Joby Talbot's 'Path of Miracles'
Every now and then a piece of music comes along that makes me think of a familiar instrument in a different way. After a nutritious education of orthodox piano training I was introduced to Messiaen's piano – an avery, organ, orchestra and religious object all rolled up together.
Joby Talbot's hour-long choral work Path of Miracles recently shocked me out of a humdrum attitude toward the choir (goddammit lots of choral music can be predictable and boring).
Talbot creates a sense of timelessness, as though the music has no beginning or an end: the piece just sort of 'happens' and then is over. The work is very repetitive and even its rhythmic parts are slow-moving. Path of Miracles is like a spinning disc remaining still. Talbot's music is less linear (like a Shakespeare play, or a Beethoven symphony) and more planar, (like a sculpture). This non-linear feeling is decidedly alien to the European concept of art, which usually plays out as a story. Perhaps this is why other composers who have achieved a similar relationship with Time (such as Olivier Messiaen and Sofia Gubaidulina) have had interests in non-western music.
Path of Miracles follows pilgrims on their journey to Santiago, Spain and meditates on the four main staging posts, the 'Camino Frances'. While I normally roll my eyes at yet more modern choral music explorations of Christianity, this piece really transcends its religious subject. I feel like the people are on a long and dangerous dangerous journey during which they really exclaim, rejoice, hope and reflect.
Despite the story, the text is plainly less important than musical shape and colour. Talbot sometimes repeats part of a sentence many times, then adds in more text as a new layer. The text naturally becomes unintelligible (though I imagine it would 'pop out' if one were following the printed text). In his much shorter piece The Wishing Tree Talbot further distorts the text by separating syllables with rests. What results is a new layer of meaning, born out of the sound of the syllables.
This grand work is constantly gorgeous. How he does this isn't a mystery: he uses familiar church modes (scales) which couldn't sound bad if they tried. But Talbot's use of these tonalities sounds different to everyone else. Tension is created by subtler means than the German-Austrian axis of western harmony. Even Eric Whitacre and Morton Lauridsen who use a similar pan diatonic approach (piling all the notes of a mode on top of each other) still betray an allegiance to the old ways by intuitively returning to the home chord. Talbot, on the other hand – along with his spiritual cousins Arvo Pärt and Olivier Messiaen – invent new systems of organising familiar chords and modes. Here, there seems to be no "plan of keys" as we know it. Sometimes, after long comfortable stay in one zone, the music just abruptly switches key (your choir had better be populated by pitch ninjas, in this case Tenebrae).
In fact, Talbot seems to not give a toss about harmony. Stephen Leek's choral music places a similar non-importance on harmony, which is often just an accident of piling different layers together. Both composers revel in textures, soundscapes and repetition.
I find this is totally liberating as a listener. I love it when a composer invites us to "let go" on concentrating on something we thought was important (like harmony or structure) and draws our attention to 'bigger' things.