14 June 2014: 67th Aldeburgh Festival, Snape
Faster Than Sound: Earthquake Mass
James Weeks (director)
Russell Haswell (electronics)
Ear plugs are seldom handed out at the concert hall door, but the Faster Than Sound event at Aldeburgh Festival’s opening weekend came with a warning: loud music ahead. The luminous auditory protection did little to deter attendees; the Britten Studio at Snape Maltings was sold out for this late-night performance of Antoine Brumel’s Missa Et ecce terrae motus, newly rendered by Russell Haswell.
The pre-Renaissance masterpiece caused a stir when it was composed in c.1500: cast in 12 parts – triple the usual for the time – its polyphony was thrillingly controversial. Vocal ensemble Exaudi director James Weeks wanted to recreate the original visceral impact of the music for 21st-century audiences. The work’s sobriquet, ‘Earthquake Mass’, is a reference to the Easter plainchant on which it is based. Weeks and Haswell use this as the basis for their reimagining.
The Kyrie is sung according to the original score, the Exaudi vocals glorious and majestic. But before we reach the Gloria, Haswell introduces the first ‘tremor’. Low rumbling ripples from the left of the hall; audience members nervously fiddle with their earplugs. There is a loud crash and we visibly jump. Exaudi begins the Gloria and we stand to attention, our senses pricked, our nerves on edge.
This alternation between song and noise continues. Each movement is separated by growls and feedback. They grow with every interlude; gaining confidence in their acoustic. Lights flash and the tremors multiply. By the end of the Sanctus and Benedictus most audience members are wearing the earplugs, as are some of the singers. Exaudi joins Haswell for the Agnes Dei, a terrifying explosion of sound. Instinct takes over, we cover our ears, our insides shake.
As the music reaches its zenith, some audience members leave the hall. The lights flicker. And then there is silence – broken by a cry of ‘Thank God that’s over’. The heckler is voicing collective opinion. Our relief that the ordeal is finished is indicative of the work’s success. The assault on our senses incited fear and extreme discomfort. Weeks and Haswell have achieved the shock-and-awe they sought.
Better integration between the original score and the electronic accompaniment would have improved the work’s overall musicality. But nevertheless this was a fascinating juxtaposition between early and contemporary music. Aldeburgh is still feeling the after shocks.
All photos credited to Rob Marrison