Thursday 15 October
Review by Jazmine Linklater
Last night saw the world premiere of Notes From Undergound, a new song cycle from poet Sean O’Brien and composer Augustin Fernandez, inspired by W.H. Auden’s poetry. Durham Book Festival newly commissioned both music and words this year. Played by the Royal Northern Sinfonia with choir Voices of Hope and baritone sung by Benjamin Appl, the piece was conducted by Clark Rundell. And the evening at Durham’s Gala Theatre was spectacular.
Needless to say, I am not a musician. I am a writer, and it’s really only due to the past week of reviewing Durham Book Festival that has enabled me to feel comfortable using that title. Artists the calibre of O’Brien and Fernandez (that’s not to mention the hero that is Auden), need no critique from myself. They have created art of the highest order, and I can only attempt to surmise what an excellent piece they have devised.
Auden’s early life nurtured a fascination with the North Pennines, with mining land and machinery. To him, these elements contained almost religious or magical properties. In O’Brien’s introduction to Notes From Underground he refers to ‘The Watershed’, a poem Auden penned in 1927, in which ‘one died / During a storm, the fells impassable, / Not at his village, but in wooden shape / Through long abandoned levels nosed his way / And in his final valley went to ground.’ O’Brien sites this scene, in which a dead man is transported to his resting place under a mountain, as his first inspiration. He goes on to hint at other stories with a similar core: the myth of Orpheus, Virgil’s Aeneid, Dante’s Divine Comedy. The one emphasis O’Brien makes here is that the protagonist of Notes From Underground is not Auden himself, but the embodiment of all the facets of human existence with which the poet wrote.
The piece itself honours these ideas spectacularly. It is difficult to phrase in language the effect that live music has on the listener. It all seems to wordy, somehow: the wonderful wildness of the tuning preparation, the mesmerising motion of the arcs and lines the conductor draws, the dance of the wind instruments, the quiver of bows.
The trajectory of the piece closely follows the storylines referenced above. The industrial setting of mining landscapes is evoked through the depth of bass notes, the ominous approach of some terror is tracked by the drum before the intensity falls away – or lifts- to the protagonist’s nightmarishly pleasing curiosity.
The choir at points seems almost to act as the Greek chorus of ancient tragedy, offering wisdom and a breadth of viewpoint inaccessible to our character. The lines ‘And none shall be well / And none shall be free’, split across harmonies define the total confusion of the spirit, almost Dionysiac in their sound.
At points the piece is horrifying, magical, imbued with indescribable sadness, and creeps under the skin. The ‘dream-vision’ that O’Brien mentions as their goal has been more than achieved, Notes From Underground manifesting in an almost supernatural reality.
This is a feat of artistic brilliance. O’Brien and Fernandez have, quite simply, made something utterly sublime; I hope my words do it some justice.
Jazmine Linklater is a Reviewer in Residence at Durham Book Festival.
Reviewers in Residence is a Cuckoo Young Writers programme ,which allows young critics to develop an in-depth relationship with a venue or art form, and take part in exclusively tailored writing masterclasses.