26 APRIL 2003, Page 50

Beware the hissing serpent

Robin Holloway

Uncanny and wonderful, to be locked up last week in the cathedral at Ely for four successive evenings from seven to ten at night, free to roam everywhere: up and down the mighty Norman nave, in and out of its chunky aisles; round each swingingly rhythmic transept; in and out of the choir and the wide ambulatory around it, furnished with opulent mediaeval monuments and shrines, some of them complete intricate miniature buildings in their own right; up the sloping passage to the Lady Chapel, luminous by day but frightening in the dark, with the upraised arms of a new statue of the Virgin (by day garish and blowzy as a ship's figurehead) outlined dimly against the window as if flinging a malediction or a hand grenade; and all around the crossing-space crowned far above by the miraculous Octagon, trying to avoid the clutter of heavy wooden furnishing surrounding the Low Altar, to see straight up into the mystic heights.

When not indulging these Pevsner-free rhapsodies, I flitted between three other locations within the vast space. First, a sort of ecclesiastical broom-cupboard piled with the discarded debris of ages, in which the recording team had set up its complex equipment, including phone-lines to the two other places, both for the performers — up in the organ loft, a narrow eyrie in the ornate woodcarving of the choirstalls. reached by a steep stair curled tight within its stone turret pierced by a design of deceptive laciness (if in your haste you banged your forehead against it the impact was hard to ignore) — and down before the High Altar, where the choirs of two Cambridge colleges, Caius (my own) and Clare, had combined under the direction of both their Kapellmeisters to make a compact, focused sound, brilliant where brilliance is needed; warm and full, tense and urgent, inwardly expressive, as required; excellent in stamina persisting throughout demanding sessions which often also required all their patience and good humour.

The organ was the problem: a fine specimen of its kind — the Anglican Monster — chosen as such for it suitedness to the job in hand, recording in a more ambient acoustic than a small college chapel can provide, the greater proportion of my output of church music — a Mass and Motet both with organ, together with a substantial Fantasy for organ alone. This particular beast, encrusted with coral or seaweedlike excrescenses, clung to the wall above

the stalls like a gigantic mollusc at bay, emitted amidst its range of desired and legitimate colours a repertoire of hisses, wheezes, burps, honks, groans, booming, farting, screeching, some of which showed disconcerting powers of prolongation that could only be terminated by switching off its electrical supply. Several gallant volunteers dealt with the succession of ciphering crises over the four evenings — local musicians who 'knew its ways' and could humour the creature; a deputy from the makers to adjust intonation (also subject to fluctuations and vapours); members of the choir who nobly took turns, 15 feet up into the pipework, to throttle for hours on end some hissing serpent that refused to be silenced any other way.

All in all the ingenuity with which its three players and their assistant coped with the nuisances and found viable alternatives aroused my interest as well as admiration. So much is contingent in this business: the acoustic, the pressure, the temperature, the placing of the microphones. the placing of power-points, the occasional passing of an aeroplane: let alone mood, temper, nerves! Total concentration alternated with tense thwarted interruption while yet another alien noise offended the air. Sometimes there wasn't even time for a tea-break: but one teabreak was nearly abandoned because there were no beakers (I found a cache of empty jamjars lurking in the recording glory-hole, awaiting just such a moment, once they'd been thoroughly washed up): more contingencies that have to be accommodated and by-passed, whether homely, or technical or artistic.

The full reward will be, eventually, a fine CD to stand as record of the music itself, as of a particular epoch in the lives of the persons and institutions that sing and play it. More immediate rewards, which the disc will not enshrine, are still vivid in my mind — a privileged tour, for ten of us or so, of the Octagon — up inside the extraordinary structure with its massive oak beams in lightness-of-being equipoise —looking down from the retractable panels into the body of the cathedral below, before ascending higher still, and out onto the leads, for views across the west tower, down the vertiginously high pitched roof, over the fascinating ex-monastery layout with the little town beyond — and, beyond that, the unmistakable sense that Ely really is an island, so natural was it to imagine fenny water as far in each direction as the eye could travel.

Then at the end of that same final day, the jubilant party back in Cambridge to celebrate, at which alcohol was at last permitted to flow free rather than squash, Pepsi, Coke. Having made my thanks all round I left comparatively early, thereby missing what possibly couldn't have happened had I stayed late, a wicked jazz improvisation upon the Credo from my mass. I wish the microphones had still been available for this exuberant communal gloss of the sensual upon the spiritual.