Today marks the first day of Lent, and as the start of the season so nicely coincides with International Women’s Day this coming Saturday, for this year’s 5:4 Lent Series i’m going to celebrate music by women composers. To begin, a thoroughly enigmatic work from Naomi Pinnock, Brit-born but now living in Berlin. Words, completed in 2011, was composed while Pinnock was a participant in the London Sinfonietta’s ‘Blue Touch Paper’ programme. The piece establishes an uneasy relationship with familiarity, beginning with the instrumentation, which, alongside a pair of clarinets, percussion and standard-issue five strings, are to be found an accordion, cimbalom and harp, in addition to a baritone soloist who acts as figurehead for the ensemble. The coupling of a singer with that innocently simple title is deceptive; Pinnock’s text exists as a collection of semantically sequestered fragments, a boiled-down distillation of meaning into, yes, words—but words that together pack all the concise, clusterbomb power of Samuel Beckett:
why solve a night without why without silence without why nothing why again nothing why
For several minutes, though, the singer can’t even get beyond the first word. His faltering delivery, seemingly the product of doubt, anguish and fear, is given a soft corona from the ensemble, beginning on his pitch and then meandering away. Taking their lead from the baritone, the music exhibits a kind of ‘breathing’ behaviour, slow, spacious, measured, its timbres melding superbly. A tremolando on the cimbalom acts as trigger for the deliriously weird episode that follows, in which the singer goes to the opposite extreme, gabbling his words violently, Pinnock showering them with shards of metallic percussion; very soft reposes in between these outbursts make for a deeply unsettling contrast. There’s a pause, before the clarinets set up a new line of enquiry, soft pitches gently glancing off each other. The singer joins in with a mixture of open and closed sounds, continuing in this vein for a long time. It’s borderline ponderous, yet the effect is intense, focusing on what is essentially a very intimate sound world. Eventually, the rest of the ensemble returns, initially (harp, accordion and cimbalom) bringing a sense of order through regular rhythms, but ultimately, at the entrance of the strings, blurring the harmony so that it ends in smudges.
It’s easy to put convention to one side, but to do it in a way that avoids mere novelty yet also stands on its own as a coherent, prepossessing entity is not at all easy. Words exhibits precisely these characteristics, and in so doing feels fundamentally different from much of what’s passed off as ‘new music’ today. Unavoidably, it’s therefore something a challenge—but when the outcome has such moving potential, it’s a challenge well worth embracing.
This performance of the world première, broadcast in March 2011, was given by the London Sinfonietta with baritone Omar Ebrahim, conducted by Beat Furrer.
Naomi Pinnock – Words (World Première)
Words takes its title from the poem by Sylvia Plath. In my Words, the text is declamatory or broken up and stretched-out almost beyond recognition. A sudden recollection appearing amidst a shifting, shadowy landscape, of what is forgotten or already passed.
Song text and programme note © Naomi Pinnock
For a little more background to the whys and wherefores behind the piece, the London Sinfonietta has posted the following short video.