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Review: Pierre Henry: Liverpool Mass

Review: Pierre Henry: Liverpool Mass
Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King, Saturday 13th May 2017

Words, Julia Johnson (Messy Lines)

It’s a rare treat, to be able to go to a musical event almost completely unaware of what it’s going to sound like. Pierre Henry was a vaguely familiar name, the fact that he composed “that tune Futurama stole” being the most recognisable reference. But tonight is the first ever live performance of The Liverpool Mass. Commissioned in 1967 for the opening of the Metropolitan Cathedral, the piece wasn’t completed in time. Now its performance has been arranged by Bluecoat and the University of Bradford as part of the city’s 50 Summers of Love season, in the architecturally bold venue for which it was intended. With no plans for any more performances, it’s set to be a truly unique evening.

But things don’t get off to a promising start with the opening piece HAPAX III [A Liverpool Requiem]. Sound artists Vincent Epplay and Samon Takahashi are described as “heirs” of Pierre Henry, but on the evidence of this piece that description is false. Yes they combine real and electronic sounds, but when Henry did so he was pushing the limits of what music could be and do.  There’s no such pushing boundaries here – except, after the 4th time we’ve heard a crescendo to a cacophony of atonal sounds, of the audience’s patience. A few predictable Liverpool memories set to overwhelming distortion does not a modern classic make.

By the end of the piece I’m bored, and now thinking of The Liverpool Mass with a sense of trepidation. If this is the type of eletronic music we’re in for, it’ll be a terribly disappointing evening.

My fears begin to be alleviated during the much-publicised introduction by Jarvis Cocker. It’s brief, but to the point. Cocker does his job of building up a sense of anticipation for the music from the point of view of an Henry fan. Explaining that listening to his first Henry record “altered his idea of what music is” and hopes that his music makes us feel “a mystical dizziness verging on ecstasy”.  Intriguing words and ideas – and when the music starts, we get to feel how true they are for ourselves.

Now, I’m not religious. But if I were to be converted, it would be by the religion conjured in The Liverpool Mass. It felt almost Primeval, like it was conjuring mysteries from a time long, long ago.

Henry’s style is known as musique concrète, which uses electronically-treated natural sounds. In the case of the Liverpool Mass, the dominant – often exclusive – sound is that of the human voice. Deep sonorous voices chanting the Mass in a style more akin to a dark incantation; high, stuttering voices like a delirious devotee speaking in tongues.  The sounds move around the Cathedral through the special arrangement of speakers by Thierry Balasse  as though they have their own mysterious force.

Back in 1967 it was intended that the piece was accompanied by dance, a spectacle we don’t get tonight. But as much as the dance would certainly have complemented the elemental nature of the piece, in its absence we are forced to focus on the music. Cocker had spoken in his introduction about his feeling that we can connect with the Liverpool Mass through this use of the voice as it is, after all, an instrument we all have in common. And these are voices which affect some very deep emotions. So many world religions use the unique intensity of ritualistic human chanting to invoke spiritual feeling, and it’s this spirit which Henry has invoked. It’s unlike any other Church music you may be used to: this demands your concentration and, to the believers, your devotion.

The Liverpool Mass is divided into the 6 sections of a traditional Latin Mass, of which some are more distinctly different than others. But unlike in HAPAX III, with each silent pause I’m curious to find out what the music is going to do next. When the piece ends in distortion of Communion, it feels like a fitting conclusion, as though the energy and demands of the previous movements can now come to rest together in a single sound.

In a somewhat regrettable  clash of scheduling, The Liverpool Mass took place on the same night as the Eurovision Song Contest. Millions of people around the world were cheering on the nicest, catchiest or most absurd tunes. The Liverpool Mass could hardly have been more different. It certainly wasn’t music to sing along to, maybe not even music to “like”. But it certainly was music to do what music should do – admire, and to inspire.