Sunday, January 18, 2009

" adventure, art, and peace"--music & social conscience

As we prepare for the most significant presidential inauguration in recent memory, a fact made more resonant by the concurrent celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr Day, I find myself returning to what I call music of conscience--music that connects with historical issues, that raises awareness, that gives voice to the silenced, that remembers, that honors, that refuses to yield to the anesthetizing pull of the tides that would drown those voices. I have been working with our Young Singers Project singers on a challenging program of American Choral music called "How Can I keep from singing?" The title song of the program is a beloved Quaker hymn, and still a favorite in the Peace-church tradition (the protestant churches--Quaker, Amish, Brethren & Mennonite--that have been abolitionist and pacifist for centuries). The program also features settings of canonical American poets like Dickinson, Sandburg, and Frost, by Barber, Glass, and Thompson, respectively. In addition to other hymn settings by Alice Parker and Aaron Copland, the program's final sections are devoted to the spirituals of William Dawson and the music of our pre-eminent African-American composer, Adolphus Hailstork. One of Dolph's most beloved choral works is "A Carol for All Children." Setting an original poem, this "Carol" is a beautiful prayer resembling a lullaby, wishing love, joy, and peace for the children and the world they inhabit. We are also offering one of Hailstork's most gripping a capella works, "Crucifixion." Indebted to the traditions of the Black church, this work is a series of variations on the spiritual "He never said a mumblin' word" --a series that add up to an intense and moving, wholly original composition.

I had the pleasure and honor of hearing my colleague, Carl Haywood, director of choral activities at Norfolk State University, as guest organist at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Sunday service at Christ and St Luke's Episcopal Church in Norfolk. Following "Lift every voice and Sing" Dr Haywood played a rousing set of variations on "We shall overcome." Following church, I listened again to Hailstork's moving elegy to Dr King, "Epitaph," watched the opening Inauguration events at the Lincoln memorial, marveled on the historic circle connecting Lincoln to King to Obama, and began to create a playlist called "Music of Conscience."

Joining the Hailstork elegy and the choral works mentioned above on my (personal, subjecive) playlist are (thus far) about 11 additional hours of challenging, engaging, sometimes difficult, always affecting music written to oppose injustice, oppression, violence and to honor the memory of martyrs like Dr King and those whose names most of us will never know.

Yesterday, the MET, a beloved cultural institution whose reputation does not rest on contemporary, consciousness-raising operas, broadcast one of the most topical new works in the classical music world, "Doctor Atomic." John Adams is one of the most important voices in music today, and this is in no small part because of his cutting-edge operas. Adams' early music was indebted to the minimalist music of composers like Philip Glass and Steve Reich. While traces of that concentrated, repetitive & hypnotic style remain, Adams' music is entirely his own, assimilating techniques of modernism with tradition into a style that sounds like, well, Adams. His first two operas tackled politically challenging topics, and his courage in dealing with complex, even controversial subjects hasn't dimmed. I think it is a telling symptom of our political pusillanimity where "engaged art" is concerned that his opera on the murder of a Jewish American by Palestinian terrorists, "The Death of Klinghoffer" has not received a full production in the US since its creation. It has been criticized for painting "sympathetic" portraits of terrorists. Never mind that both sides are given equal voice, nowhere more tellingly than in the respective "Chorus of Exiled Jews" and "Chorus of Exiled Palestinians." Adams, not initially a vocal composer, has found a groove for writing effective, dramatic music for both voices and chorus. Thus it is poetic justice, following the cancellation of a production of "Klinghoffer" shortly after 9/11 (political sensitivities), that he was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic for a 9/11 memorial piece. "On the Transmigration of Souls" won three Grammy's and has become one of several major works by this composer to vie for the canon of great 21st century scores. "Doctor Atomic" concerns the making of THE bomb, and centers on its creator, Robert Oppenheimer. The opera works on one level as a documentary narrative on the making and testing of the bomb, on another as a character study of Oppenheimer (and his circle), and on a metaphysical level as an existentialist meditation (but isn't that the subject/purpose of all art? To give/create/question meaning?)

Adams has written a dramatic oratorio called "El Niño" which is both a traditional Christmas story and a window into Latin American culture, including memorial tributes to victims of political and military crimes. The recording of the oratorio is especially memorable because of the singing of the late mezzo soprano, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, whose distinguishing timbre, dramatic sense, and visceral engagement give a movingly human voice to the Spanish poems set in the oratorio.

Another distinct voice on the contemporary classical scene, and one even more beholden to Latin American "Liberation Theology" that connects faith to oppression and injustice (and therefore, to action and social justice) is the Scottish composer, James MacMillan. Both a personal and critical favorite, MacMillan's music combines a keen dramatic sense with elements of chant, the Anglican tradition, and indigenous music of his own country (Scottish laments: notated "cries" and "sighs" figure prominently). I have a disc that features two of his major choral scores, "The Seven Last Words" and the "Cantos Sagrados." The former is a haunting series of variations on Passion-tide texts that particularizes the drama of one of the holiest of Christian observances, Good Friday, while simultaneously universalizing the drama's subject of suffering, martyrdom, and collective grief. "Cantos Sagrados" is even more closely aligned with Liberation Theology's tenets of justice for the oppressed, and reinforces this by juxtaposing contemporary Latin American poems with the sacred liturgical texts. Both scores are challenging and demanding for listener and performer alike yet are immediate in their emotional & spiritual appeal. Like much great art, regardless of genre or subject, these works "work" on many levels, and are even more rewarding for the participant willing to invest in their worlds. The Virginia Chorale will include one of MacMillan's shorter works, "A Child's Prayer" in its Anniversary concerts April 18 & 19. This haunting, a capella communion hymn comes from the world of the Passion-tide "Seven Last Words" and is a memorial tribute to the victims of the Dunblane tragedy, one of the first instances of serial-killer gun violence in the UK (in this case, an elementary school in Scotland). Overtop a chordal foundation of steady, yet brooding harmonies, MacMillan writes a chant-like duet for two trebles, evoking the pure sound of children's voices. The choir takes up a typical MacMillan texture of imitative, Scottish-lament-inflected lines before the ethereal duet returns to close this moving elegy.

And I will close this rambling entry for now, but will return with more about the subject of this subject line, Benjamin Britten, and some of the great body of music written to commemorate "war...and the pity of war..."

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Beautifully written, Scott. Thanks for your insights.