East Neuk Festival’s Memorial Ground remembers the Battle of the Somme

Vocal ensemble Theatre of Voices are performing David Langs Memorial Ground at the East Neuk Festival
Vocal ensemble Theatre of Voices are performing David Langs Memorial Ground at the East Neuk Festival
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Each year, the East Neuk Festival dreams up a core musical project aimed at taking your breath away. This year, it’s called Memorial Ground, a new piece of sung music commissioned from the Pulitzer Prize-winning American composer David Lang, which commemorates the centenary of the Battle of the Somme, and does so in a way that will give any subsequent performance of the work a distinct character of its own.

The premiere takes place next Saturday – a day after the actual Somme centenary – in the brick-lined, iron-roofed interior of Cambo Barn, normally a winter storage space for potatoes on the Cambo House Estate, but transformed each July into a remarkably effective makeshift concert venue for the festival.

The performers are the Scottish Chamber Orchestra Chorus plus singers from several Fife choirs and from Paul Hillier’s vocal ensemble, Theatre of Voices. Hillier will direct the premiere, which will be, quite literally, a one-off. The idea is that the Fife event will spark UK-wide interest in the work, and get choirs everywhere interested in mounting their own unique interpretations of Lang’s musical blueprint over the November weekend later this year that marks the moment the battle ended.

So what is it about Lang’s music that might allow this to happen? A clue lies in the post-minimalist simplicity that gives it its instant charm. Look no further than the work that won him the Pulitzer in 2008, The Little Match Girl Passion, which sets the Hans Christian Anderson tale in a form derived from Bach’s St Matthew Passion, and whose commissioners were, strangely enough, ENF director Svend Brown, Hillier and New York’s Carnegie Hall, where it was premiered.

“I think they remembered liking working with me,” says Lang, whose newest work also has a functional basis in the music of the past. The clue is in the title, a play on the word “ground”.

“I thought the idea of building a new monument on hallowed ground was a powerful image for the piece. Lucky for us, a lot of our language in music is conveniently visual or architectural, so I thought I could take advantage of that.”

It’s the use of musical “ground” – a simple repeated melody, over which countermelodies can multiply and coexist – that gives the piece its common accessibility and its potential to alter character with each new set of performers.

“I like the freedom built into this piece, both for members of the community to contribute their own memories and for the soloists to sing their solos when and where they feel like it,” he says. “What I’ve tried to do is build a kind of place where a community might meet, without telling them everything about what they are meeting about.”

In that respect, next week’s premiere will get minimal pointers from its composer. Lang sees it as a challenge that will generate its own solution without his direct help. “I like to think the relationship between the free and fixed parts of the piece make it a problem that every performance has to solve,” he insists. “So I don’t want to tell them too much about how to solve it. I am expecting to be surprised.”

Nor does he want to impose a particular emotional response regarding the Somme. “I tried not to look at this piece as only a memorial for one horrible moment in history. I thought of it more as an opportunity to ask myself how I might pay more attention to the relationship between historic suffering and what’s going on around us right now.”

And what’s in it for the listener, who will be able to promenade freely around the performance venue and experience the work from a truly personal perspective? “I am really hoping that people will feel encouraged to remember everything that their daily lives try to make them forget,” Lang explains.

Sounds like as good a reason to be there as any.

• Memorial Ground is premiered on 2 July at Cambo House Barn as part of the East Neuk Festival, www.eastneukfestival.com