who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not Inferno

Pond-chestnuts poke through floating chickweed on the green brocade pool:
A thousand summer orioles sing as they play among the roses.
I watch the fine rain, alone all day,
While side by side the ducks and drakes bath in their crimson coats.
                        - Tu Mu (803-852), trans. A.C. Graham

Composing is a solitary activity: one artist, alone in a room, makes something out of nothing. It requires quiet and the right space – within and without. Environment is usually paramount. The composers I know are very seldom found 'writing in restaurants' (the title of a wonderfully frank book on this topic by David Mamet); more often, they have a small, quiet studio set up with a keyboard and a computer – the modern, urban equivalent of the composing houses Gustav Mahler preferred.

Mahler's composing hut on Attersee in Salzkammergut

Mahler’s composing hut on Attersee Lake in Salzkammergut

I like to think that I, as the conductor, am often the ‘first point of contact’ for a new work after it’s been set down on paper in that private world of the composer. Opening the score for the first time and peering into the composer’s world is a privilege; I often feel that we’re having a kind of silent dialogue over hundreds or thousands of miles, in which I am the receiver. I don’t contribute to this part of the conversation. Yet, it feels like we’re in the room together – their imagination and my ears. 

This is also a solitary activity. I have to be alone. It requires quiet. Sometimes I will delay reviewing a new score for days, until I find the right space; I don’t want the intimacy of my introduction to a new creation to have the shadow of some other emotional state over it, or to feel that our first conversation was in haste. When I find that space, I enter one of my ‘favorite places to be,’ in the presence of another artist’s creation, a creation that has been made for our ensemble – this group of singers, gathered at this moment in time. There is always a 'this, for us' moment in which I can hear the singers making the sounds written – sounds often conceived with exactly their colors in mind. And, then comes the gratitude for all the members of the community of art that brought this score to my studio and will bring it to life – the composer, the commission sponsors, the author of the text, the board members and volunteers who believe in our reason for being, the audience members with their insatiable curiosity, my partner and my friends who encourage me to take the time to think up projects or to commune – alone – with a new score, and, of course, the singers and players – the ones who make the music happen. 

But that community lies outside my studio, and I wait to introduce it to a new work until I have a grasp on that work, after I feel I’ve answered the big questions.

How has the text been used?
           As a narrative?
                      A program?
                                  A source of imagery or inspiration for musical contexts?
                                              As a source for sounds and colors?

How is form engaged?
           As a means of representing the text?
                       As a way of engaging the listeners’ memories?
                                   As a solution to a problem?

In fact, what is the problem or question in need of resolution? 

How are the forces engaged?
          Are the singers prominent – do they lead – or are they more organically
          integrated into a larger texture?
                    Is it more songlike or more orchestral?
                               Are there extended techniques (the first step is opening the score is to read the instructions – and, today, there are often many instructions – on vowel transitions, bow techniques, use of microtones, etc.)
                                         Into how many parts do voice sections divide –
                                                     and why?

What does it mean?
            What does it say?

Many of these questions are asked and answered simply by getting to know the work – I don’t have a list I check off, but they are there, in the room with me and the imagination of the creator. And, somewhere in there is the occasional afterthought of my own technique – how do I show that in my gesture, in my breath?

When the piece moves into the community, it first reaches the musicians who also will spend some time alone with the new score, figuring out the challenging stuff and then bringing it together to find out how their individuality works in the group – how they will adjust what they bring to make the whole work as a unit. And, eventually, our community opens the doors and the listeners enter. For us, performance is simply that – we open the doors for those interested to join us in the journey. To hear what we’ve discovered. The interesting thing about the role of the listener is that they too will often, in active listening in a concert, find themselves in a very solitary place. Yes, surrounded by hundreds or even thousands of people, but drifting inward, going to a place inside themselves – sometimes they are led there by a very specific programmatic journey of the composer, other times it is because the composer has created a space specifically designed to avoid specificity. But, it’s solitude, nonetheless, and, when it happens, you can feel it in the room – a kind of unconscious return to the studio, and to its quiet, inner life.

Of course, solitude can be crushing. Aloneness can be devastating – something from which we run, terrified, filling the void with vices or television or an overloaded calendar or depression. But, music has the ability to allow solitude to exist and to be felt deeply without fear; while the profound grief of such isolation can be wrenching in a Gustav Mahler or a Samuel Barber or a David Lang or a Prince, it is still, somehow, welcome.  And, we are grateful for the courage of the creator and for their solitude. For Anna, David, Lew, Santa, Hans, Pelle, and Caroline.

One of the great literary creators of the 20th century touches on this in the final paragraphs of his masterpiece, Invisible Cities.  Here, Italo Calvino (who also wrote a rather famous book about a man who climbed a tree and never came back down) writes not just a summary of the long conversation between Marco Polo and Kublai Kahn, he also writes about himself, where he belongs – or doesn’t. About the role of the artist in the community. About solitude. In the end, it’s about Time and Space and, yes, Love.

He said: ''It is all useless, if the last landing place can only be the infernal city, and it is here that, in ever-narrowing circles, the current is drawing us.''

And Polo said: ''The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many; accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.''
                           - Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities, trans. William Weaver

Listening for a breaking wave; lake-watching at night

We’ve been having a lot of nutty weather in Chicago – not atypically, a lot of wind.  The lake has responded with an ever-evolving dance of wave types, a long, unfolding conversation with the wind. A few days ago, the wind was coming off the land, pushing against strong incoming lake waves to form little halos of mist over the waves – as if the spray were surfing. It was mesmerizing. The next day, the waves were unusually regular and even; driving against the fortification that helps prevent our music building from falling into the lake, the waves bouncing back formed large diamond shapes that moved perpendicular to the shore – a beautiful demonstration of wave interference causing a tidy procession of boxes across the surface. Equally mesmerizing. Another night I was down at the lake, watching the waves in a light breeze. With the lights of the city bouncing off each ripple, the water was a light show of wave fragments quietly intersecting, deflecting, moving in and out – each little, ephemeral surface either in shadow or capturing the light and momentarily reflecting it, so that the whole lake was a big, muted, sparkling blanket.

I’ve been noticing that my life seems to move in waves – a background undulation barely noticeable in the foreground. At times it will settle in to a routine; things go along with little disruption – work is work, some days good, others mundane. This is the long trough of the wave. But, then there are other periods of true evolution – scary, inspiring, confusing months in which I know I’m changing but I don’t know exactly how. These are the peaks, uncertain how they will crest, when they will break. ‘What we are doing right now’ is ‘being unpredictable’;  the activity of my life is the unknown. Some days in these peaks I’m not sure if I’m the ripples reflecting back the city lights, or the waves in one direction or another of the crisscrossing, or the swells, or for that matter, the halo of mist above them or the geese flying low over the halo or the wind that has a mind of its own and listens to no one.

I think part of this has to do with my teaching. Teaching conducting is like holding a mirror up to my own work. It daily calls into question what I am doing as a conductor; how to evoke sound, effect change, how to treat people, to find a certain emotional agreement, to allow space in the room, to step away, to listen, to lead without pushing, to know when to be vertical and when to be horizontal. For example, most of the time I don’t think about gesture, I just sort of carve the music in the air, around the breath it takes to sing it or play it. If I think about that, it makes me crazy; but when I’m teaching that exact thing, there are times when I cannot help but be aware that I’ve just done something I asked a student not to do a couple of hours earlier, or that one of the ways I achieve a certain release or attack goes against what I normally suggest as a rule. It magnifies that there are no rules and it reminds me that art is, in every way, a series of solutions to problems – whether that be in the creative process of composers or the re-creative process of performers.

This is so apparent to me as the Seven Responses scores begin to trickle in, nearing our April 1 due date. The problems posed concern, first, a text that will respond to those Buxtehude chose for his cantatas. Then, there is the problem of musical language specific to this moment, this text, this project. I can already see that some of our composers have tried on new languages when considering the sounds and styles of The Crossing. It’s a very humbling thing to sit quietly in my studio and imagine this or that composer hearing our ensemble in their head as they create something from nothing.

It turns out that writing a blog, in the end, means writing about me – and it calls into question just how much of my art is about me. That’s a frustrating question. I’d like to think that it’s not, that I make every attempt to avoid layering my life on top of that of the composers. Still, I suppose that being in the moment in a piece of art means that I am open to the world as Time passes. As such, it is, in fact, me, generating sound: Me, in a community of people relying on me to be open and to facilitate and to breathe and to listen, in order for us to be One. Listening is what 7R is about. Listening to how we respond to suffering and how we declare joy; listening to the voices of composers reaching over centuries, over lands, over cultures; listening to each other in a room full of people singing. Listening to who is in a trough and who is on a peak – riding the waves of the music and letting the energy of the wave determine the direction of the phrase, the time, the collective, the problem and the solution: of my life, and those in it.

Someday, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love, and then, for a second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.

-  Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

Hans Thomalla's 'I come near you'; over a landscape of centuries

Words. Nearly everything we do at The Crossing has to do with composers’ choices of – and reactions to – words. This is certainly not unique to new music and, as much as I love to ponder the decisions of our commissioned composers, I equally love to imagine the process by which Bach chose the chorales to accompany the librettos for his passions – how thoughtful those decisions are and how those choices bring the libretto clarity and focus. Similarly, in his The Little Match Girl Passion, David Lang reconsiders Bach’s decisions, modifies texts of the elder’s St. Matthew Passion, and then marries them perfectly to the story of the suffering match girl.

Buxtehude made a number of seminal decisions in forming the book for his seven-cantata Membra Jesu Nostri. The work is unique and historically significant; seven individual cantatas, each with its own series of choruses, arias, duets, and trios, assembled as a large, cohesive whole describing a single event – the suffering Jesus on the cross. As such, and with no other surviving precursor, it is the first known Lutheran oratorio – a form that would expand quickly, culminating in Bach’s masterpieces just forty years later. Buxtehude was clearly inspired to make this leap by an equally extraordinary Medieval poem, Salve mundi salutare, attributed to Amulf of Leuven, d. 1250. Leuven’s poem is divided into seven cantos, each with five strophes. Each canto is named for one of the limbs of Jesus on the cross. Buxtehude set a pattern for the cantatas of his oratorio, imposing on himself from the outset the necessity of decisions: what biblical text will choose to open each work (usually in a five-voice concerto), and which three of the five strophes of each canto will he set (usually as arias for 1-3 voices with ritornello interludes).

The selection of the biblical texts is of fundamental importance to his purpose; they open each cantata and in most cases the ‘biblical’ concerto returns at the end of the cantata to provide a balanced structure and to ensure that the focus is on scripture, with the ancient medieval poem as a reflection on that text (and not the other way around, which is an important point, when considering that far greater musical time is devoted to the poem).

This is where my study gets really fun and brings the whole project into my daily life. It is so interesting to see the choices that Buxtehude made (the Bible is a big book when one is looking for just seven short verses). And, it’s equally interesting to see what choices our composers have made in response.  

For Mvt. 4, To the Sides, Buxtehude chose stanzas of the canto that speak of love and the comfort of the savior, found in the exposed wound in his side.

Hail, side of the Savior,
in which the honey of sweetness is hidden,
in which the power of love is exposed,
from which gushes the spring of blood
that cleans the dirty hearts

Lo I approach You,
Pardon, Jesus, if I sin,
With reverent countenance
freely I come to You
to behold Your wounds

In the hour of death, may my soul
Enter, Jesus, Your side
Hence dying may it go into You,
Lest the cruel lion seize it,
But let it dwell with You

He chose to introduce this mediation on ‘the side’ with a passage from the Song of Songs.

 Arise, my love,
my beautiful one, and come,
my dove in the clefts of the rock,
in the hollow of the cliff

Here, the author of Song of Songs calls to the loved one – a dove nestled safely in the cleft and hollow of the cliff. Contemplating the lacerated side of Jesus, Buxtehude turned to wisdom writing of the Old Testament in the uniquely erotic book attributed to Solomon. The connection is both subtle and inspired and brings a remarkable intimacy to the cantata. In the last stanza of the 13th-century poem the faithful follower asks that s/he be allowed to enter into the side of Jesus to dwell – as the dove dwells in the cliff in Songs. We hear a call and response between the two texts, with the author of Songs (writing sometime before the 2nd century BCE): making the offer ''arise…and come'' that is answered millennia later with ''freely I come to You.'' Over a landscape of centuries, longing is met with assent, desire with affirmation.

This is the line on which Hans Thomalla focuses in his libretto. Translated as ''I come near you,'' these four words extend the timespan yet another 400 years, reaching from Hans back to Buxtehude, who reached back to Leuven’s Salve mundi salutare and found a sister text in the much earlier Song of Songs. The composers commune over a distance of a few centuries, while the authors commune over a few thousand years – remarkable, in that this emotional context (desire, the desire for comfort, compassion, intimacy, salvation) occupies a place in the human condition of every era, at any time. We converse with our ancestors through our shared emotional understandings. That is a central scheme of Seven Responses, reaching across ages to explore how we observe the suffering of others. The two texts of Buxtehude’s work contain a question and response, and Hans has deftly observed this invitation to base his Response around it: ''I come near you.'' The line appears four times in his libretto, which freely alternates back and forth between the two ancient texts of To the Sides; and, following on Buxtehude’s structure, he refers back to the biblical text at the end of his work – not as a reprise, but rather as a kind of purification of the content down to its most basic form – the object, ''My love/My beautiful.''  Hans writes:

In a way the piece, its text, its message is simple: an attempt to come near to someone or something that suffers ''for you.'' In the sources for the text and the Buxtehude that someone is Jesus, but I see that much wider – anyone/anything Other suffering for me, us, our form of life, and most directly, nature as the Other suffering.

What a gift it is to explore the minds of composers today and yesterday, to consider how they use (engage, love, knead) words, and, by doing so, be reminded of how close we are, at times, to those who came before us.

Hans’ libretto for Seven Responses:

“I Come Near You”
text arranged by Hans Thomalla after Arnulf of Louvain and Song of Salomon

I come near you
To your side
From which the fountain of blood flows

With quiet countenance
I stand before you
To contemplate your wounds

I come near you
When the hour of my death draws close,
Let me stand by your side

Arise, arise my love
My beautiful
And come
My beautiful
My love

I come near you
To your side

I stand before you
To contemplate your wounds

I come near you
Let me stand by your side

My love
My beautiful
My love

Silence, Flu, and Johann Joachim Quantz

I have nothing to say
and I am saying it
and that is poetry
as I need it.
            John Cage (1)

I’d like to hide behind these lines as a justification for the six-week silence in my Seven Responses blog – that it’s all part of our artistic preparation for 7R, requiring repose, introspection, and, silence.  But, I cannot.

In one of my first 7R blogs, a few months back, I noted that the exercise of blogging weekly magnifies the way in which ‘life’ interferes with my long-term goals.  While I have the illusion that my energies are pointed toward 7R and Jeff Quartets, balanced with teaching graduate students and planning future seasons – all on a kind of logical, managed continuum – my daily routine doesn’t bear that out. The hour-to-hour living is a rather mundane series of minor life events over which we feel we don’t have all that much control.  The truth about the gap in my ‘weekly’ blogs:  Christmas, New Years, flu, snow, and sadness. 

Christmas and New Years are understandable excuses for missing a couple of weeks on social media; a blog about an event in June is not going to reach many people at the end of December.  I’m not a person who comes to ‘journaling’ easily, so, if I’m going to invest in writing about our life at The Crossing, narcissism aside, I’d like it to be read. (Otherwise, does it exist?)

Flu came New Year’s Eve and stayed a week. I’m a terrible sick person and slowing down for more than 24 hours makes me very agitated yet curiously uninspired. No blog. Nothing to be done about the flu and similarly, little to be done about the snow.  The gloriously beautiful blanket floated down on Philadelphia Friday, January 17, the day before we were to take Gavin Bryars’ The Fifth Century north for its New York premiere.  It was to be a big event and we were really excited; we’d had mentions in The New York Times, The New Yorker, TimeOut New York, and I did a wonderful interview with John Schaefer on New Sounds at WNYC – wonderful, because John knows the music and can speak about it with true breadth.  (I think if I live to be 100, I’ll still think it is really cool that some behemoth of art criticism like The Times – that was a kind of ivory tower of my youth – says to their readers, ''You should go hear this little choir from Philly called The Crossing.''  Humbling.)

Snow had other plans. The days leading to the concert were packed with ‘what if’ preparations – everything from notification of ticket holders to transportation. And, then there is, ’how do we pay for a concert that doesn’t happen?’  The snow did come, the concert didn’t happen, and neither did the blog. 

Reason #5: sadness.  ‘People’ say the holidays are difficult when you’ve lost someone significant in the year prior.  Turns out, it’s true.  My relationship with my father was complicated – he was a complex, often challenging and difficult man. But ‘people’ are right; he was my father, and his passing last March – accompanied with the memories of all that was, all that could have been, and the guilt in all that – is a significant demarcation in my life.  Apparently, in middle age, there is ‘before’ and ‘after’ this moment.   The passing of our singer Jeff Manns in November– which seems, to me, to pull along with it the earlier passing of Jeff Dinsmore like a tired dog struggling with an overloaded sled – clearly bore down hard and fast on me the first time I had room to breathe.  But, it is my father walking in front of both dog and sled that focused my grief over the last two months and left me lacking the Morning Energy that ordinarily inspires me to write.

I do a lot of writing; I write about music. I write about ideas. I write about emotional contexts in art. I write about our work at The Crossing.  I enjoy writing; it makes me think about the world in greater detail and definition.  But, it isn’t like making music for me; music I have to do – I don’t really have an identity without it; it’s the only place I can express myself with clarity – the detail and definition are even clearer to me in this more abstract medium.  In fact, it’s the only place I can really be myself. My desire to write vanishes when an emotion like grief descends on me like the smir.  Not so with music, for which I have no desire because it is always there with me; I don’t have to think about it or wait to be with it – in a way, it is desire.  I crawl up inside it; it puts its arms around me and lets me close my eyes for a bit. It forces, then allows, me to face my truths.  It is never a task. Writing requires more cognition than intuition of me; it scares me and challenges me, without the trusted foundation of Notes in the Air. I don’t have a sentimental relationship with music, I use it; the two of us are in a raw and codependent relationship in which both parties shout loudly everything that’s on their minds.  And we whisper. It uses me and I am grateful for that.  Writing?….well, then there’s grief. No blog.

But, it seems, we learn to live with sadness; as it creeps into a different corner of our brain that brain figures out how to move forward.  Like Willie Lohman’s wife Linda, we endure.  And, in enduring, we see ourselves more clearly. I don’t believe there is any such thing as ‘truth’ in music, a phrase we hear often in music schools – a Romantic notion left over from another time.  Notes can’t be truthful. There’s no illusive truth hiding within, revealed only to those with knowledge.  The ‘truth’ is in knowing ourselves – in facing our own truths, and music can facilitate that through defining emotional constructs that every person perceives with clarity (if only for themselves). Recognition is how we communicate in art.

What does any of this have to do with Seven Responses?  Well, the entire project is built around musical descriptions of suffering and compassion – if not of ourselves, than of others.  It begins with Buxtehude’s music and his musical depictions of grief (the observer of the suffering Jesus) and joy (of his companionship). There are those that may take issue with my using the phrase ‘musical descriptions.’  Stravinsky, for example, once claimed that music is ''essentially powerless to express anything at all.'' (2) That’s just hyperbolic crap – syntactical snobbery of someone with too much time on his hands.  If music were not an expression of recognizable human emotions Barry Manilow and Beyoncé wouldn’t be zillionaires and I wouldn’t have a job.  How it describes and defines things – emotions, lives, time – is an ever-evolving language in Western music.  (But, on reflection, perhaps I have committed this crime of verbosity in my comments on ‘truth?’)

Compositional life in the 17th century was entirely different than ours today.  Buxtehude lived with a set of conventions – expectation, even rules – of how one communicates emotions through rhetorical devices.  One of the main exponents of this Doctrine of Affections was theorist Johann Mattheson, who was born the year after Buxtehude wrote Membra Jesu nostri.  His books are manuals of taste, with roots in the work of René Descartes. Taste is key here; the conveying of emotions through a series of signals the audience comprehends and by which they are moved.  Mattheson’s colleague Johann Joachim Quantz addressed this intention ''to move'' in his own manuals (in his case, intended more to correct the sins of the past that to record contemporary practice),

The orator and the musician have, at bottom, the same aim in regard to both the preparation and the final execution of their productions, namely to make themselves masters of the hearts of their listeners. (3)

How far we are, in Cage’s extolment of his own silence, from this intention to be ''masters of the hearts'' – an entirely different set of rules defining taste.  How differently we perceive art and musical gesture today.  The difference between the mannerism in the theatre of the 17th century and our post-Stanislavski world.  Indeed, we may be beyond Stanislavski (a method that sometimes led to a kind of forced rawness and self-involvement) and more into Mamet’s culture of art in which the honest, unenhanced, and unencumbered delivery of the text is paramount. It would seem lacking in taste and form to layer my own story onto the author’s. There is today a desire to create spaces in which the listener can go where her mind takes her – an increasing tendency toward the vertical, away from the linear.  And, silence plays a large role.  Yet, even in its more celebrated role today, silence is still, like in the 17th century, a pause – a breath, a chance for reflection.  Even when silence is the work.

I have had my pause. My silence hasn’t been an artistic decision – rather, just life interfering with the best intentions. But, that silence certainly has had artistic results. Because sadness, for all its nullifying quietness, invites some serious reflection on the hearts of our listeners.  

I tightened my grip on my father’s hand.
The old, familiar fear: not to lose him. (4)

1. John Cage, Lecture on Nothing (1949)
2. Igor Stravinsky, An Autobiography (1936)
3. Johann Joachim Quantz, Essay on a Method of Playing the Tansverse Flute (1752)
4. Elie Wiesel, Night (1956)

Voices of the Composers: Anna Thorvaldsdottir

Gabriel Garcia Marquez said, “All human beings have three lives: public, private, and secret." I am fascinated by the implications – that, if taken literally, we actually live an entire world that no one else experiences; it’s ours, for better or worse, with all its desires and darkness, ironies, humor, and fantasies. I find it’s true, and it goes hand in hand with Dostoyevsky’s axiom, “Much unhappiness  has come into the world because of bewilderment and things left unsaid."

In my secret life, Christmas is an ascetic experience – I am alone, in the woods, with the space to contemplate how awesome the universe is and to be grateful for the lives that have touched mine. There are no decorations; snow falling on fir trees cannot be surpassed. There are no gifts; the space to think is gift enough. I crave this kind of discipline and austerity; the more we take away, the more that is revealed.

And, thus, my gravitation to Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s music.  I was introduced to Anna’s music by Claire Chase. ICE loves her music; its performance of her In the Light of Air (all of it, but especially Existence) is a great introduction – barren and haunting, yet extremely intimate and personal.  It is a unique compositional voice and, while it may seem cliché to "hear" the frozen landscapes of her Icelandic home in her music (which opens the rather profound subject of music's ability to depict anything), there is a certain space and a sense of aloneness that seems to run through her music; it’s impossible not to respond to the clarity and restraint in her music. We sang two of her hymns last December and the music fit as if written for us.

The video was filmed in the simple grace of her writing studio and that aesthetic - simple grace - could easily describe her thoughts as well, finding love and humility in the knees.

A Christmas gift from Iceland.

Drama, Time, and Seven Responses

Drama, Time, and Seven Responses

The Crossing’s programming begins with a kind of dramatic structure influenced by the 3-Act progression and, at times, the hero’s journey.  When it works, we tell a story that begins in a place we recognize, presents a crisis of sorts, arrives at a solution by which we may be reminded of one of life’s beauties or mysteries or truths, and resolves into a conclusion that may leave us satisfied, or elated, or simply sad.  And, like a playwright, the goal isn’t to educate or even enhance; it’s simply to present – to define or describe the world we know.