This well-attended event was designed as the launch concert for Metier CD92084. Playing to a commendably full audience, it can only be counted as a complete success. Not only did it fulfil its function as disc-related propaganda, it will, hopefully, have secured Sadie Harrison’s rightful place on the musical map in this country. For sheer conceptual depth of imagination and expertise of execution, it was simply remarkable.
‘The Light Garden’ is actually an early name for Afghanistan. Harrison(born 1965) took her inspiration from ‘The Light Garden of the Angel King: Travels in Afghanistan with Bruce Chatwin’ by Peter Levi; a memorable and evocative quote graces the back of the concert programme. By alternating performances of traditional Afghan music (performed by the Ensemble Bakhtar) with pieces of her own making (played by The Tate Ensemble, Lontano and violinist Peter Sheppard Skaerved), Harrison was able to refer to, interact with, transform and occasionally flatly contradict ethnic material to create a truly personal response. Such symbiosis is, if anything, addictive: one hears traditional music in the light of Harrison’s twenty-first century reactions, retunes to it and in the process reinterprets it. Similarly, Harrison’s sounds, Western European at heart, take on a different slant, even referring to the mystical at times (and it was when this happened one could really hear this composer’s potential). Structurally, Harrison’s music was surrounded (perhaps enveloped by) traditional movements, which both opened and closed the evening as well as interspersing her works.
The traditional ‘Naghma-ye kashâl Bairami’ opened proceedings. An Afghan seven-minute ‘warm-up’ (for the audience as much as the players), its meditative, static and hypnotic opening led to a rhythmic section that buzzed with energy. This performance was played by rubâb (lute-like), Pontic lyra (think viola, played vertically), harmonium and tabla (drum).
Harrison possesses the necessary compositional equipment to present a piece that complements and expands, emotionally, on this. It came in the form of ‘The Light Garden’ (2001), a piece premièred at Carnegie Hall in June 2002. An immediate audible link was the initial slithering lament, where a solo viola (Marina Anscherson of the Tate Ensemble) recalled the Pontic lyra.
The dynamic contrast which ensues could hardly be greater. The Tate Ensemble consists only of clarinet, violin, viola, cello and piano, but they can generate a fair head of excitement, plus no small number of decibels. Players are instructed to shout, clusters infiltrate the piano part and the writing is Harrison at her most virtuosic. Her use of space is most impressive: fragments are thrown around the performing arena in a way that mere domestic stereo will surely demean. The close of this 15-minute piece is warmly welcoming, but, as Harrison says, all is not as it seems: ‘Whilst suggesting peace this ending is in fact a false comfort; the sound-world, whilst being immediately attractive and unalienated is itself alienated from the work’s Afghan source and thus darkly ironic’.
Separating ‘The Light Garden’ from ‘The Fourteenth Terrace’, Harrison’s second ‘panel’, was an eight-minute Herati love song, ‘Bibi Gol Afruz’ (‘Shining Flower Lady’), an improvisation for Pontic lyra and tabla. It emerged as a plaintive cry from the solo instrument which contrasted with the strong drum rhythms and that accelerated in intensity. But it did little to prepare the listener for the visceral onslaught of ‘The Fourteenth Terrace’ (the title is a reference to the location of the tomb of the warrior-poet Zahiru’d-din Muhammad Babur). Written in 2002, this performance by Lontano under the irrepressible Odaline de la Martinez and with the excellent Andrew Sparling as solo clarinetist was supremely exciting. Opening with a squealing clarinet explosion of sound, the harsh and abrasive world was very much of today, vocal shouts adding to the effect. This was a highly rhythmic, hyper-gestural sound-world characterized by an extraordinary timbral sensitivity. Not a single note seemed to be wasted. Percussion underpinned climaxes in a stomach-disturbing rumble. There are underlying processional elements to parts of this music (a Birtwistle-esque undercurrent?), leading to an intensely fragile close. The lullaby-like effect of this ending links perfectly to ‘Allah Hu’ (‘This is God’), a traditional vocal solo of immense power. Veronica Doubleday was hauntingly gripping.
The final Harrison part, ‘Bavad Khair Baqi!’ (‘May this goodness last forever!’) is for solo violin. As the composer puts it, ‘the physicality of the music and the strain that it puts on the performer was integral to the composition. The work is meant to be a struggle’. I felt for Peter Sheppard Skaerved, a Paganini for today who had to audibly breathe, vocalise syllablles, later focus his voice and finally shout, all the while confidently despatching the utmost intensity. Absolutely riveting (it lasts about eleven minutes). The final gesture summed up the effectiveness of Harrison’s conception. Effect, certainly, but it came out of the musical argument that had preceded it, summing it all up: bowing a note high up in the stratosphere, playing pizzicato and producing vocal exhalations all at the same time! Finally, the touching simplicity and mesmeric repetitions of the traditional ‘Siah Cheshm-e Khumari’ (‘Your captivating black eyes’) displayed a sensually caressing vocal line, spun like a thread. Haunting, it, like the entire evening, left a deep and lasting impression. Harrison has somehow managed to marry contrasting traditions, inter-relating them by association yet leaving the integrity of each intact. And that is no small achievement. I have heard various works by this still-young composer in the past, yet here I feel she has finally defined her own individuality. Find the CD and buy it.