Last weekend I went to see my friend Andrew Raiskums conduct his terrific choral outfit Gloriana in one of their quarterly performances. It’s an amateur group – the thirty or so choir members (one of whom rejoices in the name Kate Gondwana) do it out of love and desire; you can tell. The drawings here are from that performance.
Their local paper (the Age) described the choir like this: ‘Gloriana shows us the broiling, turbulent passion of humanity as it strives to the Godhead through artistic endeavour.’
I have no idea if Andrew is religious – I suspect not, despite his Latvian heritage – but Andrew’s interest in early music would necessarily bring the choices within the boundaries of religious music. Power resides there, and Gloriana’s mission is to make us all feel it – help us locate and rest inside the religious feeling.
Their recent program highlighted the deep, ancient-sounding Choir Concerto by the Russian Alfred Schnittke (see part of a Moscow version on youtube here or and American version here). The choir was stupendous; it was certainly too much for my poor ears and head to grasp then and there – I ‘d need to sit through it again. Or, a few times.
But before the interval they performed the Australian premier of Veljo Tormis’ Incantation for a Stormy Sea. (One of the gifts from the Gloriana program for musical ignorami is being introduced to all kinds of splendid things.) It was a short piece, about 7+ minutes. I discovered later that Tormis, an Estonian, is regarded as one of the greatest living choral composers, as Wikipedia grandly asserts.
Incantation is not a religious piece, but comes out of Tormis’ faith in folk music. Andrew writes in his program notes that the text is
‘in the form of a prayer – to calm the storm as men are out to sea. The piece is openly programmatic: you can hear the waves in the vocal line, the storm surge with the whistling, the prayer to command the storm and the dissipation with the whispering at the end.’
Amidst the swelling voices, when the whistling came on, I thought for a brief moment there was a passing ambulance or somesuch outside. The clicking, the whispering, the unconventional effects – it was mesmerising, and spectacular. You can buy this track* from iTunes – I recommend it.
Unfortunately Incantation is not on youtube; however you can check out Tormis’ most famous piece, Raua needmine (Curse upon iron) which has his distinctive feeling and musical effect in spades – the text, vocalising and curling language sounds are deeply exotic to these ears, and makes me think of mining dwarves chanting as they dig, call me crazy.
Here (top) it is performed by a Japanese choir who get fabulously animated about three-quarters into the piece. For my money (or time) though, try the (bottom) visual-less version from something called klass muusika seminar. Extraordinary.
*Incantation for a Stormy Sea, Svanholm Singers & Sofia Söderberg Eberhard – from Tormis: Works for Men’s Voices