I was asked to write a 40-part motet, a companion piece for the famous Tallis setting of Spem In Alium, for the ORA Singers. I chose the Easter sprinkling song Vidi Aquam, and used the Tallis original as an inspiration in the way I utilised the eight five-voiced choirs, and how I moved the music from choir to choir, gradually building the sound up from one to forty voices, and making the music swing physically around the assembled singers.
To begin with the style hearkens back to the sound of sixteenth century polyphony, but gradually shifts into different, more modern textures. The strict counterpoint eventually subsides into a more impressionistic, hazy world where we hear closed mouth sounds and a ‘smudging’ of harmonies and textures. Sometimes there is a deliberate polytonal mixing of adjacent chords, highlighting the delayed echo effects that choirs can create in large, resonant buildings.
Like Tallis I use the full 40 voices only sparingly so as to emphasise certain high points in the text, like the ecstatic ‘alleluias’ or at the words ‘et omnes.’ I have attempted a painterly approach with all these voices, trying to use them like an orchestra on occasions to build rich and ethereal colours. The final, full-voiced ‘alleluia’ is extended, and involves an unexpected harmonic shift in the last few bars.