Walking down the steps to the Old Vic Tunnels, which were covered in graffiti and grime, it felt like a grungy, punk rock club lay at the end of this lackluster pathway. But once inside the Tunnels, it was clear that these dark, stone caves were the perfect space for a performance of Jessica Curry’s new choral work, Perpetual Light: Requiem for an Unscorched Earth.
A true collaboration of art and music, a series of art installations by Jo Fairfax greeted newcomers as they walked through the underground maze. In the first room, strings of airplane bomber lights hovered above, immediately recalling iconic black-and-white stills from World War II. Walking past the planes, the next room stopped us dead in our tracks. Lit by candles circling the room, it was clear this room was meant to serve as a memorial for all those that perished in the air strikes. Struck by the serious pallor of the art installations, the precedent was set for the haunting musical performance to come.
A fusion of live choir, film and installation, Perpetual Light featured the Londinium choir, conducted by Andrew Griffiths. Created to remember those who lost their lives in the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II, Perpetual Light was more than a memorial piece; it challenged listeners to face the ravages of war head-on, but also to celebrate our innate will to survive. The fact that nuclear energy has not destroyed humanity lies at the heart of Curry’s piece. Written for an a cappella choir, the use of solo voice was a poignant choice. A symbol of humanity’s natural beauty, the solo voice served as a direct contrast to the ultimate, man-made destructive device: the atomic bomb.
Musically, the piece was rich and ethereal throughout. An exquisite mix of atonal and tonal music, Perpetual Light was a dark, tormented piece, punctuated by moments of brightness. It was these moments that radiated hope, the emotional thread that tied the whole piece together. From start to finish, Londinium perfectly captured this delicate emotion, without ever losing the provocative torment that defined Curry’s work.
Layered atop this lush musical texture, Curry incorporated age-old Requiem text with excerpts from writings of Robert Oppenheimer, creator of the atomic bomb. Using both Latin and English, Perpetual Light was both musically compelling and easy to understand. Although the lyrics may have been too literal at points, there was a moment of silence in the piece (followed by a 20-second countdown), that was particularly powerful, placing the audience right in the heart of a nuclear attack.
Overall, Perpetual Light was an extremely compelling piece. The combination of film, art and music crafted a powerful message that was both sobering and enlightening. And the context for Perpetual Light was perfect. Hearing the trains at Waterloo station rumbling overhead, the whole space felt more like a bomb shelter, and we were all gathered in the Tunnels anticipating a nuclear attack. Although Perpetual Light was meant to memorialize those who perished in history, reflecting upon recent events at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan gave the music additional resonance. Curry’s music did more than dig up the ghosts of our past; it shed light and hope upon the future of humanity.