Saturday, 27 December 2014

Spitalfields Winter Festival: this year’s midnight and phantom voices

Simon Callow
Simon Callow
Fretwork, Simon Callow, Clare Wilkinson, The Clerks; Spitalfields Winter Festival
Reviewed by Hilary Glover on Dec 15 2014
Poems by John Donne and musical hallucinations inspire two contrasting concerts

Clare Wilkinson
Clare Wilkinson
An evening of viols and voices, celebrating the winter solstice, the first of a pair of concerts which drew this year's Spitalfields Winter Festival towards its close. 'This year's midnight' from Simon Callow, Clare Wilkinson and Fretwork was followed by 'Phantom voices', a Clerks experiment in musical hallucinations.

With poems recited by Simon Callow, and songs performed by mezzo-soprano Clare Wilkinson and Fretwork, the concert 'This year's midnight' had been inspired by 'A nocturnal on St Lucy's day' by John Donne. The subject matter was sensitively performed but relentlessly drear: death, cold, night, and of overwhelming despair. Even T.S. Eliot's Magi were more concerned with death than the birth they had gone to witness. An English midwinter - when we have only an even colder January to look forward to.

In a diverse programme, with 17th century Shakespeare, Purcell, Byrd and Dowland, some more modern items stood out. Callow's reading of 'Out in the dark' by Edward Thomas (1878-1917) put a completely different complexion on it - the magical wonder of the song by Rubbra was instead a gritty poem about loss. Equally compelling 'The warm and the cold' by Ted Hughes was told with a child-like quality, in its questioning search for similes.

Compositions by Duncan Druce (1939-) 'Bereavement' and 'Midnight' both allowed the viols to explore modern techniques: 'Bereavement with its slippery two note motif supported a slow melody from Wilkinson, and 'Midnight' which had starry tremolos and a chord which spread over everyone like the night sky. Tan Dun's (1957-) setting of the Li Po poem 'In the quiet night' was very atmospheric with vocal fragments, poised or sliding, echoed by Fretwork. Here Wilkinson had a chance to show her skill in producing something refreshingly different from the lamenting lines of Dowland. 'Afterwords' by Andrew Keeling (1955-), for viols alone, also had some interesting moments but the impact of the broad statements sometimes was lost as timings drifted.

The Clerks - Picture credit: Colin Turner
The Clerks - Picture credit: Colin Turner
This was followed by 'Phantom voices', a Clerks experiment in musical hallucinations. In an exploration of internal sound, varying from the song you just cannot get out of your head to the unwanted sound of tinnitus, the precise singing of the Clerks was layered with recorded songs, sounds and conversations, played back through speakers and via headphones. Sometimes you could see the performers, sometimes not, and with speakers around the hall this added another dimension, questioning what was recorded and what was live.

The group were at pains to make sure that audience appreciated the work of their sound engineer, Miles Eastwood, who was responsible for putting all the clips together and to ensure that they were all at the right levels and at the right time.

As well as the auditory experiment, the concert concurrently investigated incidents of 'Ich muss dich lassen', from its written origin by Heinrich Isaac (1450-1517), through J S Bach in the 18th century, to 20th century blue grass and serialism. A further thread in these 'hauntings' was a narrative about the death of Anton Webern who, as a young man, researched into, and edited the music of, Isaac and in whose music the Clerks found a parallel with the painstaking polyphony of Isaac. These layers went forwards, then back again to the start, subtly changing, so that 'I wish I had killed a man' became 'I wish I hadn't killed a man'.

As always, the Clerks' performance was outstanding, especially in view of all the other noises going on around them, and with some difficult deliberately detuning (in parts of the 'Miserere' from 'Ein Lied in der Kriegszeit' by Christopher Fox).

Of course I can only write about my impression – and I may have misheard – but that is after all the point of the experiment. You can get involved at the 'Hearing the Voice project' which is sponsored by The Wellcome Trust and run by Prof Charles Fernyhough and Dr Angela Woods.

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