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Byrd-Cage: Sculpting with Sound

Following their acclaimed performance in Aida, our 36-strong Chorus will animate the space of Leeds Art Gallery’s Tiled Hall in Byrd-Cage: The Shape of Sound, a unique concert as part of the first ever Yorkshire Sculpture International festival on 27 and 28 June.

From the glorious early music of Byrd, Gabrieli and Handl to the playful experiments of Cardew and Cage, the programme has been hand-picked to explore the ability of sound to transform and affect space.

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Avant-garde antics

At the heart of the concert is an excerpt from the 1970 work The Great Learning, by the British composer Cornelius Cardew. From a text taken from the writings of Confucius, each performer chooses a pitch and sings the first line softly eight times, each time for the duration of a breath. Then the ensemble moves around the space, listening to the other singers until they hear a new pitch of their choice, at which time they sing the second line five times at that pitch.

The singers continue through the work in this way, and a cloud of notes gradually forms into several clusters. The audience moves through the space along with the performers, creating an ever-changing, unrepeatable experience in space and sound for both groups.

Rumoured to feature Brian Eno, an occasional member of Cardew’s Scratch Orchestra, the 1971 recording below gives some idea of the sound that’s produced. But each performance of the piece will be completely different, and what’s most important about the works in The Great Learning is “the processes the performers have to engage in to play them, the sounds that an audience hears and the bigger cultural message Cardew is trying to communicate” (Tom Service).

Incendiary innovations

As much a rebel as the revolutionary Cardew in his day, the Catholic renaissance composer William Byrd’s elaborate arrangements – not to mention his association with some of the Gunpowder Plotters – regularly got him into trouble with the Elizabethan establishment.

Opening the concert, his Haec dies (This is the day) is taken from a 1591 collection of songs that are full of hidden Catholic symbolism and messages. In its novel forms and ever-changing rhythms Byrd brings together all kinds of influences, including secular madrigals, finding new potential for the massed human voice. Listen (below) to the joyous alleluias at the end and hear why he got under the starched collars of the Puritans!

Light Music

Next, Estonian composer Arvo Pärt’s Nunc dimittis (2001) offers a modern, minimalist take on a religious text, unfolding from the lowest to the highest voice and moving towards a suitably blazing climax on the word ‘lumen’ (light).

Mischievous Minimalism

Sandwiched between more renaissance music by Jacob Handl and Andrea Gabrieli, John Cage’s 1983 work ear for EAR bridges the sacred vocal tradition and the more playful side of 20th Century minimalism, composed with an antiphonal (alternating) structure that might remind you of a Gregorian chant, but with a text that uses only the letters found in the word ‘ear’.

“It was quite a challenge to come up with a choral concert as part of a festival of sculpture, responding to the spaces of Leeds Art Gallery, says Opera North’s Head of Projects Jo Nockels. “While we might often start with a single artist’s work, in this case we wanted to explore sound as sculptural in itself: three dimensional and occupying space in different ways, with changing relationships to those listening.”

Byrd-Cage is performed in the Tiled Hall at Leeds Art Gallery as part of the Yorkshire Sculpture International at 7.30pm and 9.00pm on Thursday 27 and Friday 28 June, with tickets priced at £10.00.


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