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The Quintessence (for soprano, piano, 3 percussion & tape, 2004)


I have long been fascinated with alchemy and alchemists, the early scientists who reasoned that if God created the world, making order from chaos, then they must surely be able to determine the ordering principles for themselves, and reveal the quintessence, that fifth element "the matter of which the heavens are composed... the soul of the elements". With these discoveries they would be able to perfect base and unclean things, transforming them into gold.

The futuristic vision of alchemist Francis Bacon in his New Atlantis of 1624 has particular resonance:

We have ... sound-houses, where we practise and demonstrate all sounds and their generation. We represent and imitate all articulate sounds and letters, and the voices and notes of beasts and birds. We have certain helps which, set to the ear, do further the hearing greatly; we have also divers strange and artificial echoes, reflecting the voice many times, and, as it were, tossing it; and some that give back the voice louder than it came, some shriller and some deeper; yea, some rendering the voice, differing in the letters or articulate sound from that they receive. We have all means to convey sounds in trunks and pipes, in strange lines and distances.

The sounds in The Quintessence are derived from voices, bells (recorded in Poland, Italy, Germany and the UK) and natural, elemental materials. The instrumental material is determined by these sounds and their transformations in both timbre and behaviour; texts are from 16th and 17th century treatises on alchemy. Finally, the electroacoustic part is the bubbling vessel in which elements are crystallised, dissolved, fermented; glimpses of a strange world are conjured up, instruments comment or become part of the landscape...

The three texts used most prominently in the piece are taken from On the alchemical art by Marsilio Ficino, An Alchemical Mass by Melchior Cibinensis and The Book Concerning The Tincture Of The Philosophers by Paracelsus.

Ficino's text is in praise of "philosophy" and its ability to explain nature "...what makes the rainbow's arch, and hoary snows and frigid frosts. What breeds the dew, the lightning, what the hollow fleeces of the clouds...". There are three parts to the Alchemical Mass - Kyrie, Gradual and Ave Maria, and the latter section has a coded description of the alchemical processes: "...Here art thou united with the moon, here is made the band of Mars and the conjunction of Mercury. From these three is born through the magistery of the art, the strong giant...".

Finally Paracelsus proclaims the powers of the quintessence: "O thou spiritual substance, lovely above all things... O thou wondrous power, strengthening all the world... O thou invincible virtue, highest of all that is..."

Commissioned by the Paragon Ensemble