Wednesday 1 September 2021

Unsettling and distinctive: Gregory Brown's new work for vocal sextet and electronics, Fall and Decline

Gregory Brown Fall and Decline; Variant 6; Navona Records

Gregory Brown Fall and Decline; Variant 6; Navona Records

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 1 September 2021 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
A contemporary vocal work that marries lessons from history with contemporary vocal techniques to striking effect

Variant 6 is an American vocal sextet whose work involves commissioning new pieces, and collaborating with a range of artists from composers to dancers to visual artists. On Fall and Decline, on Navona Records, American composer Gregory Brown has written a work for Variant 6, Fall and Decline for vocal sextet and electronics.

Variant 6 comprises six young singers, sopranos Jessica Beebee and Rebecca Myers, mezzo-soprano Elisa Sutherland, tenors Steven Bradshaw and James Reese, and bass Daniel Schwartz, who perform with other leading American ensembles from Trinity Wall Street to Apollo's Fire to The Crossing.

Gregory Brown's new work for them continues his exploration of complex contemporary polyphony which will be familiar to anyone who knows his 2011 Missa Charles Darwinwritten for the all-male ensemble New York Polyphony. This new piece continues the vein of complex modern polyphonic textures, but adds microtones and other vocal techniques and interweaves them with electronics.

Fall and Decline is a work about hubris. In it, using five texts Brown explores five different historical periods but in all of them there is hubris, fear and decline. The subject matter transcends a particular period, and the work rather reminds me of Barbara Tuchmann's 1984 book The March of Folly, which similarly looks at the repeated errors of human endeavour, and you cannot help but feel that part of Brown's inspiration came from the events of 2020.

The work begins with Cambyses II, ruler of the Achaemenid Empire (in what is present day Iran) and his conquest of Egypt ca. 500 BCE described in 1614 by the English cleric Samuel Purchas (c1577-1626), glory, misadventure and finally Cambyses is replaced by others, who in turn, fade away. Next comes a passage from the translation of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam (ca. 1120) by English poet Edward Fitzgerald (1809-1883), exploring the futility of man’s ambitions against the inevitable succession of time. Third is a poem written by contemporary American poet, Todd Hearon. Hearon wrote After the President’s Speech You Dream of Corpses in 2007 at the height of the Iraq War, a moving (and devastating) evocation of the place of such conflicts in history and even more chilling writing it after the recent events in Afghanistan - hubris indeed. The fourth text is by Sadakichi Hartmann (1867-1944), a German-Japanese artist (who became an American in 1894) and his poem as orchards bloom again provides a moment of hope and respite, as well as an explicit link back to Omar Khayyam. Finally we turn to the great historian Edward Gibbon (1737-1794). You could argue that the entirety of Gibbon's masterpiece, The history of the decline and fall of the Roman empire, is about hubris and Brown's selection of text provides a suitable superscription:

In a composition of some days,
in a perusal of some hours,
six hundred years have rolled away,
and the duration of a life or reign is contracted to a fleeting moment:
The grave is ever beside the throne;
and our immortal reason survives and disdains
the sixty phantoms of kings who have passed before our eyes,
and faintly dwell in our remembrance.

But Brown isn't just interested in text and meaning; you need to follow the piece with the texts (available on-line) in front of you to extract the full range of meanings. What we have is a virtuosic vocal work in a direct line to such pieces as Luciano Berio's work with the Swingle Singers. Polyphony, close harmony, recordings as found objects jostle amongst a wealth of other references. 

The first movement, dedicated to Cambyses, is spiky, and restless, full of energy but Fitzgerald's Rubáiyát is quieter and more intense, yet still with the edgy feel to the harmonies, and the complex vocal writing verges towards close-harmony (again, echoes of the Swingle Singers), whilst Todd Hearon's poem is develops tight rhythms and found objects into something rather disturbing. 

There is a sense here that we are hearing the familiar in an unfamiliar way, that Brown is using techniques and styles that we have known before but combining them in a distinctive fashion. Hartmann's poem provides, indeed, a moment of respite but during the long final movement the voices disappear entirely and the work ends with a bleak and eerie electronic soundscape, where the tones of the electronic sounds are calm but verge on the disturbing. Throughout the piece, electronica wanders in and out of the mix and there were times when I was unclear whether I was listening to advanced vocal techniques or electronic processing; perhaps that is partly the point.

This is an unsettling work, and a distinctive one. Brown seems to be mining a vein which has been somewhat dormant in contemporary music recently. Fall and Decline uses the poly-stylistic present to reflect these past eras via a range of influences from Renaissance polyphony, 19th century close harmony and late 20th century writing for advanced vocal ensembles. 

Gregory Brown (born 1974) - Fall and Decline
Variant 6 (Rebecca Myers, Sarah Moyer, Elisa Sutherland, Steven Bradshaw, James Reese, Daniel Schwartz)
Recorded at Windy Acres
Available via Navona Records website.

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