisfying and full of aural glory. I’ll surely rent the film and see how his vividly paced score works with the movie.
This was surely quite an extraordinary way to start a Sunday and would recommend it to anyone…not just to hardcore minimalism fans (who tend to be a rather strait-laced male dominated slither of humanity).