Lives Defined in Death

BCMG players photographed by Adrian Burrows

Lives Defined in Death

Stephen Graham attends the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group's premiere of Seán Clancy's Findetotenlieder and performances of Barry, Grisey and Weir.

The subject of Seán Clancy’s Findetotenlieder is death. At least, that is one of its starting points. Clancy’s piece, which caps off his year as apprentice composer-in-residence with the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group (BCMG), excerpts thirty lines from Mexican artist Gabriel Orozco’s Obit, a text collage pitched somewhere between or across bathos and pathos, which is comprised of selected lines from the obituary section of the New York Times. Clancy builds these excerpts into a structure of six sung verses, with short instrumental interludes between each verse. 

In setting the texts to music Clancy can’t but help transform their effect. Music tends to the dramatic, or perhaps in a more basic sense simply to the intense, in a way that blank text on a page does not, notwithstanding music’s capacity for banality and text’s for profundity. As such, Clancy’s piece sometimes makes explicit a sense of grandeur that, depending on perspective, might not be as obvious in the original.

That being said, the Clancy nevertheless works in a broadly similar emotional field to the Orozco. Death, or more specifically the memorialisation of different lives defined-in-death, comes off less as the tragic or the sentimental phenomenon we usually encounter when death is put into dialogue with music, and more like the carnivalesque figure found in Ligeti and Beckett, although hints of the night are present here as they are there.

In Findetotenlieder Clancy is also playing with notions of artistic intervention (LCD Soundsystem’s ‘Someone Great’, whose lyrics likewise concern death and memorialisation, is mined at the structural and sonic levels), and with the ‘death drive’ of French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, which is invoked musically through the use of repetition and textually in Clancy’s notes to the piece.

So Findetotenlieder operates across multiple resonating levels. Musically, it bears many of the hallmarks of Clancy’s mentor within the residency, David Lang. Brawny musical pulse accentuated by thumping bass drum bursting through bar lines, sharp and bright colours, and punchy shots from brass and strings all feature here.

However, Clancy’s world is a little stranger than Lang’s, despite the evident admiration in Findetotenlieder for proportion and harmony, even, dare I say it, for beauty, as credible aesthetic ends in themselves. The weirdness and terrifying nullity of jouissance, another concept from Lacan, is evoked here (though not as much as it might have been) by repetitions-too-far. This happens particularly in some of the interludes, although a more classical sense of dramatic form comes into play as the piece moves on. Clancy’s music seems still to be thinking through the relationship of balance and estrangement, both in affective and purely musical terms. If anything Findetotenlieder seems to come down in favour of the former.

The final two verses provide an emotional culmination, with soprano Susan Narucki enunciating clearly after her somewhat smudged delivery of the first few verses. Narucki announces an intense valediction on the lines ‘Made a kingdom of popcorn’ and ‘Lived in two worlds, white and black, both bitter’, with a forthright and potent BCMG sounding off around her.

The seeming incongruity of the former line of text points up an inherent dilemma for the piece; its text sometimes doesn’t seem as if it wants to be sung, at least not in such a straight, infra-narrative way as it is here. The problem is comparable to John Adams’ problem in Dr Atomic; namely, how to make non-poetic or dramatic text singable, musical, and sensical in and as a continuous dramatic narrative. This tension is sometimes unresolved in the Clancy, with lines bumping and running into each other seemingly without poetic or musical justification.

Having said that, the piece often achieves a productive tension between conventional expectations of music-dramatic narrative, and the actual absurdist, anti-narrative feel of the music as experienced. The exploration of tensions such as this — between found and original material, between narrative and rupture, particularly as these might be seen to correspond to elite and vernacular values, and between innovation and intervention — seems to be at the heart of Clancy’s enterprise as an artist.   

The surrounding programme effected multiple resonances with Clancy’s subject. Gerard Grisey’s Quatre Chants Pour Franchir le Seuil, for soprano and ensemble like the Clancy, stages crossings of thresholds across various levels, from the personal to the cultural to the universal (in the fourth movement life itself dies, at least human life). Its musical language of smudged and hushed sonic menace and jewel-like tones smeared with spectral harmonies aptly telescopes the grand, almost gothic focus of the text. This is the case particularly in the second movement dirge, in which an exposed harp figure is used as a pivot for a slowly-building twilight cataclysm; Narucki and a sensuous sounding BCMG really came into their own here, the former overcoming the same issues with diction and projection as experienced in the Clancy to sound out lacunae drawn from ancient sarcophagi with purgative starkness.  

Gerald Barry’s Feldman’s Sixpenny Editions is caught intriguingly between style essay, tongue-in-cheek subversion, and straight-faced homage to the light classical music scores of the title. Like the Clancy, its materials are borrowed from and mediated by external sources. The source and the execution are entirely Barry’s own, however. With typical wit, Barry realises each short sketch with all of the droll musical pigheadedness that his audiences have come to cherish. An unexpected idiomatic dexterousness is also on display here in the elegant orchestral balance and dynamic contrapuntal interplay of some of the ensemble movements, such as the opening ‘Martial Steps’, or the richly pictorial ‘The Dog Barks, The Caravan Passes On’. ‘Home Thoughts’, for piano solo, is more like echt Barry, with a rabid pianist sounding as if he’s trying to play his way out of a box, before emerging into a catatonic but smiling rag.

Judith Weir’s cheerful and direct sonic diary Musicians Wrestle Everywhere was the odd one out here, even though it gave the evening its title. The piece is unassuming in its way, but, like much of Weir’s work, it is realised with such inconspicuous skill that it just about carries its sometimes scant materials off. Though thematic resonance was less in evidence in the Weir, its music — where an emphasis is placed on the humility of music-for-itself — reverberates in the Clancy and the Barry, which both place an emphasis on the humility of proportion-for-itself.  

Published on 9 February 2012

Stephen Graham is a lecturer in music at Goldsmiths, University of London. He blogs at

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