Thursday, January 27, 2011

Symbols & meaning: the chariot & Jacob's ladder...

Below this post is a short introduction to the Chorale's Young Singers Project concert, Goin' Home: Songs for Sister Lisa, taking place January 29 at 8 pm at Trinity Episcopal in Olde Towne (Portsmouth).

In addition to learning an ambitious program of music, we delve into issues of meaning and discuss philosophy, history and the humanities. We spend considerable time talking about the poetry that inspires each composer and how one "reads" poetry.

We have been looking at interpretation via "close reading" and rhetorical analysis. This is not as high falutin' or academic as it may sound. One of the most direct ways "into" a poem is via the associative list.

I woke up this morning following an intense dream in which I offered one of my favorite arias for an opera workshop on acting and improvisation. In the dream I "interpreted" this aria (Lensky's famous aria from Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin) with such intensity that I stopped singing at times, and my "delivery" became heightened, impassioned speech. In the dream I sobbed in between phrases and the cumulative effect was one of raw, powerful emotion. I can honestly say I've now dreamt of singing like my idols.

I awoke shaken and moved by this vivid dream and remembered this morning is the one-year anniversary of the death of Lisa Coston, in whose memory our Young Singers Project program is offered.

One of the associations that has continually come to mind over the last few weeks is an excerpt from a favorite Whitman elegy to which I will return below. First I want to associate a couple of the images in Adolphus Hailstork's suite of spirituals, Goin' Home. I trust the connections will resonate with the singers who are interpreting this music for its premiere performance Saturday night. I hope the associations might also be relevant enough to speak to anyone willing to follow the symbolic threads of this interpretive tapestry.

Two of the most prominent symbols in the African-American sacred music tradition are the Chariot and Jacob's ladder. The 4th (and final) song in Dolph's new set gives the work its title: "I'm a goin' home in the chariot in the mornin.'" This echoes another popular spiritual, "Ride the Chariot." The chariot resonates with Jewish and Christian imagery. Ezekiel's vision of the chariot ("Ezekiel saw de wheel") is but one of many Biblical examples. The chariot features in iconography from around the world, from ancient Greece across the middle east to the far east.

In most religious traditions the chariot is a means of ascent, a vehicle for transformation. The heaven-bound soul rides the chariot in the morning sun, the dawning of a new day, the symbol of new life. In mythology, the chariot belongs to the sun god. In the Greco-Roman pantheon he is called Apollo; in the Hindu tradition, he is Krishna.

I was not taught Ovid when I was in high school. I am trying to correct that oversight with our Young Singers. Ovid was a contemporary of Augustus and Christ, and his masterwork of mythological adaption is the Metamorphoses. These adaptions of myths were beloved by great writers from Dante and Chaucer to Shakespeare. They continue to be adapted and adopted today.

One of Ovid's most famous stories is the tale of Phaeton, the son of the sun god's charioteer, Phoebus. The title of Ovid's collection refers to the transformation each character undergoes. These "bodies magically changed" are symbols that still resonate. Phaeton's tale is one of the first lessons on the "tragic flaw" of ambition or pride. As the 20th century Ovid adaptor (the great British poet) Ted Hughes writes, "Ovid was interested in passion. Or rather, in what a passion feels like to the one possessed by it." This passion can lead to good or ill. Phaeton's ambition to ride the chariot results in his death, and serves as one example of the sun's awesome power.

One lyric translation of the story's "moral" reads:

Here Phaeton lies: in Phoebus car he fared;
And though he greatly failed, more greatly dared.

Hughes goes on to say:

The act of metamorphosis, which at some point touches each of the tales, operates as the symbolic guarantee that the passion has become mythic, has achieved the endurable intensity that lifts the whole episode onto the supernatural or divine plane.

Symbols resonate when we associate them with something meaningful. Myth has "endurable intensity" because its symbols carry powerful associations. One of the purposes of "close reading" is to unlock these associations, unpack the suitcase of symbolism and see what's inside for us. Phaeton's tale is a warning about "flying too high" or "living beyond one's means." It is a tale of passion out of balance that comes crashing down with tragic consequence.

But our Chariot is also a symbol of transcendence, of deliverance and overcoming. The Chariot we are riding in Goin' Home is analogous to the "freedom train," a symbol of the Underground Railroad. Therefore the symbol is a sign of literal freedom for the slave released from bondage. In Hailstork's version, this association is made clear when the women sing a series of "train whistle" chords in three-part harmony to accompany the spirited tune of "I'm a goin' home in the chariot."

"Jacob's ladder" refers to the dream the Jewish patriarch had in which angels freely ascended and descended a metaphysical escalator to the heavens. The "stairway to heaven" is a symbol as resonant with associations and meanings as the Chariot (and it is equally complex). "We are climbin' Jacob's Ladder" refers to the ascent into heaven, salvation, illumination, enlightenment and/or transfiguration. We could amplify each of those "events" (or states of being). The rainbow is another "magic bridge" to the beyond. While the literal interpretation of Jacob's dream is as sign of his numberless descendants, another sign of God's promise to Israel, this interpretation is one of many. To limit our reading--whether of dream, myth, tale or historical "fact"--to one interpretation is to deny the symbolic resonance present in each of these gifts.

Hughes concludes his introduction to Tales from Ovid (Faber, 1997) with the reason why I love the Roman author's stories so. It is because "Ovid renders them with compelling psychological truth and force."

Before he gets to the story of Phaeton's fatal car crash, Ovid outlines the four ages of humankind. Following the Garden-of-Eden-like Ages of Gold (=Sun) and Silver, the third age hints at where humankind is headed:

The Age of Brass
Brought a brazen people,
Souls fashioned on the same anvil
As the blades their hands snatched up
Before they cooled. But still
Mankind listened deeply
To the harmony of the whole creation,
And aligned
Every action to the great order
And not to the moment's blind
Apparent opportunity.

If that does not resound "with compelling psychological truth and force," then I will have to capitulate. A worthwhile discussion would take up whether or not we are still in the Brass age or the fourth age of Iron. Hughes again, with diction that is characteristically muscular, sharp & crackling with vibrant energy:

Last comes the Age of Iron.
And the day of Evil dawns.
Go up like a mist--a morning sigh off a graveyard.

...Now comes the love of gain--a new god
Made out of the shadow
Of all the others.

Though I cannot be but myself, and must engage with questions of substance and import, I do not want to end this discourse of associations and mytho-poeic resonances with a sigh and a capitulation to the "age of evil." I want to honor the memory of my friend and encourage my students and colleagues to listen "deeply to the harmony of the whole creation" as we prepare to bring a challenging program of new music to life.

The "freedom train" overcoming despair and death is the ride of the authentic, examined life. It was the ride Lisa was on for hers. The Whitman poem I mentioned above is another example. It is from an elegy he wrote for Lincoln, When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom'd. It was inspired by the funeral train that charioted the great President's body across the country, honored by millions of mourners. The composer Paul Hindemith set Whitman's poem as his A Requiem "For those we Love" in memory of FDR (commissioned by Robert Shaw). The voice of Whitman's song bird is sung by a mezzo soprano and is the most compelling music Hindemith wrote.

In honor of our friend Lisa, here are Whitman's lines, with the song-bird as sister:

In the swamp, in secluded recesses,
A shy and hidden bird is warbling a song.

Solitary, the thrush,
The hermit, withdrawn to herself, avoiding the settlements,
Sings by herself a song.

Song of the bleeding throat!
Death’s outlet song of life—(for well, dear sister, I know
If thou wast not gifted to sing, thou would’st surely die.)

Lisa's song continues in the works that our friends John Dixon and Adolphus Hailstork have written for us. One of the most important verbs we have, and one of our most vital tasks on this earth is "to remember." One of the most extraordinary means we have to perform this essential task is song.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Goin' Home: Intro to YSP program Jan 29

[Below is my introduction to Goin' Home: Songs for Sister Lisa. I hope you will join the Chorale, our fabulous 2011 Young Singers Project ensemble, our guest artists & me January 29, 8 pm at Trinity Episcopal Church in Portsmouth. We frequently invoke imperatives like "you don't want to miss this!" Seldom has such an injunction resonated with more truth].

Great pieces of music—like other works of art—take on lives of their own. Our favorite songs become our friends, and familiar pieces feel like family. Music, in other words, has personality. Each of the three seasons I have had the privilege of conducting the Virginia Chorale and leading our Young Singers Project, we have put together a program around a particular theme. One of the threads connecting the themes of each of these programs is music I like to call “music of conscience.” Personality traits in this musical family tree include a passion for justice and remembrance, and an emotionally honest, soulful celebration of life.

Tonight’s concert celebrates the life of someone whose personality contained all of these traits while transcending each. A tribute to Lisa Relaford Coston (written almost exactly one year ago) is included in the program, as is a note from composer Adolphus Hailstork. This entire program has been inspired by Lisa’s life, and we trust you will hear many of the beloved qualities of her personality in it.

Following the contemplative opening, God be in my head we offer the premiere performance of a song John Dixon has written for tonight’s program. All through the night is an a cappella choral arrangement of a plaintive ballad John originally wrote as a solo song for Lisa. Stephen Coxe is one of our newest composer friends and his arrangement of Deep River is full of beautiful turns of harmony reflecting its subject. The Chorale was one of the first groups to champion John's music, and it has been a privilege for me to continue that tradition. This entire program highlights our concourse with working composers, and making new musical friends like Stephen Coxe is a gift that reminds me important such relationships are.

The next two works were premiered by the Chorale in March 2010 as part of Virginia’s celebration of women in the arts, Minds Wide Open. The scores to both Whitman Interlude and Goodbye arrived last January. After Lisa’s death, both composers agreed to dedicate their new works to her memory, and our entire Spring 2010 season (planned in 2009) honored her life. Lisa loved poetry, and we often talked about our favorite American poets, Dickinson, Frost and Whitman. Mason’s imaginative Whitman setting spins “filament, filament out of itself” and mirrors the soul in its dancing search for meaning. Giselle Wyers selected a short poem I wrote following the untimely death of a relative, and joined it to an elegiac fragment by Louise Bogan. Goodbye is a hauntingly beautiful piece to which we grow more attached with each successive performance.

No composer has had a closer relationship with the Chorale than Adolphus Hailstork. The Cloths of Heaven is one of his most endearing shorter works and it was among Lisa’s favorites by any composer. The harmonies inspired by the Yeats poem are a perfect metaphor to affirm a colorful, rich & diverse personality. And I can't think of a better friend and colleague to guest conduct this work than Charles Woodward.

A Good-Night sets a Francis Quarles poem Dr Hailstork first encountered at the Chorale’s 25th anniversary concert in April 2009. The colorful harmonic language recalls The Cloths of Heaven. The wide-ranging, improvisatory-sounding soprano solo was written especially for Amy Cofield Williamson. Following this premiere, the artist who created the Young Singers Project, my esteemed colleague and friend, Robert Shoup will guest conduct one of Hailstork's most endearing works, A Carol for All Children. The title says it all.

The work that gives this concert its title and theme is a new suite of spirituals for mezzo soprano solo and chorus. Goin’ Home: Songs for Sister Lisa is resonant with the personality that inspired it. The four spirituals are densely packed portraits resonant with the black church tradition, the solo written with Lisa’s exceptional voice ringing in its composer’s ears. We are beyond blessed to have Robynne Redmon bring this ambitious part to life. Weaving together a fabric of history and presence, pain and struggle, exile and homecoming, Goin’ Home is an engaging musical canvas whose complex palette is challenging as it is rewarding. It is a resounding affirmation of a life whose impact cannot be measured, and continues to be felt.

So how does music have personality? What do we mean when we say someone is “larger than life?” We trust this music says it better than any of us possibly could.