Richard Barrett – Opening of the Mouth (UK Première)

by 5:4
14 minutes read

To bring my little ‘death season’ to a close, a major work that confronts the subject in the most breathtakingly imaginative and radical way. Richard Barrett‘s Opening of the Mouth, composed over a five-year period from 1992-97, is a daunting work even to begin to write about, partly due to its scale—lasting a little over 70 minutes—but perhaps more due to its material intricacies and structural ingenuity, both of which invite various ways to be parsed. From one perspective, the work is a cycle, comprising a host of discrete compositions, many for solo instruments: abglanzbeladen/auseinandergeschrieben for percussion solo, CHARON for bass clarinet, Largo for soprano, koto and cello, Schneebett for soprano, mezzo-soprano and ensemble, Tenebrae for mezzo-soprano, electric guitar, ensemble and live electronics, knospend-gespaltener for C clarinet, air for violin and von hinter dem Schmerz for amplified cello, in addition to two electronic works, Landschaft mit Urnenwesen and Zungenentwürzeln. Barrett does not simply tessellate these pieces to make a larger whole—far from it: they occur simultaneously as well as consecutively, sometimes whole, sometimes fragmented, overlapping and interweaving with each other and with new material, Byzantine architecture rendering convoluted music of utmost sophistication.

Structurally, the work displays a symmetrical arrangement, two predominately instrumental sections bookending a central electronic episode (if one includes the introductory Landschaft mit Urnenwesen – played as the audience enters the performance space – it takes on a slightly different symmetry, two parts that each move from an electronic to an acoustic emphasis); at least, that’s how it appears on paper, yet the aural result suggests further structural and narrative implications, which i’ll touch upon below. Concerning the title, Barrett explains:

‘Opening of the Mouth’ is the name of a ritual performed in ancient Egypt during the process of mummification. The actual nature of this ritual is obscure, although it seems as if the dead person’s mouth is touched by one or more amuletic objects. The main purpose of the ritual was to restore the powers of speech to the person, enabling them to plead their case, as having led a virtuous life, before the judges of the underworld, and subsequently ‘come forth’ to dwell with the gods.

A mouth requires words, and for these Barrett turned to the poet Paul Celan, a figure whose own encounters with death—a German Jew who survived the slave-labour camps, yet ultimately took his own life—are integral to the agonised fire at Opening of the Mouth‘s emotive core.

This fire has a scalding effect on the music of the first half, ritualistically enunciated in little more than breaths and whispers beneath an extended vibraphone cadenza. It’s clear from this earliest episode, setting the poem ‘Engführung’ (‘narrowing’ or ‘stretto’), that Barrett is aligning his material to the fragmented, cryptic manner that makes Celan’s poetry so haunting. However, it’s equally clear that Barrett intends the music to speak very directly indeed; the first deviation from these hushed overtures (reverential? terrified?) is the mezzo-soprano lurching upwards in a ‘sprechgesang-glissando’ that immediately communicates something desperately intense beneath the surface. It’s a horrible moment and a necessary one, clarifying that the apparent regaining of composure that follows is nothing of the kind; everything here is taut. When the bass clarinet enters (CHARON), it offers both a counterpoint and an insight to this, phrases that don’t hold back at all, exploding with such force that they practically overblow themselves out of existence. In this respect it almost acts as a mouthpiece for the actual voices, who remain locked in half-spoken softness—until, that is, the line “zum Aug geh, zum feuchten” (“to the Eye go, to the moist one”), which Barrett stretches out into a slow extended glissando for both voices; they remain quiet but the effect is so marvellous that it stands out in relief, reducing the bass clarinet to an accompaniment role. The sense of ritual is emphatically restored soon after in Largo, cello and koto forming an austere reredos for the soprano, whose wildly angular melody becomes a kind of mystical incantation, angrily punctuated towards its conclusion by a blunt force double-stop trill from the cello. Schneebett (‘snowbed’) reunites both voices, which promptly huddle together in an uncomfortable shifting unison in their lowest register as the air of ritual continues around them, now articulated by percussion, flute, bass recorder and hardanger fiddle. It felt more hidden earlier, but here the ghastly melée of emotions that lies beneath seems audibly to begin to move. Schneebett invokes a powerful sense of dread, lending leaden weight to Celan’s dark words, “Eyes, world-blind, in the chasm of dying: I come, hardened growth in my heart. […] And falling: We were. We are. We are one flesh with the night. In the passages, the passages.”

Opening of the Mouth now passes down those passages into, seemingly, the innards of a human body, the electronic soundscape of Zungenentwürzeln (‘uprooting of tongues’) shining a rude light on its innermost nooks and crevices. In this context they become huge—or, conversely, we are miniaturised, the inhabitants of echoing dripping caverns subjected to shuddering physical spasms. This ushers us into Tenebrae and, shortly after, Engführung II, the part of the work that showcases most strikingly how effective is Barrett’s approach of juxtaposing diverse materials. Engführung II, at over 30 minutes’ duration by far the longest single segment in Opening of the Mouth, continues the text and train of thought from before, reflecting references to hurricanes and flurries in music full of hectic, agile figurations. This is intercut with the fragments that constitute Tenebrae, which could not be more contrasting. In them, the mezzo-soprano lets loose volleys of isolated incidents containing ‘razor edged attacks’, swooping ululations, guttural deep tremolandi, constricted singing and many more sounds that pretty much defy one’s attempts to describe them. In conjunction with percussion, heavily processed electric guitar and outbursts from a sampler, the combined effect is somewhere between an acoustic and electronic soundworld. Unsettling enough on their own, when inserted into the ongoing discourse of Engführung II they become horrifyingly bleak; it may seem like hyperbole, but there’s something rather terrifying in what Barrett achieves here, making the words of the poem—a kind of angry prayer to God—into something akin to the liturgy of a black mass.

It would be wrong to speak of a movement in the direction of resolution, but there is one toward quietude, the ensemble falling away until both voices alone intone, on rising glissandi, similar to earlier, “Steigt und spielt mit” (“Ascends and plays along”). This heralds the conclusion of the work, where beside an almost inaudible practice-muted cello—whose increasingly fraught gestures are ultimately even more impotent and futile than those heard in ne songe plus à fuir—they utter words with blank metrical precision, as though stunned into regularity. At the last, Barrett hurls at them short blasts from the sampler (to which their initial reaction is an “astonished gasp”), elaborated with increasing density by the rest of the ensemble. The return of the vibraphone in the coda brings echoes of Opening of the Mouth‘s beginning, but its gentle air of fantasy is qualified by cello, contrabass clarinet and—most powerfully of all—the waxing and waning presence of Landschaft mit Urnenwesen, its juddering bass frequencies encasing everything in a black veil of sound. Small wonder that the voices, continuing together, are now infinitessimal, aerated and wraith-like, their closing words little more than a vaporous hiss: “Gras, auseinandergeschrieben.” (“Grass, written asunder”).

Words like Celan’s—indeed, the whole subject matter that permeates his poetry—have a devastating profundity that would, and should, deter most composers from even considering setting them to music. Yet in Opening of the Mouth they’ve been partnered to a musical sensibility that resonates in absolute sympathy with them, in the process creating a work that gives one pause today to reflect on those who, despite the quaint notion of “lessons learned” from the past, continue to be arbitrarily persecuted and killed. Richard Barrett’s Opening of the Mouth is necessary, important, complicated yes, but nonetheless unnervingly direct. Forming one voice with Celan it serves as a chilling indictment of persecution and an unbearingly poignant keening on behalf of those who lives have been snuffed out. It is an incredible achievement.

The UK première performance – a wonderfully vivid account – was given by soprano Deborah Kayser and mezzo Ute Wassermann with Elision Ensemble, directed by Carl Rosman; it took place at Bates Mill during the 2009 Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. A CD of the work by these performers is unfortunately no longer readily available outside Australia; however, somewhat expensive copies can be procured directly from the label, ABC Classics. Their website has the booklet available to download free in PDF format—i highly recommend doing this, as it contains the entire sung text with translations, plus explanatory texts, diagrams of the work’s structure and images of the accompanying art installation by Richard Crow, which at the first performance in Australia was an integral part of the work.

Structure breakdown

For those wishing to navigate through the piece with a few landmarks, the various sections of the piece begin at these approximate time-points:

0:00 – Engführung I
5:58 – CHARON
16:13 – Largo
21:29 – Schneebett
29:12 – Zungenentwürzeln
34:38 – Tenebrae
37:28 – Engführung II
56:33 – “Steigt und spielt mit”

Programme Note

The music of Opening of the Mouth was begun in 1992, and completed at the beginning of 1997 to a commission from the The Festival of Perth. The score is dedicated to David Blenkinsop.

‘Opening of the Mouth’ is the name of a ritual performed in ancient Egypt during the process of mummification. The actual nature of this ritual is obscure, although it seems as if the dead person’s mouth is touched by one or more amuletic objects. The main purpose of the ritual was to restore the powers of speech to the person, enabling them to plead their case, as having led a virtuous life, before the judges of the underworld, and subsequently ‘come forth’ to dwell with the gods.

The actual title of the texts generally known as the Egyptian Book of the Dead was in fact the Chapters of Coming Forth By Day; it consists largely of a ‘script’ which informs the dead ‘reader’ of what to say during the subterranean ordeal.

The ‘mouth’ of the poet Paul Celan was opened by the holocaust; his complex constellations of images indeed include that of giving a voice to the dead, to those whose mouths were empty before being closed, the countless and the nameless. Celan’s language itself is a language from beyond the destruction of the German language by the Nazis, the ‘thousand darknesses of deathbringing speech’ in Celan’s own words, its ‘bearing witness’ also a witness to its own impossibility as, between 1945 and 1970 ( the year of Celan’s suicide by drowning), the poems are distilled from lyric utterances to hard and opaque fragments: concretions of a need and an inability to articulate something which is both more and less than memory. The millions of people murdered and burned have been distributed throughout the atmosphere which enters and leaves our lungs.

The composition of the music began from a contemplation of these two strands of influence, resulting in a work which embeds settings of four Celan poems within a large musical structure as a kind of journey through an (inward) underworld, attempting to answer a question at the centre of Celan’s life: how is art to respond to the atrocities of the death camps, indeed to the twentieth century with its many atrocities, without resorting to the anecdotal or the histrionic: the former is the material of history, while the latter usually fails to conceal its superficiality behind a barrage of lament.

It would have been an obvious ploy to attempt to wrench the emotions of the audience with some sort of pseudo-expressionist hysterics. However even the most casual reader of Celan will notice that he eschews the histrionic almost completely, and for this reason, as well as for reasons of my own (which bear at least some relationship to Celan’s), the vocal parts in Opening of the Mouth achieve their impact by their distance (at the surface level) from the horrors. To my mind, there is no alternative: Celan has not ‘beautified’ the events to which he constantly refers; he proposes a poetry which transmutes the ashes of language into a medium capable of its own beauty.

Another point which might arise from Opening of the Mouth is that the texts are treated in such a way as to render them sometimes incomprehensible, even if sometimes a few words rise to the surface as if to remind listeners that some kind of semantic thread is spinning itself out through the music. My experience of reading Celan, is that the poems themselves might seem equally incomprehensible at the beginning, until indeed some glowing fragments of meaning push to the surface and eventually begin to illuminate the words around them. (Compare Celan’s description of his poems as ‘messages in a bottle’, which might be picked up by someone or other who discovers a resonance therein with themselves.)

Opening of the Mouth is not ‘readily comprehensible’; nevertheless, for those who are willing to listen (since everyone with the requisite equipment is able to listen and comprehend), their experience of the music will I hope eventually resonate into clarity. Indeed the way the words are set (single syllables sometimes stretched out for over a minute) is at least partly intended to reflect the experience of reading this unprecedentedly compacted poetry, a process requiring time and the closest attention, even (or particularly) when the page is empty apart from a few words. For large stretches of the music, the voices provide a background, coloured by the phonemes of the text, for the (paradoxically?) more directly ‘expressive’ sounds of a succession of solo instruments.

The visual materials of the installation, are to be, in part, site specific; they counterpoint and complement the music, stemming as they do from the same dark constellation of ideas and obsessions, and also transmute the performing space into a ‘theatre’ in the widest sense, into an internal landscape, an ephemeral conjunction of the debris of the imagination. Obviously there is a relationship here with the concept of ritual, although ritual by definition is a denial of the imagination by means of an unquestioning acceptance of time-petrified actions and utterances (which is not to deny its fascinating aspect) like those of the Catholic mass or the Noh Theatre or even the parliamentary process.

Opening of the Mouth, in common, with all my compositions of recent years (and, in its own way, with the work of Paul Celan), attempts to concretise an elusive expressive energy by a constant and convulsive questioning of itself.

Opening of the Mouth has only been conceivable in terms of the capabilities and artistic priorities of Elision, particularly the ensemble’s concern (which I share completely) to find a means of compositional presentation beyond the production and compilation of the usual loosely-connected or unconnected concert programes. It seems apparent that, given the opportunity for a concert programme to be ‘composed’ in the same sense as its constitutional elements, even the most challenging music can create around itself a more dramatic and engaging context for its audience.

Apart from the members of Elision Ensemble, I should also like to acknowledge the essential contributions made to the conception of this project by Anne La Berge, Andrew Sparling, Steven Kazuo Takasugi and Frances-Marie Uitti for instrumental techniques, Studio STEIM (Amsterdam) and the Institute for Sonology (Den Haag) for software and studio facilities.

—Richard Barrett

Landschaft mit Urnenwesen, the electronic work that served as a prelude before the first performance and appears as an element towards the end of the work, can be streamed/downloaded (in lossless format) from Richard Barrett’s SoundCloud:

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Kjeld Jensen

Thanks very much for posting this. This was one of the first pieces by Richard Barrett that I heard and it immediately grabbed me as something special. Despite the bleakness, I found it both beautiful and powerful and I would now count RB amongst my favourite composers.

Great to be able to listen to this piece again – “a tough listen” according to the review in The Wire!

Richard Barrett

Thanks Simon for posting this, and the link to “Landschaft mit Urnenwesen.” Readers may be interested to know that the low sounds of that piece (which are the only elements of it that return at the end of “Opening…”) are derived from a recording of Carl Rosman playing the second half of the solo bass clarinet piece “CHARON” (which is also part of “Opening…” of course), with each of its seven sections transposed downwards (and thus also slowed down) to differing degrees, and overlapped with one another instead of separated as in the solo version.

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