Early on election day, the Georgia Straight is getting an intimate look into life at the top of the classical-music food chain. In a Skype call from what he describes as “this incredible apartment” in New York City, countertenor Iestyn Davies is weighing in on music history, British composer Michael Nyman, and the recording process. Meanwhile, a documentary crew is shooting video footage of Marc-André Hamelin in the next room; his sparkling piano occasionally drifts into the conversation as the Canadian virtuoso and composer illustrates a point.
It’s all a welcome reprieve from Monday’s political tension—especially as one of Davies’s core beliefs is that music is among the most timeless of the arts.
That’s a point made stylishly by Purcell & Nyman: Music After Awhile, the program that Davies and the Fretwork viol consort will soon present at Christ Church Cathedral. Appropriately, it’s being jointly sponsored by Vancouver Early Music, which specializes in sounds from the preclassical repertoire, and Music on Main’s Modulus Festival, which concerns itself almost entirely with contemporary composition. On the bill will be music from Nyman, the 75-year-old pioneer of a uniquely British approach to minimalism, and Henry Purcell, the 17th-century composer who brought a similarly temperate eloquence to baroque forms. As documented on If, the recently released CD that Davies and Fretwork made together, the pairing is harmonious and thought-provoking.
Nyman and Purcell are old acquaintances, the former having referenced the latter in his score for Peter Greenaway’s 1982 film The Draughtsman’s Contract. On If, Nyman returns to a similar vein of inspiration with his newly commissioned Music After a While, a work for five viols inspired by Purcell’s song “Music for a While”. But the record’s highlight, for this listener, digs even deeper into the past. With The Self-Laudatory Hymn of Inanna and Her Omnipotence, Nyman takes an ancient Sumerian text as his starting place, conjuring the vainglorious goddess it describes with a winning combination of rhythmic drive, regal harmony, and declamatory singing.
Davies shines on the recording, working patiently towards a quietly ecstatic finale. But when asked what he needs to do to embody such a supernatural being in song, he defers, preferring to focus on his introduction to the score, which Fretwork premiered with countertenor James Bowman in 1992.
“I was having a drink with Nico Muhly, the composer, in his apartment, when he was working in London,” Davies recalls with an audible smile. “It was about 2 in the morning, and we’d had quite a bit of wine, and we’d been listening to old recordings of Alfred Deller and stuff. And he said, ‘Oh, you’d better do this piece one day,’ played it, and we sort of listened to it and had a really good laugh. The way James flings himself into it is pretty amazing. And then a few years ago, Richard Boothby of Fretwork said, ‘We’re very interested in re-recording it; it’s time to give it another hearing.’ So that’s where it all came from.”
Davies’s reading is arguably even more entrancing than Bowman’s original, but the singer modestly suggests that Fretwork’s first version was likely recorded live, while the remake was more of a studio confection.
“With this kind of minimalist music, you have to be exact,” he explains, adding that Inanna is a true test of stamina. “There’s a tension whenever we do this piece, like it’s being held together by some kind of invisible force. And so, performing it live, there’s that kind of charge. But when we recorded it, we were able to do it in much more healthy chunks; we were able to stop and say ‘Right. We’re going to do this bit here.’
“The great thing about recording is that you can put down a version of a piece that’s, in a way, slightly fake,” Davies adds, laughing. “Whether you’re recording Bach, Handel, or Nyman, you’re putting together a patchwork of versions of that piece that you’ve done in that three-hour session, or whatever. So as much as people like to say ‘Oh, I like to do things as one big take,’ it’s never really that. You’re always doing a composite of perfect moments, whatever perfection is.”
Early Music Vancouver and Music on Main present Purcell & Nyman: Music After Awhile at Christ Church Cathedral on Tuesday (October 29), as part of the Modulus Festival. For a full Modulus schedule, visit the festival's website.