Rekvijem u kojem je smrt ugodan pastoralni prizor nacrtan madrigalima.
Gregory Spears is a composer of refined and “astonishingly beautiful” (New York Times) instrumental and vocal works. His recording debut is marked by Requiem, an otherworldly album-length composition scored for six voices, baroque viola, harp, troubadour harp, recorders, and electric organ, containing vastly eclectic influences. While the piece’s title and instrumentation suggest a characteristically baroque structure, these indices are juxtaposed with Feldmanesque harmony, Reichian repetition, and motet-like vocal stylings, liberating the piece from a particular musical era. The music is wedded to an array of time- and place-exclusive languages, including Latin, Middle French, and Breton, allowing for further multi-referentiality and conceptual intricacy.
The piece premiered in in June 2010 as an opera an opera/dance collaboration with choreographer for Christopher Williams for his dance production Hen’s Teeth. The performance enhanced the collage-esque sonic references with the disparate imagery of 19th century Breton fairy tales, Greek mythology, and middle age relics. The interdisciplinary realization was called “splendid…” and “the jangling together of singing voices, violin, harp, recorder, chimes, and electric organ is magical, like feathers stroking the back of your neck” (Village Voice). The New York Times called Spears’ score “the most distinguished component of the evening,” the instrumentation evoking a “shimmering medieval aura,” and New Yorker critic Alex Ross described it as “cooly entrancing.” - newamrecords.com/
A new requiem, here, from an unlikely composer and even less likely circumstances. Known locally for his opera Paul's Case, Gregory Spears wrote this full-length work based on middle-French Breton writing for the Christopher Williams dance piece Hen's Teeth, which contemplates the idea of the swan's song - the beautiful noise that these creatures are supposed to make just before they die.
Using singers from Anonymous 4 and a spare instrumentation that most prominently features troubadour harp, viola, and not a lot else, Spears intersperses the swan myth with the requiem text, much of it reflecting lyrical Baltic influences of Arvo Pärt, but with a young composer's restlessness. The swan's song is speculatively re-created with otherworldly vocal ornaments. The piece also contains counterpoint that echoes 16th-century madrigals as well as a modern sense of theatrical timing that keeps your ears on edge until the last note. The most individualistic part: The piece seems not to contain any judgments or emotional reactions to death. It's not tragic or liberating. It just is.- David Patrick Stearns
Traditionally speaking (though when are we ever all that traditional on Q2 Music?), Requiems are massive works, propelling a soul into the afterlife and at times as overpowering as cathedral incense. Look at Verdi’s Dies Irae, Mozart’s Confutatis or Brahms’s Seling sind die Toten.
But Gregory Spears’s Requiem, the composer’s first album now out on New Amsterdam Records, starts off so subtly, so preciously, you think at first you’ve left the volume on mute. Combining the madrigal tradition of Victoria and antiphonies of Tallis and Sheppard with the limning sonic textures of John Luther Adams and Gavin Bryars, Spears’s Requiem tackles the more probing and complex intimacies of death.
Latin masses make a guest appearance in the form of a haunting Agnus Dei and a triptych of Kyrie, Libera me and Lux aeterna that weaves echoes and overtones to create a singing tone similar to the clanging of bells. However, Spears also works with 19th-century Breton texts and the poetry of 16th-century bard Jean-Antoine de Baïf, full of natural references that give the composer a great excuse to work in bird-like vocal lines. It’s not about the liturgical rite, but of the celebration (dour though it may sound) of life.
Subtle yes, but the overall effect is just as overwhelming with lush visuals straight out of the Dutch and Flemish masters. It beams with Vermeer-ian white and gold lights, teeming with Breughel’s minutest details and occasionally diving into Rembrandt’s layered blacks. Perhaps it's not the jolliest music you’ll hear this season, but it’s some of the most engrossing. - www.wqxr.org/
New Amsterdam is one record label devoted to promoting the independent side of art music. On November 15th, the label released two new recordings from two different composers. The first is the flute and percussion duo Due East’s sophomore outing Drawn Only Once, a multimedia performance composed by John Supko. The release is a CD/DVD set that comprise an audio recording of the performance and a DVD with the accompanying videos. The other is composer Gregory Spears’s Requiem, which presents a fresh take on a classic art music form. Why both CDs were released on the same day, I’m not sure. Both are notably different pieces of music. Due East’s performance tends toward the abstract, whereas Spears’s Requiem is a restrained, minimalistic chamber piece. Still, despite their differences, both releases are demonstrative of great quality and innovation coming from the New Amsterdam label, as well as excellent proof that classical music isn’t just for your grandparents.
Over the various periods of art music, the requiem has taken many forms, sometimes within the same period. The Romantic period is especially emblematic of this. The most well-known requiem not just of the Romantic period but of all art music, Giuseppe Verdi’s, is notable for its bombastic and theatric Dies Irae. Conversely, Hector Berlioz’s requiem is majestic and at times subdued, particularly in the gorgeous Agnus Dei movement. The Requiem as composed by Gregory Spears, however, is entirely different from both of those. A requiem derives from the Catholic mass for the dead, but Spears’s take is hardly mournful. Nor is it like Verdi envisioned, wherein the wrath of God is evoked through rapidly bowed strings and hurried choirs. Spears’s is, in the scheme of requiems past and present, practically quaint. He takes a piece that has its roots in participatory action (the Mass) and crafts an intimate, chamber recording that draws the listener deep into the mood of the piece. The staccato picks of the harp create a mood that’s more reflective than one might expect from a piece meant to evoke death. The piece, like many requiems, is beautiful, but not in the way that past requiems have been. In its restraint it packs just as much emotion as many of the requiems by the great composers of yore, and it does so in a manner that pays respect to those composers while presenting a unique contemporary vision.
The music is not the only thing that represents a departure from typical requiems; the text of the piece is also unique. This Requiem combines the text of a typical Latin requiem with a Middle French piece about a dying swan. As the striking cover art evokes, the piece examines death in an imagery-rich, poetic fashion, wherein the typical religious pleas found in most requiems are embellished on by the imagery of avian life. The words are sometimes striking, and at other times intriguing. In the beginning of the second half of the requiem, the choir sings, “All this happened at the time/The hens used to piss on their perch” (that’s the translation from the French to the English). The words, like the music, cast death in an entirely different light.
Spears’s Requiem, while artistically challenging in its own right, is by far the most accessible of the two releases. Drawn Only Once is unlike most classical music around. Parts of the album sound akin more to contemporary ambient music than what most consider “classical” music, but the album’s roots in the latter genre are still quite plain. The recording consists of two pieces: the thirty-five minute “Littoral” and the fifteen minute “This Window Makes Me Feel”. Though both can be listened to individually, it’s best to listen to them while watching the accompanying videos. A lot of the thematic elements of the songs are drawn out further in the multimedia format, particularly the oceanographic and cartographic themes of “Littoral”.
Both pieces, while containing a mix of ambient and art music flourishes, are unique pieces in their own right. “Littoral,” while maintaining a steady 5/4 time signature throughout its runtime, is a piece that sounds as if it’s always changing, much like the ever-changing tide of the ocean the piece evokes. The instrumentation of the piece is sparse. Flute, percussion, and readings of poetic texts comprise the piece, along with some electronic sounds that counterpoint the primary instruments. Despite that sparseness, the piece is incredibly rich. In accompaniment with the video, the piece becomes an immersive dive into the concepts associated with cartography and the ocean. While immersive, the piece is a challenge to listen to, and at thirty-five minutes the piece feels overly long, despite its strengths.
The shorter piece, “This Window Makes Me Feel,” stands out more for its text than its music. The piece utilizes a reading of the eponymous poem by Robert Frittman, which involved hundreds of Google searches used to finish the sentence, “this window makes me feel.” The results are varied, sometimes humorous, but always insightful. “This window makes me feel like I’m protected.” “This window makes me feel like I’m a rabbit being hunted.” “This window makes me feel like I’m on the ship in Ben-Hur.” “This window makes me feel more Jewish.” The accompanying music is of a strong ambient bent, which brings out the power of the poem quite brilliantly.
For those looking for some fresh new takes on “classical” music, these two records are no doubt a great place to start. Better to begin with Requiem rather than Drawn Only Once; though both are good, the latter’s abstract nature as well as the time it takes to fully absorb the multiple facets of the pieces (the film, the music, and the text) make it a difficult piece to listen to casually. Both demand the listener’s attention, but Drawn Only Once is not just a piece of music but a multi-dimensional work of art, one that is not for everyone.- Brice Ezell