Robert Mackay – Augustine’s Message

by 5:4

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.

Augustine was a significant influence on Abelard’s thinking, and the text used in Augustine’s Message (devised by Tania ap Siôn) alludes to one of the most well-known episodes in Augustine’s autobiographical Confessions, specifically the eighth book, where Augustine, addressing God, finds himself hesitating on the cusp of conversion:

I could no longer claim that I had no clear perception of the truth—the excuse which I used to make to myself for postponing my renunciation of the world and my entry into your service—for by now I was quite certain of it. But I was still bound to earth […] Instead of fearing, as I ought, to be held back by all that encumbered me, I was frightened to be free of it. […] I had prayed to you for chastity and said, ‘Give me chastity and continence, but not yet.’ (from chapters 5 and 7; translation by R. S. Pine-Coffin)

Mackay is an actor as well as a composer, and his innate sense of the dramatic is overwhelmingly apparent throughout Augustine’s Message. Using only sounds derived from the voice, Mackay constructs a richly detailed tapestry emblazoned with the motto “the flesh lusts against the spirit”. In the first half of the work, Mackay’s principal texture is characterised by deep, almost subsonic rumbles underpinning rushing wind-like material above, regularly punctuated by blunt metallic impacts. Far from being mere ‘background’, though, this entire textural component follows closely the emotional ebb and flow of the text, resulting in a highly effective piece of electroacoustic word painting. The means are often very simple indeed—brief sibillant rattles at the reference to the serpent; the voice crumbling when speaking of disease—but this only makes the atmosphere more powerfully vivid and immersive. Where the first half takes issue with Abelard’s current ambivalent state, the latter half softens, its words of exhortation and encouragement delivered in an altogether more sparse but warm environment. Distant sung voices (the only time in the piece when singing can be clearly discerned) finally coalesce into a downward sag over which the final words gently but firmly ring out: “God beckons you; accept your destiny.”

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