Opera + Classical Music Reviews

(Not so) Deep Time from Theatre of Voices

12 February 2022

Minimalism doesn’t deliver maximum pleasure at Kings Place.

Theatre of Voices (Photo: Monika S. Jakubowska)

Minimalism has been with us for over 50 years, and it now feels, particularly in the choral/vocal sphere, well past its sell-by date. Those early ‘Holy Minimalist’ choral works by the likes of John Tavener and Arvo Pärt made an impression, their more ‘reactionary’ harmonic material standing out against the unapproachable atonality of mid-century Modernism. But the clue is in the name, and with the loss of its musical foil, Minimalist music leaves this listener, at least, now exhausted by decades of repetitive material following simple rules, and exasperated by its composers’ injection of earnest meaning into easy win, formulaic writing. Sadly, Saturday’s concert at King’s Place by the well respected vocal group Theatre of Voices, more than confirmed these views.

David Lang’s work The Little Match Girl Passion has received huge plaudits since its 2008 première, including a Pulitzer for Lang; it has not, however, worn well into its second decade. While it is good that composers choose to highlight deprivation, in 2022, Andersen’s saccharine 19th century tale feels too mawkish and shorn of anger or direction; the ‘clever’ parallels drawn to Bach’s great Passions (the extended dwelling on ‘Eli, Eli’ at the match-girl’s death; the lengthy passages of ‘recitative’, the even more obvious homologue ‘rest soft’/ruht wohl) seem too pat and obvious with 14 years’ hindsight. Pärt’s 1982 Passio explored some of the musical techniques that Lang uses (a multi-voice Evangelist, for example), and even though Lang’s approach uses more overlapping, canon-style forms, one can’t help feeling that this was a variation on the same theme, but without its contextual impact. And those… Omnipresent… Short… Broken phrases make you… Want to throw… Something.

“Minimalist music leaves this listener… exhausted by decades of repetitive material following simple rules”

It has also to be said that the singing did not feel extraordinary. Theatre of Voices (under their director Paul Hillier) have a great reputation for exploring this kind of repertoire, and their recordings have received many glowing reviews. In this performance, though, there wasn’t a sense of ensemble singing, just four rather ordinary voices, seemingly distracted from applying any vocal training to their singing by the requirements of also playing percussion instruments.

Paul Hillier & Theatre of Voices (Photo: Monika S. Jakubowska)

Of the three pieces performed, Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen’s 2010 Song was the most striking. Beginning with pops, stutters and grunts that brought to mind works by Berio or Stockhausen, the piece gradually morphed, through vocal stops and starts, and twisting harmonic progressions, into Dowland’s Flow My Tears, albeit in a major(ish) key version, and it was here that we finally heard some beautifully blended and controlled singing from the performers.

Of John Luther Adams’ world première A Brief Descent into Deep Time one can only say that the concrete poetry arrangement of the text in the programme told the listener everything to expect from the work. The names (and colours) of rock strata (“Hermit Shale… deep rust red. Cardenas Lava… brown, dark brown”) in the Grand Canyon were sung in overlapping, descending lines, accompanied by percussion whose pitch gradually dropped (from glockenspiel, through vibraphone to timpani and bass drum) and an inaudible organ. It was as simple as that – and after the first couple of iterations, the sinking (hah!) realisation set in that the next 10 minutes were going to be more of the same. The embarrassing nadir was possibly “Colorado River, Colorado River, Colorado River” repeated in rippling patterns. The singing was fine and well blended, and some interest was to be had from working out which voice might start the next layer, but it is this sort of overthought, overworked material that might well make anyone long for a schmaltzy Tchaikovsky melody, some Bach with driving contrapuntal direction, or even a piece of intelligent and fiercely astringent Boulez.

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(Not so) Deep Time from Theatre of Voices