Sixteen Alleluias

Kindlehill Performance Space, December 4


Adam Simmons and Nick Tsiavos. Photo: Lona Logan.

Not that I was there, but it’s safe to say that the Alleluias – modal sacred songs – of the Byzantine Church didn’t sound like this in the sixth century. Pieces created for unaccompanied voices were being realised by Adam Simmons’ soprano saxophone and Nick Tsiavos’ double bass, the effect vaguely akin to Ray Charles singing Verdi’s Requiem. As they proved decisively on their album Sixteen Alleluias, however, it works.

Nor could the project find a much better home than the round, mudbrick-walled Kindlehill Performance Space. Neither instrument was amplified, and yet both could muster a room-filling enormity on occasion, or fade to the faintest halo of sound.

Best known as improvisers, Simmons and Tsiavos partially shelved those skills to interpret the music of a faith, a culture and an era blessed with opulent melodic material. Tsiavos likened what they do to looking at a sculpture from different angles, although perhaps it was more like changes in the light illuminating said object: sometimes bright, sometimes dappled, and sometimes haunted by deep shadows.

The raw material was mostly slow, stately and sparse. Tsiavos exclusively played with his bow (other than on an extraordinary solo improvisation based on his own The Floor of Heaven). Often he was providing ostinatos while the soprano took flight, Simmons constantly playing with timbre, tone and grain, at times almost torturing a note to squeeze it of all its meaning. A compelling dichotomy routinely existed between the dignity of the line and the primal, emotion-charged statement of it.

Tsiavos could make the bass share the foreground with the saxophone by generating a coarser sound, as if anchoring the sacred in a secular world. On some pieces the bass was more turbulent and rhythmic, whereupon the saxophone could be contrastingly serene, or Simmons could intensify its rawness and anguished vocal qualities, as he did in his own unaccompanied improvisation. The staggering achievement was to make music that simultaneously could seem as old as the very concept of god, and yet be as fresh as tomorrow.