The Heart of the Singer: A Contemporary Lament
And the Redeeming Power of Music
By Richard Knox
Master Chorale devotees won’t be surprised to encounter another concert with an edge. That’s a hallmark of Music Director Dan Perkins. In fact, there’s a good chance this program – in large part a lament for a damaged environment and humanity’s troubled psyche – may seem even edgier in retrospect as the 17th year of a new millennium limps to a close.
You have to admit it’s hard to find much optimism right now about the state of the Earth and the future of the 7.6 billion souls who inhabit it.
Every turn of the planet offers fresh occasions for anxiety and despair. The other week, 13 federal agencies certified that Earth is warming to levels unprecedented in recorded history, a recipe for more extreme weather. Nuclear holocaust suddenly seems more thinkable than it has in a generation. Tribal hostilities -- in rich and poor nations alike -- undercut any sense of commonality. To top if off, many Earthlings harbor a queasy feeling that we’ve entered a “post-truth” era.
All this was top-of-mind as Perkins rummaged through piles of musical scores last spring, pondering the shape of this concert. He was struck by a score called The Wound in the Water by an up-and-coming Norwegian composer Kim André Arnesen, with words by Welsh librettist Euan Tait. It premiered only last year, which accounts for its up-to-the-minute sensibility.
“The text, in particular, resonated with the general angst I was (and am) feeling,” Perkins says, “about the disastrous human (social/political) and physical (pollution, global warming) condition in which we find our world.”
Perkins’ decision to perform The Wound “has only become more relevant since last spring,” he says, “considering the myriad recent environmental and social disasters – if that’s the right term for mass shootings.”
The text can certainly be read in a literal way. Some passages plainly allude to climate change: “What now are the seasons? Where will we go to be at home as the ground melts under our feet?” Others mourn the “poisoned” environment, damaged by humankind’s headlong pursuit of Mammon – the drive for material gain, the inborn desire to possess “what we think we want.”
Still other sections paint pictures of exiles set adrift on a terrifying sea. They might well be the desperate refugees from current headlines who flee from war-torn Syria, or the persecuted Rohingya Muslims pouring out of Myanmar. The chorus sings of “the strangers who came to us guessing, full of troubled beliefs,” only to meet the “unexpected hiss” of hate and rejection. They too are called “victims of mammon.”
At the same time, The Wound is a more abstract and universal metaphor. The polluted seas stand for wounded human souls, “the Mind’s Ocean,” in the depths of which lurk the monstrous creature Mammon, whose bellow “tears the waters and leaves them wounded, poisoned.”
In this less literal reading, we are all refugees exiled from our souls’ home and tossed on an “endless sea” of anxiety and unwholesome desire.
But where is that home from which 21st-century humans are exiled? The Wound points to it in a concluding section called “The Heart of the Singer” – a phrase Perkins has chosen as the touchstone for the entire concert. That longed-for home is located in the shared desire of connection, of love and empathy for our fellow human travelers in a broken world.
Music offers that yearned-for connection, the piece tells us – specifically the experience of shared song: “…We know we are helplessly singing,” the lyrics say, “and seeking whatever in us we cannot stop, the song ceaseless, leaping, our utter yes.”
Perkins hopes audiences will hear The Wound in this metaphorical way, not as merely topical. “I prefer to allow the entire piece to serve as an acknowledgement, a call to action and, as the composer notes, ‘a journey towards healing,’” he says.
Paradoxically, Arnesen’s musical setting of the troubling themes is lush and lyrical. A section called “The Shadow of the Boat,” for instance, sets tranquil chords under word-images of terrified refugees – like a movie sound track of an ethereal Dona nobis pacem underneath scenes of mayhem.
“Considering the darkness of the text,” Perkins says, “I think Arnesen’s harmonic language helps to balance the experience for both singers and the audience.”
Arnesen is squarely in the current mold of contemporary choral composers – think of Morten Lauridsen, Stephen Paulus or New Hampshire’s own Nicholas White. There’s a hazard in such beauteous harmonies. Listenable as they unquestionably are, they can come across as merely beautiful, and even sentimental.
So, too, can lyrics that haven’t stood the test of time – as conventional choral settings of the high canon of poetry classically have. The lyrics of The Wound are written specifically for this new piece in close collaboration with the composer. “It’s a great concept, and one I’m seeing more of,” Perkins says.
Euan Tait specializes in such collaborations. He calls himself a librettist rather than a poet, and has worked frequently with Arnesen. Not coincidentally, Tait also spends much of his time as a leader of spiritual retreats. One commentator has compared him to “Wordsworth without Wordsworth’s vague sense of pantheism” and says Tait’s “profound and rich spiritual life…keeps his poems from floating into sentimentality.”
Perkins is aware of the danger. “As always,” he says, “I believe our interpretation of the music – as conductors and singers – plays a determining role in keeping this style of music from becoming maudlin. In this case, the richness and depth of the texts help to save us.”
Also on this program are uplifting movements from Sunrise Mass for chorus and strings by Ola Gjeilo, another contemporary Norwegian composer. And for something completely different, Perkins and his singers offer Cells Planets, a playful a cappella song about the unity of the universe, from the microscopic to the cosmic. The piece is by Erika Lloyd in a bubbly arrangement by Vince Peterson known from a recording by the virtuoso singing group Chanticleer.
Maybe it will be enough to make you optimistic again – at least for a little while.
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