Criticism from a distance – an intrepid soprano surveys the ecological debate on chamber music | Classical music

A Laura Bowler’s bald description of Distance would be chamber music for soprano and quintet. But when that soprano is the fearless Juliet Fraser breaking sound barriers, collaborating with members of the fearsome New York-based Talea Ensemble, that’s another matter.

Bowler created a multimedia work for them that challenges the listener aural, establishing an engagement with the ethics of flight and its implications for the environment. In the video preamble, an interactive questionnaire invited the public – via mobiles – to invest themselves personally in the work to follow, by questioning their conscience. Similarly, Bowler had interviewed Fraser, using her feelings about flight as a recurring feature in the text of Distance, making Fraser’s identity as a musician an implied part of the work. Quotations from the book Correspondences by anthropologist Tim Ingold have also been incorporated.

Distance premiered at the Aberdeen’s Sound festival in October last year, with a performance given at the Spitalfields festival the day before this third release in Cheltenham. Walking onto the Parabola stage as if on an airplane with his carry-on backpack, Fraser looked preoccupied as someone ambivalent about the flight, but that may have included a moment of apprehension about the logistics of the performance: Talea players – alto flute/piccolo, clarinet/bass clarinet, cello, double bass and lively percussion – were broadcast live from New York. In fact, the coordination tricks were done perfectly by the Distance tech team, embodying the complex questions Bowler was raising about distance and communication.

Still, Fraser was the magnetic focus. Whether speaking the words, sometimes just the letters, breathing, panting, throwing notes or high phrases – the section with the periodically reiterated “I’m flying” was the most remarkable – his vocal poise was fascinating. In the post-amble, it emerged that Fraser herself had pledged not to fly, thereby reducing her own carbon footprint. Not just a wonderful performer, then.

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