Phantom Voices, Spitalfields Winter Festival

Not enough haunting and too much chat in The Clerks Phantom Voices at Spitalfields Winter Festival

Phantom Voices, Spitalfields Winter Festival

The phenomenon of aural hallucination is familiar to anyone engaged in music. Whole symphonies play out in the brain, a memory of one piece erupt into another or, more annoyingly, a humble ear-worm can burrow its way into the texture of daily life. Clerk’s director Edward Wickham’s Phantom Voices sought to explore this imaginary world through a new work created with composer Christopher Fox and Professor Charles Ferneyhough at Durham University’s Hearing the Voice project.

So it was with high expectations that we sat in chilly St Leonard’s Shoreditch, MP3 players and earpieces at the ready, singers in shadow around the church, a speaker behind us, poised to follow the simple tune of ‘Poor old brother Ramon’ in seven ‘hauntings’ that took us through Bach to American hymns to Bluegrass and back again.

In fact, this musical journey would have been sufficiently absorbing in itself: to hear a melody move from folk song to Bach’s ‘O Welt, ich muss dich lassen’ and children’s round to fictitious part-song to lusty hymn (thanks to Wickham and Christopher Fox’s chameleon skill) was made more fascinating by the intriguing figure of Heinrich Isaac (1450-1517) whose austere, crystalline Kryie crowned the evening.

But imagine hearing all that with tinnitus-like sounds ringing in your ear, and someone droning on about their experience of insomnia, or suffering a repetition of bars of a Schubert Quintet or hearing The Flintstones in Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms. As The Clerks hit the heights with a glorious rendition of Isaac’s ‘Innsbruck, ich muss dich lassen’ I didn’t want to be told why Webern might have been drawn to this composer (anyway I was too busy yabba-dabba-dooing with the Flintstones). Eventually, the rather spuriously connected narrative of Webern’s accidental shooting crept into the track and we were subject to transcripts of witness statements.

Where was the integration between track (mixed by Myles Eastwood) and performance? Music can do amazing things without verbal explanation. You have only to listen to Shostakovich’s 15th symphony to experience his compositional ghosts or the brilliant Morimur, in which the Hilliard ‘haunted’ Bach’s D minor violin Chaconne with his own chorales. Voices here talked about chimeras and constant repetition of phrases, but we never heard that enacted in the music: the meta-layers and psycho-acoustical effects produced in a piece like Reich’s Piano Phase is just one remarkable example.

This project only highlighted a disconnect between scientists and artists: one group seeking first principles, the other using a known language to ultra-sophisticated, even mystical, ends. Durham’s Hearing the Voice team are apparently exploring to what extent musical hallucinations are ‘a function of memory and to what extent an expression of creative imagination?’ In the meantime I’ll be checking out some more music by Heinrich Isaac, whose creative imagination and memory seemed to be functioning rather well.



Photo: Colin Turner




Review: The Clerks perform Machaut motets

Artist interview: Arun Ghosh 


  • Article Type: | Blog |
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