Belgian composer Nicholas Lens & Australian singer and songwriter Nick Cave present their lockdown album L.I.T.A.N.I.E.S
The Bad Seeds frontman Nick Cave has written 12 "litanies" for a new vocal work by Belgian composer Nicholas Lens
Lens describes L.I.T.A.N.I.E.S as "a pure form of poetry… a lyrical form of minimalism which might lead to a trance-like state"
All the musicians had to record their parts separately in Lens's home, and his artist daughter played keyboards, helped produce and even sang vocals on the recording – purely because she happened to be stuck in Brussels due to the travel ban
With L.I.T.A.N.I.E.S Lens continues one of his novel approaches to composition by collaborating with dynamic, fêted writers from way outside the classical world. His former work includes the operas Slow Man (2012), with Nobel and Booker Prize winner J.M. Coetzee, and Shell Shock (2014), also with Nick Cave
L.I.T.A.N.I.E.S is out now via Deutsche Grammophon
There are several things that Belgian composer Nicholas Lens and Australian singer and songwriter Nick Cave have in common, but chief among them is that neither likes to waste time. Very early into the COVID-19 pandemic, both realised that their respective schedules for 2020 were likely to be heavily disrupted. Lens was dismayed to see performances of his operas cancelled right through to the following year, likewise Cave saw an extensive tour of North America and Europe for his band The Bad Seeds put on ice until 2021.
Lens, who stunned international audiences in 2012 with his opera Slow Man, written with the Nobel Prize in Literature-winning novelist J.M. Coetzee, was not used to the sensation of having so much free time. He began to explore his home city of Brussels by bike and eventually the unusually deserted streets and newly clean air reminded him of another place entirely. The sense of peace took him back to a profoundly moving visit he had made to Yamanouchi, Kamakura – a verdant hillside neighbourhood in the Kanagawa Prefecture of Japan – site of the most ancient and highly treasured Rinzai Zen temples in the world.
He says: "The initial idea for L.I.T.A.N.I.E.S was born in the natural silence that rises from the rainy and vivid green forest that surrounds these 13th-century temples. And because my memory works in musical phrases, writing L.I.T.A.N.I.E.S has become my method of remembering the peace I found while visiting Japan as well."
Needing a lyricist to author words for his music, he contacted Nick Cave. The pair had already worked together on the 2014 opera Shell Shock, about the horrors of war. Lens recalls: "I wanted to work with someone who was fresh to this field; someone who was most believable and authentic in the way they would use words. Nick was obviously that person."
Cave takes up the story: "Nicholas called me during lockdown and asked if I would write ‘12 litanies'. I happily agreed. The first thing I did after I put down the phone was search ‘What is a litany?' I learned that a litany was ‘a series of religious petitions', and realised I had been writing litanies all my life."
He wrote 12 lyrical pieces that tracked the birth, blooming, fracturing and eventual rebirth of a human being and which were "petitions to a divine maker demanding some sort of cosmic acknowledgement". To Lens, the term suggests "a pure form of poetry… a lyrical form of minimalism which might lead to a trance-like state", and he acknowledges that both men have entirely different ideas about what L.I.T.A.N.I.E.S means.
Lens also cautions listeners who know him for his operatic output to expect something different here: "I would hate to irritate the opera purists! Maybe think of it more as a work of sleeping dreams, a trance trip that doesn't want to stop for an hour, a weird ride that takes the listener through strange turns…"
Out now via Deutsche Grammophon, the recording was very much a DIY affair and the "modest" chamber ensemble involved was mainly composed of people who simply happened to be around Lens during lockdown. Among the 11‑piece instrumental group who recorded L.I.T.A.N.I.E.S was his artist daughter Clara-Lane, who had found herself trapped in Brussels due to the travel ban. Under normal circumstances she has no interest in recording music, but here she found herself playing keyboards, helping out with production and even singing on some of the tracks. Because of the social distancing rules, each of the musicians had to come in and record his or her part separately, but the beautiful and moving finished work reveals a unified group working with a singular purpose. Studios were completely closed down so Lens arranged the sessions in his own home, and he feels that some of the atmosphere of the "dead and spooky city with its weird ambience" has permeated this special recording.
Lens laughs: "In the end, all of this was recorded in one room, so it literally is chamber music!"