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Alec Roth (b1948)

The Traveller & Earth and Sky

Ex Cathedra, Britten Sinfonia, Jeffrey Skidmore (conductor) Detailed performer information
Studio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available
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Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: May 2022
Birmingham Town Hall, United Kingdom
Produced by Adrian Peacock
Engineered by Mike Hatch
Release date: July 2023
Total duration: 62 minutes 23 seconds

Cover artwork: Dark Night of the Soul (1999, detail) by Ana Maria Pacheco
National Gallery, London / Bridgeman Images

Alec Roth's The Traveller—for narrator, violin and tenor soloists, choir and orchestra—takes as its theme the Ages of Man, setting original and translated texts by Vikram Seth, while Earth and Sky responds to a BBC commission to portray a 'vision of the future' … Needless to say, performances by Ex Cathedra and company are top notch.

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The Traveller for choir, children’s choir, orchestra, tenor, violin and speaker
The Traveller was the third in a series of four major works with words by Vikram Seth and music by Alec Roth, commissioned jointly over four years by the Salisbury, Chelsea and Lichfield Festivals (2006-09). Each work featured the violinist Philippe Honoré as soloist, and each took a different geographical/cultural area as its starting point.

The Traveller is scored for solo violin, solo tenor, mixed choir, children’s choir and an orchestra of strings, harp and percussion. India provides the literary/cultural point of departure. In addition to writing six new poems, Seth translated some 20 classic Indian texts from a rich variety of traditions and languages.

Taking as its theme 'the Ages of Man', The Traveller is divided into six main sections: 1. Unborn; 2. Child; 3. Youth; 4. Adult; 5. Old; 6. Dead; followed by a short epilogue for the tenor soloist alone.

Each part is introduced in turn by a speaker reciting one of the seven verses of the great 'Hymn to Creation' from the Rig Veda.

In this universal tale of Man’s journey through life, the role of The Traveller is taken by the solo violin, The Companions by the choir and The Poet by the tenor soloist.

Vikram Seth writes …

2008 was the 750th anniversary year of the consecration of Salisbury Cathedral. Our work was to have its first performance there. We needed a theme at once grand and intimate—suited to the mood of the cathedral as night fell. Why not all human life?
With this modest thought in mind, I sought a structure for the libretto. I found it in the mysterious hymn to creation in the Rig Veda. The hymn has seven verses. Within these seven pillars I nested six arches: the stages of life and death. At Alec’s suggestion, I called the piece The Traveller, to reflect our earthly journey.
To the four traditional stages of life in the Hindu scheme of things—childhood, youth, adulthood and old age—I added two more: unborn and dead. I searched for texts in various Indian languages—passages both sacred and secular, that moved me and that suited these stages.
For example, the first Tamil text in the Youth section [No 10] comes from an epic poem in which the husband of the heroine Kannagi is wrongly accused of stealing the Queen’s ankle bracelet and is put to death. Kannagi’s angry lament—the fury and courage of a young woman confronting the power of the state—is followed by the the Queen’s eerie vision of the fall of the kingdom as a result of this injustice.
I offered a choice of about twenty such passages to Alec in existing English versions and asked him to tell me which he wanted before I set about making my own translations. ‘Oh, I want them all,’ he said, ‘I find them all inspiring.’ So, pondering my tactical unwisdom, I got down to more work than I had bargained for.
The Hindi passages of my selection presented no serious linguistic problem, as Hindi was my first language. The medieval Hindi of Kabir and the Brajbhasha of Surdas were familiar from literature studies at school as well as from songs. When I began translating the Sanskrit texts, my long-forgotten schoolboy lessons kicked in. There were problems, though, and choices to be made: in Pali, the word deep is ambiguous, so in the Old section [No 21], the Buddha could have been saying to his followers ‘be to yourselves a lamp’ or ‘be to yourselves an island’.
I had studied Urdu in order to understand the cultural world of the Muslim characters in A Suitable Boy. When working on the Bengali poem, I was able to draw on the little Bengali that I had gained by osmosis from my mother. For the texts from Tamil—a Dravidian language utterly different from north Indian languages—I was forced to resort to a crib.
Apart from these translations, for each of the six stages of life I wrote a short poem of my own.
My main reward for writing these libretti has always been the music. From the moment in the darkened cathedral that a small bell led into the first verse of the hymn to creation, I was held by the power of it. ‘They say love is the reason why / This soul of ours is bound by bone’ could not have been more tenderly set. Nor could Kannagi’s demand ‘Is there a god?’ have resonated with more indignation to the ancient roof and spire.
(Abridged from 'The Rivered Earth', Penguin, 2011, Vikram Seth’s collected libretti for the 4-year Salisbury commissions project, including an account of ‘the pleasures and pains of working with a composer’.)

Earth and Sky for children’s choir and piano (with optional percussion)
Earth and Sky was commissioned by the BBC for the Proms 2000 season. In keeping with the millennial theme, a work presenting a vision of the future was requested. Trying to be helpful, the BBC provided me with a video containing the predictions of various experts, but their ideas seemed dizzyingly contradictory.

Then the simple thought struck me that however varied and complex the answers, the big questions remain the same. We may now have a map of the human genome, but how to use the map? 'How shall I know where I should go? How may I see the I that’s me?'

So, a song of questions—this was the idea which I took to Vikram Seth, who had agreed to write the words for me. The resulting poem is entirely monosyllabic, enabling a variety of rhythmic treatment. I love its permutations and its imagery of paradox and inversion, and I have amused myself by playing similar games with the musical material. But there is seriousness as well as fun—the text’s juxtaposition of the certainty of death and the search for meaning and purpose in life achieves great poignancy when sung by young voices.

As a musician I am hopeful that, no matter how the world develops, future generations will still come together to 'dance and sing and play'. The mysterious power of music to bind us socially and inspire us individually seems to be built into our genes.

As I write this, over twenty years after the first performance of Earth and Sky, the outlook appears bleak, as the true nature of mankind’s despoliation of the planet becomes clear. Yet hope for the future comes from the children and young people increasingly making their voices heard with their urgent questioning. Our children are closer to the earth in both time and space. Mother Earth speaks through them. We should listen.

Alec Roth © 2023

Alec Roth has been Ex Cathedra’s de facto composer-in-residence for 15 years. He is a friend, a valued colleague and a trusted adviser. There is so much to learn from working so closely with a distinguished composer and it has been a great privilege. He explains how this extraordinary relationship began:

I dodged into a record shop to escape the rain. Over the speakers came intriguingly beautiful music. I just had to know what it was, and came away with the New World Symphonies CD. Sometime later, considering which choir to use for a commission, I remembered Ex Cathedra. But were they as good live as on disc? I heard them in Durham Cathedral, slipping in to observe the rehearsal. The concert was wonderful, but the rehearsal was the deciding factor. Here was a group whose approach to music-making was so inspiring that I wanted to be part of it.

Alec Roth wrote this about our performance in November 2005. In July of the following year I similarly had sneaked into a rehearsal in Lichfield Cathedral of his 2006 commission Songs in Time of War and had been impressed by the beauty of what I heard, his extraordinary awareness of subtle colours, textures, patterns, and delicate sonorities. And by his constant attention to detail, even at the third performance! We performed his Lullaby Carol at ‘Candlelight’ in 2006 and gave our first premiere, of Shared Ground, in Salisbury in 2007. It was a whirlwind affair! Ex Cathedra’s relationship with Alec Roth must surely have been made in heaven.

Not only has Alec absorbed the enormous scope and vision of our work, writing fluently and with apparent ease for our Chamber Choir, Baroque Orchestra, Consort, Community Choir and Academy of Vocal Music, but he also alludes with great awareness to many of our musical influences—Poulenc, Tallis, and Bach. There is also the undeniable strain of Englishness which runs through his music and our performance style, regardless of our declared eclectic influences. Alec writes music which is challenging and accessible, relevant and enjoyable, and is always a moving experience for singers and audiences. Its deceptive simplicity demands our full attention and rewards close study. We also share an interest in languages, whether biblical, Latin, English, contemporary, or Ancient Greek.

There has been huge critical acclaim for his music using words such as ‘moving’, ‘profound’, ‘stardust’, and ‘Rolls-Royce’! And it gives me great satisfaction that his work is now being performed and appreciated around the world.

Ex Cathedra has performed Alec’s music in over 200 concerts since 2007. There have been large-scale commissions and recordings (Shared Ground, Earthrise, A Time to Dance, The Traveller, Hymn to Gaia) and many short ‘gems’ (The Flower, Sol justitiae, Sometime I Sing, Love is come again, Night Prayer). Alec’s music is relatively simple, but strong, sturdy and passionate, written from the heart, and the choir loves it! It is of consistently high quality with moments of absolute genius. The relationship continues to flourish.

Jeffrey Skidmore © 2023

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