After three years' postponement, we are happy to announce the world
premiere of this 80-minute ORATORIUM commissioned by Collegium Vocale Gent
for singing soloists, speaking soloists, chamber choir, seven saxophones and organ.
The first performance will take place as part of Flanders Festival Gent in the magnificent setting of Sint-Baafs Kathedraal on Tuesday 26 September 2023 at 20:30.
This will be followed two days later by the first Dutch performance in the Muziekgebouw Amsterdam on Thursday 28 September at 20:15.
The performers will be 16 singers from Collegium Vocale Gent (who between them perform not only the choruses but also the singing and speaking roles),
seven saxophonists from Blindman Sax (bringing together members past and present), Darius Battiwalla, organ, conducted by the composer.
Reading the Book of Revelation today, one cannot fail to be struck by many frightening similarities between the apocalyptic visions which St John
describes—especially with his customary lavish, detailed and extravagant imagery—and the increasing number and frequency of catastrophes
, both natural and man-induced, which our world is experiencing today.
Apokalypsis takes its principal texts from Chapters 8, 9 and 10 of The Book of Revelation. Here, St John's vision is of seven angels, to whom are given seven trumpets.
As each angel sounds his trumpet, he foretells of a particular catastrophic event: first of a fire, mingled with hail and blood, which burns up one third of the earth's trees and grasses;
the second of a mountain burning with fire which spews poisoned lava into the sea; the third of a star which falls from the sky and poisons the rivers with wormwood;
the fourth of a solar and lunar eclipse; the fifth of a filthy bottomless pit which belches forth poisonous gases into the air; the sixth of four 'angels' released from prison,
who vow to destroy one third of mankind; and the seventh, in summation, of a book which tastes sweet in the mouth but then becomes bitter in the stomach.
As he stands—one foot on the land, the other on the sea—he declares with a loud voice that "there shall be no more time".
The similarities between these events and our own current predicament are obvious, and yet our own attempts to avert the ultimate catastrophe continue to be dogged by bureaucratic
impotence at best and political sabotage at worst.
In Apokalypsis, St John's texts are juxtaposed with contemporary forecasts and reports of recent natural and man-made disasters that bear a chilling resemblance to the original visions.
St John's texts are sung in Latin by the choir and the solo singers, and the contemporary reports are recited in a kind of notated speech in English, by the reciters.
(The reciters are amplified, their sound dynamically spatialised in different ways around the audience via a ring of loudspeakers).
Each of the work's seven main Parts deals with the texts relating to each of the seven angels. In each Part the main Latin text is presented both by the chorus and one of the soloists
who sings the texts uttered by each of the angels. These texts are interrupted at appropriate intervals by one or more of the contemporary recitations, performed by the reciters.
Each section then culminates in one of the 'Soundings' of the seven angels' trumpets, performed by the saxophones. The organ's role is to accompany the soloists and the chorus,
as well as to feature prominently together with the saxophones in each of the Soundings.
Each of the seven Recitations features a different principal reciter, but with each successive Recitation the number of reciters grows from one in Part I to seven in Part VII,
as each principal reciter in turn takes on a supporting role to each new reciter. All the Recitations are underscored by the saxophones, which are dispersed to various positions
around the space, some near, some in the distance, in constantly changing formations. As a climax to this gradual, powerful and cumulative process, at the end of Part VII all
seven saxophonists form a ring around the public as the seventh angel announces the end of time.
It is clear to us today that not all the 'catastrophes' described by St John are unnatural phenomena indicating the gradual man-made deterioration of our planet.
Volcano eruptions, for example, in spite of their many short-term harmful effects, provide the earth with rich minerals and in some cases create new habitable islands,
and solar eclipses are perfectly natural occurrences that can be accurately predicted years in advance. However in ancient civilisations these phenomena invoked a very
real fear among their population. In Mexico and parts of South America it was believed that solar eclipses were a sign of the onslaught of evil spirits. Traditionally these were guarded against by bashing pots and pans as loudly as possible during the course of the eclipse. In ancient Rome the Vulcanalia festival was held every year on August 23 to appease Vulcan, the god of fire. During the festival live animals and fish were thrown into bonfires as a sacrifice, to be consumed in the place of humans.
In Apokalypsis these traditional practices are alluded to in a number of ways: in Part II (Eruption) the concluding Sounding suggests an ancient ritual led by two pairs of reed instruments,
suggesting a musical element of the Vulcanalia; in the Recitation of Part IV (Eclipse) the date and place of a selection of solar and lunar eclipses between 2018 and 2025 is announced,
with lunar eclipses taken by Reciters 1 and 3, and solar eclipses by Reciters 2 and 4. The upper four saxophones and organ perform cycles of slow glissandi over a slowly repeating harmonic
cycle suggesting the continuous rotation of the planets, whilst the lower three saxophones and organ pedals interrupt these cycles with violent outbursts reminiscent of the ancient practice
of warding off evil spirits. These musical elements are then continued and developed throughout Sounding 4.
In Part VI (Jihad) the Recitation assumes the character of a kind of sinister demonic ritual. The increasingly terrified Reciter 6 echoes St John's foreboding
of the release of prisoners ('the four angels bound in the river Euphrates'), whilst the other five reciters declaim a sequence of names of convicted terrorists,
together with the dates and places of their atrocities.
In Part VII (Deception), the book that St John describes as tasting sweet in the mouth but bitter in the stomach is interpreted here as the deception contained
in so much of today's populist politics. The full complement of seven reciters engages in a gradually intensifying, hallucinatory whirlwind of text fragments from political
speeches propelled by a ritualistic underscoring from the seven saxophones.
Whilst the rituals evoked in Jihad and Deception are both imaginary, and the traditional practices alluded to in Eruption and Eclipse are both mythological,
they nevertheless form part of the main message of the work as a whole, which, notwithstanding the fundamental comparison with St John's visions, cannot simply
be dismissed as either tradition or myth; indeed its principal modern-day texts—whether from blogs, newspaper reports or the beautiful poems of Kathy Jetñil‐Kijiner and Timothy
Pilgrim—document a wide variety of passionate expressions of concern over today's very real environmental and sociological issues.
Apokalypsis was originally conceived for performances in cathedrals, large churches and other large spaces, both to maximise the element of the
live spatialisation of the saxophones and to exploit the buildings' splendid acoustics, in turn enhancing both the resonance of these magnificent
instruments and their natural ability to blend and balance with the organ in a grandiose setting.