Mala Punica

My most enjoyable experiences as a performer often come when singing with EXAUDI Vocal Ensemble, a group whose raison d’être is to explore the highways and byways of contemporary vocal writing, with an emphasis on music that exists on the more radical end of the spectrum. Working with such a group chimes, of course, with my (albeit generally less radical) compositional activities, and it’s always an honour to sing alongside such formidable musicians. It also helps that they’re a lovely bunch to be around.

Director James Weeks’ cheerily gregarious demeanour belies a fearsome intellect and an uncompromising compositional language of his own. Recent months have seen two releases of his music: firstly, ‘Signs of Occupation’ (released by Metiér), a collection of small-scale chamber works, which serves as a good introduction to the thornier side of his aesthetic, pitting the raw cacophony of Looping Busker Music against the crepuscular introspection of Three Trios for Violin, Piano and Tape, with some declamatory politics thrown in for good measure (including, in Digger, a cameo from yours truly, simultaneously strumming a detuned guitar and pronouncing 17th-century socialist tracts!). Following closely on from that comes the release of ‘Mala Punica’ (on Winter & Winter). While the former album has received a number of reviews online, as well as some airplay on Radio 3, the latter appears to have garnered less attention so far – surprising not least because it is certainly the more approachable disc to the layman’s ear.

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Mala Punica is a substantial work for voices based on the biblical Song of Songs. It’s a piece I have long admired, and indeed been lucky enough to perform a couple of times. Its eight movements are inspired by the numerous vegetal references in the poem, and are structured as canons of relatively simple material that, as more voices enter, gradually develop from an austere monasticism into a web of ecstatically rich harmony, laden with false relations as juicy as the bounty of plenty offered up by the ancient poetry (the title translates as ‘fruit of the pomegranate’). The marriage of subject and medium, of text and texture, is wonderfully handled; I won’t try to describe the ingenious word-painting better than the composer himself does in the liner notes:

Each piece takes a nature-image from its text as a basis for its structure and overall character: the rising plume of smoke in Quae est ista is translated into coils of canonic lines tracing upward spirals; flowers waving in a gentle breeze give the oscillating figures of Ego flos campi; vine tendrils multiply into the dense foliage of Ficus protulit, and Descendi uses a similar idea of budding and fruiting, swelling steadily from two to eight voices. In contrast to these linear, evolving textures, Veni in hortus meum takes a more directly rhetorical approach, celebrating an abundant table with rich vertical sonorities in the lower voices. In Dilectus meus the beloved’s journey down into a garden of lilies is described by a simple melodic descent and a revisiting of the oscillating flower figures of Ego flos campi, and Donec aspiret dies returns to the music of Quae est ista, but now as a far-off memory in a night filled with longing. In the centre of the cycle is the longest and most complex piece, Hortus conclusus. Here there are three layers of texture, each one a circling canonic system that appears and disappears in a slowly-shifting collage. The image here is of the ‘enclosed garden’, representing chastity and the promise of exotic and untasted delights, and the music is literally enclosed in the circling canons and static harmony.

The effect of these structural connections between the musical and the poetic is a sensuous intensity that can be quite intoxicating. Needless to say, the singers deliver the piece with total dedication. But that is not the whole story: in an ingenious bit of recontextualising, Weeks has composed three instrumental episodes as a sort of musical ‘bed’ in which the vocal pieces are planted. Thus the ‘nature-images’ of the text are now complemented by an undergrowth of gorgeously detailed instrumental sounds, including the insectile whirring of the bass flute (surely a contender for the title of ‘world’s sexiest instrument’). Plus, if you listen on top-quality headphones like my trusty old Shure 530s, you can even hear the birds outside the church where it was recorded! This is music that is alive in every sense.

 

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