What is this “I”: is it my physical presence, is it the temporality in which I stand and pass away, is there an independence of my thoughts from that which I am, or is my entire being merely a fiction of me myself?
This metaphysical conundrum is the starting point for Language of Leaving by the German composer Charlotte Seither, given its world première at the Proms last Wednesday by the BBC Symphony Orchestra & BBC Singers conducted by Josep Pons. It’s a question as circular as it is taxing, subjective & strange, & Seither’s gambit is to seek a way into it via speculative music, avoiding a direct mode of expression in favour of a large tapestry of weird, fantastical sonics, equal parts humanistic, supernatural & magical. Setting a text would be impossible in a context such as this, so Seither instead uses words by Francesco de Lemene in the most oblique & intangible way, reducing them to a collection of hints, glimpses & afterthoughts.
The final Proms Matinee last Saturday week featured one of the more substantial & aspirational of this season’s new works. Simon Bainbridge has turned for inspiration to one of art’s most well-known & -loved works, Hieronymus Bosch‘s The Garden of Earthly Delights (image), seeking to bring it alive as a chamber cantata. Composed for countertenor & mezzo-soprano soli with a modestly sized ensemble & additional chorus, it was given its first performance by the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, conducted by Nicholas Collon. Read more
Last weekend’s Proms Matinee was the concert i had been most eagerly awaiting in this year’s season, featuring as it did some of my favourite composers and three premières. Back in April i opined that this concert “may just turn out to be the highlight of the whole season”; i think that prediction was pretty close to the mark. Read more
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…
wildwoods’ eyes and primarose hair,
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!
Now evencalm lay sleeping; night
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
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 means the next will come.
The next piece in my ongoing Lent series is an unusual setting of the Lord’s Prayer by the Argentine composer Julieta Szewach, which was broadcast on Radio 3 in 2008. Dikyrion uses the Aramaic version of the text, in a setting for mezzo-soprano and tape. The work was one of two selected as “outstanding” in the 11th International Rostrum of Electroacoustic Music, which took place in 2007 in Portugal (more info here). It’s easy to see why they came to that conclusion; Szewach’s piece is not only markedly different in tenor and temperament from the majority of electroacoustic music one tends to hear these days, but the soundworld she creates is both deeply immersive and very beautiful indeed. The word ‘dikyrion’ refers to a 2-branched candlestick used in Orthodox Christianity, that represents the dual nature of Jesus, both divine and mortal.
The atmosphere Szewach creates is a profound one, ethereal and mysterious. She abstracts the text, stretching and aerating it, turning it into mere shadows of words at the start, mere whispers of them towards the end; enclosing them at both points are low, solemn notes that toll out like deep gongs. Read more