About this Recording
8.572483 - LENTZ, G.: Caeli enarrant... VII. Mysterium: Ingwe (Z. Banks)
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Georges Lentz (b. 1965)
Caeli enarrant …VII. Mysterium: Ingwe


The very idea of an hour-long work for solo electric guitar may seem extraordinary, but this is the work of an extraordinary composer. Born in Luxembourg in 1965, Georges Lentz trained in Europe (primarily as a violinist), and emigrated in 1990 to Australia, where he still lives. Shortly before emigrating, he conceived an open-ended cycle of compositions (a ‘life’s work’, so to speak) with the religiously inspired title Caeli enarrant…(The Heavens are Telling, Psalm XIX). As part of this, in 1994 he began work on Mysterium (Caeli enarrant VII); initially this was conceived in purely abstract terms, as a latter-day Glass Bead Game, but has since given rise to many of his most impressive works, the latest being this enormous guitar work.

Of itself, the electric guitar is no stranger to ‘new music’. Its début was probably in Stockhausen’s Gruppen for three orchestras (1957), where its spectacular appearances elicited even the elderly Stravinsky’s astonishment and admiration. A decade later, leather-jacketed English composer David Bedford featured it in at least two works: the delightfully provocative Eighteen Bricks, and the extended orchestral ‘sci-fi’ piece Star’s End, which featured a major solo rôle for the rock guitarist Mike Oldfield. It also played a notable rôle in Jean-Claude Eloy’s Faisceaux-Diffractions, and doubtless many other works from that era.

Still, the idea of a sixty-minute solo for electric guitar seems unprecedented. And yet: from the late sixties onwards, progressive rock was notorious for often indulgently long solos especially for guitar, which probably reached a peak in the eighties with the solo improvisations of Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page during live concerts. In many respects, both technical and aesthetic, Georges Lentz’s Ingwe conjures up memories of the ‘troubled guitar heroes’ of the past: Hendrix, Page, and many others. But in no way is it a simple ‘homage’—indeed, he scarcely knew this music in his youth: it has its own, very contemporary and personal story to tell, and far from being an ode to (improvisational) freedom, it is rigorously conceived and constructed. As in other parts of the Mysterium cycle, Lentz sets himself certain strict rules, some of which will be more apparent to the listener than others. Every bar consists of four beats, but these beats can be of three different lengths, used in any combination the composer desires. In simple terms, one could call them short, medium and long, but they are in fact notated respectively as semiquavers, crotchets and semibreves: taken literally, this implies strict ratios of 1:4:16, meaning that such a bar could last (at the tempo marking provided by Lentz) anything from 2 to 32 seconds.

As often in Georges Lentz’s works, the title derives from Australian indigenous languages: in Aranda, Ingwe means ‘night’, and indeed the Outback night sky had already been an inspiration for many other parts of the Caeli enarrant cycle. But here there is another, far more ominous connotation. Back in the sixteenth century, the Spanish Catholic mystic St John of the Cross wrote of the “dark night of the soul” (noche oscura): the extreme spiritual crisis encountered in the search to draw near to God. That is exactly what is involved here, and the composer has described it in uncompromising terms: “I see the desolation of the Outback as a metaphor for the spiritual changes I have been going through in recent years, and of which my music must be a reflection: I have been doubting more and more whether there is a God out there caring for us, for anything—whether there is a God full stop. While many people may not be troubled by such thoughts, for me this has been a terribly painful realisation to come to terms with. In this sense, Ingwe is a tormented, almost demonic meditation about God’s silence and the impossibility of praying, a desperate shout to the heavens, a vision of blackness.” The result is a work which will come as something of a shock to listeners familiar with the sonic opulence and refinement of earlier compositions.

Though written and performed absolutely continuously, in one movement, Ingwe falls into eight sections (marked on this recording with separate track selections), each with a clearly defined character, and often emphasizing a particular kind of guitar technique. The work’s rock affiliations are immediately apparent in the extended opening section: the upward thrust of the opening motive and the frequent florid excursions into the guitar’s stratospheric upper registers have all the painful ecstasy of the classic psychedelic solo, while the plunges to the bottom, and the heavily distorted power chords are the very stuff of heavy metal.

The second section is in utter contrast to the first: it is very quiet (at first, “bleak, lonely”), and has a gentle melancholy, punctuated at one point by a sequence of slow, soft chords (“pillar-like, austere, and with reverent feeling”). Here one seems to lose all sense of time, but not for long: after a brief introduction (“hazy, murmuring”), where the guitarist gently rubs the bottom string with the fleshy part of the finger, the third section starts to introduce sequences of remorselessly repeated short (“pounding”) notes, linked to long crescendo and decrescendo waves, and agonisingly slow glissandi over the narrowest of ranges. After a very high, ethereal interlude, where the edge of the guitar pick is tapped against the top string, a fourth section returns to the “pounding” glissando waves in even more drastic form, though now with rustling, “furtive” figures at the end of decrescendos.

The fifth section brings a new technique into play: the e-bow is a small electronic device which keeps the string in smooth vibration without being plucked. It is used here in conjunction with a bottleneck slide. At first, this ”fragile, hazy” music of gentle, narrow glissandi seems to promise another oasis of calm retreat, yet halfway through it is brutally interrupted by a sudden fortississimo eruption of “monstrous” slides and scrapes. But the real apocalypse comes in the sixth section. At one level, one could call it a ‘recapitulation’, since it brings back the material from the start of the work. But this is no mere formal device; in a way, it’s reminiscent of the recapitulation in the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony where, after relative calm, the initial ‘Fate motive’ comes savagely crashing back in. Here, the opening figures and chords are wrenched up to an even higher level of tension, and any ecstatic aspect has gone. A long sequence of massive chords (“like a gigantic wall of sound”), leads straight into about two minutes of free improvisation which, far from being a relaxation, requires the guitarist (who has already been playing for forty minutes) to outdo everything that has gone before, to go completely ‘over the top’. Then some momentary flashbacks to the start of the work (including the opening motive) lead to a soft seventh section, introducing yet another technique known as ‘violining’: chords (“like clouds drifting”) plucked with the volume pedal right down, and heard only once the level is brought up. In between the chords one hears other soft reminiscences of earlier sections. Similarly, the final section starts with a return to the ‘rubbing’ sounds of the third section, which might lead one to expect a gentle ending. But quite the opposite is the case: Ingwe ends with a final sequence of 49 ever louder, pounding notes (“like an infernal heart beat”), during which the bottom string is tuned down till it no longer produces a perceptible pitch. It is a kind of final descent into post-apocalyptic dust, with the final stroke cruelly cut off.

Richard Toop

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