Singing in the Baths

To Victoria Baths, star of BBC’s Restoration  programme, and also star, I now know, of Life on Mars, for which it provided some atmospheric locations. Our object was to see and hear the Clerks, best known for their performances of medieval and renaissance polyphony – so why are we at the baths? Because, dear reader, in an innovative and imaginative step, the Clerks are performing a new programme in some unusual places, and the acoustic of the empty pool is ideal. The ambience is ideal too, and more of that anon.
First, we had a tour of the building, which is essentially still derelict, even some years after the votes of viewers made it the winner in Restoration. We were told about the various difficulties that the council, who own the building had had with the people they contracted to work on the building, and the various plans that had been proposed and rejected. It seems though, that there is little chance that the baths, with its three pools (First Class Men’s, Second Class Men’s…and Ladies) will be restored to the condition it was at its opening in 1903, but the aim is to have at least one of the pools operating again. We saw all the pools, heard tales of famous swimmers, and of the local people for whom the baths was an important resource in the days before washing machines; we inspected the tanks and the chimney, and nodded sagely as we were told about the filtering process; but mostly we admired the scale and grandeur of the place, redolent of the civic optimism of the time.
The Clerks were arrayed in the main pool, and we watched from the dusty seats in the gallery above. The programme is an unusual one. It’s called In Memoria, and, whilst part of it is familiar territory for them, one piece is a new commission, and the whole is performed as a single piece, interwoven with a recorded collage of sounds and voices, mainly children’s, speaking about the topic of death. That might sound unbearably pretentious, but it worked brilliantly. The programme features ancient chant from the Mass of the Dead, motets by Josquin Desprez, Guillaume Dufay and Jean Ockeghem and a new work by composer and sound artist Antony Pitts. Visually, the sight of the six black-clad Clerks gathered in the pool was arresting, and as they sung, their voices rose up through the building to the glass roof, where the evening sun shone through the cracked and broken panes. It seemed somehow appropriate to be listening to these laments in this noble but fractured building, in the dust and the peeling paintwork.
The Clerks are to be commended for going way beyond the normal confines of early music, to produce an intense and vibrant experience.

CC BY-SA 4.0 Singing in the Baths by Dr Rob Spence is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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