A Yeatsian balancing act between music and words
Yeats might well have appreciated the wordiness of William Brooks’s Everlasting Voices, which revisits the poet’s ideals of ‘chaunting’
Tenor Robin Tritschler was in exemplary form in the NCH John Field Room on Sunday, where his programme embraced Yeats settings with the Vanbrugh String Quartet
‘I have but one art,” declared WB Yeats, “that of speech, and my feeling for music dissociated from speech is very slight, and listening as I do to the words with the better part of my attention, there is no modern song sung in the modern way that is not to my taste ‘ludicrous’ and ‘impossible’.”
Admittedly he also wrote: “Have not poetry and music arisen, as it seems, out of the sounds the enchanters made to help their imagination to enchant, to charm, to bind with a spell themselves and the passers-by?” And the idea of poetry chanted to music fascinated him, although the music he envisaged was intended to be just a shadow of the intonation of the speaking voice.
He investigated this idea with the help of actor Florence Farr and early music pioneer Arnold Dolmetsch, whom he commissioned to make a psaltery for Farr to play as she spoke.
Yeats’s goal of shadowing spoken words with pitch-precise music has been made readily achievable through digital technology. It’s embedded in Steve Reich’s Different Trains (1988) and Roger Doyle’s The Idea and Its Shadow (2000), and the original Yeatsian idea is at the heart of William Brooks’s Everlasting Voices, a 2012 multimedia work – actor (with autoharp rather than psaltery), bass clarinet and electronics – in which the American composer revisits Yeats’s ideals of what the writer called “chaunting”.
Everlasting Voices was performed in Dublin two years ago by Irish duo Sound-Weave (Nuala Hayes and Paul Roe), for whom it was written. It was heard again at the Dublin Writers Museum on Sunday as part of the four-concert Dublin Saunter celebrating Yeats on the final day of the KBC Great Music in Irish Houses Festival.
Yeats might well have appreciated the wordiness of Brooks’s work, the generosity of its narrative and the sometimes hypnotically stilted delivery (a la Yeats) in the pre-recorded voice of Dennis Dennehy (father of composer Donnacha) more than the actual music. For the rest of us, the balance is about right. The only drawback in Sound-Weave’s presentation was the excessive sibilance in parts of the soundtrack.
The relationship between words and music was to the fore in different ways in the day’s other concerts. In the midday Hugh Lane Gallery programme by the Moynihan sisters Deirdre (soprano) and Fionnuala (piano), the words rather lost out. Fionnuala Moynihan is a singer who makes gorgeous sounds, but they’re gorgeous at the expense of both words and meaning. Yeats did write: “I wonder why the musician is not content to set to music some arrangement of meaningless liquid vowels, and thereby to make his song like that of the birds.” But I don’t think he had it in mind for some of his own words to be transformed in that way.
In contrast, tenor Robin Tritschler was in exemplary form in the NCH John Field Room on Sunday afternoon, where his programme embraced Yeats settings with chamber ensemble the Vanbrugh String Quartet with William Dowdall (flute) and Matthew Manning (cor anglais).
Pride of place went to the haunting, unflinchingly desolate music of Peter Warlock’s The Curlew. Its keening falls are as effective on strings, flute or cor anglais as they are sung – and in a performance as potent as this one the music leaves you with an ache long after the actual sounds have faded. Hugh Tinney was a super-sensitive partner in a selection of songs with piano.
The best moments in the Moynihans’ concert came in John Tavener’s A Mini Song Cycle for Gina, named after the singer for whom it was written, Gina Cowen. Here the music took full possession of the words, as in a completely different way his To a Child Dancing in the Wind did at the end of the day in the atmospheric setting of the Royal Chapel in Dublin Castle. Soprano Lynda Lee was not at her best in the higher reaches of the vocal part but at the work’s end, where her rich, low register served as a reminder that, in the 1990s, she pursued a successful career as a mezzo.
The Royal Chapel was also the venue for Friday’s performance, the first in modern times, of John Sigismond Cousser’s serenata, The Universal Applause of Mount Parnassus, written for the Dublin celebration of the birthday of Queen Anne in 1711. The anonymous, fawning libretto is as risible as the over-the-top encomiums of food shredders, juicers, cookers and mops that are to be found on TV shopping channels. And Cousser’s setting often mangles the words as thoroughly as the great Handel himself, which is probably no harm.
The performance by Ensemble Marsyas under Peter Whelan presented Cousser as a composer whose music deserves to be heard more often, and among the team of soloists, Scottish soprano Mhairi Lawson and Belgian tenor Reinoud van Mechelen were always gripping.
The music of Steve Reich made appearances within and without the KBC festival. The festival’s opening concert was given at TCD’s Samuel Beckett Theatre (an Irish house?) by the percussionists of the Colin Currie Group, and included four of Reich’s works, ranging from the early 1970s up to the present – Music for Pieces of Wood, Sextet, Mallet Quartet and Quartet, this last work written for Currie and his players. And the second of the Kirkos Ensemble’s late-night Blackout concerts at the Royal Irish Academy of Music on Friday was built around Different Trains.
Different Trains was the richer experience, although not primarily because of the performance in the dark. It was just that the music’s mix of historic recordings and live and pre-recorded string quartets in the small space of the RIAM’s Katherine Brennan Hall was highly immersive. The Reich was preceded by four Irish works, three of them composed especially for the concert, the most unusual being Raymond Deane’s Communication Chord, for speaking violinist (Róisín Walters). The work combines words (by Walter Benjamin) and music in intriguing ways.
By comparison, the all-Reich programme seemed, in a description I recall from pop magazine reviews of my youth, too samey.