Kindred Spirits: Music of Benjamin Britten and Jack Body

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On 7 May 2017 Gamelan Padhang Moncar performed Jack Body‘s first composition for gamelan, ‘So Short the Life’ as part of a choral concert with Nota Bene chamber choir at Wellington’s Sacred Heart Cathedral on.

Jack Body (1944-2015) was a key figure in the introduction of gamelan music to New Zealand.

Kindred Spirits Concert 7 May 2017
Poster for the concert

Budi And Tristan In Sacred Heart Cathedral
Budi, Tristan and Pippa rehearse macapat

So Short The Life
page 1 of Jack’s original handwritten score


Jack described the piece as containing “few specific references to traditional gamelan composition. Instead, I have tried to focus on the nature of the instruments themselves, the attack and decay of the tones, and most especially the rich spectrum of overtones within each sound.” (jackbody.com)

The text is adapted from Chaucer who was quoting Hippocrates: ‘So short the life, so long the craft to learn’ – Ars long, vita brevis.”

“I had the idea that the gamelan speaks but that if we listen very carefully we can actually hear voices inside the gamelan. Perhaps that’s something to do with friends that have departed – that the memories stay with us.”

Recreating the piece was a challenge as Jack’s handwritten score was a little cryptic to understand (see sample below). Using an audio recording of the original performance provided by Nga Taonga Sound and Vision and under the direction of Gareth Farr, who had been one of the original performers, we were able to successfully recreate the piece, albeit in somewhat shorter form.

The piece was very warmly received in the context of a concert of several of Jack’s choral works, juxtaposed against simlar works by Benjamin Britten. The Wellington Young Voices children’s choir came and sat near the gamelan to see and hear the piece which benefited from the superb acoustic of the cathedral.

The concert was opened by our director Budi S Putra who sang a macapat verse, accompanied by himself (gender), Tristan Carter (violin), and Pippa Strom (gong).

Bedhug tiga datan arsa guling
padhang bulan kekencar ing latar
thenguk thenguk lungguh dhewe
angin midit mangidul
saya nggreges rasaning ati
rumangsa yen wus lola
babo raganingsun
dudu sanak dudu kadang
neng pondhokan sayekti nandhang prihatin
dhuh nyawa gondhelana.

Three strikes of the drum and still no desire to sleep
the moonlight shines on the courtyard
sitting all alone, lost in thought
the wind blows to the south
making my heart feel even colder
I feel like an orphan
how is it possible that I have
no relatives
in this place away from home, it causes such sorrow
oh God, give me strength

Performers: Stephanie Cairns, Tristan Carter, Megan Collins, Marie Direen, Dave Edwards, Judith Exley, Jo Hilder, Alisa Hogan, Jack Hooker, Mike Jones, Rupert Snook, Pippa Strom, Clare Tattersall  (Judith and Marie was also part of the original 1989 performance)

Programme notes

Chamber choir Nota Bene, conducted by Peter Walls with guest artists Wellington Young Voices, conducted by Christine Argyle, Gamelan Padhang Moncar, led by Megan Collins, Fiona McCabe (piano), Dominic Jacquemard (percussion).

Britten’s ‘Hymn to St Cecilia’ is one of his most loved choral works – and one that is important in his development as a composer. Jack Body’s ‘Wedding Song of St Cecilia’ is, similarly, one of his most loved and significant choral works.

Both composers set sonnets by Michelangelo (in one case, the same sonnet). Both composers were inspired by the music of Asia – and, in particular, by the Javanese gamelan.

Both transformed medieval hymns (Britten’s touching ‘Hymn to the Virgin’, Body’s remarkable ‘Carol to St Stephen’). Both wrote settings of Psalm 150 that share a strong rhythmic interest (Britten’s for children, Body’s for adults).
This is neither imitation nor chance. Their individual voyages of self-discovery took them down similar paths. Coincidences abound (even photos of both composers on the tennis court).

Nota Bene (in partnership with Wellington Young Voices) is delighted to present this rich programme on the occasion of Waiteata Music Editions’ release of a group of Jack Body choral scores.

Nota Bene is Wellington’s most versatile chamber choir and has forged a reputation for its innovative programming and high performance standards. Under the musical directorship of Peter Walls, the ensemble performs a wide range of choral music, from classical through to contemporary art music and jazz.

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