Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 7 / 15 February 2018

Songs of the earth


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These men. Co-creation is the gist and jizz of a simultaneous publishing event constellated around and appropriately called Shared Ground. The male principals are author Vikram Seth, composer Alec Roth, and violinist Philippe Honore, though still other men are involved, including a famous British tenor (Mark Padmore) and for good measure, a dead poet, George Herbert (1593-1633). Where to begin?

A pun will do, particularly since it was Seth's own "particularly puerile pun which came to me out of the blue – and which sums up our collaboration on the project." Roth, in an interview, chimes in with it: "Seth wrote and Roth set."

What Seth wrote, and Roth set, were four "libretti" now gathered together in a thin, vaulting book called The Rivered Earth (Hamish Hamilton), whose title was chosen by Roth but written by Seth, in a line from "Earth," the first poem in Seven Elements, the last of the libretti. That said, they're not libretti in the usual sense, words to be sung by characters in an opera. These were texts for which Roth wrote music for a series of four summer festival programs (2006-09) in Salisbury, Chelsea, and Lichfield.

The first, Songs in Time of War, was recorded by Signum Classics in 2008, and the second, Shared Ground, featuring Honore and Jeffrey Shidmore's super choir, Ex Cathedra, has just been released by Signum, timed with the publication of The Rivered Earth. It's one of the most exquisite and involving recordings of the year, pleading a case for the recording of the two final festival programs as soon as possible.

Violinist Honore was, in addition to Roth, the only musical element common to all four programs. No ordinary fiddler, he was literally instrumental in teaching Roth how to write for the violin, and served as both inspiration and nudge to the openly bisexual Seth, who once told an interviewer that if she were uncomfortable with the word, he was fine with being called both gay and straight. Although that particular aspect of their relationship ended during the four-year project, Honore has been Seth's longest-term romantic partner.

So to Herbert. While still with Honore, Seth learned that the church-manor home of the priest-poet Herbert, on the River Madder in Wiltshire, was for sale. At, he says, a considerable stretch, he bought it. Seth's own beautiful photograph of the house's deep English green, fog-enshrouded grounds graces the dust jacket of The Rivered Earth, only one of many important visuals in the book.

It was in a red room there that the three men threw together the ideas that became the project called Confluences, and successfully pitched them to the festival organizers. But throughout the book, in the interviews with the other two Seth does for its preface, all three co-creators speak of the influence of Herbert's spirit and the presence of his quiet, inspiring, and seriously punning animus throughout the project. Each of them worked alone in the house at some stage, rambling and exploring its uplifting grounds. Shared ground.

Yet both in the program with that name (to which Signum appends Roth's Earthrise and Hymn to Gaia, choral works of 2010) and in the sensibility that infuses all four programs, there is a deep, bittersweet, almost Mahlerian love of the Earth that is home to us all, a contemplation of its elemental nature, realizations of the ways in which we are all travelers on and through it, and the effects, foul and fair, we have had on it. In the third program, The Traveler, Seth adds to the stages of life usually depicted by poets both the unborn and the having died.

Wherever you look and listen there is something exquisite. A piece of Seth's own calligraphy, in four different languages, appears at the beginning of each libretto. On the book's inside leaves are pieces of Roth's scores for the ponticelli – a rich, resounding pun – two of the five solo violin bridges between the six choral poems of Shared Ground, each of them resembling one of the actual bridges on the house's grounds.

The discipline of Seth's verses for those probing poems – he's done this before – was making each word a monosyllable, which at the ground bass level you hear and feel as well as see. Honore's playing is a pungent, true, ice-hot arrow, and Roth's tirelessly inventive music is apt in every instance and rapt throughout. His choral writing is an idiom rather like Whitaker's, but with greater specific gravity and lift.

"Let me leave a hostage to fortune," Seth writes, "and state that Alec Roth's works are among the finest ever created by an English composer." From my piece of shared ground, I'm inclined to concur.

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