Set upon the Rood
Leaving other Oxbridge choirs to squabble over Tallis and Byrd, under director Geoffrey Webber the Choir of Gonville & Caius College have ploughed an altogether more unusual musical furrow. Their latest release is an offshoot of Delphian’s five-part series in conjunction with EMAP – the European Music Archaeology Project – pairing living composers with ancient instruments to conjure startling sound worlds the choir’s founders could never have imagined.
What’s most interesting about this collection of choral works by James MacMillan, John Kenny, Stevie Wishart, Francis Grier and more is the way these ancient instruments have encouraged composers to think in terms of sound rather than music. These are works that celebrate texture in all its forms – from the whispered chatter, the spoken word and shimmer of crotales in Kenny’s The Deer’s Cry, the glinting of the wire-strung lute in McRae’s Cantata and the guttural grunt and buzz of the aulos (a new addition to the project’s ancient instruments) in Stephen Bick’s Set Upon the Rood.
Suddenly sound and music exist in a single sonic continuum and the effect is exhilarating – both ancient and fundamental but undeniably modern. The range of responses is striking. McRae creates a more astringent, contemporary world, while Wishart’s Iste Confessor (taken from her larger Vespers for St Hildegard) offers the composer’s signature blend of medieval textures and modal melodies. Barnaby Brown’s triplepipe adds menace and depth to the stormy imagery of MacMillan’s Noli Pater, while both the carnyx (a curving wind instrument) and Loughnashade horn bring drama to Kenny’s multi-movement cantata The Deer’s Cry.
This is a disc that will leave you bewildered in the best possible way, assaulted and seduced by deeply unfamiliar sounds. While bewilderment can be good in a performance, it’s unhelpful in a booklet, which offers far too little information about these unfamiliar instruments, their history and capacity.