Voices of the Composers - Santa Ratniece

Because we sing a bit of new music, we receive a ton of scores every month from composers of all kinds (aspiring, established, experimental, conservative) from many countries (Italy, Japan, Canada, Finland, USA), and of a potpourri of styles (modern complexity, minimalism, tonal/traditional, etc.).  Most of these compositions do not fit The Crossing’s ethos for one reason or another – text, length, use of counterpoint, style, but we are honored to receive them and have the opportunity to get to know their composers, if briefly.  I go on instinct when reviewing submissions, while following an informal criteria concerned with the exploration and expansion of our artists and the art and honoring the trust of our audience.  

We also receive a lot of composer recommendations from composing friends and other conductors.  These often come closer, because our friends know our aesthetic and play ‘composer matchmaker’ whenever they can. 

In this ongoing process of trying to find the right programming mix, we often come across a composer we’d very much like to sing.  More rarely, we come across a composer who we feel we have to sing. Santa Ratniece is one such composer.

I was introduced to Santa’s music by our friend Eriks Esenvalds. (The Crossing community knows Eriks from his 2011 Seneca Sounds project, Seneca’s Zodiac and from our performance of many of his compositions, including Legend of the Walled-in Woman just two weeks ago. He’s also the tuned-water-glasses guy of Stars and Northern Lights and needs no introduction in the choral world, as he is now a composing star!)  I was in Latvia, travelling on a grant from the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, and I asked Eriks to set me up with "what's happening right now in Latvian music." Typical of Eriks’ crazy generosity, he appeared at ‘the Italian restaurant’ in Riga where he presented me with half a suitcase of CDs – some commercial, some cut off a computer – and an explanation of the composing trends of the time.  In this pile was a CD of Santa’s music, which I brought back to Chicago and listened to in awe. We immediately programmed the USA premieres of her Saline, Chu dal, and Horo horo hata hata – each a very challenging, extraordinarily beautiful work from a compositional voice that was new to me – a voice that is uniquely her own.

Santa’s music exists in a world that seems to acknowledge the tug that tonality has on our ears and souls, but only as memory that lives under the surface of the music; that surface, or ‘present,’ is often a kind of undulating cloud of sound, formed of a variety of techniques that are carefully and ingeniously notated but somehow come off the page in a shockingly effective, alive, and nearly improvisational way.  At times you think you hear an owl in a forest through wind in the trees and the murmur of distant singing, at others you may imagine a distant call of whale from deep within a dark sea of moving water.  But, these are just aural and visual images that the music conjures – for the singers, it’s a series of calculating glissandi; various types of fast, slow, and quarter-tone vibrato; extremes of range and dynamic; and succession of morphing phonemes. 

My favorite work of hers to date is Horo horo hata hata, based on an Ainu prayer; it seems to me it captures our relationship to the natural world and magnifies the distance we are from that world in our increasingly human-centric existence.  There is a certain kind of loneliness in this music that I find profound.  The work begins "Was I dead? Was I asleep?" and then awakens to call in prayer to an owl departing its life; it ends in an extraordinary emotional outburst, as the owl reaches the highest mountain peak before its soul departs the earth for heaven and it becomes a deity.  The silence that follows is ancient and deafening.

Santa’s work for Seven Responses is based on letters of St. Clare of Assisi (1194-1253).  She has made a video, filmed in her studio in Riga, to talk about her relationship to this text; in this brief introduction, we easily receive a sense of who Santa is – and why this gently-speaking composer would be drawn to the kindred spirit of Clare, friend to St. Francis. Her lovely explanation of the journey by which she came to Clare’s words is thoughtful and honest, like her music – music that we cannot wait to dig into, when we prepare in the Spring for Seven Responses.

Hear Santa speak of her libretto below, and read it for yourself here