Proms 2017: Anders Hillborg – Sirens (UK Première)

by 5:4

It’s quite unusual to be sitting down to enjoy the Proms première of a piece you already know quite well. But that was the case with Anders Hillborg‘s Sirens, which received its first UK performance a couple of days ago by Swedish sopranos Ida Falk Winland and Hannah Holgersson with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, conducted by James Gaffigan. Fifteen months ago, when reviewing its CD release, i found Sirens to be deeply problematic, so it was good to be able to revisit the piece afresh, in a new performance.

As the title suggests, the work’s theme is taken from Homer’s Odyssey, recounting the adventures of Odysseus as he seeks over a ten-year period to return home to Ithaca, to be reunited with his family. One of the more memorable trials he faces is confronting the Sirens, dangerous beings who entice sailors to their doom with intoxicatingly lovely music. Following advice from Circe (who, in an another memorable scene earlier, temporarily turns half of Odysseus’ comrades into pigs), they survive the encounter by stuffing beeswax into their ears, blocking out the music, though Odysseus, evidently of the ‘look but don’t touch’ inclination, has himself tied to the ship’s mast in order to experience the music while being unable to act upon it.

To experience Hillborg’s Sirens, in a literal sense we the audience assume the role of Odysseus (referred to by his Roman equivalent of Ulysses in the text), and Hillborg – or, rather, the singers and orchestra – become the Sirens. One’s response to the piece entirely depends on the extent to which you either are or aren’t ‘seduced’ by it. i’ll come back to this shortly.

My concern about Sirens hitherto was not primarily due to the fact that Hillborg is evidently trying to turn almost the entire piece into something akin to a tantric orgasm, a protracted splurge of sonic love-juice that maintains itself for over half an hour. Quite apart from anything else, he deserves kudos even for attempting a feat like that. The problems are less to do with aim than with execution. Contemporary music has form when it comes to tapping into prolonged bursts of ecstasy: more than anyone, the late John Tavener regularly sought to achieve this, utilising a fait accompli approach that – inspired by Orthodox architecture – established the ecstasy at the outset and didn’t let up until the end. Hillborg’s approach is very similar to this, though whereas in Tavener’s case it was almost always doomed to fail (due to a lack of contrast or perspective: in anything other than the most superficial manner, can something be perceived as ‘ecstatic’ if there’s no indication of what constitutes ‘not ecstatic’?), Hillborg does at least establish a brief but highly contrasting introduction and coda that serve to materialise and evaporate the Sirens’ music. Yet the main body of the work, the Sirens’ song itself, is expressed via the kind of cloying Technicolor bathos that one might expect – and invariably receive – from a Whitacre or a Zimmer.

To hear this kind of stuff from Anders Hillborg is a surprise, but i wonder whether this is because, as i’ve remarked in the past, Hillborg is by far at his best in more vague, suggestive music, rather than the strikingly direct type of material presented here. Few mainstream composers are as accomplished as Hillborg at widespread orchestral obfuscation, yet this plays a very minor part in Sirens. The way the work opens and closes is marvellous, a suspended cluster that swells and recedes, unveiling in the introduction a collection of episodes populated by whispers and soft vocal chatter. These moments are mysterious and beguiling, they draw you in, invite enquiry, you really want to look and listen a whole lot closer. But all this is merely the upbeat to the song, which is unleashed in a largely undifferentiated, crystal clear stream of glossy filmic radiance and floaty vocal lines (all credit to Winland and Holgersson, though, who gave an exquisite rendition of these wafting sugar-laden melodies), perpetually stuck in an obvious metric rut. Only when the orchestral candy dissolves (around 20 minutes in), leaving a solitary hanging pitch and just a single voice – “Ulysses, descend with us…” – does the song make the kind of direct one-to-one contact that’s much harder to resist. These moments are special, having a power and immediacy way beyond that of the unicorn-scented rainbows and aural frottage Hillborg aspires to everywhere else. When the sopranos coo about “Our melody/so wondrous, so tender” it honestly sounds as if they’re trying to convince themselves as much as Ulysses.

Objectivity is a myth, of course, but it seems to me that Hillborg’s Sirens is a more than usually subjective composition. As such, if this kind of drawn-out, pretty but superficial stroking is sufficient to make you involuntarily tumesce, then all power to you – grab some tissues, tie yourself to the armchair and knock yourself out. Personally speaking, like most music that shouts out its intentions – especially when they’re both musically and, as here, narratively manipulative – it just leaves me extremely cold. Ida Falk Winland, Hannah Holgersson and the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus give it everything they’ve got, and they’re impossible to fault, but i for one really would not have needed to have been tied to that mast.

The audio has been removed as a commercial recording is now available.


Charmed out of time we see
no life on earth can be
hid from our dreaming.

This way, oh turn your bows
Achaia’s glory
oh cease thy course
and listen to our lay.
Rest upon this holy ground
listen to our lay.
Mighty warrior, stay
oh pride of Greece.

Rest upon this holy ground
pleased by each purling note
like honey twining
Sweet coupled airs we sing
Stay Ulysses, pride of Greece.

This way, Achaia’s glory
oh turn your bows.

All we know,
All the lore that time can tell.
All the mystic founts of joy.
no life on earth can be
hid from our dreaming.

Turn, oh turn thy bark this way
Rest upon this holy ground,
Listen to the Sirens’ lay
For lo, we know all things
All the lore that time can tell.
All the mystic founts of joy.
Rest upon this holy ground,

Come here, come here, thou worthy of a world of praise

This way
Turn this way.
Come here, stay.

Come here,
Our voices are sweet as honey,
Come to us!
This way
Turn this way,
Listen, our lips can being you pleasure and joy on your way.
For lo, we know all things
All the lore that time can tell.
All the mystic founts of joy.
Rest upon this holy ground,
Great Ulysses, hear our voices sing thy praise!
Glory, glory, glory to thee!
Praise thee, Achaia’s glory!
Hail thee Ulysses, Achaia’s glory,
shining ever more, shining brightly .
Soaring ever higher
with stars sparkling about you.

descend with us,
and feel
the breathing of the world.
ascend with us
soaring ever higher
shining ever more brightly.

Come, we will take you to the crack
between the worlds.

Ulysses, descend with me
Ulysses, ascend with me
and feel the breathing of my world.

our melody,
so wondrous, and so tender.
All-revealing, all-forgiving,
flowing from us to you.

Shining ever more, great glory of the Greeks.
Soaring ever higher,
with stars sparkling about you.
Hear us Achaia’s glory.
Our melody,
so wondrous, so tender.
Clouds of sweet fragrance
swelling and roaring around you.
Breathe them, hear them, plunge into them,
drown in their sweetness,
we’d love to turn you on.

the breathing of the world.
Feel the world.
Come fly with us.

Text: extracts from various translations of the ‘Song of the Sirens’ from Book XII of Homer’s ‘Odyssey’, with additions by the composer

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Chris L

It can be a very self-limiting thing for a composer to do, to commit to a single interpretation of the notes on the page. One thing that gives Shostakovich’s best pieces their power and longevity, for example, despite the limited modes of expression you’ve previously identified, is their slipperiness (unless one really does take Testimony as gospel) when it comes to pinning down what they’re really “about”. That’s why I’m with Taruskin when he says that the 8th String Quartet, far from being the pinnacle of DSCH’s oeuvre it’s often touted as being, is actually one of the weakest of his major works – it’s too nakedly a suicide note or self-memorial, and once one has fully familiarised oneself with it there’s nowhere else to go with it, really.

Chris L

Weakest in this respect, I’d like to qualify – there’s obviously no weakness of technique at play. Perhaps “canonical” would have been a better word than “major”, for that matter. Ah, the dangers of writing last thing at night…

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