Today’s second concert was back in St Paul’s Hall, featuring the BBC Singers conducted by Nicholas Kok, performing works by Charlotte Seither, Bent Sørensen and Cecilie Ore. Surprisingly, it’s an entire decade since the BBC Singers last appeared at HCMF; on the strength of this concert, one hopes they’ll be back more regularly from now on.
Seither’s Haut Terrain, receiving its UK première today, at first gave me misgivings. The piece is occupied throughout by drawn out drones, clashes and suspensions, and i suspect (confession time) it was impatience on my part that made it seem to bode poorly. But as it continued, shifting more than was initially obvious, one became aware of a music that seemed to have made portable the tropes and mannerisms of religious chant. Contemporary choral music has always had to contend with its religious legacy but, far from being a hindrance, in Haut Terrain Seither seems to have liberated that legacy for her own solemnified ends. Interestingly, the piece plays havoc with one’s attempts at long-term musical memory; attempts to connect what’s happening now with music of several minutes earlier seemed increasingly impossible, perhaps due to the continual re-focus of the music’s foundation (located more in the upper voices than the lower). It would have been nice to have known a little more of Seither’s conceptual intentions; unfortunately, her programme note had been translated into the kind of obfuscatory gobbledegook that does no composers any favours.
After two short works by Sørensen—which left me wondering yet again what it is that makes Scandinavian choral music so, well, Scandinavian—came the highlight of the concert, the world première of Cecilie Ore’s Come to the Edge!, an impassioned response to the plight of Pussy Riot, the girl band who fell foul of Vladimir Putin’s increasingly regressive and timid regime. Ore’s text is a compilation of bon mots from the great and the good on the subject of freedom of speech, including words by George Washington, Catherine of Siena, Lenny Bruce and Shakespeare but focusing on a trio of selections from transcriptions of the the Pussy Riot trial. Throughout is a recurring refrain by Christopher Logue:
Come to the edge.
We might fall.
Come to the edge.
It’s too high!
COME TO THE EDGE!
There are times when the combination of the words’ implorings with Ore’s repetitive, emphatic word-setting slightly dents their impact, threatening to render them somewhat akin to the vacuous prattlements churned out by motivational speakers. Yet it’s impressive how, overall, Ore not only makes her point, but hits it home hard and deep. It’s less a political piece than a call to each of us both to assert our own right to freedom of speech and to protect others’ rights to the same with unassailable determination. As such, the words are not so much punches as hard, necessary slaps to the face: “Proclaim the truth and do not be silent through fear”, “Feel the fear and do it anyway!”, “Take away the right to say ‘fuck’ and you take away the right to say ‘fuck the government'”. By emphasising simplicity – bold, earnest, declamatory – and reminding us of our own rights, Come to the Edge! makes us reflect on how inhuman it is to deprive others of them. To ignore that inhumanity diminishes us all.