New motet premieres at Emmanuel Church

I just got word that Ryan Turner, director of Emmanuel Music, will lead the first performance of my new motet Two Arms of the Harbor as part of the 10 AM Sunday Eucharist at Emmanuel Church, Boston this coming May 1. This is a brief SATB setting of a text by Thomas Merton, a journal entry that describes a dream:

“I dreamt I was lost in a great city and was walking “toward the center” without quite knowing where I was going. Suddenly I came to a dead end, but on a height, looking at a great bay, an arm of the harbor. I saw a whole section of the city spread out before me on hills covered with light snow, and realized that, though I had far to go, I knew where I was: because in this city there are two arms of the harbor and they help you to find your way, as you are always encountering them.”

(Thank you to the Thomas Merton Legacy Trust for permission to set this text.) This comes from the 1966 volume Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, one of a series of books offering selections from the journals that Merton kept during his time as a monk at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky. (More recently the journals were issued in a complete version; this text comes from the fourth volume of seven, Dancing in the Water of Life.) I find the text deeply consoling, and I have dedicated the piece to the memory of the late Craig Smith, who founded Emmanuel Music some 40 years ago, leading its performances of the Bach cantata cycle for decades.

Emmanuel Music is an extraordinary group, and in this, the sixth piece I have written for them since 1994, I know they will meet all the challenges I have recklessly set for them, and do so with grace and beauty of sound. I do like hearing my music done at Emmanuel, not just because the choir is superb. It is a place where I can bring all my “concert music” skills to bear, unlike the communities where I have generally worked as a church musician myself, where amateur choirs and an almost exclusive emphasis on congregational singing mean my composing is usually in the quasi-pop idiom that predominates in Catholic church music today. Not only is the choir great at Emmanuel, but the worshipping assembly has “ears to hear” as scripture puts it: trained to listen intently by years of hearing the Bach cantatas and similarly nourishing offerings, I know they will hear my piece with attention and sympathy. There are other nice aspects to church performance – only a few people will know I am even there, at least until the coffee hour afterwards; there is no applause, no awkward bowing, no reviewers. Applause, bows and sometimes even reviews are nice, but it is healthy to forego them once in a while. Read more about Emmanuel here, here, and here. A Merton blog I like here. Photo at left: Thomas Merton.

Merton and Laughlin

The correspondence of James Laughlin with several of the poets he published  at New Directions books has been issued in several volumes. I’ve been spending time with the Thomas Merton collection. As a Merton fan, I already knew the series of big volumes of his letters (he maintained an immense correspondence), but the Laughlin/Merton volume is especially interesting because, unlike those anthologies, this one includes both sides of the conversation. Laughlin  really believed in Merton as a poet – a bit surprising given the fact that Merton is not at all on the same level as other poets Laughlin published (Williams, Rexroth, Levertov, etc.). It is clear from the letters that his friendship with Merton was spiritually nourishing for Laughlin, just as Merton relied on Laughlin for reading material and as a lifeline to the world of poetry. New Directions also became the place where some of Merton’s most interesting writing appeared (New Seeds of Contemplation, Raids on the Unspeakable, Zen and the Birds of Appetite, and quite a bit more.) The collection is a very readable document of an unusual, touching literary friendship.

From the Reading Journal #3 (napkin edition)

“Do you remember our voyage to Rio? Your cold on the boat? My fear of catching it? The rehearsals which gave you so much trouble with the English tenor who trembled with fear and gave himself confidence by beating time with his score? Our lunches and dinners at the Copacabana? The evening at the G’s (the garden with the huge palm trees. It’s now the Argentine embassy at Rio)? The variegated chorus-singers? The heat? The pineapples? The seafood at night? Your way at table of putting your napkin on your head, like a turban, when the orchestra was playing (and what an orchestra!)? The scent of the East in the air? Your way of saying to me ‘She has a bad character…’?”

– from a letter from Victoria Ocampo to Igor Stravinsky, quoted in volume 2 of Stephen Walsh’s biography of the composer, entitled Stravinsky: The Second Exile: France and America, 1934-1971. Read Thomas Merton’s correspondence with Victoria Ocampo in this volume.

Thursday night: sublime and ridiculous

Five links – the first two beautiful, the second two amusing:

– Joy Howard at The Crooked Line on a sublime performance of a Schein motet at Emmanuel Church.

– The Dalai Lama on what he learned from Thomas Merton.

– via Arts Journal, Creature Comforts on “what is Art?”

-via a Penn colleague, an inimitable performance by Nicolas Slonimsky

-and the last, both sublime and ridiculous; again, via Arts Journal