By Water Saul
October 17, 2020
The Third Concert – The Music of Ian Guthrie and Xavier Bateta – and an Important Centenary
Before we get started with the entrées, just a couple of appetizers for you:
1) Can you name a significant composer born a century ago? Neither could I, until I came across a marvelous video from the Washington National Cathedral celebrating the life and music of Richard Wayne Dirksen, born on February 8 100 years ago in Freeport, Illinois. He went on to become a marvelous composer, organist, pianist, teacher, and many other things in his 82 years, including a 50-year career at the Cathedral. He is said to have been the most influential layperson in all of the Episcopal Church, especially from his appointment as Canon of the Cathedral in 1983.
The video may be viewed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xNNeKRTd9pc&t=6426s. It is over two hours long, and much of it consists of reminiscences of a personal nature, but there are great samples of his music at 1:20:21 (a beautiful hymn of worship “Give Us the Wings of Faith to Rise”), 1:06:51 (the opening chorus “Go to Ninevah” from the oratorio Jonah, which I sang in as a preteen), 56:33 (a particularly adventurous a cappella anthem “Thee, God, I Come From” from Six Choral Exercises – quite atonal and dramatic!), and 49:11 (Finale: Fast and Lively, from the Sonata for Organ – a grand performance by Thomas Sheehan, organist of the Cathedral). Dirksen’s music has had a profound influence on my own, and I did get to meet him on a couple of occasions.
2) In my blog last week we celebrated the life and music of Larry Warkentin. I failed to mention that he and I collaborated on a CD together, Songs of Requited Love. He wrote Eleven Little Love Songs – words and music – for his beloved wife, Paula. One of his songs, “Too Much Laughter Brings Tears,” may be heard by clicking here. If you would like to hear more, please visit https://waltersaul.square.site/product/songs-of-requited-love-cd/140?cs=true&cst=custom.
If you are going to engage with the thrilling Treacherous Tepuy by Ian Guthrie, which is available on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ftnFE9w0gd0, please, for your own safety and those seated around your computer, fasten your seatbelts and exercise appropriate caution! I know Guthrie does so in his life, but he is an adventurer in spirit and has visited more and different places in more diverse continents in his life than I have dreamed of doing in twice as many years. As with his life, so with his music; it is equally adventurous. By that I mean that he looks back and forward with equal passion to take us to unfamiliar places and celebrate them in joyful, even ecstatic ways. He looks backwards to modernism by invoking Arnold Schönberg’s Pierrot Ensemble (made famous by his epochal Pierrot Lunaire), Krzysztof Penderecki’s special effects, and the tiny, pitch-class-set-based motives of Anton Webern. He looks forward to the journey that these mostly discarded elements of the experimental 20th century can yet take us on. In short, Guthrie takes these old-fashioned tools and structures of yesteryear (am I really saying this as a modernist myself?) and gives them new life and joy (and terror) in this somewhat sleepy 21st century of renewed conformity, and it is most refreshing. I cherish Guthrie’s optimism and joie de vivre in the modernistic language, because the 20th century had so few expressions of joy and hope, since so much of it was focused on two terrible world wars and other military matters.
Just a word about the motives that drive this work: not only do they seem based on three-note pitch class sets (like Webern) which are then chained together to form the ascents and descents of the hikes, but the elemental three-note motive, a step followed by a third (either ascending or descending), resembles the famous three-note motives “Muß es sein?” (“Must it be?”) and “Es muß sein!” (“It must be!”) that form the hallmark of the finale of Beethoven’s final work, the String Quartet in F, op. 135. This movement is also subtitled “Der schwer gefasste Entschluss” (“The difficult decision”). It seems that the spirit of this rollicking work is much the same way as it negotiates the decision for thrill versus danger!
The YouTube link above is particularly thrilling, because, in addition to the phenomenal performance by the New York-based ensemble yMusic, one experiences the actual score of the work, so complex and different that Guthrie, in the manner of Penderecki, must explain the use of various symbols and markings to achieve his many wonderful effects. Guthrie is so fortunate to have yMusic present the première, considering that it has collaborated with the 2013 winner of the Pulitzer Prize, Caroline Shaw, and many other notables from all spectra of the music world such as Paul Simon and Chris Thile (a phenomenal mandolinist who used to host Live From Here, syndicated on National Public Radio). While yMusic is not the precise Pierrot ensemble, it comes quite close. Take away the piano and add a trumpet and viola, and you have yMusic. The resulting sextet is just right for Guthrie: the trumpet, clarinet, and flute create a diverse wind/brass palette that he draws effectively on, like selecting and combining stops on an organ. Having the strings augmented by a viola creates a richness that functions as contrast and as backdrop for the wind instruments.
The title, Treacherous Tepuy, has quite the history. An avid hiker, Guthrie narrowly escaped death in a fall during a hike some years ago, which has led to a new fear of heights. So now it is both thrilling and dangerous for him to take in the breathtaking views. I appreciate his new-found fears. I had a father-in-law who used to venture out right on the edge of a cliff or ledge to “see the view” and my wife and I desperately wished for a leash for him each time that happened. But for him, this added to the thrill! From Guthrie’s program notes: “A tepuy (meaning “house of the gods”) refers to a mesa in South America that rises thousands of feet above a jungle. Although I have not (yet) ascended one, I imagine they share some similarities with the snowclad peaks I have. Fun yet fatal, there is nothing quite like the rollercoaster thrills of climbing big peaks.”
Although this work begins with scattershots of the different motives that are sprinkled throughout its seven-minute span, a driving rhythm imperceptibly emerges and harnesses all the energies into an impelling hike that leads to a splendid conquering of the heights – and the overwhelming view below and all around. Yes, it may take a second or a third experience with this work, as with all modernistic music, to enjoy and relish this music, but it’s an investment easily worth making, as I have done.
The Wheaton College Conservatory of Music is a one-of-a-kind institution: offering only undergraduates a full-throated Bachelor of Music that rivals institutions such as Juilliard and Eastman while staying true to its Christian and abolitionist roots of its founding in 1860. Its storied history includes being a stop on the Underground Railroad that led many Black slaves to their freedom. Its fully-doctorate faculty includes not one, but two renowned composers, both from minority backgrounds: Shawn Okpebholo, whom I have mentioned in previous blogs, and Xavier Beteta. We now have the privilege of being introduced to the latter through his stunning La Catedral Abandonada as performed by the Palimpsest Ensemble, a Pierrot-like ensemble based at the University of California at San Diego (from where Beteta earned his Ph. D). In addition to the flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano of the Pierrot ensemble, the Palimpsest Ensemble adds percussion (a frequent addition), viola, and contrabass for this threnody.
For, like the Penderecki Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima, this deeply-felt piece is a mourning, this one of vacated sacred spaces. Many of us will also call to mind Claude Debussy’s La cathédrale engloutie (The Sunken Cathedral), and there are many other influences and musical languages that seem to feed into this eclectic work. Let’s mention just a few: the free atonality of the Second Viennese School (Schönberg and his disciples), the sinuous and dark lines and rhythms of Silvestre Reveultas, and the exotic, evocative percussion sounds of George Crumb.
Yes, there are similarities between the Debussy and Beteta “cathedrals.” Both these meditations explore enormous holy places falling out of grace and favor with God and people, and both invoke music of being, rather than becoming. They are content to be fetchingly sonorous and not suggest progression to another location. But here the similarities end. La cathédrale engloutie is a dispassionate and detached view of a cathedral being punished by regular flooding, which to the observer (Debussy) is completely justified, since the priests have made a mockery of their religion. But La Catedral Abandonada is a passionate elegy for what Beteta experienced when he saw photos of the 16th-century temple of Santiago Quechula in Chiapas, Mexico – and for what so may of us experience as we visit the huge and forsaken cathedrals around us all over the world. In Kiev, Ukraine, in 2014, my wife and I visited St. Sophia’s Cathedral and admired the vast, beautiful, and ornate spaces enveloped by the white walls and the striking gold and green domes, lamenting that no services were held there anymore. In California along the El Camino Real (The King’s Highway, referring to King Jesus) are 21 monuments of the Spanish missions built between 1769 and 1833. And all of us have seen boarded-up houses of worship and even belonged to congregations that died, leaving behind empty shells once rich with life, joy, and music. So, unlike the legend that inspired Debussy’s music, Beteta’s music is an outcry based on real life that is painfully close to many of us.
As Beteta indicates, the piece is built around the pitch class C# which he describes as a “call” and “like a bell in a church” in his program notes. Seldom in this work is C# absent. It reminds me of “Resurrection” from my triptych for marimba and piano Jesus of Nazareth the King of the Jews. I opened this movement with middle C around which the other notes clustered, like the eleven disciples around Jesus Christ, with the C standing for Christ. The entire work ends in Ascension with a repeated C# similar to the end of La Catedral Abandonada, in which I was reminded that the German word for “sharp” is “Kreuz,” which also means “cross.” The high C# in this ascension is intended as a reminder that the Christ Who ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God is the Christ crucified. So this is the first thought I have on encountering Beteta’s C#. Alas, it’s like Christ on the cross calling out to a secularized and uncaring people, much as He did during His actual execution.
The somber music, operating, as Beteta writes, in many “sound planes” simulating the echoes of a cathedral, also calls to mind Ezekiel 10, in which God’s glory departs from His Temple, as it has from many of these edifices today. The effect is heightened by the frequent use of minor thirds. In a normal tonal context we would expect minor thirds to connote sadness and mourning, but it is astonishing to me to hear, in this atonal context, that same emotion. Beteta appears to avoid the major thirds deliberately and uses the minor thirds to form ugly and disquieting diminished triads and also the pitch class set 014 (as in C-C#-E). They and the whispered vocalizations of the clarinetist toward the end of the piece become menacing and remind me of evil spirits filling the void of emptiness much as Christ said they would in humans in Matthew 12:43-45. This is the aspect that is reminiscent of Sensemayá by Reveultas, a work based on an Afro-Carribean snake killing ritual.
The George Crumb connection is the inspired appearance of the crotales within the xylophone and marimba passages (all done by one percussionist) less than a minute from the end. With one stroke, a ray of light breaks through the primeval darkness and extends a beam of hope. The music slowly rises into the stratosphere, much as I imagine the Ascension taking place, and slowly focuses on the C#, which for me will forever be the “Christ note.” The disappearance of sound inaugurates a marvelous moment of quiet and even peace.
This epochal composition may be heard with the splendid Palimpsest Ensemble performance at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=78gJ2SA50Iw. Like the Guthrie, this features a scrolling presentation of the score which itself is a work of art to see.
In the next Stanbery Chronicles, we will celebrate music by Robert Myers, Walter Saul, Jack Ballard, and Larry Mumford.