Hearing this slowly evolving work, performed by a choir and saxophone quartet, is like watching summer clouds drift by.
Label: ECM Records
Time: 9 tracks / 50 mins.
I cannot hear this album without thinking about summer clouds. Watching wispy white ones floating lazily across a blue sky is relaxing and atmospheric. You have to watch them very closely to spot any change in their formation, but you don’t go out on a lounger in the garden to study the clouds. You go there to enjoy the warmth and summery mood.
This album similarly drifts past your ears. I could describe the changes in the shape of the music, but you won’t put this on to study it, you’d listen to it to enjoy the mood it creates.
That’s not to say that the music is bland. After several listens, the music becomes familiar. Like those clouds, it moves at a languid pace, evolving slowly – although sometimes the sound is more cumulus than cirrus.
Anyone who is familiar with his somewhat entrancing account of "Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet" where that chorus, sung by a homeless man, is looped for some fifteen minutes to an evolving orchestral backing, will understand that Bryars has his own sense of time. (If you’re not familiar, it’s well worth a listen.)
This project’s lyrical inspiration is of another time. The Fifth Century is based on words by the 17th century mystic Thomas Traherne. As Bryars says in the liner notes, this poet and theologian’s writing has “an intense spirituality, celebrating the glory of creation, his almost intimate relationship with God, and leading... to an apotheosis in which he declaims the ‘essence of God’.”
Bryars has taken prose from the text and set it to be sung by the choir The Crossing, who commissioned this work, accompanied by the PRISM saxophone quartet. The second – and shortest – text reads, “As sure as there is Space infinite, there is a Power, a Bounty, a Goodness, a Wisdom infinite, a Treasure, a Blessedness, a Glory.” Bryars has the male and female parts of the choir slightly out of synch with their words, so that these qualities blend together.
The saxophone quartet is highly nimble in the sounds it produces, evoking other instruments as diverse as bassoon, organ and flute.
The saxes are absent for the final two tracks, transparently entitled “Two Love Songs,” which are sonnets from Petrarch’s Rime Sparse. While The Fifth Century is seven parts of this project, these last pieces are sung by the women of the choir alone, and the first better for eschewing soloists.
Bryars has created a distinct and accessible work here, with extra depth for those who wish to explore it, and it is absolutely home on this label, where choirs and saxes (like the highly successful Hilliard Ensemble with Jan Garbarek) have blended before.