Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Tristan Murail …amaris et dulcibus aquis…

…amaris et dulcibus aquis… takes as its starting point the “Medieval Michelin”, as Murail calls it, the travel guide for pilgrims crossing northern Spain to the cathedral of Santiago de Compostella. Travelling in the Middle Ages was dangerous and uncomfortable so just making the effort was a sign of devotion. At each stage in the pilgrimage there were shrines to worship at, and bells. The cathedral bells of Santiago de Compostella were a wonder of the age. Imagine their sound, ringing out over the countryside in a world less overloaded with rubbish noise than ours!

Bells are ideal, too, for expressing the concept of spectralism. The moment a bell is struck, it sounds a particular pitch, but the sound vibrates, extending the palette, untuned, “spectrally” like a ghost.

Thus …amaris et dulcibus aquis… encapsulates many ideas central to Murail’s work. Technically the vocal parts are not “that” difficult, though at times they veer towards overtone singing. The vowels curl o a i u er as if the piece was haunted by Stockhausen’s Stimmung. Two synthesizers extend the tones.

Bells peal in carillon, creating complex patterns from simple repetition. The music replicates a kind of numerical pattern clearly focussed on the final destination. A long early section describes the four routes from which travellers begin the pilgrimage. It’s repeated twice as if it is being committed to memory – this was an age before printing, when communication was oral. There’s a strong directional thrust, the line …Una via exinde usque ad Sanctum Jacobum efficitur firmly enunciated. There is a purpose to this journey, it’s not just early tourism.

Then the 13 stages of the pilgrimage are individually enumerated, like in a chant : Pampiloniam, Biscartum, Stellam….culminating yet again in a firm Sanctus Jacobus Compostelle. Later the rhythmic discipline of bells is evoked. Each line in the next chant section starts with the same word, Deinde, entered with sharp attack, like the discipline of bells played in unison. Indeed, it comes over like "ding ding", especially as the synthesizers carry the voice part into deeper resonance. The earlier references to the four starting points return, so the music creates an effect of events happening on different levels and in different sequences : concepts of time, memory, reiteration, extending the spectrum of sound.

The sonorities are bell like, too, the darkest male voices like huge brass gongs, the highest female voices sharp and clear. The synthesizers create a kind of circular reverberation, like the sound inside a bell, perhaps, mysterious and profound. A climax builds up where sounds burst in full glory: have we reached the fabled sanctuary of St James ? Then, just as bells fade back into silence, the music evaporates.

There’s no recording as yet, but this is such an interesting piece that it’s worth getting the score from the publishers, Éditions Henry Lemoine (link below). BBC Radio 3 has a two hour broadcast of the day’s proceedings on its Listen Again Facility. Although it’s padded out at least it’s Murail himself talking about his work. …amaris et dulcibus aquiis… comes in just after 60 minutes, after Time and Again and Gondwana.

The photograph shows ancient bells in the cathedral courtyard at Santiago de Compostella. It’s by Greg Gladman, used on Creative Commons conditions, so don’t reuse without proper credit.

Score for …amaris et dulcibus aquis…

No comments: