Lent Series

Morton Feldman – Bass Clarinet and Percussion

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As Lent has now entered Passiontide, it’s time to crank things up a notch, so the next piece in my Lent series is by one of the great masters of compositional discipline and restraint, Morton Feldman. There aren’t many composers about whom one can say that they’re able to tap into something truly ‘other’, but this uncanny quality is a consistent trait of Feldman’s music, in particular the pieces he composed late in his life. In a seemingly counterintuitive move, Feldman gradually increased the duration of his compositions while radically paring back their content, the works becoming increasingly single-minded, focussed (even fixated) on a small number of simple ideas. By composing for very small forces (typically no more than half a dozen players), Feldman confined these ideas to a severely restricted palette, resulting in some of the most ascetic music ever written.

Bass Clarinet and Percussion—even the titles became simplified—was composed in 1981, six years before Feldman’s death. As its bald, functional name indicates, the piece comprises two instrumental parts, the latter of which is essentially a single voice divided between two percussionists. Lasting around 19 minutes, Feldman structures the piece as a series of broad episodes, each differing from its neighbour by small adjustments in the performance manner of the clarinet and the choice of percussion instruments. As such, the two voices are fundamentally different; while the percussion vary in terms of both timbre and technique, the bass clarinet is comparatively changeless, its variety limited to just pitch and octave. In addition, the percussion material is, by its very nature, made up of attacks, while the clarinet’s music lacks any hint of attack, its notes drifting in and out with rounded edges. Read more

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Gabriel Jackson – The Lord’s Prayer

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Settings of the Lord’s Prayer rarely work; they tend either to play it safe so as to preserve the solemn nature of the text (sung, as it invariably is, as a prayer during the service of Evensong), resulting in rather wan, characterless music, or go all out in an indulgement of vivid word-painting that loses sight of the function of the piece, becoming showy and egotistical. It’s a delicate balance, but the setting by Gabriel Jackson, composed in 2006, gets it just right. The style is simple, built upon a drone, over which melodic lines continually meander away and return to a bare open fifth; they’re characterised by grace notes that repeatedly give the melody a kick (a device also used in choral pieces by James MacMillan), thereby bringing them off the page, making them very much more than just a series of beautiful, mellifluous overlapping lines. The drone ceases when the text passes to the lower voices, although the harmony is sufficiently static that it almost continues by implication. In a rather brave move, Jackson breaks the intense petitionary tone of the music for the doxology; with an abrupt shift to the major key, the full choir joins together in a diatonic but richly-coloured chorale of praise that’s borderline unseemly after such humbly-delivered orisons. But, nonetheless, it does fit, and in any case subsides quickly, the closing “Amen” returning to the simpler manner from before. Read more

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John Cage – The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs

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Austerity is probably not the first characteristic that would come to mind when describing the music of John Cage, and yet that’s precisely what dominates his short song The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs, composed in 1942. The text is extracted from a passage (on page 556) of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake:

(click to see text)

night by silentsailing night…
Isobel…
wildwoods’ eyes and primarose hair,
quietly,
all the woods so wild, in mauves of
moss and daphnedews,
how all so still she lay neath of the
whitethorn, child of tree,
like some losthappy leaf,
like blowing flower stilled,
as fain would she anon,
for soon again ‘twil be,
win me, woo me, wed me,
ah weary me!
deeply,
Now evencalm lay sleeping; night
Isobel
Sister Isobel
Saintette Isobel
madame Isa
Veuve La belle

Cage sets these words for voice and piano, on both of whom he imposes severe restrictions; the singer has just three pitches at their disposal (F#, G# and C#) while the pianist isn’t even allowed to open the lid, playing instead on the outside of the instrument. Cage flirted with strict pitch restrictions a few years earlier in the Five Songs for Contralto (song no. 3, “in Just-“, also uses just three pitches), but the atmosphere he establishes here is much more sombre and unsettling. The voice is instructed to sing without vibrato, and the result is a strange cross between sacred chant and folk song, somehow elegant and crude simultaneously. Read more

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György Kurtág – Scenes from a Novel

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A profound sense of melancholic introspection pervades the next piece in my Lent series, György Kurtág‘s song cycle Scenes From a Novel. Kurtág composed the work in 1982, setting 14 texts by the Russian writer Rimma Dalos, texts that are in perfect sympathy with the composer’s penchant for exceptionally short but highly expressive music. The 15 songs (one of the texts is used twice) project loneliness above all else, but not resulting from unrequited affection or imagined reciprocity; on the contrary, this is a loneliness born out of experience, the product of a love both lived and celebrated, but that has ultimately been blanched, torn and downright thwarted. Yet the texts betray a deeper complexity, and as the songs progress their message becomes increasingly conflicted; desire is undermined by disappointment, temptation yields to regret. Contrast the texts of the 11th and 12th songs (titled Again and Sundays Without End respectively), where impatient expectations dissolve into blank, monotonous boredom:

I’m waiting for you again.
How slowly comes
the day after tomorrow.

That’s another
Sunday over.
That means the next will come.

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Giacinto Scelsi – Tre Canti Sacri

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Composed in 1958, Giacinto Scelsi‘s Tre Canti Sacri (Three Sacred Songs) is one of his most well-known and frequently performed vocal works. The three songs—’Angelus’, ‘Requiem’ and ‘Gloria’—draw on texts associated with the Annunciation, the Mass for the dead, and the Gloria in excelsis Deo. Thematically, these texts are somewhat disparate, but the specific choices could be said to be arbitrary, as in each case Scelsi explodes the texts, often focussing on fragments and individual words rather than immediately comprehensible phrases. Furthermore, despite drawing on Christian texts, Scelsi again distances himself from their specific nature, diffusing the religious content. It’s an approach that i think sits well within the present season, seeking as it does something undeniably spiritual (these are, after all, sacred songs), yet casting off the trappings of familiarity and comfort.

‘Angelus’ is the most overtly melodic of the the three, and the most textually and stylistically clear, alluding to conventions of choral counterpoint. However, Scelsi matches this with abrupt dynamic shifts and microtonal inflections, sometimes combined violently and protruding outwards as harsh, beating dissonances. Read more

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Robert Mackay – Augustine’s Message

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The next work in my Lent series is one of my absolute favourite electronic compositions. The composer Robert Mackay, based in Scarborough, composed Augustine’s Message while studying in Bangor, in 2001. It was performed at the Bangor New Music Festival that year, and was included in an edition of Radio 3’s ‘Hear and Now’ devoted to the festival. Back then, Mackay was planning a multimedia work based on the writings of Peter Abelard and his beloved Héloïse, originally intended as an opera (provisionally titled The Breath of Dionysius), but ultimately becoming a three-part cycle simply called Heloise, of which Augustine’s Message is the final part. Abelard’s relationship with Héloïse, conducted almost entirely in secret, ended in disaster, with Abelard being viciously castrated by Héloïse’s uncle Fulbert. Perhaps not surprisingly, this was the beginning of the end for the lovers, both of whom ended up in monastic communities. In Augustine’s Message, Mackay delves into both the psyche and the soul of Abelard at this tragic point, as he explains in the programme note:

In this section of the story, Saint Augustine visits Abelard in a dream, in which he is battling to come to terms with his recent castration. This reflects a passage from Abelard’s autobiography where he describes a thousand thoughts coming into his head soon after the brutal attack, yet him eventually finding solace in his belief that in some way this act of retribution has been a gift from God enabling him to be free from worldly, carnal lusts and focus the rest of his life on the spiritual and philosophical.

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Richard Baker – To Keep a True Lent

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My Lent series continues with a very short choral piece by Richard Baker, setting Robert Herrick’s well-known poem To Keep a True Lent. Herrick’s text draws heavily on the sentiments of Isaiah chapter 58 (words traditionally read at the start of Lent), drawing stark contrasts between superficial and genuine acts of humility and fasting.

Is this a fast, to keep
The larder lean?
And clean
From fat of veals and sheep?

Is it to quit the dish
Of flesh, yet still
To fill
The platter high with fish?

Is it to fast an hour,
Or ragg’d to go,
Or show
A downcast look and sour?

No; ’tis a fast to dole
Thy sheaf of wheat,
And meat,
Unto the hungry soul.

It is to fast from strife,
From old debate
And hate;
To circumcise thy life.

To show a heart grief-rent;
To starve thy sin,
Not bin;
And that’s to keep thy Lent.

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