Friday, July 26, 2013

Music for St. James: Joby Talbot's Path of Miracles

Joby Talbot is one of many rising composers in 21st century England, but he is perhaps distinguished from the rest by an uncommon versatility. Having written music in a variety of styles, including pop, for films, orchestra, chorus, and dance, he is a living reproof of the old adage that the jack of all trades is the master of none.

I came to know Talbot's music by hearing his Path of Miracles, which was commissioned by Tenebrae under the direction of Nigel Short. Written for a cappella chorus, it tells the story of the pilgrims who made their way to Santiago de Compostella, using texts from the Codex Callistinus, other Galician texts, and the work of Robert Dickinson. The work offers something of a rapprochement between modernism and traditionalism, making tuneful melodies but also using the singers for instrumental sound effects, along with minimalist developmental techniques at the micro level while the piece has definite formal direction. Talbot leaves no one in the dark about where the climax of the piece is, and it's a thrilling moment when Jacobsland comes into view.

The libretto makes use of several languages and includes a particularly interesting phrase, Eultreya esuseya, which for all intents and purposes is untranslatable. Eultreya in modern Spanish means "persevere," but as for esuseya, scholars are left wondering as to its meaning. Notes that I have from a performance by The Crossing indicate that this second word may refer to God. It seems safe to say that this is a slogan of encouragement, one that I often think of during a long run.

This piece is best heard with the video presentation that goes along with it. Like all curmudgeons, I generally eschew multimedia presentations, but this one is worth it. At the very least, you'll want to get your hands on the text in order to fully understand the piece.

I don't know if Joby Talbot has written any sacred music, strictly speaking, but it would be thrilling to find out that he has written a Mass, or even a motet or anthem, that sounds like this. It might offer an interesting moment of agreement between people of widely divergent musical inclinations.