Commissioned by the BBC Singers

*optional electro-acoustic treatment

  • SATB (28 amplified voices with electroacoustic treatment)
  • countertenor, flute (pic,afl, bfl), celesta, marimba, harp, theorbo
  • 1 hr 20 min
  • Sophocles, Giles Swayne
  • English, Greek

Programme Note

Those with long memories will certainly recall Giles Swayne’s characteristically ambitious and absorbing response to an earlier commission from the BBC Singers: after long gestation, CRY was to emerge in 1980 as a vast and uniquely evocative tone-poem, an almost-wordless depiction for unaccompanied voices of the seven days of creation as told in the first chapter of Genesis. Lasting well over an hour, the age-old story was brought vividly to life in terms of the changing musical colours of an archetypal world as it moves from darkness into light, to the emergence of living creatures and the eventual arrival of humankind in the persons of Adam and Eve; its restful conclusion was reached on the single word ‘anima’, which in Latin embraces all things to do with the soul, and with breath as the spirit of life.

During the years that followed, an idea began slowly to take root of a companion-piece that might one day ‘deconstruct’ some of the elaborate processes at work in CRY in order to use its newly disjunct material as the basis of an inverse musical narrative designed to reflect wantonness and decay. On the eve of the millennium, the moment had evidently come for Swayne to cry ‘Havoc!’ and let loose his imagination on forces exactly twice the size.

Havoc is again scored for the twenty-eight voices of the BBC Singers, but now with the considerable addition of a twenty-one-piece instrumental ensemble, plus two percussion players, a solo counter-tenor and a solo flute (doubling on alto and bass instruments), and a continuo group comprising celesta, marimba, Baroque harp and theorbo. All but the main orchestra are subject to various degrees of electronic treatment. The disembodied voice of the counter-tenor acts as both the ‘I am who am who was who ever shall be’ of successive Prologues, and the nameless persona whose laconic statements form cartoon-like ‘bubbles’ that from time to time punctuate the sectional divisions of the five main movements.

The chorus here acts as an extravagantly rich-textured, variably constituted, and generally wordless, backing group to the several soloists it yields from within itself as quartet, trio, duet and solo. It is these ‘fronting’ voices that carry the burden of a quasi-narrative journey into space, via the invention of machines, to the airlessness of the dark side of the moon, to the not-quite-ultimate voice of an abandoned planet. The structural logistics are complex, for this is a scenario mirrored in terms not only of decreasing lengths of the movements themselves, but of a reduction in numbers both of the tersely punctuating ‘bubbles’ and of the vocal soloists (from four to three, two , one, none) who are by turn drawn back into the surrounding chorus. The size of the main ensemble likewise diminishes, successively releasing players into a separate group of tutti ‘throbbers’ who throughout mark the metrical outlines (of 5-7-5-3-5-7-5-11 beats) of the stanza-based Prologues. Set against this gradual decrease in the length of movements and size of the ensemble, in the number of intervening ‘bubbles’ and of solo singers, an overall increase in numbers of instruments joining the tutti ‘throbbers’ is paralleled by the length of the prologues - which themselves follow an additive increase from the single stanza of the opening Prologue 1 to the seven stanzas of the closing Epilogue.

1 journey into space
around the sun - bubble 1 - freefall 1 - bubble 2 - moonsong - bubble 3 - freefall 2 - bubble 4 - starwheeling
Childhood memories of sci-fi delight are recaptured as soon as the solo bass flute of the first Prologue hands over to the ensemble at the start of a space odyssey around the sun: dazzled by cymbals and by wide-spaced open fifths, this single-chord ostinato sits suspended in its own space throughout. Declaimed in Latin by the chorus, echoed in English by one of the solo singers, the two free-fall movements, each a dynamic mirror of the other, rush to name the constellations as they seem to spin past. The intervening ‘moonsong’ revolves around long-dead seas, adding layer upon layer to the opening ‘sun’ chord to reach a climax of manic laughter before relinquishing its resonance to the desert dust. Here is rests, until a spiky canonic edginess floats it free to wheel around the stars.

2 delicate machines
water machine - bubble 1 - dust machine - bubble 2 - green machine - bubble 3 - dream machine
An enveloping underwateriness of five tuned gongs first sets up a beguilingly rich foundation for the low voices of the chorus, while the instrumental layers persist with a liquid counterpoint of machine-like repetitions. Drily unpitched consonants then set the scene for a machine now scantily supported by the rotational emphasis of sliding chords and by a bass line that steps quietly up through a series of chromatic scales until blown away in a final puff of dust. The leafy peace of forest voices soon turns violent, with a bloodcurdling simulation of arboricide leading to the chorus to unite in a twenty-five-voice scream of protest; cut off in silence, the ‘scream’ chord echoingly retrieves the thread of its matching five-note constituents as the yuppie vocal trio, temporarily embarrassed, protests its innocence. The musical machinery of the concluding dream-world turns positive (pitch) not negative (noise), as instruments adapt to the half-pitched speech of the chorus while echoing snatches of motivic evidence gleaned from the soloists.

3 out of air
free as air - bubble 1 - air power - minibreak - air abuse - bubble 2 - short of air - minibreak - fighting for air - minibreak - our of air
A twenty-six voice chorus of paired voices here projects a densely packed wall of sound that only gradually begins to be heard as an eleven-part rhythmic canon set alongside the equally intricate imitative procedures of eleven instruments. Right from the outset there are some (initially two pairs) who cannot sing but only gasp for air, just as there are others who increasingly prolong the second of each reiterating dyad to form chords whose overlapping incidence provokes a wave-like unease. Relishing a paired syncopation of their own, two solo sopranos develop a Valkyrie-like elation that begins to waver only as instruments join the textural struggle for survival. Pulsed throughout by muffled tom-toms and underlaid by a generally more sustained instrumental weave, the movement’s six sections decrease in length overall and are clearly demarcated by the breathing spaces formed by two ‘bubbles’ and three tam-tam filled pauses.

4 into darkness
part 1 - bubble - part 2
With only one solo singer left, Antigone’s lament (from Sophocles’ play) becomes an extended soprano aria, whose soaring melodic lines derive from the vowel sounds of the ancient Greek words in such a way as to give rise to musical recurrences of a touchingly tonal kind. Echoed by unison chorus (in fact, three five-part unison choirs) and stealthily shadowed by a group of nine instruments, the accompaniment to this quasi-strophic song alternates between ensemble (with pizzicato underlay and propulsive tenor-drum figuration) and band formation (whose across-the-beat emphasis is held in steady check by the bass drum); it is here, during the bass-drum episodes, that the chorus inserts a syllabic chord sequence (shô mâ lô lâ) which turns out to be an indirect quotation from a memorable moment in CRY. Even when these episodes start to overlap, following the entry of the final ‘bubble’, their contrasting identities remain significantly intact.

5 nothing
With no solo voices left, the chorus is for the first time united in its twenty-eight-part (7x4) formation. As if at random, tiny specks of voiced and unvoiced chords cut across the rotating focus of an instrumental septet that brings high instruments noticeably to the fore and, for the first time, without bass-line anchorage. But, as soon as isolated syllables begin to take on verbal connotations (‘a-ni-ma’), they are as quickly dispersed into float-away fragments. Eventually, as the instrumental texture starts to thin and the pitched voices are overtaken by a toneless muttering, a lone alto saxophone is heard breathing its last note into the chaos of a still flickering void. It is then that the solo flute picks up in pre-echo of an Epilogue that settles on ‘anima’ as the sole theme of seven-stanza meditation that includes the chorus to astonishing cadential effect.

© David Harman


Preview the score