More Proms premières, more demands that composers must ‘respond’ to existing music. Perhaps by now the Proms organisers regard this approach as an integral, even defining, part of its commissioning strategy, but it demonstrates a complete lack of faith and trust in composers to forge their own unique conceptions from scratch (which often do involve references to existing music anyway), requiring that they be propped up by an obvious crutch of musical association. Maybe it’s just me who finds this to be such a tired, tiring, tiresome practice, yet while from the composer’s perspective, a commission’s a commission, it would surely be uplifting, and a lot more interesting, to see Proms commissions move away from such lazy, unimaginative prompting, instead simply allowing composers free rein to do whatever they want, however they want to do it. Would that be such a radical idea?
For now, though, the three latest premières all dutifully ‘responded’ to works of Renaissance choral music in a concert given last Thursday by the BBC Singers. By far the strangest of them, and also the least successful, was A New Flame (after Sweelinck) by US composer Nico Muhly. On the one hand, Muhly deserves some kudos for being prepared to play fast and loose with the idea of ‘response’. But there’s loose, and there’s downright droopy, and in the case of A New Flame, Muhly seems to have taken sketches for about three or four different pieces, and simply strung them together in the hope that they might gel. They didn’t.
Muhly turned to Thomas Traherne’s poem ‘News’ for his text, initially using allusions to and afterthoughts of the Sweelinck to fashion an underlying texture for a solo tenor line. This texture was quite interesting and effective, particularly when Muhly caused it to ‘hang’ on certain chords. Whereafter the piece moved into the über-polite, diatonically entrenched language more typical of Muhly’s output, sounding entirely disconnected from the verse that preceded it, before switching to lullaby-esque washes to the accompaniment of a plinky-plonk celesta, closing with a pastiche coda for viola da gamba and clarinet. Any of these sections (well, not the second one: ugh) might have been interesting enough to have been explored in more depth and at greater length, yet in this context they sat as fragmentary notions of ideas merely shoved together to form an incongruous patchwork.
More conventional, but way more cohesive, was Bernard Hughes‘ Birdchant. The starting point for the piece was Clément Janequin’s quirky chanson Le chant des oiseaux, in which the singers morph from conventional words into onomatopoeic imitations of bird calls. i say this was the ‘starting point’, and that’s literally true: Hughes has incorporated the opening section of the Janequin into his piece, making Birdchant not merely a response but a direct outgrowth from it.
Hughes’ approach is rooted in pastiche, in the sense that his own musical language feels grafted onto that of Janequin. Yet it’s more than just pastiche; Hughes mirrors the behaviour of Le chant des oiseaux, creating a similarly polarised soundworld between human and avian strains of musical thought. In its latter stages, Birdchant moves further away from its established pastiche-like nature, a disarming shift that, in hindsight, feels strange and contradictory, exacerbated by abruptly convoluted rhythms. Nonetheless, it’s not a work setting out to do anything innovative or challenging – it’s neither particularly exciting nor irritating – and as a short, playful new response to a short, playful old piece, it may be forgettable, but it pretty much works. It’ll leave you shrugging, but perhaps with the trace of a smile on your face.
The only première of these three to demonstrate real ambition was Aetherworld, by Iranian composer-performer Shiva Feshareki. In many respects, Feshareki’s response was also the most successful in terms of the way it embodied the essence of the original music. Josquin des Prez’s
Qui habitat in adiutorio altissimi is a strange piece, one that becomes fixated on overlapping phrases that echo each other, creating a highly repetitive, even dronal music that becomes hypnotic, and which as a result, despite being over 450 years old, still sounds remarkable fresh, even modern.
Aetherworld emerged out of one of the short instrumental interludes that were used to segue between each piece in the concert. From the outset, it was hard to discern which sounds were being performed live – either by the BBC Singers or Kit Downes on the Royal Albert Hall organ – or were emanating from Feshareki’s turntables and live electronics. This only made the soundworld of her piece more beguiling, rooted in a language of drones (utilising overtone singing) through which echoes of Josquin began to emerge, sometimes as singing, more often as a curious collection of anonymous sounds, some vocal – often articulated as calls and cries – some percussive, some electronic in nature. The music worked on a meditative level, not actively seeking attention the whole time but allowing its ideas to sit and / or drift. This only made its inner details – and, while elusive, they were many – all the more attention-grabbing, from low descending sounds a few minutes in, to brisk chugging noises deep within the texture, to a chorus of boisterous possibly vocal utterances that emerged around halfway through, to a series of turntable swooshes over minimal (reduced to almost nothing) choral traces. Throughout all this was the sense of busy activity always going on in the background, emerging from and receding back into shadow.
Most exciting of all was the fact that, without doing so remotely obviously, the piece was gradually revealed to be moving in the direction of climax, a slow-build leading to an almost hyperreal, complex choral agglomeration of pitches crowned by a potent organ layer, like a reverberant toccata sounding from on high. At this point Feshareki allowed all the elements to push forward to the extent that the music became entirely otherworldly, the blurring of live and electronic matched by a blurring of familiar and alien. There was something remarkable about the way that, despite being so deliberately understated and with such an ostensibly null (or, at least, neutral) sense of narrative, Aetherworld managed to attain such heights of drama and glory. This was no mere ‘response’ to old music, but instead a demonstration of Josquin’s compositional ideas in a modern context. He would surely have been very proud.
All three works were performed by the BBC Singers conducted by Sofi Jeannin; Nico Muhly’s A New Flame (after Sweelinck) also included Liam Byrne (viola da gamba), Tom Rogerson (keyboard) and Delia Stevens (percussion), while Shiva Feshareki’s Aetherworld featured herself (turntables / electronics) and Kit Downes (organ).