Jesus Christ! No, literally: JESUS CHRIST. This extraordinary new tape from Thomas Bush’s private press offers two variations on Tarquino Merula’s baroque heart-stopper/spine-freezer ‘Hor ch’e tempo di dormire’, a setting for a poem in which the Virgin Mary watches her sleeping son and experiences a waking dream about his future suffering on the cross. It’s a lullaby for a newborn, first and foremost, with a gossamer lightness and natural swaying rhythm; but it's also charged and tainted and heavy with the terrible foreknowledge of the grievous injuries and indignities that await the innocent child...it is not Old Macdonald Had A Farm.
Like all the best religious music, 'Hor ch'e tempo...' commands a certain awe and solemnity, regardless of belief; its sheer ethereal beauty electrifies and illuminates the air and makes you feel like you’re in the presence of the divine... or something like it. But of course it transcends religion too, in the way it makes the the underlying human tragedy so painfully vivid...the precise New Testament tribulations of Mary and JC might not resonate with you, but the helplessness of any mother to protect their beloved from torment surely does. No? What's WRONG with you???
The original composition, in the faithful early-music arrangement summoned up séance-like on Side A of this tape, is unbelievably pared-down and refined and wide-open, minimalism avant la lettre, its melodic line soaring over a suspenseful lolling bassline of two repeated-notes played on organ and viola da gamba. You can really hear the influence of this sort of renaissance-space-music in the work of Svitlana Nianio and the late Oleksandr Yurchenko (who we were sad to learn died recently, R.I.P.), and in the more eldritch expansions of Ksiezyc; those Eastern European artists who perceived both the eeriness, and the radical simplicity, of these biblical laments they'd absorbed in their youth. Here, the Italian soprano voice you hear is rendered yet more uncanny with echo and delay, subtle tape effects, and a kind of distance, accentuated with field recordings of birdsong and room-noise. The effect is hallucinatory, those anguished maternal pleas simultaneously abstracted and intensified.
The second piece, sung in English by a female voice familiar from 'Ripe', the centrepiece of Bush's Old and Red album, is a kind of contemporary death-folk adaptation of Merula's 17th century offering. The lines are translated and sensitively trimmed; the mood is less rapturous and expressionistic, more weary, ghostly, disconsolate. It made me think a bit of Bates' and Harris's dark dronal Murder Ballads, or Shirley Collins by way of Gavin Bryars by way of ECM, or mebbe a rural Young Marble Giants?! Clutching at straws really, but be assured of its absolute drowned-world magnificence: that two-note bass motif is, once again, the anchor, the sparse gloaming ambience is mesmerising and dread but never heavy-handed.
"Now that it's time to sleep, sleep, son, and don't cry / for the time will come soon enough when crying is needed."
Edition of 88, presented with the artwork individually printed, in gold, directly on to the case – no two copies identical. It looks, appropriately enough, like some kind of religious relic or artefact from the future (do they have walkmans in the future?)
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Tape sold out but digital still available from Men Scryfa BC: