Esta updates

Esta hits two topics this morning that are near and dear to my heart: Trent Lott’s retraction of his idiotic statement saying the country would have been better off with a segregationist president and churches that are supportive of gay and lesbian rights.

The latter is particularly close to my mind right now, as we are in the process of trying to find a church home out here in Seattle. Lisa and I didn’t find too many Presbyterian churches in Boston and went Congregationalist there. Trying to find a Presbyterian church out here, I’m butting up against the growing divide in the denomination over gay rights. (There’s a really good history of the church’s positions on gays in ministry here; it doesn’t cover an amendment to the PCUSA constitution from last summer that is in the process of being considered by all the churches in the denomination.) I have too many gay and lesbian friends who are better Christians than I to consider membership in a church that would not accept them as a minister, elder, or deacon. Accordingly, I’m having to scrutinize each church’s website and weed out the ones that have taken actions such as joining the Confessing Church Movement.

I feel a little sick having to go through and do this, and tired of having to use this issue as a litmus test. But I feel I’ve been given little choice. These churches don’t represent the same faith I grew up in.

About the Te Deum

I’ve referred to the Pärt Te Deum a few times but haven’t written much detail about it yet. It’s a difficult piece to write about. Almost a half hour long, much of it consists, as Steve Schwartz writes, of variations on D modality—major to minor and back. Many of the individual vocal parts do little more than oscillate around the notes of a ringing triad, from the third to the octave to the fifth and so on. But the music as a whole is a magnificent statement of faith. How does Pärt arrive from such simple materials at such a high spiritual peak?

The answer is partly structural, partly tonal, partly something else. The entire piece hovers around D, and Pärt makes it explicit with a D drone that begins in a low organ (or wind harp!) note, moves up to the basses and cellos, disappears in the middle, then returns in the violins and moves back down the octaves. Pärt’s deep faith is well documented, and my reading of the D drone is that it functions as a reminder of eternity, that regardless of the iterations of voicings and time, there are eternal truths.

The voicing tells the story of faith against this background. The entire piece is a colloquoy among plainchant, orchestra, and triadic singing. I read the melodic plainchant, which is ever changing, as humanity, and the triadic voicings (the third, antiphonal choir), which weave a more static melody from D major and D minor triads, as a choir of angels. One conductor I’ve sung under reads the orchestra as a kind of Greek chorus that comments on the interaction between the two.

With this framework, the piece can be read as a long striving of humanity to reach the perfection of the angels. So the first Sanctus, uttered in a unison D minor plainchant by the tenors and basses, is echoed in a D minor triadic Sanctus by the antiphonal choir. The entire piece is built on groupings of three: three choirs, three contributions of three part phrases from the orchestra, building blocks of chant + triadic song + orchestra, and so on, that Pärt varies for dramatic effect. Accordingly, there are three dramatic moments of unison between the plainchant choirs and the antiphonal choir. The first two are followed immediately by plainchant advancing the argument of humanity, while the third is followed by a chanted Amen and an echo of the Sanctus by the antiphonal choir that fades into infinity.

I may find more to write about in the Te Deum as we continue to work on it. I continue to learn more about the piece each time I sing it or listen to it.

Brightening the corners

I feel inexplicably good this morning. Rain came last night and scrubbed the fog out of the corners of the fields and valleys. And we had a great rehearsal.

To my Seattle area readers: you owe it to yourself to check out the Cascadian Chorale concert this Sunday. We rehearsed the Pärt Te Deum last night with the string orchestra for the first time and it’s sounding really really really good. I can’t wait to hear how the Górecki sounds on Wednesday.

My euphoria probably started around the second runthrough of the piece and was capped when, after rehearsal, one of the sopranos started playing “Autumn Leaves” on piano. I was moved to contribute a vocal walking bass line, someone else joined in on vocal percussion, and we improvised our way through the whole thing. I haven’t done anything that musically spontaneous in a long time. There’s something about just playing or singing from the top of the head that reaffirms my faith in the power of music.