There is a place where the sacred shades into the sensual. The point where chant clings to the silence of the nave, and the stone glows back in return. This is the tender line on which Nick Martin sets Bittersweet, for the Icelandic/Greek KIMI ensemble. The trio of soprano, accordion and marimba points outwardly towards the street and the concert hall, but its insistent, chanting repetitions have the consistency of prayer.
The tender line
By Tim Rutherford-Johnson
There is a place where the sacred shades into the sensual. The point where chant clings to the silence of the nave, and the stone glows back in return. This is the tender line on which Nick Martin sets Bittersweet (2019) for the Icelandic/Greek KIMI ensemble. The trio of soprano, accordion and marimba points outwardly towards the street, and the concert hall, but its insistent, chanting repetitions have the consistency of prayer. Wrapped inside its harmony, the melody is enveloped rather than elevated, always supplicating, never dominating. It is one voice among the congregation. But it has a secret.
Martin’s closest musical predecessor is the English poet, composer and lutenist John Dowland, a man who knew a thing or two about the threshold between the sacred and the profane. The opening notes of Bittersweet are just a twist away from the signature ‘falling tear’ motif of Dowland’s most famous song, ‘Flow my tears’ and his seven Lachrymae: a four-note descending scale with a sob of quickening rhythm on the second and third notes. The British-born Martin is undoubtedly aware of the connection. (Interestingly, Dowland, like Martin, also lived in Denmark for a time at the court of Christian IV.) Yet while Dowland’s garlanded polyphony – the push and pull of tangled threads – places the voice amidst the hurts and woes of the world, Martin’s carefully bound homophony contains it within a solitary body. The accordion and marimba are no more separate from the singer’s voice than breath and fingers are separate from a lover’s trembling desire.
The secret lies in the words of the chant: not prayer, but two fragments (in Jim Powell’s heart-aching translation) by Sappho, the most erotic of lyric poets: Love shook my heart like the wind that falls on oaks in the mountains ; I miss and yearn after … As the singer tries to withdraw even further inward, shifting to little more than a one-note incantation, her identity begins to rupture. Stretched apart by private yearning and by its two companions, it reaches a point of crisis, supported by the words of Juan Ramón Jiménez’s meditation on the division of the self and the ego, ‘Yo no soy yo’ (I am not I). Towards the work’s end, an anonymous quotation takes the place of an expressive marking: ‘And the day came when the risk to remain closed tightly in a bud became more painful than the risk it took to blossom’. In the end, breath, fingers and song must reach outwards into the world.