In all the works, the music of the organ coalesces out of the air into a landscape in which the trumpet sings the song of a soul. As the listener follows the paths through the landscapes, the changes in the landscapes themselves are as clear as the changes the soul undergoes; as the music is transformed, so are we.
From the poetry of the Phoenix’s dance with fire, we move to the illuminating ambiguity of poetry.
Commissioned by Illumina in 2014 – and receiving their first performance in St Paul’s Cathedral as part of the London Festival of Contemporary Church Music – Paul Burke’s Five Poems are five character pieces which take fragments of poetry for their inspiration: Guillaume Apollinaire’s Sick Autumn, William Henry Hudson’s Dance in the Sepulchre, Charles Causley’s The lighted city is dark, E. E. Cummings’ anyone lived in a pretty how town and Ryan Whatley’s 50cc. Burke interprets the texts with skill, adroitly navigating the ambiguity which their authors create, never using the poems for programmatic concepts, but always as points of departure. Landscape and traveller are central to this disc of music, but it is in the Five Poems that they are at once the most united, and also most isolated.
Sick Autumn is concerned as much with the autumn of the soul, of love, of life, as it is the year. As time flows and Autumn’s march progresses, so are we swept along, buffeted by Apollinaire’s all-consuming hurricanes, occasionally reaching the eye of the storm. At the close, the carpet is pulled from under our feet, the trumpet singing: a lone soul, suspended in the in nite.
From this rather serious movement springs a scherzo borne out of Hudson’s musings on sound inspiring resurrection and dance. This Dance in the Sepulchre gives life to the bones of the dead, and in doing so creates a light which spills over into an incorrigible orgy of sound. Here, as in other moments in the Five Poems, passages of simplicity are contrasted with those of great complexity – a technique that can be seen in the compositions of one of Burke’s teachers, Robert Saxton.
On the horizon of this timeless landscape, The lighted city appears – but it is dark. Causley’s prosaic verse evokes an American landscape, and Burke accentuates this through the use of a quintessential Miles Davis timbre, a Harmon mute with the stem removed. The lone stranger wanders through the dark city, occasionally stumbling upon bursts of light and sound, before the scene cross-fades to the fourth of the Five Poems, and a rather different American landscape.
In anyone lived in a pretty how town E. E. Cummings draws the portrait of a contrary figure who Burke allows to dance the dance of blissfully ignorant schizophrenia across his score: clearly demarcated sections bristle against one another, resulting in a rupture. Although the silence which we hear at the end is eventually resolved, ‘with up so floating many bells down’, questions still remain.
The cycle of the Five Poems concludes with an energetic dance of birth and flight. Cast in 5/4 time, 50cc is an irrepressible pageant of youth and modernity. The poem deals with the concrete concept of a motorbike ride, the perpetuum mobile character of the music reflecting, perhaps, the bike’s character. There is something of the character of Dance in the Sepulchre here, too: by the end of 50cc we have experienced a similar incorrigible orgy of sound. (It is almost as if the bike has taken flight, unable to be contained by gravity).
Dance’s youthful exuberance now yields to a place sorely in need of illumination. Torbjörn Hultmark’s Triptyk is based on Psalm 143, and in some concert performances the relevant sections of the psalm have been read before each movement (verses 1-4 precede the first movement, 5-6 the second
movement, and 7-12 come before the final movement). The trumpet is giving voice to the psalmist’s anguished soul, crying out over the landscapes created by the organ.
A technical tour de force for both instruments, Triptyk’s three landscapes of sound are all as if in a Middle-Eastern desert, be it the heat of the day, or the cool of the evening. Hultmark depicts these landscapes with a mixture of musical devices, including the use of aleatoric material (which Petr Eben so favoured in his trumpet and organ cycle Okna). There is some Pendereckian and Stravinskian avour too – perhaps most noticeable in the second movement which includes a quotation from Petrushka. ‘Hear my prayer, O Lord!…’ the psalmist cries out (in an ever-present tritone motif which is given to the all-powerful pedal organ) ’…For I am Thy servant’ – and a sense of resolution and deliverance from the psalmist’s enemies is forthcoming at the very end, represented by a peaceful and cleansing C major chord on which the work closes. An illumination of sorts is acquired, but it is a long way from the pure re of the burning bush which Moses encountered.
At the heart of Solfa Carlile’s Silver Tree Fanfare, there is a battle for supremacy between trumpet and organ. An Illumina commission from 2016, the Silver Tree Fanfare is based on a set of 10 pitches which the trumpet utters in additive statements; it then fragments as the organ dominates the middle section. Both instruments come together in a majestic 5/4 dance (which echoes a more formal Elizabethan conceit) whose ebullience spills over into a lively coda. Underlying this musical argument is a Scottish variant of the Snow White tale which gives the work its name, mother (Silver Tree) and daughter (Gold Tree) vying to see who would be the most beautiful queen.
And so at the end of our journey, we have arrived where we started, with the lofty architecture of Dan Locklair’s soundscapes. The only non-British composer featured on this disc, there is an innate sense of the American which permeates Locklair’s music, with its ‘almost-too- big’-ness.
Trumpets of Light was commissioned for the new organ console of the Reformed Church of Bronxville in New York. Illumination was very much the point of departure for Locklair, as the church commissioned fine stained-glass windows from Boston artist Charles Connick in the latter days of the Second World War. The idea of illumination also shines out through Locklair’s presentation of dance, and in the poetry of scripture (Proclamation: 2 Samuel 23.4; Illumination: Psalm 97.11; Procession: Psalm 89.15; Exultation: Matthew 17.2). In Locklair’s own words, each of his works has a central unit from which the rest of the composition springs – in Trumpets of Light it is the theme from the third movement, which appears in augmentation in Proclamation, and retrograde-diminution in Illumination before undergoing a more drastic metric transformation (from simple to compound time) in Exultation, which is a joyous dance of the whole world.
Themes of illumination, poetry, dance, and the intersection of all three are at the heart of this disc, and in Trumpets of Light (perhaps the most homogenous of all the music recorded) trumpet and organ put forward a united front: the landscape is easy, the path clear, the soul is content, and so the poetic dance of illumination continues.
(Richard Moore, 2017)