After Babel

1995 25 minutes
soprano, piano & brass quartet
 Pushkin, Russia

After years of promising we were invited to Russia. Mischa and Yuri now had an actors’ school in Pushkin, about 30 Km from St Petersburg and each Summer they arranged a festival of performing arts. The theme of this year’s festival was “Babel”. We were offered two concerts, one of my own works and one with Swiss works to the theme Babel. I suggested bringing the brass group that Philip played in (Brasserie) and Fiona as soprano and a pianist, Dominik Blum and of course Brigitte was also invited. Suddenly I became an organiser, an impresario! I telephoned and faxed constantly with Russia, I put in an application to pro Helvetia for a grant (which was approved) for our travel expenses, I applied for visas for the whole troupe and even had to drive twice to Bern to the Russian Embassy in this connection. I also suggested that Michael Harlow should write texts and be invited. He wrote them and they invited him but he failed to get a travel grant from New Zealand. The only Swiss work I found on the theme was a work which Dominik knew from his once teacher: Urs Peter Schneider. It was called Babel and was an open form piece and therefore could be easily adapted to our group of instruments.

Michael’s idea for After Babel was the recreation of language, but how the texts actually showed this was not always clear. This, however, was no problem, I know his style so well and enjoy setting his texts and, as always, he made very concrete suggestions of musical ideas to them. One of his suggestions which I was able to realise, was the use of a tape as a frame before and after the piece in which one would hear a collage of voices dictating the alphabet in their own language and this Babel of alphabets would lead into the first (at the beginning) and the last (at the end) stanzas of the Divine Comedy. Among my students and friends I found French, German, English, Czech, Turkish and Italian. Our Italian-speaker neighbour also read the Dante texts which were heard and the beginning and end of the piece.

I was concerned that the piece should not sound like a concatination of songs and so suggested to Michael that we use my Abelian Form and that six of his texts be halved so that one would hear the second half of each song as a ‘reflection’ of its first half.

‘After Babel’ Abelian Diagram
‘After Babel’ Abelian Diagram

He agreed and told me where to cut.

Here is a recording of the complete work

Performed in Pushkin, near St Petersburg, Russia, in 1995, solo soprano: Fiona Powell, Piano: Dominik Blum, Ensemble: Brasserie

In spite of my attempts at unifying the whole cycle (which I think worked!), one song was especially successful: Korimako (New Zealand bellbird)—it later crept into the Sextet and into the Missa Profana:

Korimako sings

Korimako sings: Gott kann mir sagen, en archài o logos inside the lining of a word a word. . . a word. . . a word (remember that half the lies are true, and truer still the other half are, too)…

Michael Harlow
Fiona Powell (soprano), Dominik Blum (piano and ratchet!)