Together Never Fails

Gavin Bryars (double bass) performs his work ‘Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet’ with local children and featured artists as part of Louth Contemporary Music Society’s ‘Book of Hours’ weekend.

Together Never Fails

From Rebecca Saunders and Séverine Ballon to Gavin Bryars and Galina Grigorjeva, the music at The Book of Hours two-day festival in Louth knew no borders, writes Brendan Finan.

The first standing ovation at the Book of Hours festival, this year’s major Louth Contemporary Music Society event, was for the society’s founder, Eamonn Quinn. In a ceremony at the opening of the two-day festival on 22 June, Quinn received the prestigious Belmont Prize for contemporary music. Gabriele Forberg-Schneider, president of the Forberg-Schneider Foundation, the German body which awards the prize, spoke of Quinn as ‘the border man who knows no borders’, and of his ‘instinct for connections in the repertoire’. In a gesture towards this inescapable political moment, three of the four speeches during the prize-giving mentioned borders. After all, few nations understand borders and walls as completely as Ireland and Germany. 

The clearest connection in this year’s festival was slowness and stillness. The festival was named for medieval Christian prayer books used for moments of reflection throughout the day. In most of the concerts, this stillness was explicit; in works like Michael Pisaro’s wind and silence, premiered on the Friday night concert, which slowly drew out every possible sensation from a handful of words and notes and the spaces around them, and like Wolfgang Von Schweinitz’s trio KLANG auf Schön Berg La Monte Young, performed by the Goeyvarts trio for the lunchtime concert on Saturday, in which long chords shifted colour through changing instrumental emphasis. 

Of course, there were also moments of violence and tension, especially in works by Rebecca Saunders (to whose music the Saturday afternoon concert was devoted), and Salvatore Sciarrino. Saunders’ work draws on the retinue of sounds that can be made by whatever she’s writing for. The five works performed at her concert included two vocally acrobatic premieres based on Molly Bloom’s soliloquy from Ulysses (O, and O Yes & I). But most striking was Solitude for solo cello, in which Séverine Ballon, the performer, alternated between caressing her instrument and doing battle with it.

Love of nature
The Saturday evening concert featured music by Sciarrino and Gérard Pesson. Two of Sciarrino’s works, Cresce veloce un cristallo (‘A crystal grows fast’), another premiere, and D’un Faune, were memorably pretty. Though separated by 38 years, both drew on Sciarrino’s love of nature; the former, a study in rapid playing and register jumps, performed by Matteo Cesari on solo flute, at times sounding like a morningful of birds, and the latter, in which Cesari was joined by pianist Pascale Berthelot, beginning with animal grunts through the flute, whose sound is eventually completely covered by rapid piano.

The final concert, which took place on Saturday night, began with two connected works: Arvo Pärt’s Stabat Mater and Galina Grigorjeva’s Chant, which the programme notes call a ‘postscript’ to the former.

Pärt’s 30-minute Stabat Mater was performed in just intonation by the Goeyvarts trio with countertenor Alex Chance, tenor Tore Tom Denys, and soprano Peyee Chen. The sound of the ensemble filled St Nicholas’ church so effectively there may as well have been twice as many musicians, and allowed the abrupt silence which falls halfway through the piece to land with the force of a physical blow.

Grigorjeva’s piece – really more substantial than ‘postscript’ suggests, and the last of nine premieres across five concerts – retained some elements of Pärt’s character, especially in the singer’s melodies. But it had its own vocabulary, in the gentle glissando entry of the cello, the rapid, accented ornaments on the violin, the occasional folksong or hymn-like passage.

After the interval, Karen Tanaka’s plaintive The Song of Songs for solo cello and electronics served as a sort of appetiser for the final piece, and was performed by Séverine Ballon with as much passion as she had endowed on Solitude earlier in the day.

Togetherness
But the centrepiece of the festival was Gavin Bryars’ Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet. This has been recorded several times since its composition in 1971, most famously for Brian Eno’s Obscure label in 1975, and in a version with Tom Waits in 1993. It is adaptable by nature: a loop of a homeless man singing, over which Bryars has laid a simple chord progression that slowly grows, then recedes. In the version that closed the festival, almost every performer returned to the stage, along with a couple of the composers, and the string orchestra and choir of a local primary school.

I was astonished to find myself moved almost to tears during the performance. For me, this work has always been a little too sentimental. But something about the singer’s lonely, melancholy, defiant voice, about the sweet chords coming to support it, about musicians old and young, professional and amateur, English, Irish, American, and more playing in harmony; the act of simple togetherness was profoundly affecting. 

Togetherness is fragile, broken by a simple disagreement. But it is important, and it was woven throughout the festival: in disparate works and in venues Catholic, Protestant, and secular; in composers listening to each other speak and in performers surrounded by their audience. The speeches at the Belmont prize-giving ceremony were of borders and boundaries. The Book of Hours gave us a moment without them.

For more on Louth Contemporary Music Society, visit www.louthcms.org.

Published on 28 June 2018

Brendan Finan is a teacher and writer living in Meath. He writes a blog at www.brendanfinan.net.

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