Curating this year’s Lent Series, focusing on death, grief and loss, has been something of a difficult experience. As i mentioned at the start of the series, this theme has felt unavoidable and inevitable at the moment, but at the same time works such as the ones i’ve featured, that confront the darkest aspects of life, don’t particularly strive for, and certainly don’t lead to, even the vaguest approximation of catharsis. As i’ve been dipping in and out of the ever more atrocious recent news events (dipping out has become more and more crucial, simply to stay sane), spending time with these Lent Series works has only reinforced a sense of anger and distress. Yet i’m reminded that this is, of course, the only way that music can change or affect anything, by challenging or reinforcing our feelings to the extent that we become compelled to act.
To bring this year’s Lent Series to a close, i’m featuring one of the most intense works of sonic grief that i’ve ever heard. Over the last few years, i’ve explored the majority of Helena Tulve’s music and feel that i’ve come to know and understand it quite well, and our extensive Dialogue a few years back deepened that understanding a lot further. Yet i admit to being completely blindsided by her 2019 piece Lament. It’s not that Tulve’s music doesn’t explore dark or difficult places; far from it – in just the last few years, in works such as The Night-Sea Journey (2017), Pimesi (Blindly, 2018), Nächtliche Gesänge (2019) and Emergence I. Flowering out of the dark (2020), Tulve has repeatedly explored the nature, sensation and implications of inhabiting different forms of darkness. Not only in these pieces but in all her work (plenty of which is overtly positive in tone) she demonstrates an emotional concentration that i’ve come to regard as one of the signature traits of her music. In Lament, for bass voice and orchestra, Tulve pushes both of these aspects, darkness and emotion, to their absolute extremes.
Composed in memory of Estonian philologist Marju Lepajõe, the work’s text is drawn from four sources: Estonian writer Hedi Rosma, the Indian epic Mahābhārata, Persian poet Rūmī (who has featured in a lot of Tulve’s output) and Latvian theologian Georg Mancelius. Though derived from multiple sources, the resultant text is a coherent, unflinching essay in pure devastation, articulated as a two-part sequence of halting words and sentences that veer between numbness, despair and abject horror.
The relationship between the voice and orchestra is interesting. On the one hand, as is typical of Tulve’s music, there’s a fundamental sympathy at play, the orchestra reinforcing and echoing the soloist. Yet at the same time, they frequently swamp the bass, not merely surrounding him but actively overwhelming him, through the multiplicity of their actions and / or their sheer accumulative dynamic weight. (It’s possible, of course, that in this live performance the balance wasn’t quite right, but that only serves to enhance the effect.) We are hearing a voice that has not only been crushed by the past, but is being drowned by the present.
To this end, the emphasis in the instrumental writing (again, similar to Tulve’s earlier orchestral work) is on mass totality rather than the individual, forming dense, close-knit polyphonies within which signs of discrete activity can here and there be briefly discerned. These formations are like black tar, a toxic miasma manifesting angry clatter, queasy surges and circling currents. Indeed, in this respect the structure and narrative of Lament are challenging to discuss, mainly due to the fact that, aside from the fact Tulve has arranged it in two parts, the piece unfolds like a single unbroken expressive act. From the perspective of development, it could be said to do nothing and go nowhere, repeatedly sinking into and resurfacing from its never-ending cycle of infinite pain.
It’s not surprising that in such a heavy, hostile atmosphere as this the bass is, at best, in a fragile, parlous state. His voice tends to fall into three kinds of articulation: chesty attempts at strength, unhinged falsetto whimpers, and barely audible profondo croaks. It’s hard to say exactly what kind of performance the bass is giving in Lament: it contains aspects of song and speech, but transcends and negates both of these, in the process also encroaching on a kind of non-dramatic music theatre. Yet this triple range of articulations proves powerfully compelling, making the narrative a true-to-life unpredictable mess of forced clarity and broken confusion. Part of the reason the voice is so easily overwhelmed by the orchestra is due to its collapse into abyssal depths, where any trace of pitch – let alone words – is reduced to a hollow series of sputtering clicks and rattles. Furthermore, the dazed qualities of the voice speak to the almost boringly obvious reality of tragedy and atrocity, to those who “believe themselves to be immortal”, for whom “There are no words”. This passage at the close of part one is one of tenebrous solemnity, the contrabassoon joining the soloist in the depths while disturbing screeched whistles and sharp frictional squeaks ring out.
The second part shifts slightly from an outward lament to an inward one, the soloist directly addressing his hitherto “lost soul”. This seems to have the effect of pushing the beleaguered voice to greater extremes of emotion, in all parts of its range. When falsetto, he’s soft but imploring; in the chest, he projects the anguished strength of utter despair; down low, he again cracks and breaks, triggered at one point by a reference to death. The orchestra, at times seemingly incensed by his words, continues to follow closely and mirror the singer’s sentiments, again occasionally submerging him, particularly during the centre of this section. But the conclusion moves somewhere genuinely new, the final sentences being articulated with a music that is clearly and defiantly lyrical, despite being painted in shades of unutterable black. Whether Tulve wants to imply a trace of optimism here is debatable; an attempt at something climactic is immediately cancelled out, returning to solemn intoning and deep drones, and while the final line offers the potential of something ethereal (even transcendent?), it could equally be read as a sign of distraught desperation. Whatever it is, it quickly vanishes, the words, the voice and the orchestra all evaporating as dying breaths.
The world première of Lament was given by singer Andreas Fischer who also conducted the AFEKT Sinfonietta, at the opening concert of the 2019 AFEKT festival.
(text by Hedi Rosma, with quotes from the Mahābhārata, Rūmī and Georg Mancelius)
veils of knowing.
Fast asleep. Suffering the dreams
Forever in need.
No air to breathe.
Still waging war.
It’s your name
It’s your name.
Songs have changed.
Trees don’t look the same.
There are no words.
No words, no trees, no songs.
to name the things
that we will never know.
Day after day
Countless creatures die, yet those
believe themselves. Still believe themselves to be immortal.
There are no words.
How much longer
will you linger
in the garden
that the land
your feet tread
is the mother
you are created from.
who shelters you after death.
Learn at last.
It’s your name.
Day after day.
Aching for home, aching.
Craving to be known. Waiting to turn
from lust to love.
Untangle the fears.
Uncover all tears.
The sacred face of every place.
Longing to love.
Another indispensable series, Simon. As things turned out, my listening to this piece coincided with my just having watched (or perhaps “subjected myself to” would be more apt) the notorious Cold War-era BBC docudrama Threads, another artwork whose legendarily unrelenting bleakness demands a response from its audience. That film, of course, largely eschews music in favour of surely some of the most devastatingly effective sound design ever committed to tape, so the Tulve ended up being its score in retrospect. I don’t think you/I could have picked a better candidate for that role.