This 70 minute CD is a new release on the Move label, described by Move as follows:
Using the songs of birds from all over France, the composer Olivier Messiaen compiled his Catalogue d’oiseaux (“Catalogue of birds”), a vast compendium of music in seven books. Michael Kieran Harvey, who has recorded Messiaen’s complete work (MD 3299), has composed Catalogue des Errances Bibliques (“Catalogue of Biblical Errancy”), which comprises twenty-five pieces with inspiration drawn from the 850 pages of C. Dennis McKinsey’s monumental Encyclopedia of Biblical Errancy. Interspersed with readings by poet Arjun von Caemmerer, Catalogue des Errances Bibliques is scored for a similarly epic eight keyboards and four percussionists, and treats its subject matter “in the spirit of the musical The Book of Mormon (Parker/Lopez/Stone, 2011)”.
This intriguing CD is a live recording of a concert at the Australian National Academy of Music (ANAM) in South Melbourne on 25th May 2019.
Move records has a well-produced digital booklet available for download which has the full text of the spoken narration (‘Bible Stories’) and other information about the performance, including a picture of the 13 performers on stage and a plan of the layout of the instruments. Move has also provided a link to a glowing review of that performance by Mandy Stefanakis (from Music Trust Loud Mouth e-zine). Michael Kieran Harvey has also given several interviews about his intentions for the piece.
So what is it like?
Mandy Stefanakis was at the concert and described it as ‘an electrically charged performance’ with the music and text ‘lifting the audience out of any comfort zone they may inhabit’. Perhaps this is a piece which works best in performance. It was certainly well-played: as Mandy Stefanakis puts it ‘the level of synchrony required of all performers on stage was breathtakingly audacious and utterly masterful… it was obvious that all the performers loved both the challenges of the pieces and the exuberance of them and it was infectious for everyone in attendance as a result’.
Listening to the CD in isolation, however, was at times a puzzling experience. The spoken narrative is satirical: very irreverent, and at times very funny! For example, I particularly liked Bible Story No.5 ‘Walking on Water’ which uses simple maths, and very plausible deductive reasoning (assisted by reference to the website of Bunnings Warehouse) to calculate how big Jesus’ feet must have been in order for him to have successfully walked on water (the answer is: approx. 20cm wide and 80cm long!).
Michael Kieran Harvey is a virtuoso pianist and a fine composer, particularly of works for the piano solo and piano with other instruments. Why write a piece like this, with 25 short (mostly 1 to 2 minutes) pieces and using the highly unusual ensemble of 2 grand pianos, four electric keyboards, synthesizers, vibraphone, marimba, theremin, drum kit and a range of non-melodic percussion? An interview with the composer provides some explanation. He describes it as a satire, motivated by ‘the ongoing sex scandals in the Christian churches…as well as the Pell trial’, and intended to make people laugh. Arjun von Caemmerer’s narration certainly does that.
And the scoring for what he calls ‘nondescript keyboards and percussion’?
‘(It is) pointless writing for orchestra as an Australian composer, as evidenced by the further drop in Australian works from the 7 percent when I gave the Peggy Glanville-Hicks address in 2012 to around 3 percent now’.
So, what of the music itself?
The musical interludes alternate with the spoken parts, to some extent commenting on them, so on the CD they are the even-numbered tracks. At first hearing some tracks (e.g., No. 2, No. 24), sound like free jazz – an effect accentuated by the electric keyboards, the drum kit, and the fast tempi. No.20, with its strings of parallel minor seventh chords and unusual time signature (15/8) could almost be a cover of Dave Brubeck.
But this music is not improvised. In fact, everything is meticulously notated (the score is available from the Australian Music Centre – also in a version for two pianos).
And within the 25 pieces there is a large variety of styles, from the powerful opening using the whole ensemble (recapitulated in the final piece) to the toccata-like No.12 and 16 (with its prominent synth-effects), along with more meditative pieces like the sparse arpeggios and bowed vibraphone notes of No.30, the angular quartal/quintal harmony of No.38, and the thrilling multimetric rhythms of No.48.
One can only hope that when live concerts resume there will be more opportunities to experience this interesting piece live as a form of music theatre.
Catalogue des Errances Bibliques by Michael Kieran Harvey for eight keyboardists and four percussionists, together with spoken narration written and spoken by Arjun von Caemmerer is available through MOVE records here.