Magazine article The New Yorker

Sacred Dissonance

Magazine article The New Yorker

Sacred Dissonance

Article excerpt

When composers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries entered the shadow realm of dissonance, they often went in quest of emotional extremes. So it was with Strauss's "Salome," Schoenberg's "Erwartung," Berg's "Wozzeck," and other landmarks of modernism. Yet the progression toward atonality also had a mystical aspect: these uncanny new chords could serve as esoteric icons, emblems of the sacred. Such is the import of certain late works of Liszt, of Scriabin's music of divine ecstasy, of the occultist pieces that Satie wrote for the Rosicrucian theatre of Josephin Peladan. Schoenberg's atonal language found its ultimate purpose in the opening measures of his opera "Moses und Aron," where hexachords represent God speaking through the burning bush. Two of Stravinsky's greatest works--"Symphony of Psalms" and "Requiem Canticles"--are devout to the core. Twentieth-century composers went on to create a staggering corpus of sacred music, arguably eclipsing the production of the preceding century. Even secular-minded artists like Gyorgy Ligeti and Morton Feldman wrote works of a spiritual nature, perhaps because their chosen language drew them toward the unsayable.

John Adams has described himself as a "secular liberal living in Berkeley, California," yet he, too, has tilted toward sacred subjects. His opera "The Death of Klinghoffer" juxtaposes Jewish and Islamic theology, and his opera-oratorio "El Nino" gives a contemporary spin to the Nativity story. "Doctor Atomic," Adams's opera about the Trinity test, has religious overtones. In part, these themes stem from the preoccupations of the director Peter Sellars, Adams's longtime collaborator, who has sought to engage with various spiritual traditions in a theatrical vision informed by social activism. All along, though, Adams has shown a mystic bent: the sumptuous tonal chords of early pieces such as "Harmonium" and "Harmonielehre" come across as apparitions or illuminations, to use favored words of Olivier Messiaen, the leading religious composer of the past century.

Adams's latest work, "The Gospel According to the Other Mary," had its premiere at the end of May, in Walt Disney Concert Hall, with the Los Angeles Philharmonic under the direction of Gustavo Dudamel. A Passion play in all but name, it is a huge, strange, turbulent creation, brushing against chaos. The modernist tradition of the dark sacred, of the radical sublime, is alive and well; a composer who started out as an acolyte of Boulez, Stockhausen, and Cage has rediscovered his avant-garde roots, and those who prize him as an audience-friendly neo-Romantic are in for some shocks. Although the structure is unwieldy and overloaded--the first performance lasted nearly three hours, intermission included, and a good portion of the audience didn't stay to the end--it contains some of the strongest, most impassioned music of Adams's career. Above all, it is a work of daring: a popular, celebrated artist has set aside familiar devices and stepped into the unknown.

The libretto of "The Other Mary," which Sellars devised in consultation with Adams, depicts the last days of Christ from the perspective of the three siblings devoted to him: Martha, Lazarus, and Mary Magdalene. Jesus is quoted, but does not sing. Much of the familiar drama of the Crucifixion--the betrayal of Jesus, the trial under Pontius Pilate, the selection of Barabbas, and so on--is absent; instead, passages from the Old and New Testaments, focussing on inward matters of life, death, doubt, and faith, are intermingled with religiously tinged poems by Rosario Castellanos, Ruben Dario, Primo Levi, June Jordan, and, most crucially, the Native American writer Louise Erdrich. (There are four pieces from her 1989 collection, "Baptism of Desire.") Sellars's riskiest move is to incorporate writings of the radical Catholic activist Dorothy Day, letting Mary and Martha voice Day's journals and commentaries in turn: the sisters become fighters for social justice, Mary prone to wild emotion, Martha steadier and steelier. …

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