Commissioned by the BBC. First broadcast 23 July 1980

Movements may be performed separately.

  • SATB (28 amplified voices) + electronic treatment
  • 1 hr 20 min

Programme Note

Part I
1. Void - light -dark
2. Sky
3. Sca - dry land - vegetation
4. Sun - moon - stars

Part II
5. Creatures of the air and water
6. Creatures of the dry land

Part III

7. Rest

CRY was composed in 1978-79, and first performed by the BBC Singers under their conductor John Poole (without amplification or electronic treatment) in a studio recording in December 1979. The live premiere was given in London (by the same performers) on 9th October 1980. This time the voices were individually miked and amplified, but remained untreated by electronics. In the autumn of 1982 the Netherlands Chamber Choir, conducted by John Poole, performed CRY in the Royal Albert Hall, London. In 1985 the same performers recorded it on CD for the NMC label, and sang it again at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, in February 1988. In August 1994 the BBC Singers, conducted by Simon Jolly, performed CRY for the second time at the Royal Albert Hall, in the Centenary season of the Proms.

The work is scored for 28 amplified solo voices with electronic treatment. It uses an almost wordless text of my own devising, and falls into seven movements which correspond to the seven days of the Biblical creation-myth. It lasts about eighty minutes, and is the first of a symmetrical pair of works tracing the birth, life, and eventual extinction of our planet.

I have described CRY as 'a song of gratitude, praise, hope and love for the worlds which formed us, and of which we are the temporary and doubtful guardians'. 'Doubtful' has two meanings in English; both are intended here. On the one hand we have - understandably - lost our traditional certainties; on the other, our competence as guardians of this planet must be seriously doubted: every year it becomes more obvious that the responsibility is too much for us.

CRY is a hymn of praise: not to any God or gods, but to Earth itself. At the same time, I wanted (like many before me) to play at being God myself - to recreate our planet as it was given us in the beginning, fresh, unpolluted, and still in balance with itself. In other words, before we humans took control.

The late 1970s were a difficult time for me. After the high avant-garde hopes of the 1960s and early 1970s (when I was a student) I felt a growing sense of dillusion, which was exacerbated by increasing economic gloom and remorseless cuts in British arts subsidies. Horizons seemed to be shrinking, not expanding, and contemporary music was retreating into a highbrow laager. More worryingly still, I felt alienated from the work of my contemporaries, finding it increasingly cerebral and irrelevant. It seemed to be preaching to a dwindling club of converted intellectuals, rather than reaching out to all those with ears to hear (which has always been my idea of music). Suddenly, without warning, I was bored and dissatisfied by the art I had spent my life trying to master. I found myself listening more and more to rock music, which related directly to everyday life, and less and less to 'serious' music, which made me (and others) feel ignorant excluded, and which lacked the capacity to make my mind and body sing in the way that Bach, Mozart, Fats Waller, Bob Marley or David Bowie did. What ( I asked myself) is the point of music if it cannot do that?

This was my state of mind when, one wet autumn afternoon in 1977, I came across a record of music from the Ba-Benzele pygmies - an ancient (and now virtually extinct) hunter-gatherer people living in the dwindling rain-forests of equatorial Africa. I shall never forget the moment I first heard the music. I played the record (which was borrowed from a library) again and again until it was nearly worn out; then I tried to make sense of what I had heard, and work out how it was done. At that dale I had heard almost no African music, and imagined ignorance was brusquely shattered, fort he music of the Ba-Benzele is as quiet and intimate as chamber music - a rain -forest is an enclosed place, with almost no open spaces. The Ba-Benzele (and, as I subsequently learnt, all the pygmy cultures) and create choral polyphony of great spirituality, harmonically and rhythmically subtle, and using techniques of contrapuntal pulse-layering that were quite new to me.

The first thing I had to do was learn how this music generated such richness and depthout of such simple material. The 1970s gave birth to many works which used wildly extravagant resources and absurdly complex material, frequently to banal or negligible effect. Such music, which added up to much less than the sum of its expensive parts, gave modern music a bad name- and gave me a server pain in the arse: einen heftigen Arschschmerz (your Mozart, of all people, would know what this means).

The Ba-Benzele music, however - composed by people from a stone age culture - demonstrated that with no other means than a group of voices, a few sticks and stones, and a couple of two-note whistles one could compose music of extraordinary expressively and power. How was this done?

At that period I was already groping my way towards a new relationship between rhythm and harmony, and was visiting Messiaen's composition class in Paris: Messiaen was one of the few post-war composers who seemed to me to have succeeded in moulding a living musical identity out of the grey, anonymous language of post-serial atonality. The basis of his solution was the use of modes - both melodic and rhythmic. In my orchestral piece of 1976, Pentecost Music, I had created intricate contrapuntal textures by superimposing simple patterns on each other. This I stole from Messiaen, who had been doing it ever since the Quatuor pour la fin du temps of 1941; and whose Chronochromie of 1960 had more influence upon my development as a composer than any other post-war score.

The Ba-Benzele music, too, used self-contained modes - both melodic and rhythmic - and combined them to create music which was far greater than the sum of its parts. That, after all, is what composition means: putting sounds together and generating (or discovering) a greater meaning.

The first thing I had to do was to shift the weight of my musical thought away from my pitch and harmony and on to rhythm - rhythm both in the short term (pulse to pulse), medium term (phrase to phrase) and long term (paragraph to paragraph). The texture of Ba-Benzele polyphony is created by the careful superimposition and blending of related but contrasting material, and control of the spaces in between. Lacking the unimaginably ancient tradition which provides Ba-Benzele with the criteria for making these judgements, I turned to purity of numbers, and developed series of numbers to determine the length of phrases and the gaps between them. By combining several of these, and interleaving one with another, I found that I could achieve an effect which combined a sense of 'rightness' with a certain random quality. At the same time, I stripped down my harmonic and melodic language, using clearly recognisable (and sometimes drastically simple) melodic tones, in which (as with the Ba-Benzele music) there was no such thing as a right or wrong note: every note sounded right.

The idea of a musical creation-myth was already in my mind: no other subject offered me as good an opportunity to wipe clean the musical slate and start afresh - as I needed to do. No medium other than voices would have been right for such a subject. The human voice is the nearest thing we have to a tabula rasa: all instruments come heavily laden with cultural associations and to remould the vocal sound to my own needs, I decided to amplify the voices individually and subject them to electronic treatment - modifications such as pitch-alteration, frequency and amplitude modulation, phase-shifting, and artificial echo and reverberation. The amplification system for CRY is designed so that the audience is completely surrounded by the sound; this is important for the proper realisation of the piece, as the cyclical image of a revolving sphere pervades the structure on various levels. Despite the panoply of electronic hardware required for its performance, however, every sound heard in CRY is generated by the human voice.

There are seven days in the Creation story; there are seven movements in CRY. But the Creation itself took six days, not seven, on the seventh day God is said to have rested. For my seventh day I imagined the completed Earth, blue-greenly spinning in space as the creator steps back to admire his (my) work in its pure totality. So the seventh movement is a freely revolving synthesis of key elements of the previous six in theory, it could last for ever. As it happens, there are six steps in the whole-tone scale - which also happens to be the cleanest and most neutral of all scales - to the seventh step is a return to the first. I therefore used D as a centrenote for the first movement, E for the second, G flat for the thirds, A flat for the fourth, B flat for the fifth, and C for the sixth. The last movement returns to the D. The only new material in this movement is a simple modal refrain, set to the word 'anima' - the Latin word for the breath of life, and one of the only two words used in the whole work. Like the six preceding movements, the 'anima' refrain, which punctuates the final movement and causes it to revolve, climbs gradually upwards from D to D, passing though the five intermediate notes of the whole -tone scale: so the seventh movement summarises the previous six, pushing the newly-created planet gently into the distance, to survive without further help from its maker.

CRY should not be interpreted as a musical tract on Green issues: I see it as a record of Creation and have no moral axe to grind. But facts are facts. Only cranks and bigots can deny the planet has a limited life-span - and furthermore, that the unstoppable success (in evolutionary terms) of our own species is likely to shorten that life-span considerably. In the forty years since the music of the Ba-Benzele was recorded, they (who are, in a literal sense, the last inhabitants of the Garden of Eden) have been degraded and virtually extinguished, their way of life destroyed forever.

Two hundred years ago, when so much of the planet remained unexplored, we thought its resources were infinite; we now know better, yet we still treat them as if they were inexhaustible. But, however environmentally friendly we make ourselves, we must face the fact that all good things come to an end: just as each of us will die, so our species - and our planet - will one day become extinct. There is nothing gloomy about this: the truth, however difficult, is cathartic and reassuringly precisely because it is the truth, and because self-deception is so futile and exhausting.

It was this sense of the Earth's vulnerability and transience which drew me to the creation-story. Ever since I was a child I have been obsessed by the knowledge that our Earth will die when our sun cools; like any other organism, it has its own life-cycle. I have long wanted to try to capture this life-cycle in music. CRY, which is the first of two contrasting and symmetrical works, celebrates our planet as our species inherited it; the second, (which will receive its premiere at the 1999 Proms) chronicles our stewardship of the Earth and contemplates its and our - extinction.

Time, like an ever-rolling stream,
Bears all its sons away;
Then fly forgotten, as a dream
Dies at the opening day.

© Giles Swayne


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