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Christopher Blake: Symphony...Embedded video
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T.S. Eliot's fecund poem The Waste Land has as many meanings as it has readers. Like many of those readers the poem has preyed on my mind since my first contact with it in my teenage years. It is a deeply layered text, enriched by allusion, quotation and myth. It is laden with despair and unrequited explorations of pathways to redemption and salvation.
The profusion of seemingly unconnected characters, scenes and events tell a story of human experience tinged by the shadows of a senseless Great War which reach perpetually into future generations. It is a timeless work which speaks to new eras in different ways and continues to disturb, enlighten and perplex.
Why make music from this? Art is a way of communicating and sharing experience and insight. It may be benevolent and affirming, giving hope and offering meaning. It may be malevolent, exacerbating despair and condemning us to uncertainty and pain. All these sentiments are found in this poetry.
Music is flexible, visceral and personal. The unique responses it creates in each individual listener parallels the experience of reading the poem. That experience is tempered here by music which reflects the journeys of my life and is shaped by contemplations of The Waste Land.
The Waste Land is both the stimulus and embarkation point for the creation of Symphony - Voices. The music stands alone and can be appreciated and known for itself but it is amplified and harnesses other worlds of meaning when viewed through the lens of Eliot's poem.
The five movements correspond to the five sections of the poem with each movement taking its title from characters in the corresponding section. The symphony functions as a whole with cross references and various connections between movements that mirror the poem.
The Hyacinth Girl brings us the possibility of love after the bleak beginning of a cruel spring and the denial of rebirth. The episode of the hyacinth garden is framed by Eliot's quotations of Wagner from Tristan und Isolde, love and longing followed by lost love. The music has the possibility of romantic love, not to be found anywhere in Eliot's poem, but suggested here as a pathway to escape the gloom which returns. The movement finishes with the bells of Saint Mary Woolnoth chiming the start of the working day with a barren 'dead' stroke on the hour of nine.
Albert and Lil is a blues which contrasts the overpowering opulence of the world of a tense, bored and paranoid woman with the harsh world of a working class woman and her demanding demobbed husband. Both worlds are beset by betrayal, deception and sexual tension. The blues is by turn simple and sophisticated, punctuated by the'Shakespearean Rag' of the poem, the bell of the barman calling time and the ticking of the clock, a fate we all share.
Tiresias, a legendary blind seer from Thebes, has been both man and woman, lived since ancient times and, through the gift of prophecy, knows the future. The two sexes meet in Tiresias who foretells and makes world-weary observations on the seductions of the typist and the Thames-daughters. But there are other possibilities. Images of innocence, the expression of human emotion and a call for asceticism may be answers to the anguish and despair of passion and lust. The music is urgent and constantly presses forward with layers of rhythms, drums and repeated figures in the brass. The strings build the fires of passion and the climax of a brass chorale may represent the attainment of worlds beyond sin and decay.
The grave of Phlebas the drowned Phoenician sailor is calm and hushed. The tension and terror of the human world is gone. The mighty ocean is a place of rest, release and transformation. The fortune teller's card conjures up Ariel's song from The Tempest and a rich and strange sea change: 'Those are pearls that were his eyes'. The music builds into an ebb and flow of gongs and metals repeating and repeating a familiar 'Full fathom five . . . . . ., Full fathom five . . . . . . ..' We, like Phlebas who was once handsome and tall, must consider our fate.
There is a journey across a surreal landscape and then the legend of the thunder. The journey is haunted by The Third Who Walks Beside You. Who is this unknown presence? Is it merely a delusion of Shackleton in the mountains of South Georgia or the figure of Christ arisen on the journey to Emmaus or a redeeming presence that guides our lives? Crashes of thunder resolve in diverse ways. Splintered music is regathered and nightmare dreams reach towards tranquility. Many voices conclude in one that believes there is a way of knowing but is unable to say what it is.
-- Christopher Blake, programme notes from Symphony Voices (Atoll Records) --
I. The Hyacinth Girl
II. Albert and Lil
V. The Third Who Walks Beside You