The theme of this year's Birmingham Early Music Festival is the interaction between ancient and modern. Hence, 15th-century English carols share a programme with contemporary Norwegian songs, and William Byrd appears in a concert featuring Birtwistle and Xenakis.
In this context, it seems appropriate that the festival should commission a work from Nigel Osborne. His output has included modernist works experimenting with metre and pitch relations, while embracing structuralism and acoustical research. He has also explored ancient musical forms such as vocal polyphony of the Caucasus and music from the Byzantine tradition.
Red Byrd, an all-male vocal quartet specialising in both early and contemporary works, presented an intelligently planned programme that paved the way for the Osborne world premiere very satisfyingly. Organa, by 12th-century composers Pérotin and Leonin, featured florid, rhapsodic treatment of vowel sounds that would be further developed in the Osborne work. The ritualistic repeated verses also complemented John Cage's Litany for the Whale. These minimalist meditations on the letters W-H-A-L-E were enhanced by the spatial dimension of the singers processing through the neo-Gothic splendour of St Chad's Cathedral.
Nigel Osborne's Angel-nebulae was a dazzling piece in five continuous sections for three tenors and bass. It built on the evening's previous items by fusing archaic forms skilfully with original techniques. The episode entitled "Little Star-Angel" had a scherzo-like feel, rapidly repeated "lah-lahs" sounding like brittle triple tonguing trumpets. The following segment was stocked with imaginative effects, including simultaneous harmonic whistling and singing, and the use of Sprechstimme. Radio interference was emulated uncannily by crackling noises and undulating pitch distortions. The results were compellingly exotic. The ending of the final section, "Gnostic Sky", with each voice dying away in turn until the bass was left intoning booming octaves like a great eternal bell, was both memorable and unsettling.
Unlikely to join the staple repertoire of the Mediaeval Baebes, Angel-nebulae is a rigorously challenging and inventive piece. Its ancient, mystic roots, phonetic text and natural vowel sounds lend it a spiritual depth that "holy minimalists" rarely plumb. Red Byrd, for whom the piece was written, did it full justice, surmounting the various vocal challenges with astonishing ease. Their rare blend of scholarship with joyful music making was hugely enjoyable.