Proms 2017: Mark-Anthony Turnage – Hibiki (European première)

The music of Mark-Anthony Turnage has been on my mind quite a bit of late. i’ve been revisiting my aged CD of his seminal work Three Screaming Popes, released 25 years ago, which was also the first piece of Turnage’s i ever heard performed live, during my undergrad days in Birmingham. Thanks to Simon Rattle, during that time there were lots of opportunities to hear Turnage’s music, and the abiding impression i got was of a composer committed first and foremost to lyricism. Of a smoky, earthy hue, to be sure, and at times downright caustic in nature, but equally capable of astonishing tenderness and beauty. Borrowing liberally from blues and jazz, and often characterised with improvisatory élan, Turnage – i still mean early Turnage – made us re-think what melody was, in a way that was simultaneously rooted in layers of compositional tradition and performance practice yet so fresh and pungent as to be shocking (literally; i can still vividly remember the shock i felt in those long-ago concerts).

These qualities have hardly deserted Turnage over the years, though there are times when it’s seemed he’s more interested in rhythm than melody, particularly in two of his demonstrably less successful Proms premières, Hammered Out and Canon Fever. That path seems to lead Turnage only to empty bombast and pastiche, whereas when his lyrical side predominates – as in the recent string quartet Contusion, and even more in his wondrous 2012 orchestral work Speranza – the results are overwhelmingly powerful. This is also what we find in Turnage’s Hibiki, which received its first European performance at the Proms a little over a week ago. Hibiki was commissioned by Tokyo’s Suntory Hall to mark their 30th anniversary. Turnage conceived the work as “a consolation following loss” in the wake of the disastrous tsunami that struck the country after the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake, causing enormous damage and meltdowns at three reactors at the Fukushima nuclear power plant.

Originally having a working title of ‘Six threnodies and a dance’, the eventual title Hibiki – which means ‘beautiful sound’ – was suggested by the commissioners. But the basic scheme of that original title remains, comprising seven movements, three of which are purely orchestral: the first two, ‘Iwate’ and ‘Miyagi’ (named for districts affected by the tsunami), and the fifth, ‘Suntory Dance’. The others all involve voices – soprano and mezzo soloists, plus a children’s chorus – setting Sō Sakon’s terrifying (and terrified) poem ‘Hashitte iru’ (Running) in the third movement, a Japanese version of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star (‘Kira Kira Hikaru’) in the fourth, lines from Chikamatsu Monzaemon‘s play The Love Suicides at Sonezaki in the sixth movement (titled ‘On the Water’s Surface’), and just one word, ‘Fukushima’, in the seventh.

It’s a lot to take in, and Turnage takes his time over each movement, such that the work’s 50-minute duration feels entirely natural and necessary. Yet the immediacy of the music prevents the piece from ever feeling didactic; like an injured limb, it radiates pain, while at the same time acting both as a cushion and a balm. This twin functional distinction is important: Hibiki is very far from being just seven movements of aural analgesic. ‘Iwate’ is a network of uncomfortable, angular, leaping staccati, as though the orchestra were positioned on a red-hot bed of nails. Turnage sets up two musical layers, with this complex, busy mayhem firmly in the foreground; behind it – or maybe within it – something melodic keeps becoming audible, a slow-moving melodic impulse that appears, sometimes fleetingly, before being swallowed up. The main ‘dance’ alluded to in the work’s original title is four movements away, yet it’s impossible not to hear ‘Iwate’ as another dance; usually irregular (though a 3+3+2 rhythm recurs several times) and constantly broken up, but the orchestra is sufficiently united by the end that they’re clearly all cavorting with the same underlying impetus. The opening of ‘Miyagi’ is inspired by the plangent music at the start of Bach’s St John Passion (‘Herr, unser Herrscher’), turned here into a lattice of subdued, hanging pitches that glance and clash against each other. Turnage throws enormous blows at this fragile sheet of sound, yet while it varies in strength it never dies, over time coming to resemble a kind of frozen keening, a vast tableau of screaming anguish.

Sō Sakon’s poem ‘Hashitte iru’ (which you can read online here, from page 89) is horrifying and weird. Describing the poet and his mother running to escape the effects of a 1945 US bomb attack in Tokyo, during World War II, the word ‘running’ occurs so frequently that it starts to lose its meaning – yet one’s constantly aware that what this word represents, in those desperate moments, is the only thing in the world that matters. Throughout Hibiki, when the singers are involved Turnage uses the orchestra as a sympathetic force, following the voices rather than leading or suggesting where they should go, creating a gentle, nuanced underscore that’s more about colouration and context than anything else. In this third movement, they’re punchy precisely because the voices are, avoiding lyricism due to their ongoing momentum, with no opportunity for rest. Only at the poem’s harrowing end does the orchestra push forward, with a final chord so searing that the movement isn’t so much ended as cauterised. ‘Kira Kira Hikaru’ could hardly be more different, though the playfulness that one associates with Twinkle Twinkle Little Star is replaced with a doleful tone that suggests play has become a remote concept. It’s moving to hear the children’s chorus articulate such melancholy, Turnage using the orchestra again to support and punctuate each verse, eventually setting up a chiming regular pulse that suggests a grim processional. If this has been relatively measured, when the soprano enters everything becomes muddied: she substitutes rubato for regularity, and the orchestral response is a picture of anxiety, sustained notes that seem entirely uncertain about why they’re there or what they should be doing.

Though the fifth movement is cast as a dance, it both takes its time to get going – the first couple of minutes are dominated by strains of melody interspersed with accents – and isn’t concerned to dance until the end, breaking off in its final minute with more laboured music and an uncomfortable final chord that seems to last just a little too long. But betwixt these points is the work’s most free display of frivolity, the dance demarcated by wood block and sleigh bells. Even here, though, it never really lets rip; melody continues to prove important, particularly when a brass countermelody gathers weight a few minutes before the end, becoming a focal point. Despite its apparent contrast to everything else around it, it’s a compelling movement and retains sufficient ambiguity to make the dance unwieldy at best.

Hibiki progressively quietens again through the final two movements. The lines from The Love Suicides at Sonezaki are placed into a musical environment of low register tolling, on which an acrobatic clarinet and some earnest string replies can’t shine any light. Indeed, the orchestra becomes essentially suspended once the soprano begins, falling into another form of processional, slower and more bleak, inching forward with the gait of a wracked and enervated body. Enough energy is mustered for a single tutti response to the soprano, subsiding and splitting into spindly lines from piccolo, violin and clarinet, the latter of which eventually becomes suspended too, able only to fall slowly as if pulled down by its own weight. The work’s epilogue, named for the site of the damaged nuclear reactors, is dominated by an elegiac intoning of its name by the children’s choir, the word ‘Fukushima’ barely moving in a delicate soundworld that’s clearly rooted to the spot, becoming increasingly wraith-like as time passes. Despite its delicacy, the closing minutes – built upon a deep bass drone – are a laser-focused requiem, closing in low grunts answered by a strange, strangled cry.

Hibiki does indeed offer, as its composer intended, “consolation following loss”, but not through anything anodyne or synthetic. By tapping into and echoing the reality and infinity of all-encompassing pain, the work offers hope through sympathetic resonance. It thereby becomes an embodiment of compassion – “I hurt because you hurt” – a necessary step on the difficult path that leads to healing and recovery.

The first European performance of Hibiki was given by soloists Sally Matthews (soprano) and Mihoko Fujimura (mezzo-soprano), the Finchley Children’s Music Group and New London Children’s Choir with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Kazushi Ono.

Mark-Anthony Turnage – Hibiki (European première)

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Posted on by 5:4 in Premières, Proms
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2 Responses to Proms 2017: Mark-Anthony Turnage – Hibiki (European première)

  1. Charlie Been

    Turnage on top form.

  2. Chris L

    Powerful stuff. I’m not saying that there’s any stylistic influence – Turnage is too much his own composer for that – but I wonder if he’s aware of this, which deals with nuclear calamity of a different kind (and, unlike a certain notorious piece bearing the same subtitle, was actually written by the person who purported to have written it)? No reason why he should – the piece was widely known and respected east of the Iron Curtain, but hasn’t made many inroads into the public consciousness west of it since it fell.

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