The Stones of the Arch

Description: 

Ded. Steve Reich at 70
Text: George Bruce
Duration c. 20'
Four voices (S, A T Bar), string quartet, optional improvising turntablist
First performance: Theatre of Voices, dir Paul Hillier, Kronos Quartet, Philip Jeck
Barbican Theatre, November 2006

The Stones of the Arch (2006)

for four voices and string quartet

This piece for two quartets - one of voices, one of strings - was commissioned by the Barbican Centre for its festival celebrating Steve Reich's 70th birthday. The instrumentation came about because of the practical concern to use players who were already involved in the festival (who also happened to be known to me personally). The choice of text however, as for any vocal work, was most critical. I decided not to use the Old Testament, which might have been a more obvious source - although I have set various Psalms, lines from Proverbs and parts of Genesis. Instead I chose two poems by the Scottish poet George Bruce, whose work I discovered when setting sonnets by Edwin Morgan.  Here the second poem, The Stones of the Arch written in 2000 when the poet was approaching his ninetieth birthday, is a "reconsideration" of the first, A Gateway to the Sea, from fifty years earlier. It was George Bruce's idea of working on something from the past by creating something new, rather than re-write or edit, that I found particularly attractive, especially as the poems are so different.

In the music I also sought to avoid any direct reference to Steve's work, although there are a couple of figures in the cello that could be seen as allusive, and the piece clearly does involve some repetition. I preferred to acknowledge, rather, the fact that neither Steve nor I are constrained by our past work but, at the same time, are inevitably conditioned by it to some extent. The two poems make up the two parts of the piece, which is played without a break.

There is an optional part for a solo improviser working ideally with simple live electronics. My choice for the first performance was Philip Jeck, who works with  vinyl records on old gramophone turntables and with whom I had worked on a performance of The Sinking of the Titanic in Venice. The improvisation starts before the score proper and overlaps the opening section up to the first vocal entry. Thereafter he is free to play at any time but is more prominent in the interlude between the two poems, and at the end.

The piece is dedicated to Steve Reich.

© Gavin Bryars

A Gateway to the Sea (1)

At the East Port, St Andrews

Pause stranger at the porch: nothing beyond

This framing arch of stone, but scattered rocks

And sea and these on the low beach

Original to the cataclysm and the dark.

 

Once one man bent to the stone, another

Dropped the measuring line, a third and fourth

Together lifted and positioned the dressed stone

Making wall and arch; yet others

Settled the iron doors on squawking hinge

To shut without the querulous seas and men.

Order and virtue and love (they say)

Dwelt in the town - but that was long ago.

Then the stranger at the gate, the merchants,

Missioners, the blind beggar with the dog,

The miscellaneous vendors (duly inspected)

Were welcome within the wall that held from sight

The water's brawl. All that was long ago.

Now the iron doors are down to dust,

But the stumps of hinge remain. The arch

Opens to the element - the stones dented

And stained to green and purple and rust.

 

Pigeons settle on the top. Stranger,

On this winter afternoon pause at the porch,

For the dark land beyond stretches

To the unapproachable element; bright

As night falls and with the allurement of peace,

Concealing under the bland feature, possession.

Not all the agitations of the world

Articulate the ultimate question as do these waters

Confining the memorable and the forgotten;

Relics, records, furtive occasions - Caesar's politics

And he who was drunk last night:

Rings, diamants, snuff boxes, warships,

Also the less worthy garments of worthy men.

 

Prefer then this handled stone, now ruined

While the sea mists wind about the arch.

The afternoon dwindles, night concludes,

The stone is damp unyielding to the touch,

But crumbling in the strain and stress

Of the years: the years winding about the arch,

Settling in the holes and crevices, moulding.

The dressed stone. Once one man bent to it,

Another dropped the measuring line, a third

And fourth positioned to make wall and arch

Theirs. Pause stranger at this small town's edge -

The European sun knew those streets

O Jesu parvule; Christus Victus, Christus Victor,

The bells singing from their towers, the waters

Whispering to the waters, the air tolling

To the air - the faith, the faith, the faith.

 

All this was long ago. The lights

Are out, the town is sunk in sleep.

The boats rocking at the pier,

The vague winds beat about the streets -

Choir and altar and chancel are gone.

Under the touch the guardian stone remains

Holding memory, reproving desire, securing hope

In the stop of water, in the lull of night

Before dawn kindles a new day.

 

The Stones of the Arch

A reconsideration of the poem 'A Gateway to the Sea' (1950)

 

Once, I thought, once these stones are named,

cut, dressed given their place, one upon one

to form the arch of grey sandstone (now sable)

that they had entered into a compact with man -

they were on our side, accomplices in our order

accepting the verdict of human history,

as if they never were what once they had been,

nor would return to that incomprehensible no-time,

whose time we cannot tell or keep, nor measure

by the pulse. It is pretence to count light years.

Without consciousness they make no light,

no sound in their passage. Words cannot reach them.

Whose Word is theirs? What logic do they promulgate?

When all the words are burst and the silver stars

are stones and the stones dissolve to dust,

as is our dissolution, and we have no time to keep

and the knowledge to which we should aspire,

abdicating the self, is that we know nothing.

The stone face of this arch deceives.

It does not belong to us. It belongs

to the wildness of the air and water,

to that other where there is no word for love.

Let us then unlabel these stones.

Let the sea swallow them.

Let them be with that other universe

where no time is kept.

In the transparent moment of unknowing

will we be entered by the other,

or will the other receive us?

George Bruce