Today’s Advent Calendar piece is a short work for string quintet by Bulgarian composer Dobrinka Tabakova. Composed in 2014, Organum Light takes its inspiration, as the name suggests, from mediæval chant. Part of its allure arises from the conjoining of melody and harmony; the music continually begs the question of which of these aspects is the primary one, complicated by the fact that towards the start and end of the piece there’s a dronal quality. This reflects something of the radical shift in thought and appreciation brought about by organum’s progression beyond just a single line. From a melodic perspective, there’s a distinct sense running through Organum Light that the players are physically linked, bound together, such that when one moves, they all move, in an act of tutti traction hinged as to create a mixture of parallel and contrary motion. This is reinforced by the bowing action of the strings, together conveying a tangible aural impression of the physicality of the players’ arms moving back and forth.
But it’s not just about the literalities of organum. Tabakova allows individuated instances of line to emerge from the group, and – bearing in mind the title’s second word – continually recolours it through use of register and a number of oblique melodic / harmonic twists and turns. Most interestingly of all, around halfway through the piece enters a completely contrasting episode. Everything slows and is initially clarified, moving between parallel major triads – a strong shift away from the Phrygian mode that dominates elsewhere – before turning disarmingly dissonant, this process continually embellished by glistening harmonics. The dissonance finds resolution, melody re-emerges (a nice burst of almost romanticism) and though the work’s conclusion returns to the manner and mode of the opening, it sounds brighter, less melancholic than before. Perhaps that strange central episode did something transformative.
This performance of Organum Light took place at Truro Cathedral on 17 October 2019, given by members of the City of London Sinfonia (violinists Alexandra Wood and Jane Carwardine, violists Matt Maguire and Katie Heller, and cellist Juliet Welchman) as part of their ‘The Fruit of Silence’ concert series.