RNS @ Wylam 2 - Alternative Concert Experience
It starts on the streets of South London, with a homeless old man singing quietly to himself. It becomes…well, there isn’t really any way to describe what you’ll think or feel next, as Gavin Bryars weaves that broken scrap of human feeling into a sonic experience unlike anything else in 20th century music. Like the serenely unfurling soundscape of Arvo Pärt’s Summa and the dancing, ever-renewing sonic patterns of Steve Reich’s groundbreaking Vermont Counterpoint, Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet is a true modern classic: music with the power to provoke, to move, and to leave you transformed.
As we can’t perform this concert just yet, please grab a beer from the fridge and enjoy our alternative concert experience. Listen to each piece in our playlist (to the right) and have a read of the programme notes below.
ARVO PÄRT Summa
Like so many of the Estonian composer’s works, Summa has been subject to a number of transformations. Originally, in 1977, it was intended as a liturgical piece, a setting of the Credo for four unaccompanied voices, and it was his use of a neutral title – ‘summa’ meaning, in Latin, either a summary or a representation of supreme power – that helped avoid conflict with the Soviet authorities over religious connotations.
Pärt later dispensed with the words and began scoring Summa for various instrumental combinations. This evening we hear a version for strings arranged in 1990 which, to some degree, slips the more buoyant aspects of Baroque music into the mix without diminishing the spiritual contemplation that is the bedrock of Pärt’s style.
© Richard C Yates
STEVE REICH Vermont Counterpoint
This 1982 piece, commissioned by American flautist Ransom Wilson and dedicated to philanthropist Betty Freeman, is scored for three flutes, three alto flutes, three piccolos and one solo part all pre-recorded on tape, plus a live solo part. The 10-minute work presents four sections in four different keys, with a third in a slower tempo.
Reich writes: ‘The compositional techniques used are primarily building up canons between short repeating melodic patterns by substituting notes for rests and then playing melodies that result from their combination. These resulting melodies or melodic patterns then become the basis for the following section as the other surrounding parts in the contrapuntal web fade out.
‘Though the techniques used include several that I discovered as early as 1967, the relatively fast rate of change (there are rarely more than three repeats of any bar), metric modulation into and out of a slower tempo, and relatively rapid changes of key, may well create a more concentrated and concise impression.’
© Steve Reich
GAVIN BRYARS Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet
While working in 1971 with Alan Power on a documentary film about London’s homeless, composer and double bassist Gavin Bryars made use of a recording of an unnamed man on the street singing an unfamiliar religious song, Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet, that had been cut from the footage. In a sound lab Bryars added a simple piano accompaniment to a loop of the tape recording. On taking a short break he left the tape running with the door open – only to find on his return that some of his colleagues were in tears.
Bryars writes: ‘This convinced me of the emotional power of the music and of the possibilities offered by adding a simple, though gradually evolving, orchestral accompaniment that respected the homeless man’s nobility and simple faith. Although he died before he could hear what I had done with his singing, the piece remains as an eloquent, but understated testimony to his spirit and optimism.’ A 25-minute version was premiered at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall in December 1972, and recorded for Brian Eno’s Obscure label in 1975. A longer version in 1993 featured Tom Waits singing along with the original recording of the man’s song, and in 1981 French choreographer Maguy Marin used the piece as the score for her Beckett-inspired work May B. Such recognition never came during the life of the homeless singer. There is no record even of his name.
© Richard C Yates