Christian Mason (*1984) The Singing Tree
[solos,child ch,ens] 2021/22 Duration: 50' Text: Paul Griffiths
solos: SMezTBarB – children's choir: SA – ensemble: 2fl(2picc).ob.ob-d'am.cor ang.Bb-ob.2Bb-clar – 2hn.trp.tbne.tuba – 2perc – hp.E-guit – pno – 2vl.2va.2vc.db and additional instruments
World premiere: Birmingham/UK, May 12, 2023
Commissioned by the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group
The time of trees, the time of music.
The first thing to remember in the presence of trees is gratitude: for their mysterious majesty, for the air we exchange with them at every moment, for the wood that warms and shelters us — and makes our musical instruments, for the cool shade that protects us from the sun, for the calming beauty of leaves in the breeze and dappled sunlight, for the ecosystems that form on and around them, and for showing us a time-scale bigger than our own. To be in the presence of trees, or single a tree, can speak volumes — if we care to listen.
Thinking about the sense of longer-than-human time that they embody, I find analogies between trees and the musical meanings and processes that coalesce in my work. This is especially true of The Singing Tree, a cantata-like setting of a wonderfully arborescent text by Paul Griffiths, for five vocal soloists, children’s choir and large ensemble (BCMG).
The first thing we notice about the text is that it grows. It grows from a single seed-word: TREE. And as it grows, so too do the words of each part multiply: 1 - 4 - 16 - 64 - 256 - 1024. To me this immediately suggests (or suggested) a variety of temporalities, such that in the music some words appear stretched into cantus firmus background structures, whereas others flit by like autumn leaves in a gust of wind. Others still are repeated incessantly as ostinati, becoming like a mantra or an incantation: A sapling is a sapling / But trees become gods.
The piece, across its seven movements, also suggests tree-time by invoking memories. Personal memories, hinted at in the dedications of the movements - to my sister, to my former guitar teacher, to various friends and colleagues… And cultural/music-historical memories, as in the ‘Medieval Memory’ movements, each a different version of Guillaume de Machaut’s haunting Rondeau “Puis qu’en oubli”.
Machaut lived c.1300 - 1337, a long time ago from a human perspective, but a glance at Wikipedia’s ‘list of oldest trees’ reveals that there are many trees still living which would already have been ancient back then, being four or five thousand years old! The supposed oldest tree in France — Le Chêne Chapelle (Chapel Oak), at Allouville-Bellefosse is comparatively young at an estimated 800 years old; but that is still old enough that Machaut could conceivably — albeit rather fancifully — have visited it in its youth. Whereas Machaut appears quite near the beginning of what we usually discuss as ‘Music History’, the older trees have existed since a time beyond the reach of our musical or cultural memory.
To think of whole historical epochs passing as relatively brief moments in the life of an old tree is a wonder. Yet such survivors are an exception in a story of frequent exploitation and destruction by human interests. Especially concerning at the global level is deforestation in the Amazon rainforest, but closer to home too ancient woodland is often at risk from human road, rail and housing developments: tree lives being cut short by hundreds of years to save a few minutes in the frenetic lives of some humans… The questionable compensation that such projects offer in terms of planting new trees ignores the inherent, intangible and irreplaceable value of ancient lives being lost:
for they speak without speech
one to another to another to another
in words that go by way of the ground
in words of such length we cannot keep still to the end of one
in words of such length we have gone before they end
in words of such length they have been here from before us
in words of close breath
in green music
Looking recently at images of Mars sent back from the NASA Perseverance Mission, it is the trees that I miss the most.
(Christian Mason, April 2023)
|1. Enduring Elm (word – phrase) – for Barbara Keal||(Part 1: seed, root, trunk)|
|2. Trees become god (statement) – in memoriam Rod Freeman||(Part 1: seed, root, trunk)|
|3. The hum of time (theory) – for Farhaad Rahnama||(Part 1: seed, root, trunk)|
|4. Medieval Memory (I) – for Kosmo Love||(Part 1: seed, root, trunk)|
|5. Nearer to you (story and metamorphoses) – for Stephan Meier||(Part 2: branch, twig, leaf, flower)|
|6. Medieval memory (II) / Machaut: Puis qu’en oubli (memory flown) – for Frank Denyer||(Part 2: branch, twig, leaf, flower)|
|7. In green music (psalm) – for Frank Reinisch and Helmut Lachenmann||(Part 2: branch, twig, leaf, flower)|