Musical ecumenism in Wales (i)

One of my great musical pleasures over the last few years has been my visits to the Vale of Glamorgan Festival, where I have just been for the fourth time. On each occasion I have returned home enriched by the discovery of intriguing compositional voices brought to South Wales from all parts of the globe by the untiring advocacy and unfailingly open ears of festival director John Metcalf, whose artistic policy has consistently been marked by a refusal to pander to musical fashion and a commitment to favouring content over superficial effect. It was through the Vale of Glamorgan Festival that I for example came across the symphonies of Australia’s Ross Edwards, the extraordinary choral works of the Dane Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen or the deeply spiritual music of Galina Grigorjeva, a Ukrainian living in Estonia who is rapidly emerging as one of Eastern Europe’s most potently expressive composers of sacred music in the generation after Arvo Pärt, Valentin Silvestrov and Sofia Gubaidulina.

It was Galina Grigojeva’s work, as well as that of John Metcalf himself, which led me to Wales last week in order to attend the first performances of their new Psalm-settings commissioned as part of the SOLI DEO GLORIA Psalms Project, sung by the unique Estonian 13-member vocal ensemble Vox Clamantis. Last year’s collaboration with the festival had borne fruit in the form of a wonderful Psalm 141 by Gavin Bryars premièred by the stunning Ars Nova Copenhagen, so inevitably my question when travelling to Cardiff was whether the two new Psalms commissions would reach the same artistic standard. I am happy to answer with a resounding yes on both counts, with the pieces delivering the musical goods in completely different yet complementary ways.

Galina Grigorjeva’s compositional style is both wide-ranging and technically impressive; she is equally at home when writing in a highly accessible diatonic idiom as when producing intricate atonal choral soundscapes whose texture is at times reminiscent of Penderecki (Nature Morte, 2008). The first Eastern Orthodox composer to join the SDG Psalms Project roster, Grigorjeva provided us with an invigorating setting of Psalm 103 which, in spite of its English text, is clearly rooted in Byzantine tradition. As such, it is very much in keeping with her previous choral works such as the riveting On Leaving (1999) which had alerted me to its composer as soon as I heard the ear-tingling first seconds of the piece sung by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir under Paul Hillier.

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In our public pre-concert discussion, Galina Grigorjeva explained that her choice of words had been motivated by Psalm 103’s emphasis on a Divine – as opposed to merely human – strength which is badly needed in today’s world. If this strength was already well conveyed by the modestly-sized forces of Vox Clamantis, I found myself imagining the full visceral impact that Grigorjeva’s Bless the Lord might have when sung by a larger choir (preferably with the assistance of a few stray Volga boatmen to underpin the bass section!).

The contrast between the eternal character of God and this-worldly transience structures the setting; after a bold, largely homophonic opening section recounting God’s constant redemptive action (‘Bless the Lord, o my soul, and forget not all his benefits’), there is a transition to a more fluid, fleeting texture (marked by skilful canonic writing) at the lines

‘As for man, his days are as grass, as a flower of the field, so he flourisheth. For the wind passeth over it and it is gone; and the place thereof shall know it no more’

With Galina Grigorjeva in St Augustine’s Church, Penarth

Chordal declamation then returns at the pivotal verse ‘but the mercy of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting upon them that fear him’ and continues unabated until the final acclamation ‘Bless the Lord, all his works in all places of his dominion; Bless the Lord, o my soul’. Grigorjeva’s Orthodoxy comes through in the the resolutely theocentric focus of her setting, whose affirmative tone nonetheless avoids any kind of cheap triumphalism.

John Metcalf’s choice of Psalm 150, Laudate Dominum, as the text for his Psalm-setting might have created expectations of a similarly robust treatment of a supremely musical text which has inspired many composers from Schütz to Bruckner, Franck and Stravinsky. However, both as a composer and as a frequently counter-cultural champion of New Music, John Metcalf has never been one to conform to received ideas. His Laudate Dominum offers us a purposefully understated work of great delicacy and subtle harmonic shifts, evoking a feeling of hushed wonder at the mystery of God’s universe (‘laudate eum in firmamento virtutis ejus‘/’praise Him in the firmament of his power’). Musically, this sense of worshipful humility is symbolized by Metcalf’s self-limitation in terms of compositional means, the writing being constrained by the constant appearance of the note G (in various octaves) at every moment of the piece in sonorities varying from single notes to rich 8-part pan-diatonic harmonic clusters. The success of the work lies in Metcalf’s ability to make highly expressive music on the basis of what might at first seem a dry compositional exercise, while consistently refusing clichéd solutions. No concessions are made to stereotypical word-painting; although the choir reaches an obligatory fortissimo at the words laudate eum in cymbalis jubilationis (literally, ‘cymbals of jubilation’), there is no artificial interruption of the work’s stately, dignified pace for the sake of obvious textual illustration, as if to remind us that jubilation is essentially a matter of an inner spiritual state and only secondarily one of external expression. Likewise Psalm 150’s reference to ‘timbrel and dance‘ (‘laudate eum in tympano et choro) is reflected in the music’s slow, exquisitely choreographed movement, conjuring up images of the silent motion of the heavenly bodies. Two precedents for this type of treatment spring to mind. The first is the conclusion of Henryk Górecki’s vastly underrated ‘Copernican’ Symphony n.2., a true ‘cosmic liturgy’ in music if ever there was one,  a work in which the Polish composer (a visitor to the Vale of Glamorgan Festival in 1994) sets words from Psalms 145, 6 and 135 alongside texts from Copernicus’s De revolutionibus orbium coelestium [‘On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres’]. A second, more well-known example is the quiet, rapt final ‘Laudate’ of Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms. John Metcalf’s insistence during our discussion that he deliberately avoided listening to the work of the great Russian composer while writing only makes this convergence more striking. While the Psalms undoubtedly possess extraordinary generative power in their capacity to elicit new responses from successive generations of artists, there is something no less extraordinary in their gravitational pull, in the frequent underlying similarity of these artistic responses across barriers of time and space. As in the famous epigram of Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr (1808-1890), plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose – the more things change, the more they stay the same.’

These two first performances on their own would have been enough to make the Vox Clamantis concert a memorable one. Equally remarkable, however, was the rest of their highly imaginative and ecumenical programme, which will be the subject of the second part of this post.

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John Metcalf (centre-right) with members of Vox Clamantis and conductor Jaan-Eik Tulve

A selection of works by Galina Grigorjeva can be heard online at: http://www.reverbnation.com/galinagrigorjeva

More information on the music of John Metcalf can be found at http://www.johnmetcalf.co.uk/

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Silvestrov at 75

It may be an event which has largely passed under the Contemporary Music radar, but today is the 75th birthday of the great Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov, whose work has been featured in a number of articles on this blog. Silvestrov may not be as well-known a name as other composers of his generation from the former Soviet Union such as Sofia Gubaidulina (1931-) and Arvo Pärt (1935-), but he is the author of a huge and unique body of music, including works such as the Fifth Symphony (1980-82), the cycle of 24 Silent Songs (1974-77), the violin symphony Dedication (1990-91) or Requiem for Larissa (1997-99) which can be said to have become cult classics.

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Silvestrov’s dream-like and sometimes frighteningly intimate, private world may not be to all tastes. Certainly listeners who are searching for easy gratification or facile effect will find little here. To those of us, however, who have fallen under its spell there are few composers active today whose music is as consistently mesmeric or emotionally rich. Not merely on account of the notes, which often have a studied anonymity to them, especially on the many occasions on which Silvestrov deliberately restricts himself to a pre-1900 harmonic vocabulary, but also and even perhaps primarily because of what lies between the notes. That which eludes rationalizing analysis, which can only be sensed intuitively. Silvestrov is arguably unparalleled in his attention to the mysterious, indefinable boundary between sound and silence, to minute fluctuations in mood and pulse whose painstaking notation makes his scores far denser than one might suspect on a first hearing. Although he playfully describes his series of limpid Bagatelles as ‘pet animals’ in comparison to the ‘tigers’ of his larger, more philosophical works, to perform even the simplest piano piece of Silvestrov with the requested attention to detail – subtle shading of tone, almost imperceptible shifts in tempo, pedalling as a quasi-autonomous musical parameter – can at times feel like an impossibly demanding task. One that has something of the feel of a metaphysical exercise (Silvestrov’s output for piano includes works with overtly sacred titles such as Sanctus, Benedictus or Hymn 2001 as well as the haunting, quasi-Mozartian The Messenger which doubles as the Agnus Dei of the Requiem). A contemplative attitude is a pre-requisite on the part of the player, who finds herself not so much performing a ‘piece of music’ as meditating on the nature of Music in a supra-personal sense; the composer regards himself not as a creator bringing something into being but rather as the channel through which a pre-existing universal Music flows. Each new work merely continues where other composers of the past (Schubert, Schumann, Wagner, Tchaikovsky …) have left off,  offering one more expression of ‘the song of the world about itself’.[1]

In recent years, Silvestrov’s catalogue has been unexpectedly expanded by a remarkable series of choral works on liturgical texts written for the Kiev Chamber Choir under their director Mykola Hobdych. A first group of these were released by ECM in 2009 on the critically acclaimed CD Sacred Choral Works , including the unearthly Litany and a Diptych which can also be found on a Latvian Radio Choir recording for the GB label of Gavin Bryars, who described it is ‘the most beautiful music I had ever heard’ when he came across the piece without knowing the identity of its author in 2003. In conjunction with Silvestrov’s 75th birthday year, ECM will next month be releasing a second album of Silvestrov’s works for choir dating from 2006-2008 which may not become 2012 ‘s best-selling release but will certainly be on my wishlist.

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Although the ECM New Series recordings of Valentin Silvestrov’s music (together with Gidon Kremer’s compelling performance of Dedication with the Munich Philharmonic on TELDEC) probably constitute the best introduction to his catalogue, there is also a fair amount of stimulating live concert footage available on the internet. Silvestrov’s inimitable quasi-improvisatory piano playing can for example be heard at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3gdgEFTvFzE , while he can be seen rehearsing his recent String Quartet n.3 with the Kronos Quartet at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-16758798 . His contribution to Schott Music’s multi-composer ‘Petrushka Project’ can be heard online at http://www.petrushka-project.com/works/composers/show,20856.html For serious devotees, a dense but richly rewarding book of interviews  ‘To Wait for Music’ (in Russian), accompanied by a DVD-ROM with most of Silvestrov’s works and unique home-recorded piano sketches can be ordered from the Ukrainian publishers Duh i Litera http://duh-i-litera.com

[1] https://www.eamdc.com/news/Valentin-Silvestrov-Turns-75/

In search of vital signs (2)

Three days prior to the first performance of Roxanna Panufnik’s Love Endureth in Westminster Cathedral I had been in Wales for a concert given by the remarkable 12-voice ensemble Ars Nova Copenhagen under conductor Søren Kinch Hansen at All Saints’ Church, Penarth in the Vale of Glamorgan Festival.  Nothing suggested that this would draw a major turnout: All Saints’, though a pleasant enough church, is hardly one of Wales’s most prestigious buildings, and the two commissioned composers with works on the programme (Gavin Bryars and myself) both had problems finding it! Ars Nova may be a Grammy-winning choir, but they are scarcely household names in the UK, and they were performing an evening of music comprised exclusively of works written by living composers. If broadcasting Beethoven 7 over a PA system can prevent loitering, as we discovered thanks to Philip Hensher in the previous post, then this repertoire ought to have provoked a veritable public stampede in the opposite direction.

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All Saints’ Church, Penarth

Except that it didn’t. For some inexplicable reason the church was packed with around 250 listeners – a good proportion of them local residents of this small seaside town just outside Cardiff. And listen they certainly did. The evening began with Three Stages, a joyfully anarchic soundscape of Copenhagen street cries, birdsong and Renaissance melody by Danish composer Pelle Gudmunsen-Holmgreen. As an extraordinary extended exercise in choral acrobatics it had already made my jaw drop when I heard Ars Nova rehearse it in a studio at Welsh National Opera the previous evening, not least because it was very evident that this is a piece that gives the choir immense pleasure (I saw none of your typical ‘Contemporary Music Scowls’ here). But in concert Ars Nova’s output of vocal energy – in an acoustic doing them no favours – was even more remarkable: I was not the only member of the audience pinching myself in order to remember that we were hearing only a dozen rather than forty voices. This was no ‘percentage’ singing in the sense of trying to economize vocally in order to survive the very demanding and exposed 75-minute programme; instead each work from first to last (Australian Anne Boyd’s hypnotic As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams) was performed with equal passion and commitment.

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With Ars Nova Copenhagen. Photo: Susan Scheid

It is not for me to comment on my own Spiritus divinae lucis gloriae – other than to emphasize the conviction and plasticity with which Ars Nova performed it – but I and many others were very touched by Gavin Bryars’ new setting of Psalm 141, commissioned for our SDG Psalms Project. Simple without ever sounding banal, its plaintively flowing chordal writing marked by subtle and well-judged harmonic sideslips, Bryars’ Psalm 141 is deeply expressive while never becoming cloying, and we hope that many choirs will find performing it a richly rewarding experience.

None of what I have just said, however, fully explains the size and enthusiastic engagement of the audience in Penarth; my intuition is that at least three additional factors were at work. One is the fact that the Vale of Glamorgan Festival’s artistic director John Metcalf has over the years quietly succeeded in creating a discreet but very real cult following for what I would term ‘new music with a human touch’ in South Wales. As the Guardian‘s reviewer put it, the festival ‘manages to extend its audience’s aural horizons with an approach that appears benign but is actually quite radical’.

Secondly, although the legendary Welsh choral culture may no longer play the role in local communities that it did in its heyday (I can recall attending church services there as a teenager where the standard of voices was such that you could have recruited congregational members at random for an opera chorus), there is no doubt that the first association of music in Wales remains with choral singing rather than orchestras or solo instruments.

Thirdly, there is what might be termed the ‘Arvo Pärt effect’. Having now observed a number of audiences at concerts where Pärt’s music has been on the programme, I have consistently found that the audience brings a peculiar energy of its own – the expectation not merely of being treated to a performance of artistic excellence, but rather of experiencing something on the level of human communication that goes beyond the purely musical. In the case of the Vale of Glamorgan Festival, this may have not a little to do with Pärt’s 75th birthday visit to Wales in 2010 for a festival concert featuring his 4th Symphony (as well as the SDG-sponsored first performance of the orchestral version of his piece In Spe): my guess is that a fair proportion of the Penarth audience would have remembered seeing or indeed meeting the composer in person. Which is not an experience that you forget in a hurry.

Ars Nova Copenhagen, who together with their founder Paul Hillier have worked intensively with Arvo Pärt, performed three pieces (all in English) by him whose brevity was inversely proportional to their impact: the haunting Deer’s Cry (a setting of the prayer known as ‘St Patrick’s Breastplate’ commissioned by the Louth Contemporary Music Society), O Holy Mother of God and Morning Star. It was the latter which particularly caught my attention; commissioned by Durham University for its 175th anniversary in 2007, Morning Star sets a luminous text found above the tomb of the Venerable Bede in Durham Cathedral, and which was printed on the Penarth concert poster:

“Christ is the morning star, who when the night of this world is past
brings to his saints the promise of the light of life and opens everlasting day.”

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Bede’s tomb in Durham cathedral. Photo: Robin Widdison

In referring to Bede, Morning Star follows the procedure also found elsewhere in Pärt’s recent output of finding a material connection between the location of the commissioner and the heritage of Christian spirituality. Some examples of this are Cecilia, vergine romana – written for the Accademia Santa Cecilia in Rome , Littlemore Tractus for choir and organ (commissioned by the Vicar of Littlemore for the 2001 bicentenary of John Henry Newman’s birth and setting words from a sermon preached by him in Littlemore) or La Sindone (‘The Shroud’) – composed for the city of Turin in conjunction with the 2006 Winter Olympics). Morning Star is a typically Pärtian combination of the ancient and the post-modern; written with characteristic transparency it manifests the composer’s unique ability to evoke a whole spiritual and emotional world in the space of a few minutes and with a bare minimum of notes. Like so much of Pärt’s music, it is as limpid as Mozart’s Ave verum corpus or a Schubert Moment Musical, and yet it also has something of the spontaneous directness of a Lennon/McCartney single of a type that Western art-music has not tended to generate for a very long time. Ars Nova delivered it with great power but also a complete lack of affectation which left me wondering – is this a modern-day Bach chorale, or the perfect pop song, or both? As we noted in the previous post, Philip Hensher may think that ‘classical’ music will have died a death from incomprehensibility in a century’s time, but not if composers communicate with their listeners like this.

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As a coda I would like to suggest an experiment fit for Pentecost. Participation doesn’t unfortunately come entirely free, but as you’ll see it’s not very expensive either. Ars Nova Copenhagen include Morning Star on their consistently excellent new CD of works by Arvo Pärt entitled Creator Spiritus. I would myself highly recommend getting the album in its entirety as I find it quite mesmeric, but this not strictly necessary for our experiment. Here are the instructions:

1. Go to your favourite mp3 music store and type ‘Pärt Creator Spiritus Copenhagen’ into the search engine

2. Once you’ve been directed to the Harmonia Mundi recording, shell out $0.99 or the equivalent in euros, roubles, Uruguayan pesos etc. for Morning Star

3. Download it to your habitual mobile audio device

4. Activate the ‘loop’ or ‘auto repeat’ option

5. Take a brief look at the text (above)

6. Taking any chewing gum out of your ears and turning off any reality TV shows you may have running in the background first, close your eyes, adjust the volume to a decent level and listen to the piece at least 3 times. Or as long as it takes for the music to get ‘inside’ you, so that you reach the stage of ‘active listening’ where you can anticipate where the piece is headed and breathe together with it. If you feel so inclined, treat Morning Star as a prayer, meditation or mindfulness exercise. If that’s not your thing, then just listen.

7. Leave a comment in the box on this blog.

Am I the only one who thinks that if the 462,077,235 people who have been viewing Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance on YouTube could just make it through steps 1-6 the world might be a different place?

Veni Creator Spiritus …

The death of classical music? In search of vital signs (1)

We’ve been here before, haven’t we. The prophets of doom have been clearing their throats again to announce the impending death of classical music. The source of the latest jeremiad is English novelist and journalist Philip Hensher, writing in the British Independent newspaper on May 18, who begins his lament by noting that the London Underground has taken to playing the opening of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony over public address tannoys – but not in order to lift the spirits of weary commuters. Instead, Henscher notes, it seems that researchers in the field of sociopathology have come to the conclusion that the general public is so averse to classical music that anyone tempted to loiter with malicious intent will be sent running in the opposite direction. Beethoven as crime deterrent – a depressing sign of the times:

‘Even 20 or 30 years ago, the great history of art music was something of general interest and respect. Now, it has turned into, at best, a specialist interest, and at worst something to move people along rapidly in a public place. Are we seeing the end of art music? Is our generation the last that will see it as anything but a remote and specialised interest in this country?’

As a symptom of this malaise, Hensher points to the way in which serious music competitions such as BBC Young Musician of the Year (which I can remember following with great interest as a teenager, and which first brought several friends of mine to public attention) have lately been completely upstaged in the media by celebrity ‘talent’ shows whose message is that years of painstaking study, discipline and noble aspirations are a nothing but a waste of time in our karaoke era:

‘There is space on television for people who can’t conduct and can’t sing – Maestro and Popstar to Operastar – but not for people who can. Soon, we will be asked to admire a pretty girl playing a first-month piano exercise with elaborate orchestration behind her. The art acquired over a lifetime will be sought out for admiration by a diminishing few.’

Such words may sound elitist and a little cruel, but it has to be admitted that there is something distinctly strange in reading about a TV programme such as ‘Maestro at the Opera’ in which celebs – not professional musicians – battle it out for the right to conduct an act of Puccini’s La Bohème at London’s Royal Opera House. You can make up your own mind as to whether you find the rationale offered by the ROH itself convincing or not, but it is worth remembering (a fact of which the general public is not necessarily aware) that the opera houses of the world function thanks to largely invisible music staff, many of them endowed with encyclopedic knowledge of the operatic art and remarkable talent in several disciplines – including the extremely difficult job of singer psychotherapy – who will never be given such opportunities.

Hensher pinpoints what he sees as the collapse of ‘cultural confidence’, the notion that ‘everyone can and might enjoy art music, if they’re exposed to it’, as having occurred over a period spanning the last decade of the twentieth century and the first of the new millenium. For the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, cue BBB: Bernstein and the Berlin Phil. playing Beethoven 9. For the twentieth anniversary of the event in 2009, bring on rock band Tokio Hotel: readers can draw their own conclusions from Hensher’s comparison …

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There is much with which I can sympathize in this article – Hensher’s point is surely well-taken that one of the spiritual ailments of Britain (and by extension the affluent West in general) is the mass media’s reduction of anything and everything to the level of superficial entertainment. That the deeper significance of art-music seems to be a closed book to much of Western society is indisputable. Indeed, there is a certain irony in the fact that it is not in the countries that birthed it but in once-colonized nations such as Venezuela or the Democratic Republic of Congo (which might have been thought likely to react against Western classical music as an alien cultural expression imposed by imperialist aggression) that its transformative social potential has been grasped most spectacularly through participatory grass-roots initiatives such as El Sistema and the life-affirming work of the astonishing Kinshasa Symphony Orchestra.

And yet I cannot find myself agreeing with his wrist-slitting prognosis for the future of classical music:

‘I will miss it. Probably some readers will miss it, too. But in a hundred years, no one will. It will be incomprehensible, dead, and gone, and very few people will care.’

It may well be that the elite cultural institutions mentioned by Henscher (national public broadcasters, the great European orchestras and the hallowed canon of the Austro-German symphonic corpus that constitutes their core repertoire) are indeed in decline. But it strikes me that to say that in a century’s time classical music will be as obsolete and indecipherable as cuneiform is masochistic in the extreme. What if Philip Hensher is simply not looking in the right places, particularly in the nooks and crannies away from the limelight where in my experience some of the most interesting things are often to be found?

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I will not attempt a systematic refutation of the article’s conclusion, but merely point to a few signs of life that I myself observed on a recent whistle-stop visit to Britain. On May 13 I was at Westminster Cathedral in London, where SDG’s latest Psalm commision Love Endureth by Roxanna Panufnik had its first airing with the Cathedral choir under Martin Baker during Vespers. It is difficult to convey in writing the impact of this highly unusual sung liturgy (performed almost exclusively in Latin), projected by the choir from the East End out into the vast space of this truly cavernous building. Words such as ‘timeless’ and ‘numinous’ come readily to mind but cannot replace the sensory and spiritual experience of the moment. Westminster Cathedral is definitely what the early Celtic Christians used to call a ‘thin place’, where the veil separating the realm of worldly appearances from a greater reality of ‘things in themselves’ (to use Immanuel Kant’s categories) somehow seems less opaque than elsewhere. This is all the more notable given the Cathedral’s location in the hubbub of London’s commercial West End, a backdrop against which it stands as an important witness – in a manner not dissimilar to the church of St Gervais-St Protais in Paris, home to the Fraternité monastique de Jérusalem, or the Kaiser-Wilhelmgedächtniskirche in the heart of West Berlin – to alternative, counter-cultural values whose importance an increasing number of people inside and outside of organized Christianity are beginning to realize.

Westminster Catholic Cathedral

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Westminster Catholic Cathedral

Listening to Roxanna Panufnik’s haunting setting of Psalm 135/136, whose Sephardic Jewish melodic inflections seemed to merge seamlessly with the Cathedral’s neo-Byzantine architecture, it was as if the Biblical narrative of the liberation of Israel from Egyptian oppression (the prototypical anti-imperialistic narrative of the Judeo-Christian tradition) referred to in the text was tantalizingly made present for a few brief minutes. After the opening invocation, ‘Praise the Lord, for he is good: for His steadfast love endureth for ever’, a hauntingly poetic first section praises God’s work in creation, characterized by the gentle undulation of slow chordal streams in bitonal motion, with a mellifluous soprano solo floating above them. Love Endureth then builds to a compelling climax in its second part, in which the Hebrew text Ki L’olam chasdo (‘For forever His mercy’) is treated as an ostinato over which the choir recalls the Exodus in a powerful declamation:

‘Who brought Israel from among them: With a mighty hand and a stretched out arm: Who divided the Red Sea into parts: And brought out Israel through the midst thereof: And overthrew Pharaoh and his host in the Red Sea.’

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Westminster Cathedral Choir School

As the choir reached Love Endureth‘s culmination in the moments prior to the return of the opening refrain, the music seemed to flare up in such a way as to evoke the fiery epiphanic language of the Old Testament ‘prophetic imagination’, to use the title of a memorable study by theologian Walter Brueggemann. Were it not for the awareness that I would probably have been promptly been escorted out of the building by Cathedral security for creating a Public Disturbance, I might well have exclaimed the words of the prophet Elisha in 2 Kings 2:20 on seeing his mentor Elijah taken up to heaven in a whirlwind aboard a chariot of flame: ‘My father! My father! The chariots and horsemen of Israel!’

In attempting to describe this visionary moment it is important to emphasize the role of the Cathedral acoustic as what I can only term an ‘active presence’; prior to the service Roxanna and I had both attended the final rehearsal of the piece at the Westminster Cathedral Choir School (a constant hive of musical activity where Cathedral musicians Martin Baker and Peter Stephens march the choir through the huge daily quantity of liturgical music with remarkable efficiency and consummate professionalism), and although the sonic effect of Love Endureth in the modest rehearsal space was already impressive, the aural result in the Cathedral itself was on another plane altogether.

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Talking with people at a small reception afterwards, it was clear that I was not the only one to have found hearing Love Endureth intensely moving, and to come away from the Cathedral changed in some small way, sensing that something had happened during the liturgy. Which surely has to be one of the hallmarks of authentic worship. Sitting next to me in the nave was someone whose normal weekly encounter with the Psalms takes the less exotic form of responsive speaking in a predominantly African Methodist Church (and who was on his way to a Sunday evening service in a South London soccer stadium); as he remarked, the Westminster Cathedral Vesper service may be an acquired taste as far as its ancient language and form are concerned, but it would be a great shame were it not to exist.

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Roxanna Panufnik with the score of ‘Love Endureth’

Did someone notice any of this apart from the Cathedral congregation and maybe a few stray tourists stumbling into the building from the piazza outside? Maybe not. This particular first performance almost certainly went unobserved by the official media channels and London music critics. But so what? With the advent of social networking via the internet my hunch is that an ever greater role in the dissemination of New Music will be played not by print journals but by the infectious enthusiasm of individual bloggers eager to share their personal experience of live events with friends and other internauts. And the number of such freelance commentators is potentially far greater than we might at first think, especially when you consider that the première of Love Endureth was part of the larger London-wide Festival of Contemporary Church Music held from May 12 to 20 in venues across the city.

The programme of this festival makes for instructive reading, as it seems to indicate that, contrary to all the talk of the demise both of ‘classical’ music and of Western Christianity, there is actually a quiet explosion in artistic creation for the Church happening right now: the Festival listing contains no fewer than 18 world premières, including contributions by highly-respected names in the British contemporary music scene (Julian Anderson, David Matthews, Judith Bingham) and the active participation of top publishers Faber & Faber. If the London Festival of Contemporary Church Music’s visibility is not as great as might be expected given the sheer amount of activity represented, it is only because of the geographical spread of festival events which seem to have assembled themselves in a ‘bottom-up’ fashion rather than being concentrated in one place as a result of vertical, ‘top-down’ central planning. This kind of ’emergent structure’, to use a fashionable technical term, may fly somewhat in the face of our traditional concept of ‘event management’, but my intuition is that it represents the shape of the future: it passes relatively undetected to the untrained eye because its overall shape can only be seen from a certain altitude (what looks diffuse at ground level looks highly concentrated from a bird’s eye view, as you can test by zooming in and out of a landscape on Google Earth with the ‘places of interest’ activated).

The transition from top-down to bottom-up thinking characterizes many cultural trends in the age of Wikipedia, the OpenStreetMap project or ‘crowdfunding’. The basic principle embodied in all three is that involving as many collaborators as possible within an open source structure with a bare minimum of overall steering allows something to be generated that  is more than the sum of its parts. From Philip Hensher’s article it is not clear that he has really grasped the potential for the future of classical music represented by this innovative approach to stimulating artistic creativity (although it should be remarked in passing that the Church is probably not the first place he would look, given that he is not exactly a friend of organized religion, even if he can on occasion bring himself to say a kind word for the Martin Niemollers of this world).

A further intriguing example of what I mean is an ongoing initiative of which I also became aware during my visit to Westminster Cathedral, this time in the field of organ music. The intrepid British organist William Whitehead (who was present at the May 13 Vespers service) has embarked on a huge project to fill in the missing pages in J.S. Bach’s Orgelbüchlein that JSB left blank save for the titles of chorales encompassing the whole Church Year. The 118(!!) projected pieces to be based on these chorale melody will be written by a wide variety of composers (contributions are being actively solicited over at http://www.orgelbuechlein.co.uk/rules/ ) from students to established professionals, and will range from works for beginners to settings intended for certified 8th Dan black-belt organ virtuosi.

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It is perhaps interesting to note a conceptual convergence between William Whitehead’s scheme and the recent launch of Schott Music’s  ‘Petrushka Project’, a large-scale endeavour to generate 70 new pieces of piano music which will subsequently be available via Schott’s digital platform notafina and on a YouTube ‘Petrushka Channel’. 21 of these compositions will be aired at the Juilliard School’s Paul Hall on June 19 by pianists Michael Brown and Christopher McKiggan, including pieces by composers such as Peteris Vasks, Robert Beaser, Bernard Rands and Viktor Suslin, with further performances in the pipeline in London, Mainz and Beijing.

Another name appearing on the Petrushka Project roster which immediately drew my attention is Gavin Bryars, who will be one of the heroes of part two of my search for vital signs demonstrating that reports of classical music’s impending doom are premature. We’ll be keeping a close watch on our musical ECG and EEG monitors, so stay tuned.

Further details concerning Roxanna Panufnik’s Love Endureth, and her upcoming Warner Classics CD on which it will be included, can be found at http://www.loveabide.com/cd-tracks/

Kenotic logic: Cynthia Bourgeault and Gavin Bryars

As those of you who come to this blog via our front page www.sdgmusic.org probably already know, next week is going to be an intense one for SOLI DEO GLORIA, with three of our newly-commissioned works being sung for the first time. In addition they will all be coming to life on British soil, which curiously represents fresh territory in terms of SDG’s activity in the area of New Music. On Thursday May 10th the Grammy-nominated Danish vocal ensemble Ars Nova Copenhagen be giving the first performances of pieces by living legend Gavin Bryars (Psalm 141) and myself (the choral cycle Spiritus divinae lucis gloriae) at the Vale of Glamorgan Festival in Wales, while three days later the choir of Westminster Catholic Cathedral in London will be singing a fascinating new English/Hebrew setting of Psalm 135/136 by Roxanna Panufnik during Sunday Vespers.

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Westminster Cathedral

I will certainly be reporting back on what should be an exciting few days, but before I head off in the direction of the Eurotunnel some equally serious business is afoot here in Paris on Monday, when I will have the privilege of conducting a radio interview on Fréquence Protestante with Rev. Cynthia Bourgeault, one of the most compelling contemporary writers and presenters working in the area of contemplative Christian spirituality. An Episcopal priest who spends much of the year at the Trappist hermitage on Eagle Island, Maine, Rev. Bourgeault is currently in France and will be speaking at the American Church in Paris on May 10. I had already known her work for some time through some captivating audio-visual footage of her presentations on Centering Prayer as well as her daring yet consistently responsible re-appraisal of the relevance of Mary Magdalene (the subject of her book The Meaning of Mary Magdalene: Discovering the Woman at the Heart of Christianity) for the Church in a post-Da Vinci Code era. What I did not realize, however, until I began to do some a little exploration of her page at http://www.contemplative.org/cynthia.html in preparation for Monday’s interview, is that Cynthia Bourgeault is also a trained musicologist of impeccable pedigree, having studied here in France with none other than Nadia Boulanger. Not only that, but she also has a keen interest in New Music, having collaborated with the Aspen composer Ray Vincent Adams in creating a musical Passion setting to which she contributed the libretto .

Those interested in exploring Cynthia’s work will find a rich variety of resources on her web page, including a moving tribute to one of our mutual spiritual heroes, Brother Roger of Taizé and a thought-provoking series of ‘observations and reflections on the Future of Church’ (written in dialogue with Christopher Page); the issues on which she touches with great creativity are so wide-ranging that I feel a little daunted by the task of restricting our broadcast conversation on Monday to a mere 25 minutes!  There is a well-nigh infinite range of topics we could discuss, but I suppose that if I had to focus on one key question it would be this – what is the significance of the re-discovery of the contemplative tradition not only for the Church but for our contemporary Western civilization, and why is this re-discovery happening at the present time? It is certainly a remarkable phenomenon that over the last few decades, an increasing number of people (including myself) have been drawn to the notion that the spiritual way forward for the West lies at least partially in ressourcement, a retrieval of ‘the sources’ of ancient Judeo-Christian spirituality (in which, as Thomas Merton and others such as Huston Smith and Harvey Cox have pointed out for a long time, many points of contact are to be found with the world’s other great wisdom traditions). Lest there be any misunderstanding here,  I am not speaking about some archaizing, anti-scientific retreat into dogmatic religious certainties in the face of the perceived godlessness of late modernity. It may surprise some who associate monasticism with a quaint nostalgia for a distant bygone era to discover that Cynthia Bourgeault’s work is peppered with allusions to quantum physics and contemporary neuroscience. Such references are doubtless bound to raise the blood pressure of proponents of a reductionistic scientism such as the polemical blogger PZ Myers, whose current undignified spat with Montreal neuroscientist Mario Beauregard (co-author of The Spiritual Brain)  over at www.salon.com is indicative of a skeptical mindset for which any rapprochement between science and spirituality is anathema. The parallels which Cynthia draws however definitely resonate with folks such as myself who view the idea of a remorseless struggle between science and faith as a socio-historical construct rather than a logical necessity, and who are convinced that we are currently witnessing the gradual emergence of new non-materialistic paradigms within science (pioneered by figures such as Beauregard) which will be far more amenable to dialogue with the world’s great faith traditions than is widely believed.

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Although Cynthia Bourgeault’s writing and speaking on Centering Prayer is intimately linked to spiritual practice, it would be a mistake to think that her prime concern is the propagation of a set of meditative techniques; I would prefer to see her work more broadly in terms of passionate advocacy of the importance for our society of recovering a contemplative attitude towards reality.  This stance, founded on an awareness of the inter-connectedness of creation’s participation in transcendental goodness, beauty and truth, is antithetical to the logic of domination that has marked so much of Western rationalistic thought since the Enlightenment, supremely expressed in the apotheosis of technology (Jacques Ellul’s système technique, a dualistic scheme in which an all-powerful human subject triumphs over lifeless matter). Such exclusionary binary thinking is marked by an inherent violence whose consequences for human community and the planet more generally are becoming ever more apparent. This, one might say, is the manifestation of the egoistic, aggressive chimp in all of us whom we so often fail to humanize (one of Cynthia Bourgeault’s choice expressions borrowed from Buddhist terminology is ‘monkey mind’) . A central contention of eminent modern contemplatives such as Cynthia Bourgeault and Richard Rohr is that this mentality – the source of many of our individual and social tensions – needs to be overcome by ‘non-dual’, holistic thought and living.  To the extent that this transition can only come about by a renunciation of the ego’s desire to dominate others and the world, it requires a kenotic stance of self-emptying spoken of in many religious traditions, but for Christians supremely exhibited in the  life of the Rabbi of Nazareth whose path Henri Nouwen famously called the ‘way of downward mobility’.

Which brings me to Gavin Bryars.

I sometimes ask myself what would be my top five pieces of sacred ‘classical’ music of the last fifty years. My truly indispensable Desert Island Discs (only one per composer allowed here). Olivier Messiaen would have to be onboard, although I’d be hard pressed to choose between La Transfiguration, Des Canyons aux Etoiles and St François d’Assise. At least one of Arvo Pärt’s masterpieces would surely also have to be in there (I’m spoilt for choice here – Como una cierva?, La Sindone? Perhaps Kanon Pokajanen, or maybe Tabula Rasa despite its lack of an overtly ‘sacred title’?). Steve Reich’s Tehillim would probably make it into the top five from the Jewish side, and I would be strongly inclined to take some Gorecki with me (Symphony n.2 or 3? Beatus Vir? Lerchenmusik?). Alfred Schnittke’s Choir Concerto, Sofia Gubaidulina’s Offertorium and Jean-Louis Florentz’s haunting Laudes for organ would all be strong contenders for inclusion. But one piece I cannot imagine not taking with me to any Desert Island would be Jesus’ blood never failed me yet by Gavin Bryars. Or, to be more precise, by Gavin Bryars and the unidentified ‘tramp’ whose singing is immortalized in this unique, unforgettable piece.

Gavin-Bryars-Jesus-blood-1993-300x295On Bryars’ website you can find the now legendary story of how Jesus’ blood never failed me yet came into being as the composer was toying with some discarded tape from a documentary film about the London homeless made with his friend Alan Power in 1971. Making a tape loop out of a religious song sung by one of the film’s interviewees – not an alcoholic, it should be noted in passing – , Bryars took the reel for copying to the Fine Arts Department at Leicester Polytechnic (now De Montfort University) where he was working. There he noticed something quite unexpected:

‘The door of the recording room opened on to one of the large painting studios and I left the tape copying, with the door open, while I went to have a cup of coffee. When I came back I found the normally lively room unnaturally subdued. People were moving about much more slowly than usual and a few were sitting alone, quietly weeping. I was puzzled until I realised that the tape was still playing and that they had been overcome by the old man’s singing.’

This extraordinary reaction, with which almost anyone who has heard Jesus’ blood will surely empathize, persuaded Bryars to write ‘a simple, though gradually evolving, orchestral accompaniment that respected the tramp’s nobility and simple faith’, the result being ‘an eloquent, but understated testimony to his spirit and optimism’.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to give a verbal description of the impact of the tramp’s song (‘Jesus’ blood never failed me yet … this one thing I know, for he loves me so’) on the listener, but if any piece of music merits the word ‘kenotic’, it is surely has to be this one. Here I am not merely talking of the tramp’s material poverty; for those of a religious persuasion, the combination of simplicity and brokenness to be found in his singing encapsulates the pure faith of the ‘poor in spirit’, while even many who do not share the tramp’s belief still find themselves overwhelmed by the sound of the elderly man’s voice as somehow epitomizing the human condition. Moreover, Jesus’ blood is also ‘kenotic’ from the viewpoint of the composer (who, intriguingly, was at the time primarily interested in Zen Buddhism, having become disillusioned as a student with the Congregationalist faith in which he had been raised[1]); the artistic success of the work derives in large measure from Bryars’ own receptivity to his objet trouvé and sensitivity to the inflections of the voice, which the piece follows sympathetically without ever seeking to manipulate, simply allowing it to be itself. This kind of artistic renunciation, the refusal to view composition as an act of imposition of the will on the musical material, sometimes termed spiritual minimalism – which Arvo Pärt, Henryk Gorecki and Valentin Silvestrov also all remarkably discovered independently of one another in the early 1970s – would seem to be the very stuff of contemplative, non-dual thinking. It might in addition be said that this music also requires a ‘kenotic’ attitude from the listener, who needs to let go of the intellectual gratification associated with strongly directional musical form and expectations of ‘development’; appreciating a piece such as Jesus’ blood does not so much require analysis as surrender.

I am perhaps not alone when I say that there are days in which I feel incapable of listening to any music other than Jesus’ blood never failed me yet, either in its original 1975 version or the extended treatment of 1993 featuring Tom Waits. Interestingly, the closest approximation I know to it is the repetitive prayer music written by the French organist Jacques Berthier for the Taizé Community (a subject on which Cynthia Bourgeault offers some thoughtful insights in her book The Wisdom Jesus: Transforming Heart and Mind–A New Perspective on Christ and His Message), which at times bears a very strong aural resemblence to a tape loop. I vividly recall being part of a choir singing the refrain Spiritus Jesu Christi, Spiritus caritatis for a full 25 minutes at the Taizé European meeting in Wroclaw, Poland in 1989 – the same length as the 1975 recording of Jesus’ blood never failed me yet. Structured in a strangely similar manner to Gavin Bryars’ work and often communicating the same sense of timelessness, the music of Taizé is shot through, like the singing of the nameless elderly London tramp, with the spirit of the First Beatitude, as it is put in the words of one of Berthier’s most disarmingly simple canons:

Confiance du coeur, source de richesse. Jésus, donne-nous un coeur de pauvre

[Trust of the heart, source of riches. Jesus, give us poverty of heart]

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Brother Roger of Taizé (1915-2005). Photo: Sabine Leutenegger

Peter Bannister and Rev. Scott Herr in conversation with Cynthia Bourgeault on Fréquence Protestante: ACP Today with Cynthia Bourgeault (click for audio: interview begins at 7:00)

Details of her presentation at the American Church in Paris can be found at http://www.acparis.org/thurber-thursdays/438-the-rev-dr-cynthia-bourgeault-speaks-at-thurber-thursday-and-the-annual-spring-retreat-for-adults

Further information about the Ars Nova Copenhagen concert featuring Gavin Bryars’ new setting of Psalm 141 and Peter Bannister’s Spiritus divinae lucis gloriae can be found at http://valeofglamorganfestival.org.uk/concerts/ars-nova-copenhagen/

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[1] A fascinating interview with Gavin Bryars discussing his Church upbringing and ongoing relationship with Christian spirituality (as well as Zen) can be found at http://www.gavinbryars.com/work/writing/occasional-writings/choral-music-re-questions