Music

‘The Monk Watches the Eagle’

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My last memory of Keith Tippett comes from a night in Berlin in 2015, when he brought his octet to play a new suite, The Nine Dances of Patrick O’Gonogon. He was always edgy before a performance, and this concert was no exception. There was a fine new 9ft Steinway for him to play, tuned twice during the day — once before the afternoon soundcheck, once after. An hour before the start of the concert, however, he went back to the piano, played a few notes, and came to me with an urgent request that it be retuned.

At that point the only thing a festival director can do is keep the artist happy. The piano tuner had gone home hours before. But his home number was found, and he was summoned in time to give the instrument another going-over. (After completing the task, he muttered to me that it had remained perfectly in tune.) Keith and his musicians proceeded to play a glorious set that delighted the audience, who were transfixed when Julie Tippetts, Keith’s wife, materialised next to the piano towards the end to sing “The Dance of Her Returning”. It was a triumph, one of many in his long career.

Keith was a wonderful man and one of the finest British composers of his generation. Following his death n June 2020, the first posthumously released Tippett recording is a piece of which he was specially proud: The Monk Watches the Eagle, a cantata for two saxophone quartets, the BBC Singers, and his wife, Julie, who provided a libretto evoking the last earthly thoughts of a holy man on his deathbed.

The recording is of its first and only performance, performed in 2004 as part of the Norfolk and Norwich Festival, which had commissioned it, and recorded for broadcast by BBC Radio 3 in Norwich Cathedral. Dedicated to his late father, the nature of the work and the setting of the performance remind us that Keith’s early musical experience included spells as a chorister and church organist in his native Bristol.

His whole career showed us that he was comfortable in many idioms, from his astonishing solo piano improvisations to his appearance with King Crimson on Top of the Pops and his marshalling of the extraordinary 50-piece Centipede. The Monk Watches the Eagle finds him flying free of genre, blending the gestures of contemporary classical choral music with perfectly integrated saxophone improvisations — by Paul Dunmall (soprano), Kevin Figes (alto), Ben Waghorn (tenor) and Chris Biscoe (baritone) — and Julie’s powerfully affecting singing.

Keith’s use of his resources here is flexible and imaginative. His deployment of the singers is in a very English tradition of choral music, the voices sometimes soaring up to the 12th century cathedral’s vaulted stone ceiling. There are times when he makes the saxophones sound like a pipe organ powered by human breath; even more astonishing is a passage where you imagine you’re hearing distant gongs and bowed cymbals.

The 40-minute piece is continuous, but for our convenience the CD is programmed with seven divisions. The fourth of them, a 14-minute passage, contains some of the most moving music I’ve heard this year: a series of slow movements featuring lean a cappella vocal writing, a dissonant slow upward swirl of voices and reeds giving way to a glowing melody emotionally related to John Tavener’s “The Lamb”, Julie’s mbira (thumb piano) and her wonderfully poised vocal solo over saxophone harmonies, and the return of the choir, with Biscoe’s soft baritone tiptoeing gently between their legato phrases.

“Now it is silent, and words hang warm,” they sing in this section. “All is calm. All that remains… All that remains in my heart is still. All is still. Now in the quiet — and quite alone — not alone!” But the luminous serenity is disturbed by a writhing Dunmall soprano solo, emerging from a babble of voices, demonstrating that the inherent possibilities of such collaborations did not end with Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Singers. The parallel harmonies of the closing movement have an unadorned elegance reminiscent of plainsong.

It’s a work of great spiritual depth and power, radiating its beams of light as though shining through stained glass — the motif of the cover design. I remember Keith telling me about it with special pride. Now everyone can hear it, and join the long applause that filled the cathedral at the conclusion of a marvellous performance that reveals a different and very precious facet of the soul of a great musician.

* Keith Tippett’s The Monk Watches the Eagle is released on the Discus label. The photograph of Tippett, by Paolo Soriani, is from the CD sleeve.

Read more at thebluemoment.com

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