February 9, 2015 § 2 Comments
I had planned to write this blog post about workshop productivity, which is a vexing subject for me at the moment, but after a trip to The Bridgewater Hall, in Manchester, last night, I’ve decided to write about continued history instead. As a Christmas present, I bought my partner and I tickets to go and listen to The Sixteen perform a concert called Poetry in Music, and we went last night. The Sixteen specialise in performing early English polyphony (two or more voices singing simultaneous lines of independent melody). For the concert at The Bridgewater Hall, they sang a programme of music that set scores written in the seventeenth century alongside scores written during the nineteenth and twentieth.
They sang, amongst others, works by Robert Ramsey, Benjamin Britten, Ivor Gurney, James Macmillan, as well as Herbert Howells. I have posted above a clip of The Sixteen singing Howells, though it is not the piece that we listened to. Their singing was utterly extraordinary and compelling. What I hadn’t realised was that polyphony was the simultaneous singing of independent lines. You don’t get any sense of this from listening to a recording. When you are there, and they are singing live in front of you, witnessing this interweaving of voices is spell-binding. You experience the melody being passed around the group – layer after layer after layer that creates such depth and richness. The quality of the voices was outstanding – the piercing, powerful soprano; the bass, as low a note as I have ever heard that hung in the air long after the others had ceased; and my favourite, the male alto, a voice you’ll never hear in any other kind of music.
On the drive back to Bradford, my partner spoke about how she felt that the contemporary works were so imbued with the history and tradition of the genre. Placing the works written in different centuries side by side in the programme, laying them open to comparison, ably illustrated the fact that we are nothing without that which came before. We only gain an understanding of ourselves, of our place, of our time through an appreciation of the history out of which we were born.
Reflecting on this conversation, I feel the strength of this tradition. It is like an armature holding up fragile limbs. It is quiet, yet sure. It feeds the present with the concentrated nutrients of the past. And so with music, this holds true for pottery. Functional ceramic vessels have been made for millennia going virtually unchanged until relatively recently – simple vessels created for a humble purpose. We make for our time, for our culture, for our communities but each new bowl carries within it every bowl ever made.