As The Liverpool Mass finally reaches an audience, Getintothis’ Jono Podmore reports back from the congregation with mixed emotions.
Tonight, nearly 700 of the curious and the consecrated gathered in Liverpool’s Catholic Cathedral to watch the slow change in the dusk light shining though John Piper’s stunning stained glass as the visual accompaniment to a night of some of the best – and worst – of classical electronic music.
Pierre Henry is one of the originators and masters of Musique Concrète. Since the early 50’s he worked with Pierre Schaeffer realising pieces of music composed by the electronic manipulation of recorded sound – a technical restriction that defines the genre. His early masterpiece Variations pour une porte et un soupir (1963) being something of a classic.
By 1967, when The Liverpool Mass was commissioned he had nearly 20 years experience in developing the techniques and stylistic ideas of the genre. One of the structural and emotional frameworks he had begun to work with was religious music, and in particular the catholic mass.
Le Voyage (1966) was based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead and Messe pour Les Temps Présent (1967) was the predecessor of The Liverpool Mass, although this piece goes down in history as the first electronic mass, and the premiere was to be the first time a mass would be interpreted through contemporary dance.
The Liverpool Mass is about 45 min long (designed to fit comfortably on vinyl for later release, no doubt) and divided into 6 sections that correspond to the Mass: Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Agnus Dei and Communion. The sounds used are largely derived from the male voice with the addition of some strings and percussion here and there.
For the introduction, Jarvis Cocker mentioned how the voice is something we all have in common, therefore a unifying humanitarian aspect to the music – but the reality is very much more about the ritualised patriarchy of religion. Not only are these exclusively men’s voices, thereby circumventing 50% of the population, but these are the voices of priests; of initiates, disembodied spiritual guides, intoning sacred sounds as they move around us throughout the holy space, incomprehensible to us lowly sinners.
The sense of ritual is central and even overpowering. The Tibetan reference is clear in the droning voices, gongs and cymbals, but the text is the Latin of the catholic mass, complete with the ringing of the Sanctus bells. There are echoes of the composers Giacinto Scelsi, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Jonathan Harvey, Gyorgi Ligeti and of course Iannis Xenakis who was a colleague of Henry at the Groupe de Recherches Musicales in Paris.
Composers who were finding a new function and method for music in ritual, by either referring to antique culture, non-European religion or inventing new rituals and spirituality for the space age.
New rituals for new culture in new spaces made with new materials and new technology. And all of this newness from 50 years ago.
What was most compelling about the performance was the site-specific nature of the piece. The Metropolitan Cathedral was not just a setting, but a performer.
Bill Harpe who commissioned, and was to choreograph, the original performance referred in his speech to Henry’s trip to the cathedral when he accepted the commission. He could remember the composer walking round the space “shouting, whooping and wailing”.
This must have seemed like the behaviour of a potty artiste – but as soon as the performance on Saturday began it was clear that Henry was behaving in a rational and technical way. He was finding the resonant behaviour of the space he was composing for.
With a reverberation time of 7 seconds and the unique acoustic behaviour of a cone, the building is stimulated to perform by the sounds in Henry’s piece. The droning priestly voices are tuned to the resonant frequencies of the room, eventually encouraging the standing waves in space to “sing along” – producing spectral enhancements and colours.
The short, percussive vocal impulses are separated in the music for us to hear the long, luxuriant reverberation of the cathedral’s concrete. The metallic scrapes and cymbals interact with the upper partials of the cathedral’s acoustic, zinging around the building through the speaker system set up especially for the performance.
Performance is an idea often stretched to its very limits in electronic music. Although this piece was originally intended to be presented with dancers, and has a strong ritual and theatrical element, in fact the audience is left staring into empty space with reproduced music coming out of speakers.
This is, of course, the oldest problem of electronic music. Not unlike the actor who doesn’t know what to do with his hands, electronic music composers since the 60’s have had to come up with all sorts of solutions to the problem of performance of using pre-recorded music.
For The Liverpool Mass this was performed flawlessly by Thierry Balasse using an exquisite 40-speaker system. Although never meeting rock n roll volume levels, the spatialisation itself was immersive, angelic choirs and chattering voices encircling us with the priestly presence levitating, then surging toward and beyond us.
But there was no gesture to follow, no physical representation of the content of the music. Thierry was anonymously controlling the console somewhere in the room, the visual focus being the empty altar and the room itself.
Maybe after 25 years of DJ culture this is getting easier for an audience to deal with, but still it takes practice – applauding an empty space at the end of a piece is still a puzzling experience.
But, that said, many around were sitting with their eyes closed, enjoying a purely auditory experience, and by Communion, the “gigantic sound halo which shimmers like a stained glass window” that concludes the piece, perhaps they were experiencing the state of “mystical dizziness verging on ecstasy” experienced by a priest when first hearing the piece back in ’67.
It was a truly absorbing and emotionally engaging experience, brushing aside ideas of sterility and coldness from the electronics and concrete.
Earlier on in the evening we were witness to something very different. After finding a perch on the punitive pew which was unforgivingly to remind me throughout the night of the various sins I had committed in my profane existence, Getintothis had a chance to take in the spikiness of the cathedral.
Although we may know it with warm familiarity as Paddy’s Wigwam, structurally this beautiful space is based on the crown of thorns. As the last of the light shone through the rich reds of the stained glass it was as if the outside of the building was dripping in blood, that we were homunculi in Christ’s head as the thorns were pressed into his scalp.
A chance to ponder pain and mortality, which was then reinforced (after speeches) by the first part of the concert: HAPAX III (A Liverpool Requiem) by Vincent Epplay and Samon Takahashi. Despite the seats and spikes the most painful experience of the night was the crashing sense of disappointment with the very first sound of their seemingly endless piece.
It was the first “Hey” from Hey Jude.
What followed was an embarrassing and patronizing tourist’s view of Liverpool history and culture. Ask any 8 year old about Liverpool and they’ll mention The Beatles and Football. If pressed maybe something about boats.
This was the degree of intellectual penetration we got from Epplay and Takahashi. Out of the standard digitally generated drones and textures bouncing between the speakers, came You’ll Never Walk Alone, more Beatles, the voices of Steven Gerrard and Brian Patten reduced to incomprehensible mumble, and hideously recorded and treated industrial bumps – the sounds of the docks.
But worst of all, it was really boring. The result was that at the interval many people left – perhaps taking with them the idea that this is all electronic music has to offer. They missed Henry’s masterpiece and the touching and inspiring speech from one of the city’s real cultural jewels, Bill Harpe.
Nevertheless, on reflection and later discussion, we realised the football references in the piece were perhaps an indication that this was a requiem mass for the victims of Hillsborough or Heysel. In which case it would still be a badly executed and slender work but at least would have some sort of social motivation and conscience.
We scanned the programme – no reference. The event had been presented by the Bluecoat (celebrating 300 years this year, the cathedral 50) so we went there the next morning to see if anyone could tell us who or what this piece was a requiem for.
In the event we had an email from Samon Takahashi. Sadly, it was as we suspected – the requiem is for Liverpool’s past and included “hooligans chants” as simply part of an historical collage.
Guilty as charged.
So to complete the footballing analogies, the night was a game of 2 halves – which became a night of many more halves as we dashed across town to the GIT Awards: an event proving the vibrant cultural life of the city needs no tourist’s requiem, and that there are more Bill Harpes in Liverpool waiting to create and commission wonderful pieces of the calibre of Pierre Henry’s Liverpool Mass in the future.