Making Waves

Bob Chilcott Trio/The Sirens (Signum Classics SIGNCD142)

25 November 2008 2 stars

MakingMaking Waves is a tricky album to talk about. Its genre, which could be defined as Modern English Choral Music, is itself a problem.

One can't help the connection with the glorious renaissance tradition of English church music. After all, Bob Chilcott has been widely published by Oxford University Press, who certainly endorses the continuation of English cultural assets. However, ever since music has become subject to the laws of commerce, choral music has had to earn its way into the market just like any other genre, and its potential buyers –congregation members—have become its target.

Chilcott, just like several other English choral composers of today, intuited this. Thus the sacrality usually associated with church music is lightened up with pop and jazz hues (often more than just hues) aplenty—a choice that comes with some pitfalls. The album is roughly divided into two halves, the first consisting of individual worship songs, and the second featuring two longer scale works This Day and A Little Jazz Mass, each made up of five short tracks.

One of the initially striking aspects of Chilcott's songs is the instrumentation: the two components of the organum for the entire album are female voices and piano (with the exception of the ensemble of A Little Jazz Mass). The vocal ensemble The Sirens, created especially for the recording, is competent, while Iain Farrington's piano playing is sharp and clean. Moreover, the CD has been ably produced to make the sound of the piano stand up to the choir, and yet this hardly obviates the first and foremost shortcoming of the music: a lack of a resonant bass.

There are some notable exceptions to this rule, namely 'Like a Rainbow' and 'Awake my soul' and they are without doubt the pieces that rely most strongly on sharp rhythms and jazzy syncopations in the lower octaves of the piano. These two are thoroughly pleasant numbers, relying more than a little on a ‘Sister-Act’ type of joyousness which is a little irritating, but infectious.

However the CD suffers from a marked lack of diversity at several levels. The bouncy, jazz impregnated song is only counterbalanced by the slow (often minor) mournful pop-type ballad, with which the album is laden. This is not to say that numbers such as 'All things pass', 'The Lily and the Rose' and 'Catch a Falling Star' are not sapiently fabricated and very easy on the ear—they certainly are. But their soothing tone tends to be overkill in an album where there is so little drama. This, coupled with the unflagging use of binary metre from the first to the last bar of the album, makes a recipe for a gentleness that borders all too often on boredom. Lastly—there is a marked absence of any genuine polyphony in the voices. This alone is not a shortcoming, but it becomes one when, as it is the case here, the homophony isn’t implemented by an incisive harmonic pace.

There are three tracks that provide an alternative to the intensely sugary flavour of this collection, and it is comforting that one of them should be the song that lends its name to the whole album. 'Making Waves' is the only track in the album to use non-instrumental sounds, namely the sound of sea-weaves on the shore topped with an electronic pulse of sorts evoking broadcasting equipment. This sound introduces an a cappella number with long, static lines slowly piling into a refreshingly dissonant chord which then retracts back into silence. .  

The result is strangely evocative, and similar in quality to the sonority of 'Swansongs' 1 and 2, also a cappella pieces employing a slowly unfolding polyphony. This is a welcome antidote to the obsessive homophony of the rest of the album.

While the short movements that make up This Day are very much in the same vein as the first half of the album, A Little Jazz Mass offers a radically different sonority. The syncopated vocal writing tops here an impossibly sleek-sounding jazz trio consisting of Alexander Hawking (piano), Derek Scurll (drums) and Michael Chilcott (bass). While the playing is more than up to standard, it is overall a strange combination, and perhaps not an entirely appropriate one.

The upbeat feel of the Kyrie seems to sorely jar with the ancient text—a plea for mercy of man to God— while the closing Agnus Dei, if more traditionally in the minor and in a slow tempo, has the uncomfortable feel of a seductive jazz ballad. My perplexity stems not from musical prudishness but from a desire for consistency. Church music, unlike other music, has an ostensible purpose: to inspire awe, and prayer. To top this type of jazz with a liturgical text doesn't fulfil that function. The musical result is not unpalatable per se, yet it doesn't serve any purpose as a mass setting.

Bob Chilcott's Making Waves is on the whole an attempt at freshening traditional sacrality with jazz and pop influences, in itself a laudable initiative which however is carried out somewhat disappointingly. A lack of diversity in instrumentation, character and rhythm causes this album to be overly sweet on the ear and enforcing jazz and pop in their most stereotypical forms. Finally one wonders whether with the attempt at making church music more accessible one loses the ability to inspire audiences with that ancient awe which was (and should be?) the soul of church music.

By Delia Casadei