James Weeks on The Summer Cloud’s Awakening

James Weeks

"There’s a sense that something rather awesome and grand is moving towards you."

On Sunday 22 November at hcmf, New London Chamber Choir will give a rare performance of Jonathan Harvey’s The Summer Cloud’s Awakening. Originally composed for the group’s 20th anniversary in 2001, the 35-minute piece features choir, cello, flute, pre-recorded sounds and live electronic processing. NLCC’s Musical Director James Weeks reveals the challenges and rewards of preparing such a spectacular work:

The Summer Cloud’s Awakening is a major work of Jonathan Harvey’s: certainly one of, if not his biggest choral works. It certainly comes off as a very effective piece and it’s not heard very much because it’s complex to put together. It’s a rare and very exciting opportunity to hear it.”

“All of his pieces can be very different from each other and this one is certainly different from anything that I’d done before. This was written in 2001, before I became musical director, to celebrate the NLCC’s 20th anniversary. It’s both unique and at the same time very typical of Jonathan‘s work. It’s a rather fascinating blend of Wagner and Buddhist doctrines.”

“Essentially there are some pre-recorded sounds which were made at the time of the original performance, and they’ve been subject to various electronic transformations. Then the sound coming from the choir is processed live, so you have these two layers of electronics.”

“Clive Williamson is playing what looks like an ordinary keyboard but actually it’s triggering all sorts of electronic noises according to my beat. Some of it’s synchronised with a stopwatch and the choir sings over the top. And then of course you have the cello and flute at the same time. It’s quite a spectacle.”

“I think what’s very effective about the piece is Jonathan’s sense of sound images. He has a gift for finding an image which is often quite simple, but very powerful, whether it’s a choir cascading up in clusters, or particular figurations or effects that he gets from just two instruments. At one point you have the cello and the flute almost doing a kind of Buddhist dance around the choir, who are chanting, and then in the next section the basses of the choir attempt some Tibetan subharmonic singing, which is again rather exotic, and very typical of the score in that he blends all these things together.”

“What I think is most impressive is that way that the Wagner excerpts – which he’s taken from Tristan und Isolde, including the famous Tristan chord [the first chord heard in Wagner’s opera] which appears like a leitmotif all the way through the piece – are blended in with all these other influences, from the use of percussion and bells typical of Buddhist practices, to more of Jonathan’s own style. It sounds like a stylistic mish-mash when described like that, but these things are very carefully interwoven.”

“There were a couple of challenges that we encountered when rehearsing. Firstly, there are two impressive passages of cluster glissandi which occur, and they are really like clouds. They sound like a thunderstorm approaching, if a thunderstorm approaching had a noise other than the rumble of thunder. There’s a sense that something rather awesome and grand is moving towards you and eventually it bursts over your head, which is exciting. But that’s difficult to achieve, because there are no reference points in the glissandi; you can’t get your tuning fork out and, over the course of a glissando that might last a minute, make sure you end up on the right note. So it’s very testing for the choir.”

“And then the end, which becomes frenzied and ecstatic, is full of these very fast scales in clusters. So the choir will be divided into 12 and there’ll be eight semi-chorus parts on top, so 20 different parts really, rushing up these rather unusual scales as fast as possible and a very small distance apart from each other. And that is exceptionally difficult, especially when the live electronics will be processing that sound and cutting it up and throwing it all over the hall around the speakers. It’s going to be sonically truly spectacular, that end, but it’s not very easy to be truly ecstatic when you’re desperately clinging to the beat.”

James Weeks’ website

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