Where flames a word, Philadelphia Inquirer

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The Crossing sings final concert of Month of Moderns festival

David Patrick Stearns, 8 Jun 2009

an important world premiereWhere Flames a Word took on Paul Celan poems that seem to be about soul recognition through sex – in words too fearlessly personal to be uttered in real life and that can perhaps exist only in a poem. The depth of expression easily surpasses his much-discussed Vespers. Some of the word settings are plainspoken as can be; others sail in through alien key signatures, racing in from some side door. Resolutions got sidetracked by bass notes that rise from under cover. Most of it makes little literal sense but, poetically speaking, feels completely right in spellbinding ways I never imagined.

Where Flames a Word will be reprised at the Crossing’s free opening concert of Chorus America’s National Conference, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, 313 Pine St.

Now it’s me writing: You can look at the words here and see what you think they’re about. The parallel I draw from Celan’s poetry in general is to James Joyce, although everybody notices that. The parallel to these texts in particular is, for me, John Donne, and how the sensual is a portal to the eternal. The so-called metaphysical poets did not shy away from descriptions of physical intimacy in trying to fathom the reality of the spiritual experience. This is nothing new, and goes back, at least, to the Song of Solomon.

(The idea that religious people are prudes is a myth invented, let’s be frank, by irreligious people for whom intimacy has evaporated into mere pleasure. If you have a metaphysical appreciation, you understand perfectly well not only the power of both worlds, but the interleaving. The secular world invented this dichotomy, not religion. That some religious people have bought into it merely demonstrates how tightly they have become entangled in the world. Tsk, tsk.)

Whether this piece is deeper in expression than Vespers is something I can’t calculate. Maybe it is. I’m happy for the wonderful feedback I’ve received about both works. I am moved by the Psalms more than any other literature and think I invested that into the music, but that’s for others to decide. It may be true that I play Vespers close to the vest harmonically (that is, I think it’s very expressive, but within a smaller circle). One reason is that Renaissance instruments do not sit well with extreme harmonic shifts. Another is that Vespers is closely related to liturgical music, which should not be a vehicle for self-expression. (Art shouldn’t be concerned with self-expression anyway, but that’s another discussion.)

For instance, the reading of Scripture in worship should be accomplished simply and clearly, with no room for dramatic recitation. Chant, which is artful declamation, comes directly out of that. Sacred polyphony comes out of chant, and the same principles apply, I believe. But in a concert piece, one can loosen up one’s expression, since the purpose changes.

Come out Wednesday and see what you think. Did I mention the concert’s free?

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