Nordic voices

5th November 2004 at 00:00
Michael Church talks to a composer who has teamed up with 10th and 21st-century Vikings - and a group of GCSE students - for his latest project

Educators are often at the cutting edge of new music, and so it will be when the London Sinfonietta combines with two Thurrock schools to create a Viking extravaganza in the unlikely setting of the cruise liner terminal at Tilbury this month.

The project - From Egil's Saga - will also touch down at Cambridge Corn Exchange, Southwell minster, and Norwich cathedral, with the assistance of teachers and pupils in each place. Its progenitor is Britain's most ceaselessly inventive composer, Gavin Bryars.

At one point nicknamed the Godfather of Punk, this former jazz bassist has a knack for hitting on arresting musical ideas. His best-known work, The Sinking of the Titanic, is still gestating after 30 years, while his use of a recording of a London tramp's song became the fulcrum for a wonderfully off-the-wall piece called Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet. How did he come to write From Egil's Saga?

His suitably convoluted answer begins with the fact that he was commissioned by the Eastern Orchestral Board to write a piece with regional relevance, and that, as a son of Humberside, he felt drawn to the period when the Anglo-Saxons were being besieged by Vikings.

"And I was already immersed in Anglo-Saxon poetry - I'd set Caedmon's verse to music. Caedmon was a lay worker at St Hilda's abbey in Whitby, where bardic recitations were laid on for feasts, and where his oral version of the Book of Genesis became our first known piece of poetry," he says.

Having grown up among places named after the Viking king of York, Gavin decided to look into how the struggle was represented through Viking texts.

This led him to the 10th-century Icelandic bard Egil Skallagrimsson: "He was a warrior and a drunkard, but also a farmer and an epic poet, who used forms and rhyme-schemes which were very advanced for their time. I found the resonance of the language attractive, very different from 20th century Icelandic."

Armed with the Penguin translation of Egil's saga, Gavin had found his libretto.

But who should sing it? Easy. "I'd worked with a bass named Runi Brattaberg from the Faroe Islands, and I'd fallen in love with both his voice and his stage persona - he's a gentle giant, a 21st-century Viking."

Gavin decided to record Runi singing in Faroe Island caves where the acoustic was interesting, and to weld those recordings into the live performance of the work now taking shape.

This work is too complex to allow a quick summary: suffice it to say that the Sinfonietta instrumentalists will be complemented by amateur ones from schools and community groups, and that electronic looping and sampling plus pre-recorded material will enrich the mix.

Gavin is also keen to help his audience develop their listening faculties:

"Young people in particular have had their auditory experience brutalised by crude amplification, so we're experimenting with different types of headphone listening."

One of those types is 360 degree surround sound. "They'll hear in a much fuller way than with a normal recording. I want them to find new acoustic subtleties, and respond to them."

In Grays, percussionist Gary Wilson, head of creative arts at Gateway County College, talks excitedly about the effect this project is having on his GCSE pupils. "We haven't got many traditionally trained instrumentalists, but we do have a lot of very musical children. They're creating a work which will accompany Gavin's music using glockenspiels and steel pans and African hand-held percussion and it sounds great."

There's a media studies specialist coming to help work on From Egil's Saga, and a choreographer coming to help turn it into dance, with the resulting composite work being entitled By Chance.

"The whole point is, each group will prepare their element separately," says Gary Wilson. "And we won't put them together until the day before the actual performance. Then we'll see by chance what happens. I don't yet know how our music will be incorporated into the Sinfonietta's piece - that will be by chance as well."

From Egil's Saga: November 11 Cambridge Corn Exchange, November 12 Southwell Minster, November 23 Norwich Cathedral, November 24 Tilbury.

Teacher's notes are on the BBCRadio 3 website:

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