Saturday, March 19, 2016

Crossing Over: Sacred Music for the Agnostic

Light and darkness (Edinburgh sunset, photo by me)
The 40 days of Lent: season of prayer and fasting for adherents of Christianity, and of Requiems and Passions for devotees of classical music. With a seasonally appropriate release date of March 25, Crossing Over, the new album of the choral ensemble Skylark, answers the question: what might musical meditations on mortality look like without religious affiliation? The results are musically creative and intellectually rich. Indeed, the musical substance of the album--available for pre-order here--is weightier than the somewhat fulsome accompanying text would suggest. (The expressions "near-death experiences" and "pseudo-consciousness" raised only skeptical alarm in me.) Composers of several generations and traditions are represented. Works by Nicolai Kedrov and Jón Leifs date to the first half of the twentieth century; song cycles by William Schuman and John Tavener to the latter (and just beyond.) Daniel Elder, Robert Vuichard, and Anna Thorvaldsdottir represent the generation of composers who have come of age in the twenty-first century. I mention this as a matter affecting the spiritual textures of the works, almost more than the musical textures.

The opening piece on the disc, Daniel Elder's "Elegy," brought a lump to my throat when I realized what I was hearing. The familiar words, "Day is done: / Gone the sun / From the lakes, from the hills, from the sky. / All is well; safely rest; God is nigh" are to me identified with childhood campfires: a circle of warmth in an unfamiliar darkness, a group affirming shared faith, shared love. Elder's setting unites the text with new music that resists resolution, followed by the familiar "Taps" melody, combining yearning and sweetness.

The Tavener cycle "Butterfly Dreams," though dating to 2003, was new to me. It is pleasingly surreal, full of contrasts in dynamics and harmonies.  To me, it seemed strongly reminiscent of Britten. Anxious and insistent dissonances are succeeded by a movement of chant-like focus and tranquility. Although nothing about the piece is religious, the composer insisted on its status as a sacred rather than a secular work. In the last movement, the floating soprano above the massed voices suggests countless other choral settings of aspiration towards the divine, or at least towards holiness.

Kedrov's "Otche Nash" (Our Father) is among the most explicitly religious pieces of the disc, but also, notably, it sets a prayer learned long before theology, almost alongside language itself. The harmonies are expansive, the sound bright. It's very peaceful, translating the tranquility of ritual. Jón Leif's composition may be the the most paradoxical. Dubbed a requiem, it is set to fragments of folk poetry, perhaps aptly for Iceland, a region where Christianity and older folk religions coexisted and cross-fertilized for a long time. Another of the piece's paradoxes is that it is a lullaby full of grief, its ballad-like stanzas occasionally interrupted by outbursts, with the basses providing its anchor, like the tides of the sea.

Robert Vuichard's piece, "Heliocentric Meditation," references one of the less-often cited passages from the John Donne meditation he sets: "Who casts not up his eye to the sun when it rises?" I tried to listen for light, and didn't quite get there, but I did find the piece a fascinating one; the ensemble, always finely blent, were particularly fine here. Interestingly, the famous "it tolls for thee" line is set with dissonances that could never be produced by a well-tuned bell. The second of the two cycles on the disc is William Schuman's Carols of Death, a set of three songs based on the poetry of Walt Whitman. Music and text alike, I thought, reflected American transcendentalism at its most strange and most sublime. The full texts of the poems are not given in the booklet, but I identified "The Last Invocation" and "Darest Thou Now, O Soul." Schuman's settings leave room for many long-held vowels, recalling the Appalachian tradition of shape note singing.

The simplicity of Anna Thorvaldsdottir's "Heyr Þú os himnum á" makes a contemplative contrast with the earnest, intellectual spirituality of the Whitman settings. The text is identified as an Old Icelandic psalm; medievalist that I am, I would love to know more, but only a translation is given. The delicate, lilting lines have the voices working close together, united in confident prayer to a God who is imagined as a parent, whose eternity is imagined as joyful.

Much more severe, but sublimely beautiful, is John Tavener's "Funeral Ikos," that sets a portion of the Orthodox Order for the Burial of Dead Priests, as translated by Isabel Hapgood. Is the swing towards the religious at the end of the album a reflection of the human tendency to grope for certainty? Perhaps. The Tavener is, in any case, solemnly beautiful, and features arguably the best poetry on the disc:

"Youth and the beauty of the body fade at the hour of death, and the tongue then burneth fiercely, and the parched throat is inflamed. The beauty of the eyes is quenched then, the comeliness of the face all altered, the shapeliness of the neck destroyed; and the other parts have become numb, nor often say: Alleluia." 

I love that, and the fact that it is set to sound exultant even before the passionate Alleluia. We are all going to be dust! All is vanity! It's perhaps unsurprising that I find this the most viscerally gripping text on the disc. One of the beauties of the album as a whole, though, I think, is that it widens the category of sacred music, and ideas of the sacred, inviting emotional and intellectual engagement from those of any religious tradition or none. 

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