Officium Novum in St David’s cathedral

Bank holiday Monday evening in St David’s: the evening sun glows on the grey-flecked, honey-coloured stone of the cathedral as a tightly-knit bunch of scousers join the throngs making their way inside for a performance of Officium Novum by the Hilliard Ensemble with saxophonist Jan Garbarek.

On our first morning here I was accosted by a man who asked me, ‘where’s the cathedral?’  Many visitors must ask the same question because, unlike towns like Canterbury or Gloucester where you can see the cathedral towers from miles away, St David’s cathedral is different.  It crouches in a hollow, sheltered from the westerly storms coming in from the sea about a mile away.  Peter Sager writes eloquently about how the medieval pilgrim would have experienced the approach to the cathedral:

How must pilgrims have felt in those days, as they approached Dewisland on horseback, coming nearer and nearer to St David’s on the westernmost edge of Wales?  Before them, an almost treeless, wid-swept plateau.  Scarcely a hedge, but only earthworks and stone walls through which the wind was howling.  Fields full of stones, some piled into pyramids, ‘as if the solid rock foundation of the earth had thrown up these spears to transfix and hold the scanty earth of the fields upon it’ (Graham Sutherland).  ‘Angelus remotissimus; terra saxosa, sterilis et infecunda’, wrote Giraldus Cambrensis of Dewisland, St David’s Peninsula, and that is how it is even today: remote, far from the nearest railway station, wild and desolate, a Welsh Land’s End.  Where the rock terraces plunge down into the sea, that is St David’s head.  ‘Octipitarum Promontorium’, the foothills of the eight perils, was what Ptolemy called this cape, whose rocks were to prove fatal to many a Roman ship. …. Dewisland: from this bare, isolated corner of the country came the patron saint of Wales, Dewi Sant.

An appropriate place, then, to hear the Officium Novum, performed by the Hilliard Ensemble and Jan Garbarek as part of the 2011 St David’s International Music Festival. Although the title of the repertoire refers back to the Catholic service or liturgy of the hours, the music – sung in various languages – carries no overtly religious message and can be appreciated for its beauty by those of any faith or of no faith.

It’s nearly two decades since Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble released the first of the three albums that now make up the Officium project.  The hallmark of the project has been to present music from different traditions without amplification in naturally reverberant spaces (usually cathedrals and churches).  The three albums albums were recorded at the St Gerold monastery in Austria, chosen for its acoustics. The resounding natural reverberation it adds to the music gives it greater depth and majesty than would be expected from four voices and a saxophone. The same goes when Garbarek and The Hilliard Ensemble perform live: they generally play in venues with a similar ambience, such as St Paul’s Cathedral or King’s College Chapel, Cambridge.  We saw them last year in Gloucester cathedral.

Garbarek started alone. Gradually, we became aware of voices in distant corners of the cathedral, a disembodied drone that slowly became more focused as the members of the Hilliard – David James (countertenor), Rogers Covey-Crump (tenor), Steven Harrald (tenor), Gordon Jones (baritone) – converged at the front of the nave.  This was ‘Ov Zarmanali’, one of  four pieces by the Armenian composer Komitas (1869-1935).  The four voices of the Hilliards weave a spare backdrops to the keening, bluesy phrases of Garbarek’s soprano sax. These musicians have developed the reciprocity of a modern jazz group, but this is not jazz: rather, Garbarek’s solos inhabit and explore the austere structures of the compositions, as if his saxophone was another human voice.

Tenor Rogers Covey-Crump says: ‘Jan responds very strongly to the buildings we play in. One thing he loves about this project is that he gets to play in places he never otherwise sees, such as big churches and cathedrals’.  Gordon Jones adds, ‘In a big resonant acoustic, he can create a harmony by playing a really loud bass note and then adding an arpeggio above it, so you have this harmony hanging in the air’.  Garbarek himself states, ‘It’s very important that the sound has a certain amount of space and reverberation. The music often uses modal forms, which gives a lot of freedom for improvisation. Some of it’s religious music and some isn’t, but I think it’s important that all music should be spiritual in some way’.

A central focus of Officium Novum is music from Armenia, pieces which draw upon both medieval sacred music and the bardic tradition of the Caucasus. The Hilliards have studied these pieces in the course of visits to Armenia, and the modes of the music encourage some of Garbarek’s most impassioned playing. Alongside the Armenian pieces in the Officium Novum repertoire are Arvo Pärt’s ‘Most Holy Mother of God’ sung a cappella, a 12th-century tune by Pérontin, a Byzantine chant, and two pieces by Jan Garbarek, including a new version of ‘We are the Stars’, his adaptation of a Native American poem of the Pasamaquoddy people which first appeared on the Rites album:

For we are the stars. For we sing.
For we sing with our light.
For we are birds made of fire.
For we spread our wings over the sky.
Our light is a voice.
We cut a road for the soul
for its journey through death.
For we face the hills with disdain.
This is the song of the stars.

As the concert progressed, it was as if the cathedral itself became another instrument under the musicians’ control. The closing moments, as they left the chapel ringing with sound, were mesmerising.

In this YouTube clip, BBC Radio 3’s Fiona Talkington talks with Jan Garbarek, Manfred Eicher and the Hilliard Ensemble’s David James, Rogers-Covey Crump and Gordon Jones, and explains the context and background of the Officium Novum project with excerpts from the album:

This clip, from a performance in Hamburg in September 2010, provides a glimpse of the magical opening of a performance of Officium Novum:

The album (though not this performance) ends with a reading of Giorgos Seferis’s poem ‘A Little Farther’ by German actor Bruno Ganz:

A little farther
and we shall see the almond trees in blossom
the marble gleaming in the sun
the sea breaking into waves.

a little farther,
let us rise a little higher.