Commissioned by the Brighton Festival for the Brunel Ensemble
First performance: 13 June 1998, Brighton Festival,
Brunel Ensemble, c. Christopher Austen
Duration: 11 minutes
alto flute, cor anglais, bass clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet, trombone, harp,
2 violins, viola, 'cello, double bass
Hex: a sorceress/shaman – to Hex: bewitch – to put a curse on.
The catalyst for this piece came from an unlikely source: a Central Asian rock concert. I had been lured there, like a virgin, intrigued by the promise of hearing “The Madonna of Uzbekistan”. As it happens, she was eclipsed by another act on the bill, a group from Yakutsk, in Siberia. Their lead singer was a shaman, who apparently revived old songs and spells that had been largely stamped out by the Soviet regime. Her vocal style was intriguing, a declamatory and obsessive meandering on a few cracked notes, coloured by the local technique of “Kalykhan”, a sort of fluttery yodel. But it was her presence that was mesmerizing. She was large, with waist length raven tresses; and her imprecating, yowling, baying and pleading cast quite a chill over an audience who I imagined had thought themselves in for a frivolous time. I sat well back in my seat, torn with conflicting emotions as the antics were sometimes risible, sometimes disturbing, wondering if her song was protecting me from evil spirits or conjuring them up. I found myself intrigued by the idea of a song as a charm or spell, and two contrasting examples came to mind: Orpheus wooing Charon to cross the Styx, particularly as realized by Monteverdi, and an obscure Georgian opera I had happened upon, “Abesalom and Eteri” by Paliashvili, in which a song causes the heroine to age prematurely and die.
This piece does homage to my Shaman-muse; a double-bass solo imitates her song, and an oscillating figure suggests the “Kalykhan”, but my hex is cast far and wide.