By Michael Church, in The Independant
A viol is an Elizabethan string instrument with an ultra-smooth sound: how do six of them manage to create the effect of a Javanese gamelan?
As the Fretwork ensemble do it in a piece by Orlando Gough, the answer is remarkably well. Plucking is only one of the techniques they use: others include a thick bed of drones, and a hint of vibrato on low bass notes which evoke very precisely the swinging clangour of big gongs.
As the world’s leading viol consort, Fretwork are constantly breaking now ground, and the work with which they concluded their residency in this beautiful Kings Cross venue was Gough’s ‘The World Encompassed’. Its historical trigger was the fact that Sir Francis Drake took four viol-players with him on his plundering voyage round the world in 1577-80. They played hymns and psalms every day while he prayed, and he used them to convey messages of peace to the native peoples he met en route. Fretwork’s viols would represent all the musics of the world as Drake encountered them, as well as presenting the music he would have heard on board.
Gough’s piece thus interspersed consort music of the Elizabethan age with his own conjectural musics from the lands where Drake put ashore: the austere and contrapuntal music of Taverner, Tye, and Parsons sat cheek by jowl with sound-worlds which were altogether more exotic. Some of the latter were indeed imbued with the spirit of their place – notably those for Morocco and Cape Verde – but others had a Bartokian colouring. One mixed Albanian harmonic cadences with Celtic heel-and-toe, another – representing Port Desire – married Reichian rhythmic experiment with hocketing effects. Gough’s own signature-style seemed to be a blend of shivering tremolos, bass growls, and repeated soprano figures: energetic and a touch hypnotic.
But what came across most strongly was the nobility and beauty of the Elizabethan music, which Fretwork delivered with rapt intensity. Why does it speak so directly to us across the centuries? It comes from the heart, and goes to the heart. It’s intricate at times, but at others sublimely simple; it’s an expression of a religion which is all but dead. Yet we can now recognize it as one of mankind’s great moments of creative triumph.