Welcome to Hyperion Records, an independent British classical label devoted to presenting high-quality recordings of music of all styles and from all periods from the twelfth century to the twenty-first.
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Hemisphere-hopping renditions of Steve Reich's iconic Clapping music, a fantastical mini opera, and a beatboxing meditation in sound on the voyage of the Eendracht—with interval music featuring an all-too-rare choral interpretation of John Cage's 4'33". A mad world indeed.
The Song Company, as Australia’s national vocal ensemble—with an almost forty-year history of championing new music and reinterpreting old and other musics—has nurtured recent generations of Australian composers with both commissions and performances. Bernie Van Tiel is an uncharacteristic example, perhaps, in that her music is either not or barely notated onto a traditional Western score. She is, however, characteristic of the urge and the willingness to tread untrodden paths in terms of what is possible for the human voice to achieve. Bernie’s music has also featured in The Song Company’s grand sweep of Australian music, Nineteen to the Dozen performed live at Sydney Opera House and on tour in 2019, but here she flies solo in the studio.
On the other side of the world, my British ensemble Tonus Peregrinus has charted a related path to The Song Company through ancient and brand-new music, and our shared enforced silences during lockdown are given ironic voice in a purely digital version of John Cage’s 'silent work', while the chance literally to begin to make music again is reflected in Steve Reich’s equally arresting piece for a pair of pairs of hands. Our initial remote musical collaboration took place when The Song Company toured my first chamber opera incorporating the studio recordings of Tonus Peregrinus first aired on the classic journal of new music, Unknown Public. Hearing these famous and unfamilar works side by side is, hopefully, a real moment of discovery for all our listeners, known and unknown.
Steve Reich Clapping music (1972)
All you need to perform Clapping music are two pairs of hands. It is intended to be performed as a duet: to begin, both musicians clap the same rhythm 1-2-3, 1-2, 1, 1-2. Three quavers, quaver rest, two quavers, rest, one quaver, rest, two quavers, rest.
And then they clap that same rhythm again. And again—1-2-3, 1-2, 1, 1-2—until we’ve heard it twelve times. What happens after the first 12 bars is that Musician A keeps on clapping the same pattern, but Musician B moves ahead one quaver in the pattern. What this means, in effect is that Musician A is echoing Musician B at the distance of a quaver. But it’s not exactly an echo—this piece is a series of canons.
A canon is such an efficient way of using your musical material, because all you need is one version of your musical object and then you just have to copy it and paste it on top of (the original version of) itself. So what you end up with is two identical objects slightly misaligned, which is in fact, rather like an echo. When you clap your hands in a cave or in a resonant building you hear the clapping sound coming back at you. Of course in nature the echo is never quite as loud as the original because its energy is not reflected perfectly or fully, but in music the answering voice assumes an equal importance to the original voice.
Performing Steve Reich’s Clapping music is at least as difficult as it sounds, and you can hear the rawness and fragility of acoustic reality in these unedited complete takes. After the next twelve bars Musician B moves on to start with the 3rd quaver in the pattern while Musician A keeps on repeating the same old thing. It’s as if Musician A’s echo of Musician B now comes from twice as far away. The patterns in Clapping music get further and further apart until Musician B has moved ahead 12 times. At this point Musician B is now eleven quavers ahead of Musician A or one quaver behind, depending on your point of view. The principle behind Clapping music couldn’t be simpler: it ends when Musician B has—as it were—lapped Musician A, and so they’re once more side by side. Try it at home with a partner—if you get it right, give yourself a round of applause!
Bernie Van Tiel Een ongehoorde wereld (2016)
Bernie Van Tiel’s 20-minute soundscape, Een ongehoorde wereld ('A world unheard of'), was commissioned and created in the studio for The Song Company’s The Concord of Strangers (2016)—a concert program exploring both Dutch and Australian connections to the 400th anniversary of Dirk Hartog’s arrival on the Western coast of the Australian continent in his ship, the Eendracht.
We follow our voyagers as they embark on their journey, braving the foreign seas that could be foe or friend at any given moment—the ebb and flow of the rhythmic background almost chaotic like the sea. The calm is introduced and we experience the discovery of this new and intriguing land—hearing sounds as they’ve never been heard before. Australia is a unique place, uniquely represented by its native flora and fauna and the music it creates. A place undisturbed. A place of serenity, wonder, and caution.
From our adventurer’s point of view, further along in the journey: feelings of curiosity, the sense of potential danger and, of course, the absolute isolation. The apparent virginity of the land. The atmosphere of an island, of a dense forest. As we discover and explore, we are hit with sounds now familiar to us, resonating with indigenous culture and its deep cultural enrichment and beauty, juxtaposed with cool, serene rainforest, enhancing adventure, excitement, being among the elements, braving rain, wind, heat, drafts, camping, sailing, sleeping, eating. The vast difference between night and day. The turn of the weather.
Though this is a large amount of recording, I broke everything up into sections, and eventually explored the marriage of certain tracks, the reintroduction of particular sounds to keep the world we’re in alive. Finally there is the feeling of leaving the land again: getting on the ship, braving the chaos again, heading to the climax of the horizon and then bringing back the feeling of isolation and the notion of an untouched land as the Concord sails away, leaving just the serenity of the land as it was … as if no one outside had even been there.
I recommend listening to the tracks with a decent set of headphones to immerse yourself fully in the experience. And of course, without question, just so you definitely know, this was done 100% vocal. No effects (except perhaps some reverb), no tweaks, just my voice.
Bernie Van Tiel
Antony Pitts Anna’s Rapid Eye Movement (1990-2017)
A.R.E.M. was commissioned by Michael Burden for New Chamber Opera—the libretto by Shaen Catherwood—and the first studio extract was released on Unknown Public in 1993 (UP03 pianoFORTE). It was premièred live as part of the Dreamers of the Day tour in 2017 at Sydney Opera House and elsewhere. The foreground story is a simple tale of what happens when the stress of real life breaks through into the world of dreams: Anna’s longing for peace and fulfilment becomes a search for the midnight train.
In Act I this search takes her via the Travel Agents’, the Bank, and her untidy bedroom to an extended, slowly dawning moment of realization that she is finally and really awake … at the end of a shimmering, non-stop ride through vivid, richly-hued musical scenery. In Anna’s 'dream of eclectic sleep' the narrative unfolds as she articulates the mental and physical fluctuation she experiences: to begin with, the time is apparently 11.30 at night. A retro telephone ring on her mobile sets up the first of many regular sound patterns and palindromes, including metronomes, alarm clocks, heart monitors, time pips, and knocking on the door—and Anna is told that, as she already knows, she needs a holiday. She hangs up and slips into a sleep coloured by the sounds of a recording of perhaps the last music Bach ever wrote, Contrapunctus XIX from The Art of Fugue.
Clock time is measured very precisely by an insistent, regular beat against contradictory pulses and the stretching of the harmonic rhythm of Bach’s fugue. Urgent, mocking voices start up, and in the first of three nested Scenes Anna is offered a variety of fantastic excursions and holidays, including the exotic 'midnight train'. Resurfacing briefly, she realizes she needs to pay for her ticket, and in the second Scene she is asked to mortgage every last thing she has—down to her last memory, her blood cells, her DNA. In the third Scene, with the help of an overly helpful neighbour, she considers packing for every eventuality, making her so tired that she falls asleep within her dream. The music of Bach’s Contrapunctus XIX resurfaces once again for its final few (unfinished) bars and the sound of the alarm becomes unbearable until Anna manages to switch it off …
In Act II Anna’s dreaming becomes more surreal, as earlier voices call out her name, at first in whispers; part-improvised strands of music and text—sometimes lucid, sometimes shadowy—return in an extended rhapsody on Sleepers, wake! and climax in a 'cut-to-train-arriving-at-platform' moment. At the first stroke of midnight everything freezes for an instant and then continues but gradually slowing into a final peroration, with each bell-stroke fainter and more delayed than the last. The twelfth stroke never arrives …
John Cage 4'33" (1948–52)
John Cage’s silent piece originally had the working title 'Silent Prayer'. And if prayer is about anything, it’s about listening. Although a piece that, like a blank canvas in other domains of art, is likely to stir strong reactions—'it’s not art!'—in fact it can achieve something which most pieces of art do not: it has the ability to change the way one listens.
The manuscript of 4'33" states 'for any instrument or combination of instruments' and there are three movements which 'may last any lengths of time' (at the first performance their durations were 33", 2'40", and 1'20"). The only instruction for any performer is Tacet—'Is silent' or, as understood in musical contexts, 'Be silent!'
But the whole point is that it is impossible to find absolute silence. Cage wrote about his experience in an anechoic chamber (i.e. without echos or any room sound at all) at Harvard where he could still hear sounds, and was stunned to discover that the high-pitched sound he could hear was his own nervous system, and the low sound was his blood moving around his body.
There is something about this piece that connects with where we are right now. There was an element of lightheartedness when The Song Company rehearsed 4'33" over Zoom at the beginning of the lockdowns in 2020—but for a group of vocal performers, who literally need each other to make harmony with their voices, we were well aware that the response to the coronavirus had essentially muted us. Similarly in the UK and Europe, musicians were forced to be silent; hence the digital zeros on this track, representing the music not made.
On the positive side, and a big part of the idea behind the piece, is that the pause in performances, like a grand silent upbeat, has helped us all to listen more carefully to what is happening all around us. Brian Eno’s ambient music takes Cage’s idea a step further and mixes composed sounds with the environmental sounds around us. Bernie Van Tiel, in her 'unheard' sonic journey on this album, absorbs those sounds and recasts them vocally. She, like John Cage, teaches us to listen differently.
Roland Orzabal Mad world (1980-82)
Mad world was the first song which Room 33, the rock band I was in at school, tried to cover. The harmony and melody of Tears for Fears’s iconic and particularly English-sounding song have remained with me ever since.
This recording by Tonus Peregrinus of my arrangement was first broadcast in 2006 in a radiophonic programme called Not In My Name, which I made with Gary Watt for BBC Radio 3 featuring the voices of John Crook, Christopher Gunness, and Sally Phillips. This radio piece was inspired by the story of an anonymous preface-writer who attempted to stand up for what he believed to be true but ultimately took his own life in the face of mounting pressure from the media.
Various mixes of the recording have been broadcast by the ABC and other radio stations, and The Song Company has performed the a cappella arrangements live a number of times—sometimes with five voices, sometimes six, and sometimes eight—in the concert programs Strange Fruit and Go into the City (2016), At First Light and Mind Over Matter (2019).
Antony Pitts © 2022