Encounters in the Republic of Heaven

Trevor Wishart’s Encounters in the Republic of Heaven ~~All the colours of speech~~ — heard this past Monday at King’s Place as part of their wonderful Out Hear series — is Herzogian in its spotlighting of strange stories and richly felt anecdotes, but purely of its composer in its inventive and colourful exploration of the valences of the human voice as speech, musical texture, singing glossolalia, granular sonic entity, and much more besides.

Encounters consists primarily of transformations of the human voice into musical texture and of speech into song (for which the composer developed his own sound processing software), whilst featuring also as a prime ingredient the plain speech (albeit often chopped up and built upon) of the many people, from children to farmers to sailors, that Wishart recorded in the North East of England during the piece’s long 2006 – 2011 gestation period.

This substantial and serious, but also very funny, 80 minute composition in four acts has plenty of antecedents: the radio plays of Ewan MacColl come to mind frequently, particularly for the kind of narratives featured within (though here the purpose is much more carnivalesque), whilst in more musical terms we could draw a correspondence between Encounters and Berio’s Omaggio a Joyce and Visage, and perhaps also with Rob Mackay’s music, though the avant garde sturdiness of these works is moderated in the Wishart by the wild spirit of recent sound art by Florian Hecker, and recent experimental pop by an artist such as Bjork.

The Hecker comparison is most obvious in the use of eight channel audio here, a feature exploited to great ends by Wishart. The great dynamism that results from the swirling of sound around the centre-placed audience more than makes up in this case for the lack of any live element in the performance. Moreover, Wishart uses the set up well as a simple device of intensity: often passages are doubled or quadrupled or moments are given tutti for greater impact.

Encounters remains steadily captivating throughout its duration, though in some of the more exaggerated, speedy passages, such as at the beginning of act two, where vocal hockets blister by to no great purpose, I felt attention wane somewhat.

However, this was to no great detriment: Wishart wisely chooses hilarious narrative situations, such as the large bearded man dressed as a belly dancer at a beer festival, or the bizarre names sometimes given to children (‘Heathcliffe!!’), and makes them all the more hilarious by spotlighting certain quotes and stretching them into musical hooks that return again and again within the act. Witness the first act’s ‘bloooke’. In this way Wishart not only draws out and develops the inherent musicality of speech (music and language really are close in origin: try saying a phrase of four or five words to yourself fifteen times, then stop, and say it again a minute later, and you’ll see what I mean), but also makes a coherent musical design of his creation. And humour is not the only affect in play: the fisherman’s story and the old lady’s reminiscences in the two outer acts are as moving as the rest is funny.

The effects derived by Wishart from the voices are often startlingly distant from what we might expect, as for example with the ‘voicewind’ that open and closes the piece, but it is less for this reason that Encounters impresses: audio synthesis and sculpting is an advanced art at this point and it is little surprising to experience the extent of the unleashed hidden grainy potential and variety of sound (and we have heard these before in other ways, anyway). It is rather in its many musically startling moments that the piece shines. The sudden alignment of the windy brass band and voice in the second act, for instance, or the abstracted Pink Floyd trance surfaces (voice becoming pure texture) of the closing section, where snatched speech recalls and huge organ-like chords confirm us in our reverie, are just some examples of the many points at which the documentary and the compositional impulses that are each at play in this work come into intense and sharp focus. Highly, highly, enjoyable.

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