for 28 amplified voices & electronic treatment
80 mins.

Commissioned by the BBC. First performed by the BBC Singers under John Poole (without amplification or electronic treatment) in a studio recording in December 1979. The live premiere was given by the same performers at St John’s, Smith Square, London on 9th October 1980. This time the voices were individually amplified but untreated by electronics. In the autumn of 1982 the Netherlands Chamber Choir performed the work under Nicholas Cleobury at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. For the first time, electronic treatment was applied to the voices, and a cue-sheet made which has been used in all subsequent performances. On 22nd August 1983, CRY was given an entire late night Prom in the Royal Albert Hall, London: the BBC Singers under John Poole. In 1985 the same performers recorded the piece on a vinyl LP issued by BBC Enterprises; this recording was later taken over by the NMC label and transferred to CD. The BBC Singers sang it under John Poole at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London.

Programme note

CRY was composed in 1978-79 and first performed by the BBC Singers under John Poole in a studio recording in December 1979. The live premiere was given by the same performers at St John’s, Smith Square, London, on 9th October 1980. The piece is scored for 28 amplified solo voices with electronic treatment. I have described it as ‘a song of gratitude . . . for the world which formed us, and of which we are the temporary and doubtful guardians’. I wanted to create a musical image of our planet as it was in the beginning, unpolluted and in balance with itself – in other words, before we took control. CRY is a hymn of praise to Earth itself. It lasts about eighty minutes, and falls into seven movements which correspond to the seven days of the Biblical creation-myth. The text, which is of my own devising, is almost wordless.

The late 1970s were a difficult time. After the high avant-garde hopes of the 1960s and early 1970s, a growing sense of dillusion was exacerbated by economic and political gloom, and a remorseless series of cuts in British music subsidy. Horizons were shrinking, and contemporary music retreating into a cerebral laager. I felt increasingly alienated from the work of many of my contemporaries, which seemed to preach to a dwindling club of converted intellectuals, rather than reach out to all with ears to hear.

This was my state of mind when, one autumn afternoon in 1977, I came across the UNESCO recording of music from the Ba-Benzele pygmies – an ancient hunter-gatherer people living in the already shrinking rain-forests of equatorial Africa. I played the record until it was nearly worn out, then tried to work out how the music was put together. I had heard almost no African music then, and imagined that it was all thudding drums and raw physicality. My ignorance was brusquely shattered, for the music of the Ba-Benzele is as quiet and intimate as chamber music – a rain-forest is an enclosed place with few large open spaces. The result is a gentle choral polyphony of great spirituality, harmonically and rhythmically subtle, and using techniques of contrapuntal pulse-layering that were new to me.

The first thing was learn how this music generated such richness and depth out of simple material. The 1960s and 1970s gave birth to many works which used extravagant resources and absurdly complex material, frequently to feeble effect. Yet the Ba-Benzele, with no means other than a group of voices, sticks and stones, and a couple of two-note whistles, created music of extraordinary expressivity and power. How was it done?

At that period I was groping my way towards a new relationship between rhythm and harmony, and was visiting Messiaen’s composition class in Paris: Messiaen was one of the few post-war composers who seemed to me to have succeeded in moulding a living musical identity out of the grey language of post-serial atonality. The basis of his solution was the use of melodic and rhythmic modes. In my orchestral piece of 1976, Pentecost Music, I had set up intricate textures by superimposing simple patterns on each other. I stole this from Messiaen, who had been doing it ever since his Quatuor pour la fin du temps of 1941; and whose Chronochromie of 1960 has had more influence upon me than any other post-war score. The Ba-Benzele music, too, used melodic and rhythmic modes, and combined them to create music which was far greater than the sum of its parts. For me, that is the central thing: to put sounds together and discover a greater meaning.

The first thing was to shift the musical weight from the pitch and harmony to rhythm – both in the short term (pulse to pulse), medium term (phrase to phrase) and long term (paragraph to paragraph). The texture of Ba-Benzele polyphony is created by the superimposition and blending of related but contrasting material, and control of the spaces in between. Lacking the ancient tradition which provides Ba-Benzele with the criteria for making these judgements, I turned to numbers, and developed series of numbers to determine the length of phrases and the gaps between them. By combining several of these, and interleaving one with another, I found that I could achieve an effect which combined a sense of rightness with a measure of unpredictability. At the same time, I stripped down my harmonic and melodic vocabulary, using recognisable (and sometimes drastically simple) melodic modes, in which (as in most folk music) there was no such thing as a right or wrong note: every note sounded right.

The idea of a musical creation-myth was already in my mind: no other subject offered me so good an opportunity to wipe the musical slate clean and start afresh; and no medium other than voices would have been right for such a subject. The human voice is the nearest thing we have to a tabula rasa: all instruments come heavily laden with cultural association. Even the voice has its cultural baggage; in particular, the bland condescending hoot of the English choral tradition would have been horribly inappropriate for a piece of the kind I was planning. Partly in order to adapt the vocal sound to my own needs, and partly in order to create an all-enveloping sound-world, I decided to amplify the voices individually and subject them to electronic treatment: pitch-alteration, modulation of frequency and amplitude, phase-shifting, and artificial echo and reverberation. The amplification system for CRY is designed so that the audience is surrounded by the sound; this is important, since the cyclical image of a revolving sphere pervades the structure on several levels. Despite the electronic hardware required for its performance, however, every sound heard in CRY is generated by the human voice.

There are seven days in the Creation story; there are seven movements in CRY. But the Creation itself took six days, not seven; on the seventh day, God is said to have rested. For my seventh day, therefore, I imagined the completed Earth, blue-greenly spinning in space as the creator steps back like a satisfied artist, to admire it in its pure totality. So the seventh movement is a freely revolving synthesis of key elements of the previous six – in theory, it could last for ever. As it happens, there are six steps in the whole-tone scale – which also happens to be the cleanest of all scales – so the seventh step is a return to the first. I used D as a centre note for the first movement, E for the second, G flat for the third, A flat for the fourth, B flat for the fifth, and C for the sixth. So the last movement returns to D. The only new material in this movement is a simple modal refrain set to the word anima – the Latin word for the breath of life, and one of only two words used in the whole piece. Like the six preceding movements, the anima refrain, which punctuates the final movement and causes it to revolve, climbs gradually upwards from D to D, passing though the five intermediate notes of the whole -tone scale: so the seventh movement summarises the previous six, pushing the newly-created planet gently into the distance, to survive on its own.

CRY is a record of creation, not a tract on Green issues. But only cranks and bigots can deny that the planet has a limited life-span – and that the evolutionary success of our species is likely to shorten it. Our record as planetary overlords is poor, and every year it becomes clearer that the responsibility is too much for us. Two hundred years ago, when much of the planet was still unexplored, we thought its resources were infinite; although we know better now, we have not yet learned to adapt our behaviour. Since my childhood I have been obsessed by the fact that our Earth will die when our sun cools; like any other organism, it has a life-cycle. I have long wanted to capture this in music.  CRY, which is the first of a symmetrical pair of works tracing that life-cycle, celebrates the Earth as we inherited it. The second, HAVOC, chronicles our stewardship and contemplates its (and our) inevitable extinction.

Time, like an ever-rolling stream, Bears all its sons away; Then fly forgotten, as a dream Dies at the opening day.

Giles Swayne 2008


Giles Swayne: CRY
BBC Singers
John Poole (conductor)