What strange goings-on at this year's Spitalfields Music festival. One church is set ablaze by a female laptop trio; another is swamped by 17th-century collectivists; one man opens up a black hole with the back of his guitar; and a harpist becomes a stick insect, taking to his instrument with two bows.
At Spitalfields Church on Monday night, James Weeks and the New London Chamber Choir set about raising our spirits with three early American anthems by William Billings (1746-1800). How vigorous the round Wake Ev'ry Breath felt, as the choir filed in one by one, unleashing the wave upon wave of blessings for the "great Redeemer King" personally upon every row, building up their force with every new entry and uniting at the front to belt it out one last time: "Wake ev'ry breath and ev'ry string!"
Religious fervour was transformed into an initially eyebrow-singeing blast of political agitation in James Weeks's new piece for choir and chamber ensemble, The Freedom of the Earth
, based on the words of radical political thinker and Digger Gerard Winstanley. It began with great choral clamor - the sort of sound that might welcome George Osborne at the NUT - but soon calmed itself down into a steady rhythmic insistence. There were clear nods (via the saxophone and guitar of the London Sinfonietta
) to Louis Andriessen's seminal political punch-up De Staat
, but, despite the odd punctuating flash of interest (the piercing sopranos at the end of part one, for example), it never quite came up to the standard of its Dutch template, mainly because Weeks bottles it, allying the music with the text's increasing disillusionment rather than its call to act.
Those, like me, who were expecting the entry of musical settings of Walt Whitman to inject some Billingsian oomph to proceedings would have been disappointed. Christopher Fox's American Choruses is a frustrating work. One can't hear the Whitman and nor can one read it, on instructions from the composer. Instead, we work with what we're given: four homages. The quality of the choir was shown off in Fox's engagement with Christian Wolff's pass-the-parcel methods of composition (a hocketing of sorts), "Song". And some satisfaction was to be had from the movement dedicated to Cage, "America", in its aleatorically changing repetition. But the listlessness that had set in at the end of the Weeks became terminal with the final part of American Choruses, "Transcription", and its awkwardly shifting, organ-filled cloud of sound.
Though much longer and more superficially paired down than Fox's Minimalist statements, the works of Eliane Radigue (a drone and electronic music pioneer, receiving her first UK retrospective thanks to Sound and Music) that were performed last night at Christ Church Spitalfields were anything but listless, or encouraging of listlessness. There was too much to pay attention to in her carefully layered masses of sound. What water was that trickling (or was it burbling) in the first part of Elemental II (2004)? Where were those high-frequency evaporations coming from? Between the waves of sounding water, air and fire, what was that fuzzy interloper? Night? Earth? So much was being ushered in and taken on in these large sonic waves.
It wasn't just a guess-the-sound process, however. It was a cleansing process. Ears were syringed (only now do I realise my apartment delivers its own rather enjoyable sub-Radigue pastiche at 1am). Received wisdoms were brought back to first principles. I was amazed to feel the scorching fire from Radigue's aural illusion. Sound had been wrenched away from object. Any more intense an impression of heat and I might have had to move back a few rows. But then I would have missed the details of Radigue's modest bows, her maternal kisses, the intensity of the pride in her eyes as she thanked her instrumentalists - how wonderfully far from the egoistical composer she was.
The affect of her music was undeniable and direct. Part one of Elemental II - delivered by the zealously stony-faced trio The Lappetites (pictured above right, with Eliane Radigue), who interacted little (save a few darting looks, which, in the context of no performers, became an oddly compelling spectacle) - was brilliantly disconcerting. This was an elementalism from another planet, the cyber trio a Martian-like reconfiguring of Mother Nature.
Kasper Toeplitz's bravura epic exploration of his eight-stringed bass guitar in part two of Elemental II (2004) heralded a black-as-night rumble. If the Atlantic Ocean could talk, Elemental II would be its first words. Or perhaps they were those of the earth - a missing element from the first part. Either way, Toeplitz spent most of his time nosing around with seabed-dwelling hertz, frequencies that most of the music you will ever hear will never encounter.
The spirituality of drone music is often misattributed to the possibilities of letting yourself go. In fact the transcendence comes from listening more acutely than ever
But beauty, too, made an appearance in Rhodri Davies's world premiere performance of Radigue's Occam I (2011). His journey up the harp, sounding out octaves, fifths and minor seconds with his two bows, unchained the hidden harmonics of these notes, the upper partials, and allowed them to engage in a most mesmerising celestial dance above our heads, a sort of musical aurora borealis, that I almost thought (hoped) might set off the bell tower's fine instruments.
The spirituality of drone music is often misattributed to the possibilities of spacing out and letting yourself go. In fact the transcendence comes from listening more acutely than ever. Only then will you discover those divine melodic apparitions and hallucinatory holocausts that make the likes of Eliane Radigue belong to a truly holy musical order.