THREADING THE LIGHT
Move Records MCD 636
I don’t know how to catalogue this four-part exercise. According to the notes available on the Move Records site, the score formed the basis of Wilcox’s Ph.D. submission and was written between 2008 and 2012. The composer provides a good deal of technical detail on how she contrived the background/supporting musical stream that runs throughout the work. As you probably know if you’ve dabbled in academia, very little impresses a supervisor/examiner more than graphs, tables and photos of mechanisms; the trouble lies in interpreting the numbers which few people (except those paid to do so, viz. supervisors and examiners) can be bothered attempting. I had a few tries and got some way in – but then you listen to the CD and have to wonder at the need to explain technical details when the whole product presents more puzzles than the technical tooling around with frequencies extracted from or supplied by Sydney percussionist Michael Askill’s singing bowls.
Wilcox’s four soundscapes go by elemental titles: Light, Water, Blood, Fire. The overall emotional tenor of the work is meditative and ritualistic, with a heavy accent on Near and Far Eastern practices. Not that you wouldn’t be aware of this from the composer’s instrumental fabric, but it helps that she uses singers who beaver away at various texts that might give some reinforcement or illustration of the work’s four generic titles. Soprano Alison Morgan, contralto Jenny Duck-Chong and baritone Mark Donnelly are the nominated vocalists, the last-named moving very close to a tenor range in the score’s latter pages – a tribute to Donnelly’s versatility.
It’s a mixed ensemble that provides the bulk of Wilcox’s output, all led by Sada Muramutsu. Top of the town sits a string trio: violin Anna McMichael, viola Luke Spicer, cello Anthea Cottee, with a prominent part allocated to Alison Pratt and her multiform percussion. As a central body, we hear a string quintet: violins Ben Adler and Victor Wu, viola Tara Hashambhoy, cello Anthony Albrecht, bass Muhamed Mehmedbasic, while Ben Burton supervises the composer’s electronic instrument. Once again, according to the online booklet, the recording’s mixing and mastering (Daniel Brown at Trackdown) was carried out in March 2012 – which means this disc has been a long time coming.
One of the more intriguing compositional bases that Wilcox employs is a contrast between just intonation and equal temperament, the first sourced from the bowls and manipulation of their output while the second is the regular tuning of the string-rich ensemble. Any disjunction between the two tuning systems is not apparent at the start of Light, Track 1, but the aim is to refine the difference into obviousness by the time we reach Track 4, Fire, so that eventually a palpable disjunction obtains. God knows the difference ought to be clear as the work moves at a ceremonial pace for the most part and the progress is rarely interrupted by technical conundrums of a significant order – apart from the electronics which seem happy for much of the time to bathe us in a soothing infinity pool of familiar warmth layers..
So we begin with Light and plenty of bowl sounds, some of them sounding real-time, others pre-recorded. The atmosphere is hushed, reverent and inescapably oriental. A female voice (Duck-Chong?) begins singing a three-note Vedic mantra about sacred light illuminating us. A continuation of the subtly pulsing backdrop brings forward a male voice (Donnelly) celebrating the light of Allah (as outlined in a Quran verse) in a melodic arc that seems to be farther-ranging than the first solo but is limited to the same three notes (plus some octaves). At all events, simple percussive tinklings emerge in the struck-bowl main timbre-world and take on some prominence here as punctuation points. I believe it’s Morgan who gives us the final textual content with a Buddhist lama’s prayer of thanksgiving (for light, of course); again, her material follows the same trail as blazed by her peers. What follows is an instrumental slab where the three base notes are elaborated and twisted into all sorts of predictable shapes by McMichael with two essays in melisma, eventually followed by Spicer and Cottee rising out of a sonorous band supplied by the string ensemble with some occasional high bells and an underpinning current of bowl sounds operating as a support.
The language is deliberately limited but the dynamic level moves from meditative calm to fierce percussiveness. At its opening, Water sets a suitably limpid atmosphere with sustained bowl sound-bands, the strings entering gently in high/harmonics strata, with an occasional dollop of a Wilcox gesture where a soft string passage or crescendo ends in a chordal thump. The composer’s textures now have become less transparent, her string ensemble producing a sustained mid-range sound-band that could have escaped from Penderecki’s Threnody. Suddenly, we have moved into a new and completely unexpected segment where the bass is a five-note cantus firmus above which Cottee pours out a sad if mobile lament. It’s the sort of music that struck me as being useful for indicating a transcontinental trudge of the Burke & Wills genre, but no: such an interpretation is overturned by all three singers breaking out in an (eventually) unison setting of the opening lines to Psalm 23 (22) with a strikingly non-impressionist vision of the still waters. It’s hard to penetrate the vocalists’ Hebrew, given the strident accompaniment, but with a few hearings under the belt I’m not sure whether they reach the final phrases set out in the online booklet about being guided along straight paths for his name’s sake.
We are again grounded by two more settings which appear in reverse order to their printing in the booklet. First come a few lines about the Lord pouring out blessings, written by the composer’s brother, Rev. Dr. Gavin Wilcox who died in 2008 from cancer aged 46, and to whom Threading the Light is dedicated; this setting is a wide-ranging one with a welcome addition of vocal and instrumental glissandi that relax the three- or four-note limitations exercised so far. Duck-Chong and Donnelly outline an anonymous Buddhist prayer (well, most of it) about rains filling streams and oceans being reflected in the exercise of human goodness in healing all things. Here. we’re back in limited ground, Duck-Chong’s line at least mobile while the baritone sings a single note. Then the movement ends in similar condition to its predecessor: in a lengthy interstellar hum punctuated by a single note.
Comparatively brief in this context, Blood lasts for 6 1/2 minutes and uses one text; well, actually two, but the second comprises just two Latin words for blood. The main one is a Vedic mantra in which the aim is complete identity between the chanter and whomever/whatever he is addressing; not so much blood will out as much as blood is blood, as we say in Calabria. The movement opens with a Bloch-reminiscent cello solo couched in a more adventurous vocabulary than that used by the Jewish master. Donnelly sings through the Sanskrit quatrain with similar adventurousness before being joined by the female voices who generally finish off his lines for him. I think the mantra is repeated three times, the latter two a pulsing monotone in Donnelly’s case; underneath come sinuous strings arcing and glissading above an insistent timpani. Here, the ceremonial achieves its hypnosis through forceful insistence, rather than quiet repetition.
The movement’s second half comprises mainly an interweaving of the three voices, sticking to a limited number of notes for each and treating the two words sanguis and cruor with increasing intensity that involves aggressive string linear interplay and a vehement undercurrent iof percussion, including a prominent side-drum. Without a score, I can’t make much insightful headway into the work’s interstices but, once again, it appears that Wilcox is deliberately confining herself in her material while expending more adventurousness on drama; this piece ends with an explosion, not the suggestion of an all-embracing, eternal continuum. The final strokes have the singers returning to the Veda’s final words, ‘Light of all lights’.
Last comes Fire, about double the length of Blood. We’re back with the singing bowls straight away and on the lookout (listenout) for a change in temperament and pretty quickly there’s a scale that announces the new – the changed, rather – followed by the cello playing an imitation, possibly to illustrate the technical differentiation. The string group focuses on a single chord, alternately soft and loud, sustained and agitated before the bowl music returns and integrates itself with a single string line. So far (about a quarter of the way through), there’s little to grab on to, even if you’re prepared to find fiery flickers in the alternating timbres. Then comes another of those bowl scales which is definitely filling in your usual well-tempered cracks; the ensuing cello solo (Cottee, I assume) now seems to be doing the same thing with another odd scale/arpeggio upward motion/gesture before a substantial solo that features some welcome technical flourishes. This merges into a chord and some isolated ejaculations for all three vocalists which dissipate into a sort of tutti for strings and bowls.
The voices enter; first Donnelly, with another verse-prayer from Gavin Wilcox, speaking of the individual’s helplessness and a complete frailty that depends on the Lord’s support to survive. Meshing in with this comes yet another excerpt from Psalm 23 (22) – the bit about walking through the valley of the shadow of death but enjoying divine support from both rod and staff. As before, the Old Testament extract is sung in Hebrew and I think has been entrusted to Duck-Chong because it sounds as if it’s Morgan who immediately breaks in with yet another text: an anonymous saeta to Our Lady of Sorrows which bears a close resemblance to the Stabat Mater‘s first stanza. In all three vocal lines, we have returned to the tonal chastity of the work’s opening, Wilcox using few notes and maintaining a regular pulse of one note repeated twice underneath the singers; nothing like a constant unvaried pulse to suggest the hieratic.
This slow, lurching pace continues through the final sung fragment which is for all three voices and is an evening prayer ascribed to Muhammad, a salutation that again records the worshipper’s total dependence on God. The vocalists rise to a vehement climax that involves the interjections of slapping-sticks, the episode culminating in an instrumentally reinforced open-chord Amen – very Muslim in its decisiveness. And immediately we are changed, in the twinkling of an eye, back into the outer reaches of the universe with a final sample of sustained humming and soft high strings. I’m not sure what part fire plays in all this; I suspect that where I expect the vivid and the passionate (the ardent), Wilcox is more concerned with the (divine) spiration that ignites us all. Sad to report that, at about the halfway mark of this finale, I’d forgotten completely about listening for the disjunction between Wilcox’s two tuning systems; it’s certainly there – he that hath ears to hear, let him hear.
Congratulations to Wilcox and her collaborators for getting this CD into the light of day. It strikes me that its content deserves attention, principally because of its rarity in celebrating the numinous with individuality and doing so by using in part a novel language of sound sources. A kind of catholicity pervades the work, the textual sources highly varied in their origins, and the musical content falling into a strange land. Somehow, the orthodox sits alongside the novel – and not just alongside but the two intertwine. Indeed, it is these moments of fusion that interest me, more than the singing bowls as an isolated creation. Most listeners, I believe, will find something admirable in the course of hearing Wilcox’s substantial musical essay, not least her vaulting ambition.