07 January 2011

Passion, Revisiting the

Deep in the mailbag, I find this message from one kindly and thoughtful chorister about the experience of preparing and performing the Passion. It is a long piece; and it is a long piece for a choir to sing unaccompanied; and stretches of the seven-part writing are of a rhythmic independence which must keep a singer on his toes in ways that are a stretch.

In short, like much of my music (really), it is a piece with its musical challanges, challenges which may surprise even a seasoned musician. But the composer is grateful beyond words when the performers fall for the piece, its technical and musical challengese notwithstanding.

I’ll get out of the way, now.

Hello Karl,

First, nice recording! I’m so glad we could give that to you. While at the very beginning, the chant sounds a little rigid, I don’t think it took us long to relax into it. And I am so proud of our soprano section in particular, with their handling of the crucifixion segments.

In fact, the whole piece is so sublime to my ears that the Bach that follows it sounds like jackhammers. Of course, it’s no secret that I am partial to chant and
medieval polyphony, so I may be biased.

I really loved the piece, and only ever found myself wishing that the rest of the choir would have surrendered to it sooner. The preparation was frustrating because a different part spoke to each member of the choir. So as we each developed our favorite segments early on, preparation was lopsided because while three or four of us may have mastered any given part, there was little overlap. As I’m sure you know, the real work can’t begin until all have a good grasp on all sections. So as a group, the real time we were able to spend with the piece was much too short.

I am not a Christian, but despite that, I do have a great appreciation for sacred texts, icons and ideas. There was so much about this piece that delivered a powerful spiritual message. You should also know, I have only ever heard the Passion recited by speakers or occasionally actors, never as chant. This alone was a great improvement for me. Still, what your piece does by interspersing chant with polyphony is quite literally enchanting. The listener is lulled into a hypnotic state by the chant and I bet they think they are going to get away with an easy, gentle reading of the Passion. But the polyphony uses musical language to emphasize and punctuate certain texts which pulls them back into hearing the message — straight through the following segment of chant. The meditative approach actually eightens the consciousness of the person hearing it. But it creates a soul consciousness in addition to keeping the brain engaged.

Also, the fact that what I call “the details” went on for 20 minutes was especially effective. While as a musician, I can appreciate all the little variations in the repeated themes, I’m sure an ordinary listener — or more importantly a member of the congregation — might find it a bit tedious.

It reminds me of when I went to see the catacombs of Paris. Being Europe, there was not a lot of effort on the part of the museum staff to “guide” patrons through. Basically, we paid our admission, and they pointed us to the stairs. There was a sign at the top of the stairs that read “Catacombs” with an arrow pointing diagonally down in the direction of a spiral staircase. That was all. My husband and I began our descent, and it wasn’t long before all we could see in any direction was stairs. We slowly began to realize that we had no idea how far down we were going. There was no one to ask, we just had to keep walking down step-by-step. There were moments of fatigue, thirst, muscle cramping and even fleeting sensations of claustrophobic panic. When we finally reached the cold, damp floor... Well I never expected to feel so much comfort at the sight of corridors of stacked skeletons.

Much like the catharsis that happens at the onset of the first crucifixion section. Powerful. I found myself profoundly grateful and at-last ready to listen to what would otherwise be the hardest part to hear.

And it is so beautiful, Karl. Not to be overly flattering, but the words float like a falling leaf. Or snowflakes even; each cluster of notes or phrase decadent and beautiful by itself, but against a backdrop of lush, echoing vocal harmonies that sound as if they preceded time itself. Maybe the snowflakes are the faithful tears of generations.

And you offer just enough reprieve with a short moment of chant to catch one’s breath emotionally before hearing the rest of the story. Amid the timing of the women telling the story, the phrase
Woman, here is your son sounds as if in slow motion and would surely burn a permanent impression of the great and tragic loss in the fabric of any conscious soul.

And to me, the setting of the
Since it was the day of preparation... section is mercifully harmonic. It was sweet and comforting to sing and I’m sure to hear as well.

In closing, the story ends with women sweetly chanting above a seamless harmonic tapestry. This is a musical reminder (to me anyway) of the construction of the entire piece. And I mentioned it to you before, but I will say again, that my favorite moment in the entire piece is the chord change on the word garden ...
and in the garden there was a new tomb. It wakes me up one last time to hear the very end of the story. No wonder all were moved to tears.

As an artist myself, I have always said to people, “The world I live in doesn’t look, sound and feel like this.” All art is a spiritual endeavor for me. It’s probably truer to say “There is another world right here that we can only see if we close our eyes” or something like that. Reaching into the ether and drawing out from it this music is to me, well that’s what I live for. I’m so glad I got to sing it, and I am ecstatic that the recording for you is so close to what you heard and wrote. May it prove to you that what you heard was really there.

Keep listening and transcribing.

1 comment:

Jen Charleson said...

Awwww. It makes me want to sing it again. Or at the very least, listen to the recording.