Agna Rita - Jo Thomas
Agna Rita is an electronic music work which has been commissioned as part of the 800th celebration of the Magna Carter , The Frequency Festival of Digital Culture 2015. It has been commissioned by Threshold and has been funded by PRS Foundation Women Making Music and the Britten Pears Foundation.
The work has been written for the Sound wall in the Lincoln Collection.
Text By Jo Thomas
There are four separate pieces which are played one after another,with silence in between. The work uses 22 channels of sound.
1. Liberty: a driven landscape which is transformed into a fluid sea of sound, the sea of sound is sculpted with noise.
2. We wont deny "we will sell to no man, we will not deny or defer to any man either Justise or Right"
3. Our Noise: exploration of dissonance and through the combining of multiple synthetic frequencies.We all live with our noise and our noises can exist together.
4. Granted / To Have and To Hold
In the first place we have granted to God ,and this by our present charter confirmed for us and our heirs forever that the English Church shall be free, and shall have her rights entire, and her liberties inviolate; and we will that it be thus observed.
Reveiw - Abi Bliss
Agna Rita – many voices, one message
All fish weirs on the Thames and the Medway and throughout England are to be entirely removed, save on the sea coast.
You may be forgiven for not immediately identifying that as a line from the Magna Carta, the document revered across eight centuries as one of the icons of British freedom and democracy. But the treaty signed by King John in 1215 was chiefly about restraint. It offered royal subjects freedom through protection, whether that meant limiting the power of the crown to seize property and demand taxes, standardising weights and measures of wine, ale, corn and cloth – or stopping the obstruction of waterways.
View it from a distance through the foggy lens of history and the Magna Carta makes a fine symbol of liberty; examine the details up close and you discover clauses such as: No-one is to be taken or imprisoned on the appeal of woman for the death of anyone save for the death of that woman’s husband. It seems that freedom is more for some than others.
In contrast, electroacoustic music entices with the promise of a world without limits. Confined only by their own imagination and the available technology, composers can sculpt sounds, synthesise, manipulate and refine them to levels of detail more delicate than any human ear can perceive. They can recreate worlds or shape impossible new ones, bend the laws of physics or, as Jo Thomas did on 2010’s Alpha, merge human with machine into a cyborg future.
In a similar way to abstract visual art and sculpture, electroacoustic music offers listeners – indeed, demands that they exercise – the freedom to interpret. And if composers are rulers only in the most intangible sense and only for the length of each piece, still it is here that they should feel the need for self-restraint, to allow listeners space to build their own houses of meaning around these orphaned sounds and furnish them with individual experience.
Diffused across 22 speaker channels and more than an hour in length in its installation form, Agna Rita is Thomas’s largest and boldest work to date. Even in its stereo CD version, the scope is striking. Yet although at times it confronts and challenges, there are no bombastic displays of power here. Instead, it welcomes in listeners on a human scale.
Based upon a small sample of Thomas’s own transformed voice taken from Rain (part of the larger work Sunshine Over Nimbus), Liberty presents a succession of wordless conversations, each a miniature digital ecosystem evocative of babbling rivulets, frog-like croaks or liquid birdsong, each self-contained and following its own path of freedom. At times, the sounds overlap with their neighbours in ways that threaten to conflict and overwhelm. Yet each encounter resolves into co- existence: a plurality of voices all speaking freely.
Such diversity is pointedly absent from We Won’t Deny, the most cryptic part of Agna Rita. Markedly less optimistic in tone, it features a choir formed from Thomas’s voice, multiplied into flatly dissonant polyphony. Although their incantation is taken from one of the Magna Carta’s most famous lines – We will sell to no man, we will not deny or defer to any man either Justice or Right – only a snippet around “deny” is heard. Voices come and go, blur together and move apart, but the crowd’s pitch, and its message, remain bleakly uniform. Paying lip service to justice without taking individual action is not enough.
Also dissonant, but spirited and revitalising with it, Our Noise explores similar questions of individual freedoms and group harmony to Liberty. Richly textured,
scintillating chords burst forward boldly – almost rudely, some might say – but soften into a more harmonious relationship with each other. When sudden silences cut in, the effect is jarring: noise may take some living with, it seems to say, but what’s the alternative?
The final part of Agna Rita, Granted/To Have and to Hold sees Thomas venture into more tonal territory, setting sounds redolent of a church organ (yet also clearly a product of 21st-century synthesis) into a fragile, hymnal and tentatively hopeful melody, in the Lydian mode that would have been familiar to ears 800 years ago. Her vocal sample “We have granted” comes from a passage asserting the liberty of the English Church; its granular skittering suggests uncertainty that such religious freedom will endure.
The work ends on a more positive note. In the Magna Carta, “to have and to hold” refers to liberties granted and passed down through the generations. For many, the words are also familiar from the traditional Church of England marriage vows as a promise of lifelong care and affection. Thomas has edited gaps into her reading to lend the phrase a stilted, robotic quality; yet as the melody becomes fractured and disrupted, a very human heart and tenderness emerge.
If the Magna Carta is still relevant today, the lesson it offers isn’t about kings and barons, ignoring women or even about the free passage of fish. It’s about a point in time at which a king was forced to consider his subjects as people with needs and families. And it’s through our everyday lives as humans, Agna Rita seems to be saying, that the freedom it granted to a few can be put into action for all.