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The Armed Man:
Over the years, Karl Jenkins has shown himself to be one of the most versatile composers of our time. He has composed experimental jazz (the Soft Machine years), classical work (Palladio, released in the USA as Diamond Music), pop music (in his work for commercials and on Merry Christmas to the World), and of course the classical-ethnic-ecclesiastic style of the Adiemus records, which are his most popular compositions by far. For his new recording - The Armed Man: A Mass For Peace - Jenkins once again produces a classical-ethnic-ecclesiastic combination but with dramatically different results.
Fans of Jenkins' work should be excited to hear the crisp recording of The Armed Man, released more than a year after it was first performed. This composition is one of Jenkins' most thematic undertakings, a courageous examination of war and peace expressed in bold musical compositions. This is undoubtedly Jenkins' darkest composition so far; grim melodies are used to convey the seriousness of war and suffering.
The CD's liner notes clearly describe how Britain's Royal Armouries, to mark the millennium, commissioned the composition of a mass which would reflect on war and peace in a multi-cultural, global society. To this end, the composition uses lyrics from classic poets, biblical verses, and traditional mass, as well as from Muslim, Hindu, and Japanese sources. While this may have resulted in a disjointed composition, the strength of the story and Jenkins' tight compositions provide for a cohesive work which demands the listener's close attention.
The recording starts with "The Armed Man" - a song introduced with a marching drumbeat and a simple tune (based on a 15th century original) played on whistles. The choir - singing in French - falls into the marching rhythm and strengthens it. The song is a strong call to arms and establishes the darkness to follow.
The second song is the traditional Muslim "Call To Prayers" beautifully sung by soloist Mohammed Gad. Its call for devotion is delivered quietly and sparsely. This contrasts with the more elaborate "Kyrie," which stately requests divine blessings in the Christian tradition.
This ecclesiastic contemplation is invaded by the dark sounds of "Save Me From The Bloody Men," the fourth song. This clever composition starts out sounding like a traditional Gregorian chant for male voices, perfectly in line with the religious songs preceding it. The nastiness, however, is in the final phrase where a sudden drumbeat and some ominous notes give a sense of doom to the titular phrase. The voices sound not so much afraid as they sound angry.
"Sanctus" is an upbeat song of ecclesiastic praise and most reminiscent of Jenkins' Adiemus style. This is a grand song of praise, but at this point in the work overshadowed by its context. It is followed by the ominous "Hymn Before Action" which - using words by Rudyard Kipling - establishes the mindset needed for battle. The song both establishes a motivation for the fight and encourages the soldiers to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. The powerful imagery of the words combine well with the sweeping melody, which is somewhat reminiscent of the style of musical theater anthems or motion picture scores.
The beat picks up, literally, in "Charge!" which - using text from several sources - establishes the start of the battle with powerful vocals, trumpets, and drums. (All three of which are also mentioned in the song's lyrics.) The motivations and encouragements of the previous song are thematically repeated and near the end of the song we hear the abstract screams of the battle unfold. This is a powerful, rhythmic song with a strong melody which, if not for its dark subject matter, could easily be a choral favorite.
"Angry Flames" starts with the sound of a lone trumpet followed by the ringing of a bell, a slow melody, and then the quiet, sad solo vocals, sometimes supported by the chorus. The lyrics - translated from the Japanese and clearly reflecting the violence of the nuclear explosions of 1945 - powerfully describe the horrors left behind by battle as a city lies in flames. The emphasis in this song is not so much on a clear melody, as it is on establishing a powerful mood to match the lyrics.
This mournful mood is continued in the ninth song "Torches" which - using words from The Mahabharata - describes the sad fate of the victims of war. The melody, the instrumentation, and the singing in this song are all quite subdued as if fearful of disturbing the dead. Only the final word of this song, torches, is sung loud and angrily. This is a powerful composition in its imagery and execution.
"Agnus Dei" - asks for divine peace. Using traditional Latin invocations of a mass, the ecclesiastical style of this song demonstrates Jenkins' talent for writing powerful choral pieces.
Using a lyric by the current Master of the Royal Armouries himself, "Now The Guns Have Stopped" is a carefully song of mourning and loneliness sung by a weary battle survivor. This beautiful, sparse, chilling threnody describes the horror of war at a very intimate level.
Adiemus fans will know the melody "Benedictus" since Jenkins used it as the title track on The Eternal Knot. Here the song starts out as a quiet instrumental; the choir follows, sounding as if singing from a great hall or church in the distance. Once the orchestra's horn section chimes in, the chorus becomes a powerful song of praise with a strong melody.
The concluding track - "Better is Peace" - initially sets its message to the same melody that started the song cycle - "The Armed Man" - but with a more upbeat performance. At this point, this contrast might seem ironic, but Jenkins might also use this method to see how the call for peace negates the call to arms by appropriating its melody. Using joyful instrumentation, cheerful choral vocals, and encouraging words by Tennyson, this song truly establishes a new beginning, with high hopes and good wishes. Out of all songs in this collection, this would be the one most likely to be performed by itself.
After experiencing The Armed Man as a whole, the listener is left with a sense of awe. Jenkins has taken the listener through a broad range of emotions and has not shunned the more horrific aspects of war and suffering - all the better to make the argument against it. As such, this mass has a remarkably strong point of view.
It is also clear that Jenkins meant for this song cycle to be experienced as a whole: the composition and execution of these songs creates a wonderful overall experience, yet it is difficult to separate out a song and have it stand on its own. Each song is part of the larger story, each song makes sense as part of the overall composition, and by itself each song seems to be missing its context.
It must also be noted that the powerful imagery of this song cycle cannot easily be separated from world events. Jenkins notes this as he dedicates the work to the victims of the Kosovo tragedy. At the present, this composition rings true once again and the incorporation of both Christian and Muslim texts and melodies provide a powerful commentary on the disagreements between followers of these and other faiths.
Listeners familiar with the Adiemus recordings will find a whole new side to Jenkins' talent on this CD. While this may not be for everyone, there is no denying the sincerity of the composition's argument and the enthusiasm of its execution. This album is therefore highly recommended.
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