Edinburgh Review: Return To The Voice, Summerhall at St Giles’ Cathedral

return to the voiceIf once there existed an ancient glen, verdant and calm, with a cool stream running through that nourished grazing sheep, if once there existed this Arcadian ideal, then Return To The Voice has recreated it in song.

Song of the Goat’s work is a choral piece of profound beauty that has been inspired by ancient Scottish music. In St Giles’ Cathedral 12 singers perform a song cycle with lyrics in Gaelic and English, using quotations from Scottish writers.  There is little more to it than that. But its effect is almost indescribable.

Maciej Rychły’s and Jean Claude Acquaviva’s music bridges the divide between ancient and modern. The choir recreates the sound of bagpipes and penny whistle, rooting their harmonies with a drone and singing wild, legato melodies on top complete with the fluttering ornamentation of Celtic music. Sometimes the choir harmonises with bagpipes, ridding the instrument of its often harsh timbre but not removing any of its power.

Interweaving melody lines also emulate renaissance polyphony, so perfectly suited to the cathedral setting. And the simple harmonies of ancient Gaelic music are muddied with unexpected modernist dissonances whose tension the choir lets ring in the high cathedral rafters.

With utter unity and precision the singers begin and end each phrase. Full chords stop abruptly and in the vast space it takes time for the echo to resound and then die. The choir’s uniformity is aided by their expressive gestures, which ensure that – even if we cannot understand the Gaelic language – the audience can glean some kind of sense from their songs.

Backed by stained glass that loses its colour as the night sets in, resonating from stones that still smell faintly of incense, the choir instils something numinous and soul-stirring into their singing. Sometimes, during a solo, the singer’s voice wails. In duets the two voices fold and unfold, unifying and then breaking apart. And in full voice their songs range from lamentation to celebration, from the achingly sad to the sublime. Return To The Voice is not so much an intellectual experience – though the music would stand up to analysis – as an emotional or, perhaps, spiritual one. For an hour in a cavernous cathedral, sculpted by the contours and strains of 12 perfect voices, that ancient glen exists.

Return To The Voice is at Summerhall at St Giles’ Cathedral (Venue 187) until 25 August. For more information and tickets visit https://tickets.edfringe.com/whats-on/return-to-the-voice