Proms 2016: Anthony Payne – Of Land, Sea and Sky (World Première)

There were paradoxes at play throughout Anthony Payne‘s new work for choir and orchestra, Of Land, Sea and Sky, given its première at last night’s Prom by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus under Andrew Davis. Well, paradoxes is one word for them: inconsistencies and/or anachronisms would be another equally accurate way of putting it. First is the matter of old and new. Aesthetically speaking, Payne’s musical language emanates from the 20th century, a mash-up of idiomatic traits from the likes of Vaughan Williams, Elgar, Walton and, occasionally, Britten, all of whom made their presence felt in this piece. It’s not pastiche exactly, and he certainly avoids becoming a kind of ‘neo-pastoralist’, but a key question that permeates Of Land, Sea and Sky is the extent to which such well-worn tropes and demeanour can maintain or even approximate vitality today, regardless of the composer’s skills. There’s certainly no lack of clarity in Payne’s writing here, indeed the musical details and the carefully guided drama could hardly be more obvious. But it’s interesting to note that for all its lucidity, the music continually sounds overwhelmingly tired, aching joints painted with a muted palette, ‘pension music’ if you will.

One of the work’s key strengths is its impressive lack of compositional coercion; Payne is clearly moving his material as desired, but there’s a strong sense of going with the grain, making its episodic structure feel generally convincing and organic. This was particularly nice in the work’s opening minutes, essentially using the strings to brainstorm ideas. Yet militating against this were various things, especially the bland delivery of its drama—Payne’s text articulated by a grey chorus set almost permanently in ‘declamatory’ mode, often coming across as though they weren’t actually singing—and above all its duration which, having ballooned to 30 minutes, proved fatal both to the unfolding narrative and to the already questionable vitality i mentioned before. So what was, in fact, extremely clear and simple word-setting ended up becoming empty and workaday, enunciated with little interest and still less subtlety. When the choir fell silent (which they didn’t do nearly enough), Payne at times approached something more magical, yet these instances too became undermined by regular recourse to bouts of disruptive chatter, hollow displays of mere activity.

The work’s biggest paradox, though, is that something so completely innocuous should ultimately be so completely toxic. It would, i suppose, be easy to respond to such familiar, undemanding and ostensibly inoffensive music as this with a kind of benign indifference, but its aftertaste only becomes more and more bitter. It may not be nasty (superficially at least), but Of Land, Sea and Sky is certainly cheap and complacent and—far from past its prime—sounds unbelievably knackered. Is this really the kind of thing we should be celebrating? or commissioning in the first place for that matter? Where’s the vigour? Where’s the vision?

Anthony Payne – Of Land, Sea and Sky (World Première)

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Anthony Payne – Of Land, Sea and Sky
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5 Responses to Proms 2016: Anthony Payne – Of Land, Sea and Sky (World Première)

  1. Chris L

    Simon, I admire your integrity – praising the Gothic Symphony against the (majority) critical grain back in 2011, doing the opposite here. For my own part, I found it a diverting enough listen, but not a patch on Payne’s previous Proms commission, Time’s Arrow, from waaay back in 1990, which it resembles thematically at several points. The latter was, IMHO, one of the most fascinating studies in musical momentum since Sibelius, exploring on the now-somewhat-outmoded theory that space-time will one day do an about-turn and begin collapsing in on itself.

    • 5:4

      It’s a long time since i’ve heard Time’s Arrow, must give it another listen sometime. Didn’t realise my opinion was opposite to others (as i may have said before, i don’t tend to read the scribblings of (ahem) ‘professional’ critics for, i hope, obvious reasons), but it doesn’t surprise me. And no doubt in due course the piece will enter the repertoire of our green and pleasant land’s indescribable choral societies.

      • Chris L

        Funny you should mention choral societies, as the Arts Desk reviewer’s criticisms were squarely of the singers, not the piece itself. Regardless of the latter’s musical merits, it was with some relief that I discovered that Payne’s words weren’t the Tippettesque cringefest I’d feared they might be…!

        • 5:4

          i’ve never been overtly bothered by Tippett’s self-written texts; although i’ve always wondered what Child of our Time would have been like if T. S. Eliot had agreed to write the text (and, of course, it was Eliot, turning down the request, who convinced Tippett to write his own texts in the first place).

          • Chris L

            As something of a Tippett fan, I’ve learned to live with the artless would-be intellectualism of much of his prose, even to the point of enjoying Part 2 of the 3rd Symphony (which, of course, really does quote Beethoven 9 – repeatedly, for rhetorical effect). Others, it goes without saying, are less forgiving, some even to a “deal-breaking” degree…

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