Harrison Birtwistle – Exody

by 5:4


i’m bringing my Advent Calendar to a close with a piece that i’ve always shied away from writing about, even though i think it’s one of the truly great orchestral works of the 20th century. Composed in 1997, Harrison Birtwistle‘s Exody looks ahead not only to what was then the looming end of the millennium in the year 2000, but to the end of each and every day. The title references a journey, while the work’s subtitle, ’23:59:59′, alludes to the moment just before midnight when, in Birtwistle’s words, “time stops temporarily when 24:00 becomes 0:00”. This infinitesimal sliver of time becomes the basis for a half-hour “celebration of leaving”, dedicated to the memory of Michael Tippett.

The keyword is “celebration”; at every moment during every twist and turn in the convoluted structure and narrative of Exody there’s an overwhelming sense of joy. Joy in the act of music-making – from compositional and performative, individual and communal perspectives; joy in an unceasing stream of bubbling, fizzing, effervescent creation; joy in the journey. As a listener, the quantity and complexity of this creation – which pretty much at no point in its 30-minute duration comes to a stop – can seem daunting and overwhelming. (My own first reaction was “WOW” followed by a dismal, “Well, there’s a piece i’ll never be able to write about.”) But the constant in everything that transpires throughout Exody is the conviction of its continuity; though undoubtedly disorienting on a first (and possibly also second or third) listen, the organic fluidity of Birtwistle’s material is incredible. It convinces us of its sense, even before we understand or appreciate it.

The more time i’ve spent with Exody, the more i’ve been impressed by the nature and malleability of its material. One of the first things we hear, boldly striking out into a pulsing, polarised space, are individual ideas being proffered from a variety of directions. Some gain traction and others join in; some do their thing and quickly recede. This is essentially a paradigm for all that follows, the orchestra continually reforming in response to both individual and group considerations, but even in its most intimidatingly busy episodes, there’s not just the impression but the audible proof that there’s an allowance for a lone voice to do something different. One of the most obvious is a saxophone that makes its presence felt – sometimes against the most absurd odds – on a number of significant occasions.

This is at the heart of how Exody operates, and celebrates, emphasising the accumulation of individual voices rather than the combined effect of a single, large totality. There are times when what’s musically in focus is hard to discern, but that’s never due to Birtwistle marshalling the forces into generalised, textural shapes. When we’re not sure where we should be listening, it’s because the options are too many, and we find ourselves caught between players and groups of players all throwing their ideas into the melting pot, all vying for our attention. This is mitigated to an extent by Birtwistle varying the level of sonic complexity. One of the most tangled sections (beginning ~8:14), is followed by a longer sequence that first opens things out (12:55) and then, despite seeming to be poised to unleash something aggressive, opts to reduce (16:47) and focus on soft lyricism. Both here and throughout Exody there’s a keen sense of united care being taken in the way the music progresses; the early stages of the piece, in particular, almost seem to suggest a certain amount of difficulty in moving forward due to the way it takes its time. Exody definitely isn’t a celebration running amok.

What Exody definitely is, though, is a simply jaw-dropping display of the most subtle, intricate orchestral writing, all of its monumental grandeur and beauty originating in the power and potency of individual songs. Listen – and listen again, and again – and marvel.

This performance of Exody was given at the 2014 Proms by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andrew Litton.

Programme note

Exody, a rarely-used English word, is derived from the Greek word exodia (going out), meaning a departure or journey.

The subtitle ’23:59:59′ is the second before midnight, the moment before time stops temporarily when 24:00 becomes 0:00, which carries increased significance and expectation on New Year’s Eve at the turn of the century or millennium.

The piece is a celebration of leaving in general and makes a journey into a labyrinth and out again.

—Harrison Birtwistle

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