Sequentia - Doom & Gloom With GleeSaturday, August 02, 2014
The year 1000 of the Incarnation of the Lord was dawning when my brothers set out on the roads of this world. The nocturnal shadows had not yet withdrawn from the ground, and they were already descending the promontory where the monastery was situated. With their mules laden with crucifixes, statues of enthroned Virgins, loaves of bread, cheeses, honey and water for the journey, they forded the swollen stream and took the first path they came upon on their left, eager to publish the signs of the Last Judgment throughout the villages of the kingdom.
Vision 1 The Lord of the Last Days – Visions of the Year 1000 by Homero Aridjis
On Friday night Benjamin Bagby and Norbert Rodenkirchen of the now Paris-based Sequentia, armed with ancient instruments (replicas) new to me performed Fragments for the End of Time. The program at UBC School of Music’s intimate Roy Barnett Recital Hall, presented by Early Music Vancouver was all about doom, gloom and corpses burning for eternity in hell. There was no element of hope except that if you were one of those lucky ones to be born a saint then you could skip it all and not worry about it. In that first millennium after the birth of Christ many thought that ending of the world was close at hand. Sequentia explored that preoccupation in both pagan and Christian cultures of the western world.
|Before the Apocalypse - Benjamin Bagby, Matthew White & Norbert Rodenkirchen|
Unfortunately (and paradoxically fortunately, too) we are not saints and some of us (me) who were raised as Roman Catholics are attracted like lemmings to anything related to the apocalypse.
Watching this duo, Bagby reminded me of actor Robert Duval playing a funeral director, and Rodenkirchen was a Teddy Bear version of the Pied Piper of Hamelin luring children to their deaths, I was transfixed by their performance. Bagby sang, acted and performed with great drama, while Rodenkirchen played on his swan-ulna-bone flute with a smile on his face. I could have easily been lured to jump over the cliff with glee!
The 75 minute performance, with no interval, ended in applause. I was sitting next to EMV Board President Sharon Kahn. I whispered to her, “Do we want more doom and gloom?” Thankfully Bagby and Sequentia (which Bagby founded in Basle with Barbara Thornton in 1977) knew when to quit. And they did.
At this point you might suspect that I was not too happy with the performance.
You would be completely wrong.
This kind of stuff clears the air of that sometimes unwanted sweetness and the banality of social networks and life in the 21st century.
In fact I am now going to re read (inspired by Sequentia), The Lord of the Last Days – Visions of the Year 1000 by Homero Aridjis, my Mexican poet/novelist friend. As a Mexican (and I lived in Mexico for 18 years) he and I are obsessed (the right word) with death, destruction, gloom and doom. It is all natural and inevitable. No amount of Air Miles points will change that.
Aridjis was a shrewd man who opted to publish the edition in English in 1995 (originally published in 1994 as El señor de los últimos días, visions del año dos mil) knowing there would be an interest in such a novel as the 20th century came to a close.
Today, Monday, could be the last day of the world. Perhaps tomorrow, Tuesday, the Virgin without sin would appear in the firmament. And perhaps the day after tomorrow, the radiant dawn of the new millennium would shine over the world. Each day the miracle we had never seen could happen, the miracle we hope for would happen on earth each day during the last thousand years. …García Cabezón ordered the ram’s horn to be blown so that the knights, clerics, cotters and all others who wanted to do battle with the emissary of the Evil One might come to join us.
The Lord of the Last Days - Homero Aridjis
It was difficult for me to pin down exactly Bagby’s performance. Is he a singer, an actor, a slam poet, a troubadour of old, or what? I could not even secure his voice. I had to ask Liz Hamel, recorder musician, a soprano or mezzo (she is one or the other depending on the day) and now a deacon of the Anglican Church. She told me, Bagby is a baritone.
The name of the musical group, Sequentia and the calling of their pieces sequences had me in total ignorance. They seemed to be some version of early Gregorian Chant (but definitely not quite). They seemed to be religious and in Latin. They seemed to expand or transfer from purely religious to mythical lore and thus into other languages, languages not of the church.
I had to look it up in my musical reference book for dummies, The Oxford Junior Companion to Music, Second Edition 1979 and upon reading the definition I was not much the wiser:
Sequence: The repetition of a short passage of music at another pitch. In the following hymn, the soprano and the bass parts are repeated three times – ‘sequentially’.
The short definition then added that there are two kinds of sequences, real and tonal. The example given below is a tonal sequence, because the repetitions are not absolutely exact, semitone for semitone.
Flummoxed I decided to scrap further investigation as to what is a sequence and I state here that Sequentia’s Fragments for the End of Time was a riveting performance in which the two players in some moments took me to a medieval plaza Sunday fair where I was an unwashed commoner rapt to listen to a story perhaps after a passion play. And at other times, in the smallish Roy Barnett Recital Hall I was Charlemagne himself, surrounded by my courts listening to Alcuin tell me that like Michael the Archangel I was singly responsible for defeating the dragon ( an a myriad of snakes) for the redemption of mankind.
The last sequence of the evening was A felir austan um eitrdala or the ‘Prophecy of the Völva, from the Old Icelandic Edda (Iceland 10th century).
At one point after all the doom, gloom and destruction of all singers of the previous sequences I thought this one was going to end on a positive note:
She sees com up earth out of ocean once again green. The waterfalls flow, an eagle flies over, in the hills hunting fish.
Sér hon upp koma
jörð ór œgi
flýgr örn yfir,
sá er á fjalli
But it was not to be:
Then comes the shadowy dragon flying, glittering serpent, up from Dark-of-the Moon hills.
As she flies over the fields he carried in his claws: corpses.
Þar kemr inn dimmi
naðr fránn neðan
berr sér í fjöðrum
— flýgr völl yfir —
Nú man hon sökkvask.
I left the hall entertained but sober and making the resolution to myself of perhaps at this later date of my life that I must become a kinder person. I felt sort of like leaving the confessional purified (if only temporarily).
Dear Mr. Waterhouse-Hayward,
Thanks very much for your mail and for the interesting blog entry about our concert. We always enjoy performing in Vancouver. The festival had asked specifically for a programme about the Apocalypse.
In your blog there seems to be some question about the definition of 'sequence'. If you consult a good music dictionary (such as the Harvard Dictionary of Music) you will see that the word 'sequence' has two definitions. One, which has nothing to do with medieval music, involves a technique of melodic repetition at different pitch levels. The more significant definition, from the medieval term 'sequentia', refers to a musical and poetic form which was extremely important at all levels of musical practice between the 9th and 13th centuries. It is this second definition which relates to both my ensemble's name and the vocal/instrumental pieces designated as 'sequentia' which we performed on our programme.
Thanks again for your kind words.