Wednesday, July 18, 2007

[The Life of Shaun #141] The chav tax

To have a colour TV in your home in Britain you have to pay £135.50 ($277.12 currently) per year for a TV license for the privilege.  For this fee you get all the services of the BBC: several radio channels, a few TV channels (all commercial-free), unbeholden news reports from around the world and sundry other benefits of being resident in Britannia.

I went to my first prom tonight: BBC Prom 2007 #6,
BBC Singers/Tallis Scholars.  The Proms are a Summer tradition, a series of daily concerts sponsored by the BBC.  It's really a great offering, world-class performances of both the masters and contemporary artists, always with a good proportion of seats available for only £5, and all performances broadcast on Radio 3 and often on BBC television.

Tonight's selection was four choral pieces, one by each Lassus and Tallis, and two by Striggio; admittedly, none of which I had heard of before.  The centrepiece was the last piece by Striggio, "Missa Sopra Ecco sì Beato Giorno".  Tonight was the first time this had been performed in 400 years as the manuscript was "lost" (it was misfiled at the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris).  Here is the description of this piece from Wikipedia:

"Most of the mass is for five separate choirs of 8 voices each, with the closing Agnus Dei being for five separate choirs of 12 voices each; all of the voice parts are fully independent.  With its huge polychoral forces, climaxing on sixty fully independent parts, it is the largest known polyphonic composition from the entire era."

It was stunning.  Not because it was intricate and beautiful, which it was, but the texture of the sound was intoxicating.  Obviously when you have 60 separate parts in the vocal range of human singers, you're not all on separate notes.  But like in a symphony where different instruments create different mixtures of sounds, in this piece, the different voices and combinations of voices create constantly-shifting textures in this wall of sound*; one great moment is when it starts with one singer and builds, one by one, until all 60 are singing.  Along with that, there are 60 people switching to words at different times, creating this percussion rippling across the choir.  At one point the music was moving on slowly and steadily as it had been, but the people began reaching words closer and closer together, creating this quickening sensation from the percussive nature of their enunciation rather than in any increase in tempo or shortening of phrasing.

Really quite an amazing and unique piece.  I was very happy to be party to this re-inaugural performance.

So think about this: a system has been established where as most of Britain were watching "Victoria Beckham: Coming to America" tonight they were supporting this concert.  This is a good country.


*For the musical people out there, the closest I can think of is like in "Island in Space" where the sopranos and altos alternate juxtaposed perfect thirds to create a constant sound with shifting texture, or an orchestral piece whose name I forget where the  first violins hold an extended note, but shift between and open and fourth-finger A to alter the timbre.)

Shaun Coley
Clerkenwell, Islington
London, UK
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