James Weeks and Russell Haswell on Faster Than Sound: Earthquake Mass

Earthquake MassFor the first time, this year’s Aldeburgh Festival features a Faster Than Sound event, Earthquake Mass, on Saturday 14 June. Faster Than Sound is Aldeburgh Music’s series of innovative and experimental collaborations, with new work devised and performed all in the space of a week-long residency. 

For Earthquake Mass the brilliant vocal ensemble EXAUDI and noise musician Russell Haswell collaborate to transform Brumel’s renaissance masterpiece ‘Et ecce terre motus’ or ‘Earthquake Mass’. Here EXAUDI’s director James Weeks shares his perspective on the piece and discusses with Russell how it will be performed at Snape.


All of us have pieces of music that quicken our pulse whenever their name is mentioned, or when we find that our brain has deposited them back into the flow of our thoughts. For me, even a passing reference to Antoine Brumel’s Missa Et ecce terrae motus is enough to tie a knot in my stomach and leave me short of breath: it is a work that delivers an impact so visceral, on a scale so majestic, that the listener is left reeling from its audacity. Its sobriquet, ‘Earthquake Mass’, is a reference to the Easter plainchant on which it is based – ‘And lo, there was a great movement of the earth, the angel of the Lord descended from heaven, Alleluia’ – and it is impossible not to imagine that Brumel had the sublime terror of this image in mind as he conceived it. My first direct experience was at a student performance I organized in 2000 given by one of several Exaudi-precursor ensembles: the exhilaration I felt standing in front of a huge, engulfing surge of vocal sound that evening has never quite abated in my memory.

Written around 1500 and cast in 12 parts (double or triple the size of standard polyphonic textures of the time), Missa Et ecce terrae motus stands as a feat of unrepeated – perhaps unrepeatable – imaginative brilliance that must have brought its composer great fame. Certainly, Brumel was feted throughout the 16th century by theorists and practitioners alike, from Rabelais and Lassus to Thomas Morley. Born in Chartres, he travelled restlessly, from Notre Dame de Paris to the Este court in Ferrara and to Rome. As Paul van Nevel says, ‘The fact that neither the date nor the place of Brumel’s death is known fits the picture of his independent personality: through his music, he has attained immortal status in the eyes of his biographers.’

Page from the original manuscript, with hand-written notes by Orlando de Lassus

Page from the original manuscript, with hand-written notes by Orlando de Lassus

We owe the preservation of the Missa Et ecce terrae motus to the later 16th-century composer Orlande de Lassus, who had the work copied for a performance at the Bavarian court in the 1560s in which he sang the Tenor II part. It is easy to see why this work in particular caught his eye: its unprecedented number of voice parts, its structural variety, its awesome triadic sonority and especially its intricate rhythmic style, featuring innumerable overlapping canonic imitations between the voice parts. It would not be exaggerating to say that Brumel invents in this work a style to match effectively the task of writing for so many voices. The whole Mass is based on the first seven notes of the plainchant antiphon, the sequence of pitches D-D-B-D-E-D-D, which appears in triple canon through most of the piece. Above these foundations, which often result in a harmonic motion so slow as to seem almost motionless, Brumel erects his textures of teeming rhythmic invention, creating two distinct temporal planes on which the piece unfolds simultaneously. The use of tiny canonic imitations – a technique surely influenced by Josquin des Prés though taken to even greater lengths – is perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the piece: modern listeners will be put in mind of the mesmeric repetitions of minimalist music, or the patternings of Islamic art.

It was a stormy Easter weekend in Blythburgh in 2008, and Exaudi was singing penitential Lassus and Rihm, accompanied by howling wind and hail lashing the panes of the clerestory and lending an apocalyptic tint to the angels in the rafters. I began imagining a concert that could unleash such forces by itself: if Brumel’s work was the closest the musical world of 1500 could get to the shock-and-awe of the Resurrection or Last Judgement, how might we achieve the same thing today? I imagined a sequence interspersing movements of the Earthquake Mass with electronic Noise – a juxtaposition sufficiently dramatic that neither would overwhelm the effect of the other, yet they would still be capable of a meaningful dialogue. Aldeburgh’s former chief executive Jonathan Reekie was enthusiastic and found us the ideal partner in Russell Haswell: this performance will be the fruit of our collaboration.

EXAUDI will perform four movements of the Mass – Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus and Benedictus – alternating with Russell’s noise music, and then combine with him for the Agnus Dei. This final coming together is more than just poetically apt, since the manuscript of the Agnus Dei in the only surviving copy is damaged, leaving significant holes in several voice parts: we have therefore preferred to create newly from what survives rather than simply reconstruct. I spoke to Russell about his plans for his contribution to the event a few months in advance:

James Weeks: What was your first reaction to being asked to do this?

Russell Haswell: Well, my first reaction was ‘Why?’, but I think that because of where the commission came from I saw some potential in the idea – a challenge, I guess.

JW: And when you got the music and listened to it…

RH: …what struck me then was the contrast between what I could present and something that sounded so…well, I know all about where the Brumel comes from but it is still very foreign to me, so immediately I knew there was going to be an extreme contrast. But the idea of its subject, the fact that it has this near-apocalyptic scenario – well, that was the reason I first got interested in noise music. So although these two things have totally different audio spectra I do think that they can sit together quite aptly. And then I remembered that there’s a Hollywood blockbuster from 1974 called Earthquake, directed by Mark Robson and starring Charlton Heston, and I knew it was the first film to have quadrophony and that they used sub-woofers and polystyrene sheets and bricks and residue that are thrown onto the audience at the cinema, and the seats are shaking via some sort of electrical transducers so that people feel like they’re in an earthquake. So these ideas have been constantly bouncing around my head.

JW: It’s too early to say what you’re going to do on the night…

Russell Haswell testing equipment for the performance during a recent visit to Aldeburgh Music

Russell Haswell testing equipment for the performance during a recent visit to Aldeburgh Music

RH: I don’t know right now but what I do know is that it should be a gradual process. And I want to introduce the idea of tremors. I’ve been in earthquakes in a few different countries and the thing is the tremors, I want to recreate the tremors – and also use quadrophony and feedback. It’s going to be a multimedia experience, not just a diffusion – I want to do some of it live and have some level of experimental/instrumental/chaotic feedback, and see what happens.

JW: The other thing is that the structure of the Mass is almost the opposite of the gradual buildingup process you’re describing, in that the later movements are generally gentler and quieter than the earlier movements, so there’s a kind of cross-fade between the Brumel and your gradual crescendo idea…What about the way you might integrate voices in the Agnus? Have you done much with voices before?

RH: Never. My closest experience is seeing Xenakis’ choral works live, and also his pieces with magnetic tape diffusion of electronic sounds with narrator and choir, for example Pour La Paix (1981). I want to achieve a real transformation; I’d like to achieve a true morph of one thing into another – how to do that, whether through filtering or modulation, is something I have to play with.

James Weeks © 2014

Faster Than Sound: Earthquake Mass is on June 14, 10pm in the Britten Studio, Snape.