Every now and again, a new piece of music comes along that seems to have an unusually timeless quality. For me at least, it’s often something that combines elements which are distinctly modern with others which are centuries old. I suppose the most obvious examples that spring to mind are certain works by Arvo Pärt and the three albums (Officium, Mnemosyne, and Officium Novum) in which the Hilliard Ensemble were joined by saxophonist Jan Garbarek on pieces going back as far as the thirteenth century. (Actually, thinking about the way my musical tastes have developed over the years, I realise I may always have been interested in this kind of encounter of musics from different eras; in my teens I was big on bands like Procol Harum, King Crimson and Renaissance.)
Of course, it’s not only Pärt who has drawn heavily on the music of the past; most composers are pretty open about the ideas, techniques, motifs and phrases they borrow from their antecedents. Occasionally, as with someone like John Adams, the borrowings can be very upfront; in other cases, as with someone like Harrison Birtwistle, they are virtually indiscernible to anyone (like me) with only a very rudimentary grasp of musical theory and syntax. But this engagement with the music of the past is not always about quotation anyway; more often it seems simply to be a question of composing with an eye – or an ear? – on tradition.
All of which is by way of preamble to some brief words on two recent albums to which I’ve been listening rather a lot over the past month. Both are choral pieces by contemporary composers; both have a strong spiritual thrust – though in neither case was that a problem for this particular atheist. I was more concerned with the music itself, which in each instance was both fascinating and often very lovely.
The first, entitled The Fifth Century, features music by Gavin Bryars, a British composer I knew mainly from the works he and Brian Eno released on the marvellous but short-lived Obscure Records back in the 70s: most memorably Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet and The Sinking of the Titanic, both somewhat minimalist pieces (for want of a better description) that stand up well today. The Fifth Century, however, came as a surprise, since it’s very different; it seems Bryars has been especially interested in writing for the human voice in recent years, and the new album features the long, seven-part titular piece for choir and saxophone quartet, and Two Love Songs, a cappella settings of a couple of Petrarch poems for female choir.
Though saxes feature in the main piece, any resemblance to the Officium records is faint. Here the horns are less ornate than Garbarek’s (and not improvisational): more subdued, more closely integrated with the choir’s voices in the drifting harmonic colours of the piece, which is a haunting, sometimes sombre, sometimes uplifting setting of words by the 17th-century mystic Thomas Traherne. The singing and playing, respectively by The Crossing and the PRISM Saxophone Quartet, are immaculate, and at its ethereal best the piece has the slowly floating, bestilled loveliness of something like Pärt’s Solfeggio or Nunc Dimittis. You can listen to a little of it here.
The other album, Requiem, is a piece of almost 100 minutes by a young Catalan composer, Bernat Vivancos, with whom I wasn’t at all familiar, though I’ve since learned that a previous CD of his work entitled Blanc won him many admirers upon its release in 2013. Certainly, Requiem – which Vivancos wrote in memory of his father – suggests he is a composer capable of writing music that is at once highly accessible and often very beautiful. Though most of the piece’s eight movements offer a slow, serene contemplation of life, death and transcendence sung by a mixed choir, there are also subtle, sometimes surprisingly atonal contributions by a solo cello and cello quartet (particularly in the movement entitled Lasciatemi Morire, which deals with the approach and experience of death), and by an accordion and percussion. The music, set to an imaginative range of texts, is reminiscent sometimes of plainsong, sometimes of far more modern work. (Górecki’s Amen is one piece that came to mind, though the Vivancos is generally rather richer in texture.)
In places, the dense chromatic vocal clusters even recall Ligeti, though there is little of his urgent tension; that said, there are moments of huge intensity, while Vivancos’ pleasingly fertile variations on a recurrent motif of three descending notes are typical of the piece’s deceptive simplicity. What’s impressive is that while one may discern, here and there, strange echoes of other composers, Vivancos has managed to give us a work which in the end isn’t quite like anything else. The Latvian Radio Choir under Sigvards Klava, benefitting from a superb high definition recording, do him proud; I was transfixed by the purity of both music and sound the first time I heard the CD, and I’ve played it many times since. If you too occasionally feel like listening to music that feels timeless, you might like to check some of it out here.
Gavin Bryars’ The Fifth Century is available on ECM. Bernat Vivancos’ Requiem is available on Neu Records.