There’s that saying that ‘talking about music is like dancing about painting’: it is just bound to be an unsatisfactory way to put over the essence of what makes a particular piece special. Never has that been so fully been brought home to me as when working on Memorial Ground. I must have described this piece 100s of times to different people over the past 2 years. Funders, supporters, patrons, singers, choir leaders, partners… all the different kinds of people whose participation has been the key to realising it. While the basics of the piece are not so tough to get your head around, its potential impact takes a leap of imagination, and I can easily divide all those people I spoke to about it squarely into the leapers and the hesitaters. Now the premiere has happened and anyone who wants to can watch the video of that first performance (above). Viewing it has all the limitations of any recording – you really did have to be in the room to grasp fully how marvellous it was. But at the same you can get the idea from it.
This is Memorial Ground at its most elaborate and it is important to remember that it can be scaled right back down to 4 singers and 3 or 4 minutes if you want. This version is 35 minutes and uses around 100 singers (+ horn, bass and bell) from Theatre of Voices, the SCO Chorus and their director Gregory Batsleer, St Andrews Chorus, Anstruther Philharmonic and singers from Waid Academy.
The director Paul Hillier created a plan for 5 verses which starts with only Theatre of Voices singing the very minimal ‘hymn’ David Lang created. More and more singers join in, and then singers start to add their own solos. Then something magical happens: the singers start to move into the audience to sing those brief fragmentary lines: they address sections of the audience. By the end 20 or so singers are in different parts of the auditorium and over the next three verses you hear snatches of memories, tributes, sorrow and loss – many of them texts that were submitted by people in the room. Some voices are immediately in front of you, others distant. The combination of the personal connection those soloists give with the implacability of the ‘hymn’ creates a deeply moving and absorbing moment. Many in the audience were moved to tears, and many selected it as their festival highlight of 2016:
“Memorial Ground was incredible. Sublime combination of music, voices and the words of those who cared about family and the experience of the Somme.”
“Went to the Memorial Ground concert. 1000-mile round trip to see it. Worth every mile.”
I hope that this will show how powerful Memorial Ground is and also what a wonderful way it can be to remember all those who suffered at The Battle of the Somme. If you do not have time to view the entire video may I suggest that you watch the opening; then a couple of minutes between 10 and 16 minutes in; then a further couple of minutes between 20 and 25 minutes in; then the close? That would give you a sense of how the textures build and sustain themselves, even if it won’t convey fully how the piece builds. Do please also watch Frikkie Walker’s two versions for ideas of how a shorter simpler approach can work.
Svend Brown, Director