Tuesday, May 16, 2006

New choral music's dream ticket


New music can experiment, new music can reinvent, new music can engage, and new music can entertain. But the work that hits all four targets simultaneously is a very rare one indeed. Joby Talbot’s new choral cycle Path of Miracles is one of those rare works. The superb 2006 Norfolk and Norwich Festival performance by Tenebrae revealed a composition that experiments with Bunun aboriginal sounds while reinventing the Jacobean chant Dum Pater Familias. For seventy minutes the a cappella work successfully engaged and entertained a large audience in Norwich Cathedral, and produced one of the most enthusiastic responses that I have witnessed for a 21st century work. If you wanted to buy Tenebrae’s CD of Path of Miracles at the end of the concert you had to push your way through a scrum fighting for the remaining copies - now that kind of enthusiasm is very rare indeed in the world of contemporary music.

Joby Talbot studied with Simon Bainbridge, Robert Saxton, Brian Elias and Louis Andriessen. He was one of four composers commissioned by the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra in 1997, and the resulting Luminescence was premiered by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies and has since been broadcast several times on BBC Radio 3. His movie soundtrack credits include The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and he writes and performs alongside Neil Hannon in the UK pop phenomenon, The Divine Comedy.

Path of Miracles is a musical journey that follows the world's most enduring route of Catholic pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostella, and beyond to Finisterre. The four movements of the work are titled with the names of the four main staging posts of the Camino Frances, the abbey at Roncesvalles in the foothills of the Pyrenees, and the great cathedrals of Burgos, Leon and Santiago itself. But the textual themes within the movements extend beyond the mere geographical. Throughout the work, quotations from various medieval texts (principally the Codex Calixtinus and a 15th Century work in the Galician language - Mirages de Santiago, but also including the original Carmina Burana) are woven together with passages from the Roman Liturgy and lines of poetry from Robert Dickinson, the work's librettist, while one of the musical leitmotifs is the pilgrim's hymn Dum Pater Familias.

The work opens with an eerie rising glissando using a vocal effect based on the Bubun aboriginal Pasibutbut from Taiwan, in which low voices rise in volume and pitch over an extended period, creating random overtones as the voices move into different pitches at fluctuating rates. The journey, and Path of Miracles, concludes on the Atlantic coast at Finisterre, where 'the walls of heaven are thin as a curtain'. Here the pilgrim's hymn is heard in the coda, now in English, endlessly repeating and finally disappearing as Tenebrae processed out of the nave of Norwich's great Norman cathedral. An extraordinarily moving end to an important addition to the contemporary choral literature.

Resources * Path of Miracles is scored a cappella for SSSSSAAAATTTTBBBB. The score is published by Chester Novello, but is currently listed as 'unavailable', presumably Tenebrae have an exclusivity period as they commissioned it.
* The CD is on Signum Classics, catalogue number SIGCD078

* Follow this link for Tenebrae's web site, and a biography of their director Nigel Short. I am told a US tour is planned for 2007, watch this space
* The pilgrim hymn Dum pater familias and other works from the Codex Calixtinus are on Ensemble Organum's Compostela - Ad Vesperas Sancti Jacobi (Ambroisie AMB 9966)
* Web site for the pilgrimage routes to Santiago de Compostela

* All CDs in this article are available from Prelude Records
* If you can get to Spain Path of Miracles is being performed in the great cathedrals on the pilgrimage route in three concerts in July, and admission is free. Here are the details: 21 July, Iglesia de la Merced, Burgos, 24 July Monasterio de San Zoilo, Carrion de los Conde, 25 July Cathedral de Leon, Leon.

Image credits - both pictures are of Tenebrae. Any copyrighted material on these pages is used in "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and other errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk
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