The new wave of choral music - A Living Keyboard, Beck Laxton (Choir & Organ, July/August 1997, UK)

Carl Rütti's name is just on the verge of becoming familiar: the occasional radio broadcast, an increasing number of recordings, and a widening circle of fervent admirers are evidence of the growing popularity of his music. This Swiss composer, in his late 40s, unassuming in appearance, diffident by nature, writes choral music that's sensuous and exuberant by turns, combining dazzling rhythms and soaring melodies with distinctively lush harmonies. But his earliest pieces were written for the piano, and back in the 70s he was considering a career as a concert pianist when he graduated from the Zürich Conservatoire and paid his first visit to England...

'In London, I found out what real music is. England is different to every other country because of its singing. The straight tone, completely pure, and a special sound: the fifths are not the fifths you're used to - they're pure fifths, perfect fifths. Then the high standard, every voice equal to the others in the choir. In Switzerland, if you have a good voice you don't sing in a choir.

'A piano's just a piano - it's not the voice. Just a tone that dies away, and always a bit out of tune, even if the instrument's in a marvellous state. It's never a choir'.

Inspired by the singers at Brompton Oratory, where he spent most of his Sundays, Carl started writing vocal music, setting seven Rilke poems. The choir was sufficiently impressed to make a recording of the pieces, produced by Anthony Sargent - who then became producer of the BBC Singers, and recorded them again. One of the BBC Singers, Stephen Jackson, became Director of the BBC Symphony Chorus, and soon this choir was performing Rütti's music too. A radio broadcast led to the commissioning of a Magnificat and a Missa brevis for unaccompanied voices; it also caught the attention of Ian Moore, the conductor of an amateur choir called Cambridge Voices. After a search of several years, it wasn't until Moore was playing the accordion in an isolated Austrian monastery that he finally tracked the composer down. A fruitful partnership developed, as Carl learned more about what he could actually ask singers to do.

'When I wrote the Rilke motets. I just took the choir as an instrument, a living keyboard of human voices; I didn't care whether it was possible to sing the music or not. Now it's very important for me that I know the people I'm going to write for'. says the composer. For Cambridge Voices he wrote a stunning 13-part 0 Magnum Mysterium, developing from eerie hush to explosive Alleluyas over its five-minute length, and then seven Songs Of Love for choir accompanied by cello, richly sensual settings of the Song Of Solomon. The choir's recording of these - alongside Carl's new 'Gloria' for the Missa brevis, a dazzling display of rhythmic fireworks which had always delighted concert audiences, and an exquisite early four-part setting of the Lord's Prayer - was on sale just weeks before the BBC Symphony Chorus released their version of the 0 Magnum and a new piece written for them, Alpha Et Omega, plus the expanded Missa brevis, for which everyone had suggested extra movements until the composer had to rename it. He called it Missa Angelorum, a play on the Latin pun between 'English' and 'angels', saying that the angels in heaven must sound like English choirs.

Word of this wonderful new music was spreading, and Carl's next project for Cambridge Voices followed the trend of ever-increasing forces: it was a full-blooded oratorio, Verena, die Quelle (Verena, the Source), based on the life of a fourth-century saint. Looking for the maximum of instrumental timbres from the minimum of players, Carl added to violin, cello, harp, and harpsichord a clarinettist who could also play the hammer dulcimer, and then drafted in Ian Moore's busking partner Michael Copley to perform on flute, alto flute, bass flute, ocarinas, crumhorn, recorders, and rauschpfeife. The result, performed throughout Switzerland and then released on a double CD, is a stunning mixture of aural textures. The sonorous harmonies and rhythmic vitality stem partly from the composer's love of jazz - he names Louis Armstrong, Cannonball Adderley and Miles Davis as influences, and still plays piano in a jazz trio. In fact, he had no formal training in classical composition at all...

'I once went to a composer in Switzerland and showed him one of my eraliest pieces, for piano, and he said, "Oh, how nice these days to be able to write such naïve music!" So I decided not to take composition lessons.

'Inspiration is something you don't get through education - you can't learn it. And if you don't have it, music is nothing. I was afraid that I'd lose all the joy of composing if I was educated in it. I don't search for a personal language; I just look for what is the suitable voice or musical expression for the text, or the emotion I want to present'.

In his native country his contemporaries have not been encouraging: I get the feeling that they have to think, if they have other ideas about music, that this is sentimental music. But I don't care! It's too short, life, to write in other styles than the one you like'. 

Carl is straightforward and unpretentious about his work.

This idea of the artist as a genius is so silly; it was the Romantic composers who made Beethoven a genius. Then a new generation came, Honegger and Stravinsky, who wanted to prove that they were workers, not geniuses. So now we can work with emotions again without being connected with the romantic heritage. Ours is a time when everything can be connected together, whether things belong or not. Ten or 20 years ago, if you'd written tonal music everyone would have said you're crazy - you're out of date. But today it's accepted. I'm very, very grateful to Tavener and Pärt!'

If his tunefulness is old-fashioned, his technology is bang up to date: Carl has discovered Finale scoring software just at the right moment for his next project, the most ambitious yet. Inspired by Tallis's Spem In Alium, he has started (coincidentally, just at the same time as Giles Swayne) to compose a motet for 40 voices. Veni Creator Spiritus uses the same disposition of voices and spatial placement as the Tallis piece - eight choirs arranged around the listener, each choir 'with five voices: soprano, alto, tenor, baritone, and bass - but it's based on Gregorian chant, and developed on a far grander scale than Spem; its première will be in the glorious acoustic of Ely Cathedral's Lady Chapel.

And after a 40-part motet, what can he possibly do next?

'I don't know what the future will bring', Carl shrugs. 'Never mind! I've got good groups to perform my music. I'm very happy with this'.

Beck Laxton