Vic Hoyland

Tribal Essex

Essex-Xingu chorus, design by Kate Owen

Essex-Xingu chorus, design by Kate Owen



Simon Thorne in Performance Magazine Issue 3, 1979 (reproduced with kind permission).

To the untrained eye a youth orchestra concert must be strictly for the Mums and Dads. But the standards and diversity of youth music have constantly increased. Youth music can no longer be simply equated with mere amateur pleasure, while its amateur and educational status creates opportunities for projects which no professional group can afford to take on. The National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain has set the pace for levels of technical proficiency, but it is an occasional orchestra. Its stringent demands are an exciting stimulus to those other youth orchestras which feed it. The work 'Essex—Xingu' commissioned and featured by the Essex Orchestra at the Riverside Studios on 30 September allowed this exciting and well disciplined bunch to extend the process one stage further. Not only was the work a taxing piece of writing for symphony orchestra, making no concessions to the frailty of youth, but its concept as an elaborate piece of music theatre involved the participation of 150 singing and acting schoolchildren.

A dizzying array of space-age tribes-men, monkeys, snakes, owls—all manner of beast and fowl—was set upon and inquisitively played with orchestra and audience alike. And at the core of the piece a giant, illuminated blue butterfly spread its iridescence over the whole proceedings. A celebration of the vitality and integrity of the Savage Mind, the work took the myths and hunting rituals of the tribe called Xingu, located in one tiny square of the Amazon jungle, and set them to the music of the modern symphony orchestra.

But the composer, Victor Hoyland, has patronised no one. No allowances were made to relative performance abilities, nor were the Indians presented as exotic idiosyncrasies—ethnic titillation for jaded Western palettes. Whilst maintaining their own cultural reference points, the tongue clicks and other extraordinary vocal events the Indians perform are interesting as purely sonic material for compositional transformation. The transformational processes employed within the piece at all levels point to the inherent musicality in Structuralist thinking. Benjamin Britten or David Fanshaw may inadvertently create glorious Kitsch, but Hoyland has taken the notion of kitsch as point of entry.

A hitherto largely ignored aspect in the presentation of ethnic art to a Western audience is the cultural tension such a presentation generates. Accusations of cultural imperialism are a grave danger to all who set foot outside the well defended bastions of bourgeois art. For Hoyland the inherent Kitsch in the notion of a tribe of pigmy Indians discovering an orchestra becomes the vehicle for a new understanding of style. Eclectic quotation sees its apotheosis in the magical descent of the blue butterfly as the orchestra breaks into Wagner's 'Forest Murmurs'. But this symbolic representation of the sounds of the jungle is further intensified. The pigmies stand in costumes recalling the Mud men of New Guinea, awesomely beating the floor with their rhythm poles and chanting their songs. The jungle is full of bird song as the wood dove tells Siegfried where to find Brunhilde, interrupted by the animals from Ravel's 'L'Enfant et les Sortileges', come to talk to the dreaming child. Schoenberg's wood dove from 'Gurrelieder' flits past, pursued by Stravinsky's 'Rossignol'. A technical tour de force leaves a mesmerised audience to resolve cultural confusions for itself. Aggressive and dextrous orchestral writing of the 'difficult' kind of new music provokes the songs of the Indians transformed into equally aggressive choral attacks. This direct challenge demands some kind of vocal response from the orchestra. One could imagine the Musicians Union having cause for complaint over this—it's up to singers to sing. The otherwise admirable attitude of the orchestra shows them already making tentative distinctions between what was real and not-real music. Half hearted singing was not.

The obviousness of the whole idea receives its own parody in the piece as one of the Indians burlesques the antics of the white gloved conductor in conducting his own travesty orchestra. At the climax the Indians have somehow laid hands on Western cultural artefacts —saucepans, coke tins, trombone tubes —and clamorously challenge the real orchestra for the last word, before the final bar of 'The Rite of Spring' sets the seal on the entertainment.

Ultimately industry was wooed into sponsoring production costs. But it cannot be easy to find backers for an idea whose uncompromising integrity and sophistication are its only selling points. The project took four years from conception to fruition. Fifteen months were taken up by production and nine of these to ship-ping 200 schoolchildren to and from rehearsals.

Finally, to quote from the glossy souvenir programme brochure, "while the Indians have inevitably been affec-ted by contemporary civilisation ... they have so far been able to integrate modern influences as they integrate the natural environment, into the resilient structure of their society".