The classical music of today still has the ability to uncrack something new for us all. It can all be in the power of context or just mere delivery. It may also have something to do with the synthesis of old and new, the ability to present new ideas in a traditional manner that does not alienate the audience by shooting it over their heads. And don’t forget about mood – the reasons people listen to ambient electronica, i.e. atmosphere, can apply to the “proper” music of the 21st century. What’s better is music that possesses all of the above, something so mysterious yet strong that it can unlock a whole new music-appreciation lobe of your brain. Toby Twining’s Eurydice is one such program.
These pieces function as incidental music to Sarah Ruhl’s play of the same name, using just a handful of human voices (soprano, alto, tenor, and bass with Twining himself doubling up on baritone and alto) and a cello. The play appears to be a modern-day reflection of the Greek myth of Eurydice and Orpheus getting separated, one on Earth and one stuck in the underworld, just as their relationship was getting somewhere. In Ruhl’s play, Eurydice is nurtured back to general awareness in the underworld by her father, giving the story an extra paternal twist that possibly addresses the protection fathers place on their daughters. An antagonistic third party still stands in the way of Eurydice and Orpheus, this time the satyr taking life as a “nasty interesting man”. Music and love are synonymous bridges over chasms in the production, not unlike many other myths out there. So what’s a modern composer like Twining to do but run with it?
Vocals make up a majority of this recording, so the boundaries of what a human voice can do and/or communicate get stretched almost by default. Most of it is wordless, some almost absurdly so when Twining instructs his singers to do a little DIY labial tremolo with lips and fingers. The heroine’s death theme and “Triskaideka Chords” are about as morbid as the Ligeti portions of the 2001 soundtrack (in other words, not at all), making her transition to the underworld more mysterious than dreadful. By the time Orpheus wanders the earth and the heavens looking for his woman, Twining takes a more tonal path though his sense of harmony is still held hostage by texture and mood than mere theory. The cello’s recurring ascensions serve as tiny reminders that an antiquated myth deserves a musical counterpart (somewhat) grounded in conventional form.
Another recurring theme is the spelling of the heroine’s name. As the ensemble’s soprano chants out the letters to her name, they sound like another sentence unto themselves entirely. E-U-R-Y-D-I-C-E – as it’s being sung, your ear is fooled into thinking it’s something else at first. The music encoded to the Eurydice disc functions in a similar way when you step back to look/listen. The thread count to the music’s fabric is very high, but there’s no way you can determine that on first listen – or second listen. This is music with much going on, but it all rolls out effortlessly. It is, after all, a companion to a stage production and must blend into the background accordingly. But taken on its own, Toby Twining’s Eurydice is a prime slab of modern, wordless vocal music.