Saturday, 24 September 2016

The Great Silence: Samuel Bordoli's anthem remembering Britain's choristers

Samuel Bordoli
Samuel Bordoli
Most new pieces are lucky if they get a couple of performances or so, but Samuel Bordoli's new anthem, written in memory of choristers killed in World War One has a whole sequence of performances planned.

On Monday 26 September 2016, Samuel Bordoli's The Great Silence, will receive its premiere at St George's Chapel Windsor when the choirs of St George's Chapel, Windsor Castle, Her Majesty's Chapel Royal, St James's Palace, Her Majesty's Chapel Royal, Hampton Court Palace and The Queen's Chapel of the Savoy perform it as part of a Windsor Festival concert celebrating the Queen's 90th birthday.

The anthem is written in support of London Music Masters, the charity which supports music in some of the UK's most deprived schools, and there are performances planned for a whole variety of choirs including at St Paul's Cathedral. I recently met up with Samuel to find out a little more.

The anthem commemorates the choristers who fell during World War One which, Samuel comments, is a musically complex thing to do. So, using the text (Ivor Gurney's poem Song and Pain) Samuel has created two distinct moods with the idea of resurrection coming out of horror and sorrow, with the sense of re-birth on entering the 'House of Joy'. The work is set for chorus and organ, but it opens with a sorrowful atmosphere with unaccompanied chorus, with the organ entry causing a change of mood. Samuel has found that having the organ dropping out of the texture occasionally can create a remarkably dramatic effect.

Having been asked to write a work commemorating World War I, Samuel was keen for the piece to be something other than just 'another commemorative piece' and to create something of a practical legacy. So the piece is supporting what Samuel calls 'the amazing work' of London Music Masters. The idea being not only to raise money to inspire people and to create opportunities, making the charity's work more known.

St George's Chapel choir - credit Gill Aspel © The Dean and Canons of Windsor
St George's Chapel choir - credit Gill Aspel
© The Dean and Canons of Windsor
The work lasts around seven minutes and the final section, which will not be performed on Monday, is a roll call of honour of the performing choir's own fallen choristers. A number of churches in and around London have been invited to collaborate on the project, and so far seven or eight are interested in giving their own performances of the anthem, including St Paul's Cathedral, St Clement Danes, and Westminster Cathedral. The Windsor Festival became interested and this seemed a logical connection with the military links in Windsor and the celebration of the Queen's birthday.

Samuel sees the performances at individual churches as also something of a research opportunity, for local choirs to find out about who their own dead choristers were and what they did. This commemoration of fallen choristers came about because Samuel wanted the work to be slightly different, not just 'something for the war' and he was not aware of anything which specifically addresses fallen choristers, even though lots went to fight. The scale of the loss in the war is hard to comprehend, and Samuel feels that focusing on individuals is a very powerful way of helping people to understand.

Having a work performed in so many different venues by different ensembles is a far cry from some of Samuel's other work, his series site specific works, Live Music Sculptures. But he comments that he has lots of interests and whilst site specific work is interesting for the fascinating way working in a particular building causes restraints, he would not want to do that all day. In fact his range of work is wide including not only choral and vocal, but chamber music and opera. For Samuel it is rather the idea which dictates the form, rather than the other way round. He comes up with a concept or a sound and then finds out where it might go. So the anthem, and the site specific pieces are different sides to his personality.

Writing choral music, of course, the composer is aware of the possible limitations which writing for choirs might place on the work but Samuel does not feel this constrains him, rather the opposite. It focuses the palate so that he has to distil everything down to the purest elements, counterpoint, lines working together. And he adds that you cannot be fussy, or 'mess around'. If writing for virtuosic instrumental players there is a temptation to over-write, but you cannot do that in vocal music. And with choral music he feels there is the liberty to look back historically and connect with a long tradition, after all choirs have not really changed for 500 years.

Looking ahead he is planning a project with the Ligeti Quartet, Music of the Spheres. He describes this as 'live music sculpture territory', as the quartet will be playing in planetariums, working with an animator. They will be commissioning works but the climax will be Bach's The Art of Fugue, with the players placed around the audience so that there will be a spatial element to Bach's counterpoint. Samuel hopes this will help make the connection between music and science, between Bach and his great contemporary Newton, as during that period music was seen as a science, as a way of looking for answers. The planning is still in the early stages but they are hoping to put together a tour and have a couple of planetariums interested.

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