Of Earth and Starry Sky
This is why I never started a blog – it’s been almost a whole school year since I last posted. But while I wasn’t writing, one project I’ve been working on is a collection of electronic pieces, Of Earth and Starry Sky. I have played these a few times over the year an will present them again on May 4 at Augustana’s Celebration of Learning. Of Earth and Starry Sky is based on the Orphic Gold Tablets, small pieces of gold foil inscribed with Greek texts found in ancient graves, mostly in southern Italy. The ancient Greeks had a limited understanding of the afterlife; rather than going to heaven or hell, the soul lingered in a type of limbo, neither rewarded nor punished. The desire for eternal life was addressed in Mystery cults such as the Eleusinian, Dionysian, and Orphic. All three of these rites are based on myths about descent or death and return: Persephone was abducted by Hades, the god of the underworld, before being rescued by her mother Demeter; the infant Dionysus was torn to pieces and eaten by Titans, but his father Zeus resurrected him from his salvaged heart; Orpheus, this program’s patron, through the power of his music, was able to secure the release of his dead wife Eurydice from the underworld on condition that he not look at her until they returned to the land of the living, a command he famously failed to keep. The initiates of these Mystery cults succeeded in keeping them mysteries – we will never be sure what they did or taught, but it may be that the offered secret teachings about the soul’s passage through the underworld. This would make the Orphic Gold Tablets reference sheets reminding the soul of the necessary instructions and passwords need to pass various underworld guardians and challenges on its way to immortality. As can be seen from the translations, these instructions are often mysterious and cryptic.
The Tablet pieces are based on recordings of my colleague, Dr. Mischa Hooker reading the tablets in both Greek and English. The Greek text was altered using a technique called granular synthesis. Small clips (or ‘grains’) of the recordings were repeated and varied by the computer to generate new sounds, which make up the musical content of the piece. The English translations are presented without electronic manipulation to allow the listener to follow the text.
The electronic pieces are framed by pieces for solo saxophone, thus Of Earth and Starry Sky is actually a collection of different pieces presented as a single multi-movement work. An interesting part of the project is that these pieces have changed throughout the year. In the fall I used Vir and Gyn by Christian Lauba, and Le fusain fuit la gomme by Marie-Hélène Fournier’s. Later in the year one of my Mutiphonic Etudes rotated in, and next week I will use three pieces taken from Aphorismes by Franco-American composer Étienne Rolin. The composer describes the set as an “overview of the new techniques and expressive possibilities of the saxophone,” which can also be said of each of the pieces used with Of Earth and Starry Sky. These new techniques, such as mutliphonics, tone color variation, and microtones, are presented as fragmented gestures that flicker and float through a shadowy landscape. Taken as a whole this set is an imagined depiction of the soul’s passage through the underworld. For many listeners, the unusual musical qualities will be disorienting, placing them in an analogues situation as the soul in its liminal journey.
Of Earth and Starry Sky is a creative work that is intended to foster the interaction between art and scholarship. It is generally understood that these endeavors explore opposing modes of thought and activity – creativity, intuition, and tangible expression on the one hand, analysis, reason, and intellectual concepts on the other. But this project was an attempt to blur these traditional boundaries and to explore art and scholarship through the dispositions of the other; such collaboration can be mutually beneficial to each. In this case exploring a specific and somewhat obscure research topic has led to new musical directions: the Greek text has its own sonic possibilities which shaped the electronic pieces; chaining together different pieces into one continuous whole, in order to better recreate the underworld passage, subverts the traditional concert model of perform-applause-repeat; contextualizing unfamiliar music helps to make it more assessable to the audience. This collaboration also provides a context to engage the imagination, unfettered by the responsibility of scholarly accuracy, and to participate in the human conditions embedded within the Orphic Gold Tablets. The Tablets address certain eschatological and soteriological issues, universal human questions of life, death, and the yearning for immortality – the simple longing that my consciousness, my awareness of myself, will not be extinguished despite the great inevitability of death. The Orphic initiates approached these question in their mystical rites and on the golden plates they buried with their dead. In this performance, these issues are reframed in the language of experimental music for saxophone and electronics. In so doing we can imagine what an Orphic rite might have sounded like. While this is obviously not an accurate recreation of such ancient ceremonies, it does animate the Gold Tablets, giving them tangible, audible form, through which we may better experience the same human conditions that originally inspired them.
Some thoughts on music, ideas, and meaning