Enjoyable and Illuminating “Inquisition of Sound” from Society of Strange and Ancient Instruments

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Hume, Nicholls, William Lawes, Robert Jones, Byrd, Tomkins, Anonymous, Brade, Gibbons: The Society of Strange and Ancient Instruments (Jon Banks – santouri, gothic harp, percussion, Liam Byrne – lirone, treble viol, Jean Kelly – triple harp, bray harp, Alison Mcgilivray –bass viol, lyra viol, Jo Wills – electronics), Dora Stoutzker Hall, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff. 2.3.2016. (GPu)

soundhouse pic 2
Members of The Society of Strange and Ancient instruments

Tobias Hume (c.1579-1645): Hark, HarkThe Lady Arbellaes favoretDeath
Jon Nicholls (b. 1959): Round Orbs of Air
William Lawes (1602-45): Ecco (from The Royall Consort, Sett 6); Air – Corant – Saraband (from The Royall Consort, Sett 3)
Robert Jones (c.1577-1617): Go to Bed, Sweet Muse
Jon Nicholls: Broken Air
William Byrd (c.1540-1623): The Bells (arr. Jon Banks)
Thomas Tomkins (1572-1656): Pavan
Anonymous: Arthur’s Dump; Alman;  Cupararee or GraysinGive me your hand
William Brade (1560-1630): GaliardAlmanCoranto
Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625): In Nomine

This absorbing evening was the fruit of work undertaken by the Society of Strange and Ancient instruments based on the reading of some of Sir Francis Bacon’s writings on sound/music in his posthumously published books Sylva Sylvarum and New Atlantis. During a week in February 2015, members of the Society discussed Bacon’s work and, recreated some of Bacon’s experiments and related repertoire of the period to Bacon’s ideas. Their aim, as Clare Salaman, who founded the Society in 2010, puts it “was to understand more about the way sound, and more specifically music, was perceived in the seventeenth century and to find a way to translate that for a twenty-first-century audience”. The resulting programme has been toured under the title Sound House – a phrase taken from Bacon’s utopian vision in New Atlantis, in which he imagines a kind of ideal university (‘Salomon’s House’’), in which, amongst many ‘research’ departments are ‘sound houses’: “We have also sound-houses, where we practice and demonstrate all sounds and their generation.  We have harmonies, which you have not, of quarter-sounds and lesser slides of sounds.  Divers instruments of music likewise to you unknown, some sweeter than any you have, together with bells and rings that are dainty and sweet.  We represent small sounds as great and deep, likewise great sounds extenuate and sharp; we make divers tremblings and warblings of sounds, which in their original are entire.  We represent and imitate all articulate sounds and letters, and the voices and notes of beasts and birds.  We have certain helps which set to the ear do further the hearing greatly.  We also have divers strange and artificial echoes, reflecting the voice many times, and as it were tossing it, and some that give back the voice louder than it came, some shriller and some deeper; yea, some rendering the voice differing in the letters or articulate sound from that they receive.  We have also means to convey sounds in trunks and pipes, in strange lines and distances”. In such ‘sound houses’ Bacon anticipates, in the words of Jon Nicholls, “all sorts of contemporary electro-acoustic manipulations”.

The programme is arranged in 7 sections under these titles – Echoes, Sleep, Bells, Concords and Discords, Sympathy, Air The Inquisition of Sounds, each section being related to a passage from Sylva Sylvarum. All these passages were reproduced in the excellent programme accompanying the concert and were also played in a recorded reading by Terence Wilton. Many of Bacon’s ideas and observations are fascinating, as in what he has to say about echoes: “The echo cometh as the Original Sound doth in a round orb of air. The Repercussion of Sounds (which we call Eccho) is a great Argument of the Spiritual Essence of Sounds. For if it were corporeal, the Repercussing should be created in the same manner, and by like instruments, with the original Sound. But we see what a number of exquisite instruments must concur in speaking of words, whereof there is no such matter in the returning of them, but onely a plain stop, and repercussion” or his observations of the attractiveness, or otherwise, of certain combinations of instruments, “some consorts of instruments are sweeter than others, (a thing not sufficiently yet observed;) as the Irish-harp and Base Vial agree well; the Recorder and Stringed Musick agree well & C. But the Virginals and the Lute, or the Welsh-Harp and Irish-Harp, or the Voice and Pipers agree not so well”. Characteristically, given Bacon’s endlessly inquisitive mind he adds that “there is yet much left (in this Point of Exquisite consorts) to try and enquire”.

In concert the performers were arranged on stage in a kind of recessed arc, with Jo Wills at its apex; he was in control of the recorded sounds and voices heard from the back of the auditorium, as in ‘Round Orbs of Air’ where the four instrumentalists on stage were heard in conversation with ‘live’ echoes of themselves. The attitude of the Society of Strange and Ancient Instruments (in this programme at least) went beyond questions of authenticity of instruments or matters of performance practices; their fidelity was to a much larger set of ideas, to Bacon’s philosophy of sound and his musical aesthetics. Whether in their arrangement of a keyboard piece like Byrd’s ‘The Bells’ or in Jon Nicholls’ ‘Concords and Discords of Musick’ (specially written for them) their interpretations, as well as often being very beautiful, were attempts to put the score to the test, following Bacon’s proposition that “Observation and experiment for gathering material, induction and deduction for elaborating it: these are the only good intellectual tools”. For all their starting point in Bacon’s writings, The Society of Strange and Ancient Instruments were faithful, not to letter of those writings, but to their spirit, to their underlying principles. That, plus their combination of ‘archaic’ instruments with the resources of modern technology, made for a powerful synergy between the ancient and the modern that was exhilarating and thought-provoking in ways that extend beyond the limits of a review such as this.

Glyn Pursglove

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