Sometimes the most chilling moments in art strike me as such because they are set in such a beautiful way; so much care curating the grotesque, so much technique spent capturing the moment. Guernica is like that. The opening scene of Lars von Trier’s Antichrist is as well, with Tuva Semmingsen’s beautiful singing of Handel’s ''Lascia ch’io pianga'' from Rinaldo, while we watch – somewhat voyeuristically – dual scenes of unfolding intimacy and tragedy, the horror of which is magnified by the mesmerizing dream world of slow-motion, the failing snow in black and white, the darkness of the event. I think of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and John Irving and their ability to tell a tragic event in the most elegant and mannered fashion.
We hear this in Zealot Canticles, partly in harmonic motion (there is a ninth chord that chromatically alters to a major chord and becomes one of those ear worms that live with you long after the work has receded into Time), and, most strikingly, in the baritone aria ''I am Right, You are Dead,'' in which Lansing sets the short, terrifying words lifted from Wole Soyinka’s lengthy 2005 article on democracy, war, oppression, and dictatorship, ''Power and Freedom/I Am Right, You are Dead.''
I am right, you are wrong.
I am right, you are dead.
Elijah, our baritone soloist, sings ''I am right'' twenty-seven times in a slow, mantra-like progression that begins as a duet with cello and gradually adds instruments to the texture as if slowly revealing the depth of what is happening. It is one long seduction that seems to attempt to hide the single iterations of ''you are wrong'' (sung in falsetto, as if putting a baby to sleep) and ''you are dead'' (sung quietly with the eerie delicacy of female voices hovering above). The aria sits at the center of Zealot Canticles as a kind of destabilizing anchor, if such a thing is possible. Instead of attempting to capture the fear induced by an entire faction of zealots who prescribe to this mantra, Lansing has created this intoxicatingly tantalizing aria for a single voice – a prayer, repeated over and over, till the listener becomes immune to the real message and falls victim to repetition of the falsehood. The leader as tempter – an interrogator as friend, holding all the cards.
I have previously emphasized the timeliness of this weekend’s world premiere. There is so much to ponder as we see zealotry continue to rise and affect the world – our world. Art, in the form of Lansing’s music, allows us to look in the mirror while listening to that world described in sounds. Some will be gripped by the journey – the anger or love captured at various times throughout. Others may drift away into their own thoughts at times. But the timeliness will stay with us, like Lansing’s harmonic progression. As will Wole’s words – his attempt to speak the truth, always – a determined Voice, challenging us, as heard later in the same article from which ''I am Right, You are Dead'' is drawn; he leaves us with these equally chilling words:
If you believe in democracy, are you not thereby obliged to accept, without discrimination, the fallouts that come with a democratic choice, even if this means the termination of the democratic process itself?