The Original Socially-distanced Performance

A few years ago someone described to me this strange thing they went to in King’s chapel late at night where they could walk around, and Byrd was playing, and people were holding candles. I was delighted. That’s the gist of it; here it is in a few more words.

i, Byrd poster design

In 2016, a plan amongst friends to play through Purcell’s Fantasias span out of control. The result was a large-scale immersive experience in King’s College Chapel, featuring music by Byrd, Purcell, and some modern responses to these composers. The event came to be called i, Byrd, and, directed alongside Zephyr Brüggen and Rachel Stroud, was the inspiration for rites, a musical and theatrical collective we founded subsequently.

i, Byrd is a weaving together of old and new—music, tradition, technology, and architecture. In the first instance, the chapel at King’s became a kind of conceptual structure around which we built the performance. The building itself took such a long time to be completed (5 kings of England) that you can literally see its history in the architecture—the different limestone used, for example, or, more obviously, the interior decoration: the buttresses in the chapel are plain; those in the antechapel, constructed after the War of the Roses, are highly decorated. These distinctions are enforced physically since a large wooden screen sits in the centre of the building, separating the chapel and antechapel.

Musically this is easy to represent: old music one side, modern music the other. And we can go deeper: modern instruments, and period instruments, for example. (I refer here not to the age of the instruments but their set-up. That is to say, speaking generally, we might expect period performance to be on gut strings tuned to A415 Hz; in other words, a totally different sound quality owing to the animal gut (opposed to wound aluminium), and an A sounding a semitone lower than is probably familiar.) In practice the distinction is more visceral still: this kind of tradition, which may also include using different bows, probably shorter fingerboards etc. involves an entirely different physicality to performing, fundamentally changing the way the musician moves and communicates. We decided, then, to split the chapel and antechapel between these two traditions: A415 Hz and A440 Hz respectively.

It was an early decision of the project to create an environment whereby the public felt free to move around. And, the expanse of the chapel meant that more than one thing could be happening at the same time (often three or four) without necessarily being an interruption. So we combined the two. The result was a performance that had to be curated on an individual level: everyone would have a different experience. At certain moments, for example, the same music was played by two different ensembles (modern and period, so sounding a semitone apart) at the same time from opposite ends of the building. Up close you would hear only the ensemble next to you; as you moved away, hints of the other music might reach you. Walking near the centre you could try to balance the two musical worlds. Of course they were never totally synchronised but I don’t recall us paying much attention to this, only to starting and ending together as closely as possible. Sometimes the music was different, too: Purcell’s intoxicatingly chromatic Fantasia 7 for viol consort was played from the chapel at the same time as George Benjamin’s reimagining of it, Fantasia VII, for Violin, Clarinet, Celeste and Cello from the other end of the building.

The event was free and open to all. Advertising was limited to word of mouth, and posters around town; in King’s itself we filled the pigeon holes with candles and invitations. For several days, every time I passed by the post room I remember turning off the lights so the next person to check their mail would be surprised. We had no idea how many would show, and hoped the promise of the chapel after hours might encourage the attendance of members of the public living in Cambridge usually not permitted entry to this physical symbol of their city.

i, Byrd invitations in King's post room (pre-refurb)

In the end around 80 people convened on the cobbles outside King’s. They were met by two stewards carrying processional candles who led them—wordlessly—through the college to the chapel. We had special permission to enter via the West End, a great set of doors rarely opened. I recall some silly but quite powerful ceremony in which a steward was to knock on the doors, at which point two people hiding behind the doors would coordinate walking backwards very slowly so that the impression from outside was as if the doors were opening miraculously to reveal Andrew Hammond, then the chaplain, standing arms folded, fully-robed. By this point the music had begun already: Byrd’s Why do I use my paper, ink and pen sung from the organ loft, drifting across the chapel. When we later wanted everyone to leave, the doors were opened and the same music sung.

An almost absurd amount of planning went into these short 45 minutes. Atmosphere was aided by low lights, candles handed out, and a few projections. We had also received permission to clear the chairs from the antechapel so there was more space to walk around; in this state it resembled old engravings of the building. We later realised all the chairs were numbered and it took until 3 in the morning to put them all back.

Analogue clock projected on the chapel ceiling (a digital clock was projected in the antechapel)

At certain moments poetry was read from various locations—as with the music, sometimes concurrently. Text was taken primarily from a poem by Henry Walpole, Why do I use my paper, ink and pen, the same poem Byrd set that was sung at the beginning. There’s a complex history to this material. Walpole wrote it during the Reformation, having borne witness to the execution of Edmund Campion, who died a martyr. The poem spans thirty stanzas and is at times highly seditious; an early attempt to print it—Stephen Vallenger in 1582—resulted in imprisonment and, later, death.

It's notable, then, that Byrd decided to set it to music and publish it. That Byrd was Catholic was a known secret but it’s no surprise he published only the first verse with his setting in Psalmes, Sonnets & Songs (1588). Notwithstanding, the regular verse would permit any number of stanzas to be sung, and we can assume that would have been done. Here’s an example of a later verse:

England, looke up, thy soyle is stain’d with blood!

thow hast made martirs many of thine owne;

if thou hast grace, their deaths will do thee good,

the seede wil take, which in such blood is sowne ;

and Campions lerning, fertile so before,

thus watered too, must nedes of force be more.

Byrd’s composition itself is unusual in its setting of a mood rather than a text. In the space of three minutes Byrd crafts a complex feeling of hopelessness that seems to transcend the text. In i, Byrd the singer was peeping over the shoulder of the keyboard player who was score-reading from an edition for five viols. Four years overdue, here is my arrangement for keyboard and voice, which you should feel free to download:

About halfway through i, Byrd my playing around with Why do I use my paper, ink and pen, Morphic Verse, was performed in the middle of the chapel, beneath the screen. It actually didn’t go very well, mainly because we had to start without the bassoonist who, as we later learnt, had fallen asleep in the vestry. Here’s a recording:

Stephane Crayton