‘A meditation on light, energy, the collapse of time and the fabric of the entire universe – and our extraordinary and ambitious methods of survival within it’ – on Sizewell beach with the Exaudi vocal ensemble in Ligeti’s Lux aeterna…….
Every year I mean to go to the Aldeburgh Festival and, every year, by the time I remember, it is already over. But not this year. Although, by the time I remembered (last Tuesday) there were only five days left and only one day on which I was actually free, Wednesday. And all that was on offer on Wednesday was, according to the website, ‘Everlasting Light – A reflection on Sizewell. Meet in Sizewell car park at 9pm’. I got the last ticket.
I also got, probably, the last B&B room in Aldeburgh, in the grandly named Eaton House which, on arrival looked both grandly Victorian and grandly and austerely uncomfortable. Surprisingly, when you had climbed to the second floor, it turned out to be sparklingly clean, newly painted, comfortable and friendly with a view between the posh hotels to the beach.
For those who have not been to Aldeburgh, it is a classic English seaside town from the picture postcard era. An endless ‘front’ of small balconied, mid to late Victorian houses, each one slightly different, each one painted a different pastel shade (powder blue, marshmallow pink, turquoise, lemon yellow), each one looking out to the sea. Although in Aldeburgh’s case the shingle beach is now mounded so high and the fisherman’s huts (selling fish that ‘if it were any fresher would not yet have been caught’) so numerous, that the sea is only visible from their roofs.
Although bustling during the day, by 7pm Aldeburgh slumbers. To fortify myself for Sizewell car park all I could find was the ‘Golden Cod’ – small, friendly and filled with locals downing prodigious helpings of the ‘the Captain’s Catch’ with mushy peas. I made do with the Midshipman’s catch, which still far exceeded my capacity and sadly, tasted as though it had spend most of its life in an Iceland freezer rather than the North Sea – but it certainly fortified.
Sizewell Beach is a couple of houses, a car park and small café on the dunes just south of the power station. When I got there at around 8pm the long, slow East Anglian sunset was tinting the sea and the sky gold as they stretched way out across the north sea until they finally met. The sun was so low that, as I walked up the beach past the power station, meeting two dogs and one fisherman on my way, my shadow was projected way out over the breaking waves.
At 9pm I was back in the car park, along with around 250 other hopefuls, mainly locals, all well wrapped in woollies and equipped with brollies. We checked in at the Festival mini caravan and were given a tiny torch and small plastic ball on a key ring which we were assured, really did contain a raincoat! After some fifteen minutes of general milling, and an ill-advised hot chocolate from the café, a group of six young men, dressed in 1950s suits, horn rimmed glasses and carrying umbrellas and scores, took up position in front of the café and sang us a madrigal. (I have no idea what either this or the subsequent madrigals were as I never managed to find a programme. However, the lady standing beside me said that as far as she could understand hers, it was a mediation on mathematics….)
The madrigal finished, they took to their heels (literally) and ran off while we were given a cushion to sit on and encouraged to head round to the dunes on the sea side of the café and take a seat infront of the fishermens’ sheds.
The young men returned, now boosted by four young ladies in 1950 turquoise suits with short straight skirts and pill box hats, all with their scores now lit by nifty little battery powered lights clipped to the top. (I never did quite discover the significance of the 1950s dress.) Another half dozen very pleasant madrigals ensued only interrupted by what we presumed was the fisherman who owned the hut trudging past the singers with assorted fishing gear – until, on his third trip, he brought parafin lamps and set them down in front of the singers. By this time it was getting quite dark.
On the completion of the madrigals, the singers once again took to their heels and we were given blankets and brollies and marshalled out onto the dunes and along the beach toward the power station.
I am not very familiar with nuclear power stations, so maybe they all look the same but Sizewell comes in two parts. A large, low square blue building with no windows, on top of which sits a white dome, and a massive rectangular concrete building flanked by two, same height, rectangular ‘towers’. During the second madrigals a huge bank of dense, charcoal grey clouds had welled up behind the power station, and as we walked towards it, the white dome stood out against these grey mountains, peaks tinged with gold by the last rays of the sun, like a giant East Anglian mosque.
Once opposite the rectangular part of the building we were encouraged to make ourselves comfortable on our cushions while a now greatly enlarged groups of singers took up their place in front of the power station to sing Ligeti’s haunting, asymmetrical Lux Aeterna. The piece starts with a lone female voice and then swells to engage the full complement of singers. Sadly, the organisers did not quite have the courage of their convictions and, fearing that even the full group of singers would not be able to compete with the wind and the waves, they had amplified them – and not very well. So instead of hearing the magical purity of the human voice, enhanced by the murmur of wind and distant wave, the sound one heard more closely resembled what you might expect in a dance hall.
But, no matter… As the singing swelled, thin lines of light started to roll down the face of the power station, meeting then crossing into a cat’s cradle bisecting the building’s face. Bird’s flew onto and around the lines then dissolved into the abstract shapes of the internal machinery of the power station, then into the full panoply of the heavens, then into mathematical calculations, then into the swelling sea. Each image covered the whole massive side of the power station until, with the music, they finally faded leaving only the wind and the sea.
Like midnight explorers, we clambered to our feet and waving our glow-worm torches, trudged back across the dunes to our cars, and drove away into the night.
I am sure that I will go to the Alderburgh Festival again – and I am sure that concerts in the wonderful Maltings concert hall at Snape will thrill and enthral, but I doubt that they will ever be etched in my memory quite as deeply as Lux Aeterna in Sizewell car park…