Hell's Angels, Opus 81
If one were to cast a glance at Paul Patterson's impressively varied oeuvre since 1980, it would be easy to conclude that from then on he thoroughly abjured his earlier, aggressively experimental persona in favour of writing music which was more "accessible" (to employ a term much abused in recent musical parlance).
Easy, but wrong. Though his output from the Concerto for Orchestra onwards reveals a move towards more traditional modes of address, Patterson has never wholly forsaken his old, anarchic roots, as one can ascertain from his coruscating orchestral seascape White Shadows on the Dark Horizon (1989), and now Hell's Angels.
Setting a text by Ben Dunwell interleaved with extracts from Milton's Paradise Lost and the Old Testament, Hell's Angels further diversified a choral output spanning the whole of Patterson's career and already notable for its variety. As a work, it bears little relation to the outgoing, celebratory works which appeared on either side of it (such as the Te Deum (1988), the Magnificat (1993) and, most recently, the Southwell Millennium Mass (1999)). It bears a closer kinship with the nightmarish phantasmagoria of Voices of Sleep (1979), and especially the glowering violence of the Requiem (1973). This kinship acquires a specific level as well as a general level in that both the Requiem and Hell's Angels employ the Dies Irae chant (a familiar visitor to the concert hall through the auspices of Berlioz and George Crumb, among others). But Hell's Angels is not merely a backward glance to earlier, wilder days: Patterson is too thoughtful and inventive a composer to repeat himself. The scoring for amplified string quartet and 4 percussionists is a new departure and the resulting search for new, striking sonorities (a persistent preoccupation throughout his career) finds Patterson's imagination at full stretch here. One could quote many examples, but the bowed polystyrene cups' acidulous shrieks which open the fourth movement, Destruction!, and subsequently spur it on to immolation, are unique even by his standards.
The first movement is a frantic, fire-breathing roll-call of fallen angels, with jazzed-up fragments of Dies Irae running rampant. It collapses without a break into the second movement, The clouds of hell, a lengthy plateau of oppressive stillness pitting a series of solo soprano recitatives against a chorus seething with clicks, rattles and hisses, the atmosphere being like the calm before a storm. Only near the end does all this bottled-up tension find release in a sudden, cacophonous outburst.
Once the music has subsided into a black hole of silence, the third movement sets upon its trajectory. Acting as an even-tempered intermezzo in what is otherwise Patterson's most abrasively confrontational choral work to date, the third movement, Gonna take a run, seems to gaze in the direction of America's West Coast. A polished send-up of the kind of minimalist writing exemplified by Steve Reich (but leavened with a healthy dose of Patterson-esque jazziness), this movement seems to conjure up visions of a huge formation of leather-clad bikers cruising down the California highways with an unstoppable, almost fearsomely graceful momentum as the music undergoes a subtly gauged acceleration encompassing almost the whole of the movement's 7-minute span. By the sonorous climax near the end, the music is careering at a tremendous rate, and as the climax disperses, Patterson slams on the brakes, and for just a few moments, we watch the bikers disappear over the horizon before the music ceases.
From the third movement's bikers, the angry fourth movement, Destruction!, flings the listener in the middle of a baying lynch mob. It is the shortest of the work's five movements, and like its predecessor it accelerates through its entire course. But this time the process is far more rapid, abrupt and violent. The chorus, split into two deeply antagonistic halves, speaks, jeers, laughs and shouts throughout as the percussion, alongside the bowed polystyrene cups, drives the music to a paroxysm of mass hysteria.
Following the climactic conflagration, the final Vision steals in, returning to something like the stillness of the second movement. And it is here that the profound ambiguity at the heart of the work comes to the surface. As the fallen angels opt for eternal damnation, repudiating life, the solo soprano utters lines from Psalm 139:Whither shall I flee from thy presence?If I ascend up into Heaven, thou art there,If I make my bed in Hell, thou art there. For it is here that the work's Credo, so to speak, comes to the surface. Nowhere in this work is God mentioned by name, but what Michael Lindvall calls "the dreadful omniscience of God" lies at the work's core. And it is here that Patterson ends Hell's Angels: in limbo, unresolved, with the final beatific sheen of choral sound punctured by a final, lingering fragment of Dies Irae.
Programme note by Paul Pellay 1998 rev. 2000