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Ellen Southern and Ensemble – Of The Brilliant and The Dark

Ellen Southern

Well it’s 1969 OK, we got a war across the USA. As The Stooges were unleashing their debut album amidst the campus chaos unfolding in protest at the ever escalating Vietnam conflict, the Led Zeppelin was slipping its mooring to begin its stratospheric rise into the Rock firmament with the release of I and II, and Pete Townsend’s story of a deaf, dumb and blind kid that sure played a mean pinball was rewriting the Rock rulebook, there was opera of a different, yet equally unconventional, sort happening along Kensington Gore.

The final year of the 1960s saw the Royal Albert Hall play host to four performances of a truly remarkable vocal cantata entitled, The Brilliant and The Dark, with a libretto written by Ursula Vaughan Williams – wife of the composer Ralph   and score by Australian composer, and future Master of the Queen’s Music, Malcolm Williamson. The piece had been commissioned by the National Federation of Women’s Institutes as a narration of women’s history from the Middles Ages to World War Two as seen through the eyes of women in a vast multiplicity of role: embroiderers, plague victims, witches, mourners and war workers. About as far from the W.I.’s usual ‘jam and Jerusalem’ image as it was possible to get, the performances actually saw 1,000 women, bedecked in the kind of costumes reminiscent of those that The Residents would be wearing a couple of years later, taking the stage and creating an immense wall of vocal sound that would have given even Jimmy Page’s Marshall stacks some serious competition. Nuns, peasants, skeletons, Spanish inquisitors, cooks, nymphs and suffragettes, The Brilliant and The Dark had them all. Think Carmina Burana meets Vileness Fats. Given that Williamson was a disciple of Schoenberg’s twelve tone system, and heavily influenced by Oliver Messiaen, The Brilliant and The Dark was perhaps never likely to be an opera in the Puccini tradition.

Although the work had sporadic performances in the years that followed, notably at the 1977 Hampton Court Festival, watched from the front row by Williamson himself, eventually it faded from the popular repertoire, existing for many years as little more than a drying manuscript, with the costumes and photographs of the Albert Hall performance gathering dust in the archives at The Women’s Library in London.

In 2010, however, The Women’s Library decided to throw open its doors, holding a six month season entitled Out of the Archives, in which a number of artists were invited in to assess and reinterpret the material stored in the organisation’s considerable archive, and refashion it into contemporary works. Eileen Simpson and Ben White of the Open Music Archive project were amongst those fortunate enough to be allowed to trawl through the hidden treasures of the library, their interest settling on neglected gem of The Brilliant and The Dark. Whilst preparing their own interpretation for performance at the Women’s Library, Simpson and White also invited composer and vocalist Ellen Southern to write a ‘remix’ of the piece.

It was during this work that, inspire by both the score and the accompanying black and white photograph collection of the original 1969 performances, Southern set about creating a small-scale acoustic work of her own that, like an editor at a Steenbeck taking raw material and condensing it down into a tight half-hour cut, formed a song cycle in which the singers, represented as the ‘embroiderers,’ stitch together a vocal tapestry that encapsulates all the common and transformational female experiences of the original piece. The resulting work, wryly titled Of The Brilliant and The Dark was performed (together with Simpson and White’s piece) at The Women’s Library itself as part of the Out of the Archives festival in late 2010. Southern conducted a group comprising seven female vocalists, guitar, double bass, flute and a spectrum of accompanying ambient sound including pump organ, wine glass and percussion. Following this initial 21st century performance, the piece was performed a number of times through 2011 in specially prepared installation spaces across London.

Also during 2011, Southern took her ensemble into the studio, recording the piece live for presentation on CD and download. Divided into eleven separate tracks, varying from “Transition” interludes to thematic landscapes to lullaby, and characterised by motifs that fugue and interweave, Of The Brilliant and The Dark walks an impressive tightrope line between modernist classical composition, folk, improvisation and ambient. One might hear shades of Morricone one minute, Benjamin Britten the next, the piece’s restless musical journey encompassing an enormous range of textures, styles and moods all within the space of its thirty minute running time. From a whisper to a scream, the piece modulates like the best Improv, from the Cagian cartridge music of vocal click and percussive chime to jazzy bass and brief passages of melancholic “Echoes”-like guitar. Stunning vocal performances by Fiona McAlister, Ellen O’Driscoll, Nichola Richards, Holly Anne Rolfe, Ellen Southern herself and Kelly Thompson are supported by the ringing Gilmour-esque guitar of Tom Bush, Adel Sahnoun’s evocative flute, and skilled and sympathetic turns on the double bass by Frederik Rissom.

In an age when the ersatz and the commercial are the dominant idioms, and where the marketing budget and the sales projection are as influential in the shaping and recording of music as any concerns with the spirituality or meaning of music, artists with singular vision, and tenacity in realising that vision, are to be applauded. Mark Hollis redefined what genre-defying music had to offer with the final two Talk Talk albums and his single, magnificent solo album, ultimately (too soon) leaving music entirely to escape the industry’s restrictive grip. Southern has a vision too, artfully mixing music old and new, in the search for a music that both expresses inner truth as it challenges the ear. Brilliant and dark indeed.

Of The Brilliant and The Dark is available as a digital download, and also as a limited number of CD pressings – which also includes an accompanying DVD of the live performance – through Ellen Southern’s website.

-David Solomons-

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