|Evan Parker, Veryan Weston, Christine Duncan, Element Choir
Photo Credit: David O’Connor
Veryan Weston’s MAKE and Christine Duncan’s Element Choir
(Shoreditch Church, November 24th 2013. Review by Geoff Eales)
The Palladian-styled St. Leonard’s Church Shoreditch, immortalized in the old nursery rhyme Oranges and Lemons – “when I grow rich, say the bells of Shoreditch” – proved to be the perfect setting for this mightily impressive double-whammy of a concert. The 40 or so voices of the Element Choir directed by Canadian Christine Duncan, visiting the UK for the very first time, and the smaller MAKE Ensemble positively glowed in the heavenly acoustic of this ancient, crepuscular holy place.
The text of Weston’s project derives from 52 nuggets of wisdom spoken by inspirational women from medieval times to the modern age – an eclectic mix of individuals including saints, sinners, singers, visionaries, poets, authors, composers, patrons of the arts and political activists. Each quotation has the word “make” in it.
As Veryan explains : “The piece is an experiment in two ways. The first is by using language as a means of generating rhythm as opposed to solely generating meaning. The purpose was to create mystery by concealing the meaning of each individual message and to overlay them with each other. Words could then be seen to become a poetic abstraction in sound. The second way is to use music as a means of generating meaning, where sound unifies the separate voices. It was realised that five simultaneous statements would be enough to mask any clear linguistic message. The statements are sung using one pitch. Because there are five statements, there is a chord of five notes, i.e. a pentatonic chord/scale as used in the Tessellations pieces.”
Below is a sample of five random statements :
“Just so, the breath of the air makes the earth fruitful. Thus the air is the soul of the earth, moistening it, greening it” – Saint Hildegard of Bingen
“That it will never come again is what makes life so sweet” – Emily Dickinson
“ Perhaps some day I’ll crawl back home, beaten, defeated. But not as long as I can make stories out of my heartbreak, beauty out of sorrow” – Sylvia Plath
“People who have more should give it away and make life better for those who don’t” – Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter
“You can make people understand why freedom is so important through the arts” – Aung San Suu Kyi
The concert was neatly divided into four parts. The outer frames were occupied by the Element Choir, Parts 2 and 3 by “MAKE”.
Unlike the pre-composed, non-improvisatory “MAKE” with its strict use of closely-related pentatonic scales, the music of the Element Choir was totally improvised – and what gloriously colourful and dynamic improvisations they turned out to be ! With Veryan at the piano, Evan Parker on tenor saxophone, Julie Walkington on bass and Jean Martin behind the small drum kit, these masterly improvising musicians were an integral part of the equation and at all times sympathetic to the ever-changing moods of the choir – one minute an ethereal murmur, the next a blood-curdling shriek, utopia morphing into dystopia in a flash. Birdsong, jungle noises, heavenly harmonies, angry dissonance, seething rhythms, beautiful calm – all these elements figured in the ever-evolving and unpredictable story. Not for nothing is it called the Element Choir.
It was all perfect unisons in Part 2, the angelic voice of Iris Ederer ( augmented by the 12-piece mixed choir as the series of quotations drew to a close ) floating on top of an infectiously grooving rhythm section in 5/2 time. The same time-signature prevailed in Part 3 but here there are no instruments, the 10-strong female a cappella choir delivering their statements as a series of interlocking and overlapping pentatonic scales. The small audience erupted at the end of this magical piece making 30 people sound like 300, which just goes to show that magic truly can happen.
I left the church overwhelmed, enriched and cleansed by the whole evening’s experience and would like to thank Veryan, Iris, Evan, Julie, Jean, Phil Minton ( the things he does with his vocal chords are just mind-boggling ), Christine and all the members of the London Element Choir ( only formed that afternoon, they followed Christine’s multiple gestures and hand-movements to perfection at all times ) for making such wonderful, awe-inspiring, original music.