Blog: Secret Geometry

From the Reading Journal, #33a and #33b

“In mystical literature such self-contradictory phrases as “dazzling obscurity,” “whispering silence,” “teeming desert,” are continually met with. They prove that not conceptual-speech, but music rather, is the element through which we are best spoken to by mystical truth.”

“We and God have business with each other, and in opening ourselves to his influence our deepest destiny is fulfilled.”

– from The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James

AllMusic on Carthage

A very nice review from AllMusic on The Crossing’s album of my choral music, Carthage. An excerpt below, read the whole thing here.

Those new to The Crossing might do well to pick this release for their first one. It is entirely devoted to a cappella choral music of James Primosch, who has forged a one-of-a-kind choral idiom. The texts mix sacred and secular elements, with the centerpiece, the Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus, combining the Catholic mass text with poems by Denise Levertov. Other contemporary writers represented include Marilynne Robinson (whose prose from the novel Housekeeping provides the metaphorical view of ancient Carthage that gives the album its title) and Wendell Berry. What is most impressive is that Primosch devises a flexible musical language that matches the wide variety of textual ideas. His music, in the main, is diatonic but not really tonal. Parts of the mass offer open intervals, reminiscent of medieval organum, that complement the troping structure inherent in the exchange between the Levertov poems and the mass text. Elsewhere, Primosch employs lush, close harmonies as a means of musical intensification, for instance, in the utterly original treatment of the Incarnation and Crucifixion in the mass. He may add a descant requiring superb control from The Crossing‘s sopranos, who excel. Yet again, in some of the shorter pieces, Primosch offers a new intervallic structure with each phrase, in a way reflecting the sense of the text. There’s a lot to absorb here, and the music rewards and requires multiple hearings. The performances by The Crossing, always solid, are pitch-perfect; the soloists are beautiful but do not seem to step out of the world created by the choir. This is a major American choral release.

“Annenberg at Home” blog posts

Check out two recent blog posts from Penn’s Annenberg Center relevant to the recent release of Carthage and Descent/Return – the first springs from a chat I did with Alexander Freeman of the Annenberg staff; the second is about The Crossing and Carthage specifically. Go here to visit the websites of the performers on Descent/Return: Lucy Fitz Gibbon and Ryan McCullough.

Carthage Released Today

It’s the big day. Navona Records is releasing Carthage today, with The Crossing singing a program of my choral music, conducted by Donald Nally. Go here to learn more, to stream the music, and to purchase a CD.

This project means a great deal to me and not just because of the astonishing performances and excellent recorded sound. The spiritual orientation of these pieces makes them especially close to my heart. I am profoundly grateful to have such a marvelous document of my music, and of my relationships with The Crossing and Emmanuel Music, the two groups for whom I wrote the pieces on this album

My experiences with choral music began with my work as a church musician starting in my teens and continuing to this day. I’ve had a long relationship with Emmanuel Music, having written numerous pieces for that group over the past 26 years, three of which are on the new album. I’ve written for chorus and ensemble as well, with works for the Cantata Singers and the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia. All of these experiences nourished the three pieces I composed for The Crossing that make up the bulk of the album, most notably the big Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus, my interweaving of the Latin Mass texts with poems of Denise Levertov that comment on those liturgical texts.

The members of The Crossing possess extraordinary skill, but in working with them to prepare performances and make this recording, I have also experienced their patience, their high standards, their generosity, and their sensitivity.

I think there is a unique vulnerability inherent in vocal music, but there is a unique power as well. These qualities come across particularly strongly in a cappella choral music and you will sense this when you listen to Carthage.

Without Ceremony

May 20 announcement in the New York Times of the 2020 recipients of awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. I am mentioned at the lower right as recipient of the Virgil Thomson Award in Vocal Music.

Or I should say without Ceremonial. That’s how the American Academy of Arts and Letters refers to the annual gathering at their headquarters in upper Manhattan, which would have taken place today if not for the pandemic. (What’s the correct name for the neighborhood around 155th and Broadway? Wikipedia tells me 155th is the dividing line between Hamilton Heights to the south and Washington Heights to the north, with Hamilton Heights being a subset of Harlem.) If the novelty has not worn off for you (it has for some colleagues of mine, but not for me) it is an exciting event. I know the details from having attended previously. A reception when you come in is a good moment to oooh and aaah at the famous members of the Academy, (go here for a list of current members) as well as guests – I saw Jackie Kennedy there once. Then there is a luncheon. You are seated with a member of the Academy from your own field; the last time I was there I met the late Arthur Berger for the first and only time. Then you file into the auditorium and take a seat on stage, with prize winners mixed in with members on tiers of seats. (The fine acoustics of the auditorium make it a prized venue for recording sessions; I’ve had two pieces recorded there.) As I recall, Charles Wuorinen was on my left one year, with John Corigliano nearby and Mary Gordon behind me. First, photographs are taken of the whole crowd on stage. Then the audience is admitted, and the speeches and awarding of prizes begins. One time I saw Robertson Davies give an address (there are honorary members from foreign countries). Another reception closes the day.

A member of the Academy once told me that when he was elected his first thought was that “wow, I am in among” (let’s say, at the time) “Saul Bellow and Willem De Kooning”. But then his second thought was that “hmm, I am also  in with so and so or such and such” which is to say, with some decidedly lesser lights. Exalting and humbling pretty much at the same time.

I am very grateful to the Academy for the support signaled by this honor. Congratulations to all my colleagues who received recognition!

Podcast on Carthage with Donald Nally

Donald Nally, Artistic Director of The Crossing did an interview with WGTE Public Media in which he discusses the choir’s recent recording of Michael Gordon’s Anonymous Man, as well as my own about-to-be-released Carthage. Go here to listen to or download the podcast. The discussion of Carthage begins at about 15:30 – or, if you are playing the podcast on the WGTE website, when there is about 12:30 left to go. (The player indicates how much time is left, not how much time has passed.)

Spotify single, Albany release

Two happy events today: The Crossing has released on Spotify a track from Carthage, their forthcoming Navona album of my choral music. It’s the Gloria from Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus, a piece that interweaves a setting of the Latin Ordinary of the Mass with poems by Denise Levertov reflecting on the Latin texts.

The second piece of news is that the album Descent/Return is out on the Albany label. Soprano Lucy Fitz Gibbon and pianist Ryan McCullough offer a program of songs and piano solo pieces by myself and John Harbison. Ryan made a trailer for album, find it here. There’s a nice article about the release from the Cornell Chronicle here.

Pure Contraption, Absolute Gift – the set of piano pieces on Descent/Return – is published by Theodore Presser, find it here. For scores of the other items, contact me directly.

A track list for Descent/Return: