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Christmas night beyond the Sound Barrier: what does it all mean?

The Sound Barrier for Sunday 25 December 2016

It is difficult to work out what to play when your show falls on Christmas Day. But one thing was clear – it is The Sound Barrier, so it couldn't be anything too conventionally Christmassy; it is PBS Radio, so it couldn't be anything too well-know; and it is the very end of the day so it couldn't be anything too sugary.

So, for tomorrow's night's edition of the show, I have decided to opt for three big pieces that in different ways highlight what I imagine many of you have been asking not only around Christmas time but throughout much of the past year, which seems to have had more than its fair share of the inexplicable: what does it all mean?

The first half of the show will be devoted to two works that ask, and refuse to answer, precisely that question: Vanity (1990-1994) for large orchestra by Richard Barrett, a work that explores the indecipherable meanings such as those captured and hidden in the 16th- and 17th-century 'Vanitas' still life paintings, particularly in the Netherlands, where vitality and inertness seem to be masks for one another; and No hay camonios, hay que caminar… Andrej Tarkowskij (1987) for seven orchestral groups: Luigi Nono's tribute to the great Soviet film director, and to the endless human restlessness that searches but never finds.

In the second half of the show I will be playing a piece that answers these unanswerable questions with all the ambiguity and unease that they imply: LUZIFERs ABSCHIED ('Lucifer's Farewell') (1982), the final scene from Karlheinz Stockhausen's opera SAMSTAG aus LICHT ("Saturday from Light'). Performed in a church, 39 Luciferian monks, underscored by a droning organ and punctuated by 13 cluster chords from seven trombones, sing and chant Saint Francis of Assisi's tribute to the Virtues, in a work where horror and humour, profundity and banality, darkness and light, all seem to occupy the same space. It's as if life's answers are infinitely more bewildering than the questions that led us to them.

End your Christmas Day in the darkness and the light, together, with me, on PBS at 10 PM (AEDT), either on radio 106.7 on the Melbourne FM band, or on PBS Digital; or from anywhere in the world via the PBS smartphone app or online. As well as listening live, you can also listen back afterwards, here on the website, where the audio archive will be available shortly after the show has gone to air.

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