Writing on Water

Lang / Greenaway
Writing on Water [First Public Performance]
De Staat

London Sinfonietta
Jurjen Hempel

Synergy Vocals (voices)
Peter Greenaway (libretto / film / live visuals)
Brody Neuenschwander (calligrapher)
Sound Intermedia (sound design)
Beam Systems (projection)

Reviewed by: Rob Witts

Reviewed: 29 October, 2005
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

Peter Greenaway’s cinematic experimentation has often been accompanied by the music of Michael Nyman, who coined the term ‘minimalism’; for “Writing on Water”, commissioned by Lloyd’s to commemorate Nelson’s bicentenary, he was paired with David Lang, a composer who, as one of the organisers of the ‘Bang on a Can’ festival in New York, has wedded minimalism’s discoveries to a more heterodox outlook.

Greenaway’s libretto intertwines three nautical classics (“The Tempest”, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, and “Moby-Dick”) using a respectful sort of cut-up technique, to form nine sections, each set by Lang using discrete musical ideas. Greenaway was on stage before a giant ‘Star-ship Enterprise’ touch-screen, selecting video images that were shown on several large screens around the hall. To add still another layer of meaning, he was joined by the calligrapher Brody Neuenschwander for his live brushwork. This was a project on which no expense had been spared.

It was, typically for Greenaway, a dense, multi-layered work, difficult to appreciate fully at one viewing. His palimpsest text is full of ripples and reflections, seeming to flow outwards into the ocean of seafaring experience; Neuenschwander’s beautiful lettering provided a further gloss, marrying language and image. Lang’s eclectic music was expertly realised; his ensemble included woodwind, brass, percussion, electric guitar and bass, and solo viola and cello, from which he drew textures ranging from austere sparseness to a rich, layered swell. There was a lovely section of folk-like string-crossing ostinatos for the viola, and some sumptuous harmony after Purcell, though at its worst the score sailed uncomfortably close to “Carmina Burana”. The text was sung by three low male voices, sometimes in classic Glassian homophony, at other times in canon, with declamatory simplicity.

The main flaw in the creation was with the visuals, which were generically watery – air bubbles, tides washing in and out – but which Greenaway did not seem to fit to the text or music. My computer screen-saver could have achieved much the same effect and at a fraction of the cost, and it seemed very weak when set against the eye-popping visuals of sometime Sinfonietta collaborators Bluespoon. One could also argue that the terror and fury of the deep is missing from this poetic and reflective work; but it is largely successful on its own terms, and banishes the memory of Michael Gordon’s wretched Gotham.

The high point of the concert was an electrifying performance of Louis Andriessen’s classic De Staat. In this 1976 work, Andriessen uses extracts from Plato’s “Republic” to argue, using rhetoric of breathtaking ferocity, for music’s power as a social force. The pungent quartet of oboes and cors anglais that opens it still sounded fresh, and the Sinfonietta players blew through the unceasing unison runs seemingly without breaking a sweat. Jurjen Hempel conducted with exemplary energy and precision, qualities he had earlier brought to Varèse’s starkly beautiful Intégrales.

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