Les Origines Humaines

by Andrew Hugill

Commissioned by The Elysian Singers (conductor Matthew Greenall)
with funds made available by the Holst Foundation

The premiere of Andrew Hugill's Les Origines Humaines took place at St. Johns, Smith Square, London on February 24th, 1996, at 7.30 p.m.

The Elysian Singers (conducted by Matthew Greenall) ascended the stage to start the second half dressed unexpectedly all in green. They scattered across the stage then suddenly squatted and poked out their tongues at the audience. These tongues were also painted green! Then a human frog chorus began...

The work sets texts by Jean-Pierre Brisset, edited by Andrew Hugill. Brisset (1857-1923), ironically dubbedThe Prince of Thinkers by the Surrealists, was a minor functionary at the Angers-Saint-Serge railway station, Normandy. His contribution to philology stops at nothing short of a complete explanation of the Universe, incorporating God, Mankind and Nature in a linguistic theory which affirms the belief that similar sounds have the same meaning, in any language, regardless of apparent differences in their dictionary definitions.

In his book, Les Origines Humaines, Brisset charts the evolution of Man from Frog, proving this bizarre variant of Darwinist theory by dissecting language. According to Brisset, the first word-formations were spoken by our frog-ancestors as responses to their gradually dawning self-consciousness; thus,quoi? and -pourquoi? become primal questions croaked by beings emerging from a prehistoric soup. Through an incredible network of puns, which completely redefine whole dictionaries according to the sounds of words, Brisset creates a totally significant Universe which resoundingly affirms the opening of John's Gospel: In the Beginning was the Word...

Hugill's composition opens with a human-frog chorus and proceeds to chart the development of humankind through language and song, organised into a kind of heretical history of music. The text is predominantly in French, although occasional words in other European languages do appear. The music ranges from writing for 36 soloists to conventional SATB composition, and there is a certain amount of speech. The music covers a diverse range of choral and vocal styles, and transformations from one style to another are sometimes rapid.

I: Au Commencement...

A human frog-chorus develops into a statement of part of the opening of John's Gospel. The choir collectively searches for a pitch.

II: ...Etait La Parole

Puns on: O; Aux; Eau; Haut. Music and frogs begin to develop.

III: Les Ancetres

4-part organum, Perotin-style (12th Century, Notre Dame) with plainsong and clausulae. But the modes are unusual and the music gargoily. The text describes the physical development of our ancestors from frogs to early man.

IV: La Nourriture

Folk-ish jig, but with interruptions and unexpected violence, as big frogs start to eat little frogs and men acquire a taste for the legs of other creatures...

V: La Grande Loi

A 36-part motet in Renaissance style (Ockeghem more than Tallis), but with some unexpected moments, in keeping with the meanings of the text.

VI: L'Apparition du Sexe

Brisset imagines early man examining himself and struggling to answer the question that occurs to him: Qu'est-ce que c'est que ca? Highly rhythmical, yet slightly vacuous...

VII: Le Calembour

A punning sequence of chords slowly evolves, whilst the choir quietly explores vocal harmonics. The text comprises huit/ne huit/nuit in several languages.

VIII: La Trinite

The choir divides into three. Choir I - vigorous fifths: you! you! you pippi! Youpiter! Choir 2 - sweet thirds: Y ai suce, Jesus. Choir 3 - mysterious clusters: l'esprit saint de l'homme sein d'esprit sain de...., etc. etc.

IX: Revelations et Diversites (l'art gothique = l'argotique)

A vast game-board of 18x18 squares. Individual members of the choir move around the board at will, within certain constraints. The text comprises the basic vowel and consonant sounds of the French language, arranged combinatorially in pairs. Music and words should emerge by chance from this Tower of Babel.