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Like Tehillim, Nicholas Lens’ Flamma Flamma: The Fire Requiem is based on a venerable religious tradition and is sung in an ancient language. Herman Portocarero’s libretto is in Latin and qualifies, loosely, as a requiem. Both music and lyrics, however, flavor Western classicism with Eastern ingredients: The piece incorporates singers from the Bulgarian Le Mystere Des Voix Bulgares and kotos, Japanese stringed instruments, while it ecstatically commends human remains to the flames of cremation: “To ash dissolve the body/To sun send back the spirit/From worms preserve the flesh/May fire conquer gloom.”
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More triumphant than elegiac, Flamma is exuberantly post-minimalist, though not entirely unindebted to minimalism’s primal pulse (check the hot throb that animates the opening “Hic Iacet”). Atop that pulse, though, Lens arrays orthodox classical components long spurned by Reich and his peers. Indeed, the 76-minute piece is largely based on the contrast between the choral singing of a trio of the Bulgarian women—“raw, unpolished natural voices,” Lens somewhat patronizingly labels them—and a sextet of classically trained vocalists. The latter’s ostentatious, vibrato-heavy performances are just the sort of bel canto overkill that Reich wisely forgoes.
Most of its musical elements are traditional, but Flamma’s aggressive eclecticism couldn’t be more up-to-date. Rock has spiced Western melodicism with Eastern modalism since the Byrds’ 5D, and the East/West contrast is one of the “new” angles that characterizes contemporary electropop. Lens may not be a Leftfield fan, but it’s significant that he’s credited only with “keyboards” and that the album “was made possible” by Sun microcomputers. (And if the thumping “Flamma Flamma” and “In Corpore” don’t merit a dance remix, they certainly deserve to be sampled for one.)
Mirroring Lens’ musical strategies, Portocarero’s lyrics contrast the once-solemn requiem form with a more smartass modern sensibility. As translated in the CD booklet, Flamma includes such pensive reflections on death as “Father is dead/We hate him and we love him/Whose blood and name/We carry without relief” and “Woe the widow/Woe the children/Move your butt woman.” Needless to say, such lines sound more grave in Latin.
Where The Cave’s American commentators are altogether too disconnected from religious mysteries, Flamma strives laughably to be sufficiently Dionysian: “Immaculate/White lamb/May the slaughtering knife/Not hesitate on your throat/Strike priest/And let the blood well up/From smoking entrails/Like a flame,” exclaims “Agnus Purus,” an attempt to damn PETA and move full speed behind into the pagan past. Flamma is too grounded in 19th-century pomp to make such a leap, however.
Musically, Flamma provides more thrills than The Cave, but philosophically its impulses are more suspect. Lens’ acceptance and even exaltation of death seems less philosophical than operatic; he may want to be Heraclitus (for whom the universe was “an ever-living fire”), but he sounds more like Wagner or Strauss. Lens’ pomposity, though, is integral to the effect Flamma achieves. At its most cogent, the piece contrasts Western bombast with Eastern astringency, and such moments would of course be impossible if the bombast had been banished.CP