Select Page

Text by Robert Lax
Music by Kile Smith
for SATB choir, unaccompanied
Duration, 65 minutes
Commissioned for The Crossing, Donald Nally, conductor. Premiered June 30th, 2018, at the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia. All text used with the permission of the Robert Lax Literary Trust and the Robert Lax Archives at St. Bonaventure University. For their generosity of time and spirit, my special thanks to Marcia Kelly, Trustee and niece of Robert Lax; Paul J. Spaeth, Trustee, Director of the Library, and Special Collections Librarian at St. Bonaventure University; and Michael N. McGregor, author, Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax.

Reviews

“World premiere at Hill Presbyterian Church a masterpiece”—Michael Caruso, Chestnut Hill Local, 5 July 2018: “a masterpiece of emotional expressivity and spiritual revelation … Although each of the larger sections strikes a different compositional style from either of its two companions, all three are held together by Smith’s uncanny ability to speak in a consistent aesthetic tone. That musical personality is characterized by an imaginative use of chromatic tonality that sometimes seems to include every one of the 12 tones in the octave at the same moment without damaging the listener’s unbreakable connection with an unshakeable tonal center. Smith has voiced his choral writing in “The Arc in the Sky” with extravagance. There are times when the bass parts are exceedingly low while the soprano lines are daringly high, and all the space in between is filled with flowing polyphony. Then there are others when the writing recalls the unison monody of Gregorian chant, the shape of the vocal line determined solely and sensitively by the shape of the words of the text. There are passages of dense dissonance balanced against measures of triadic simplicity, once again directed by the profile of the lyrics. Yet throughout the entire length of The Arc in the SkySmith never permits his music to cloud the bracing clarity of Lax’s poetry. Even during moments of shimmering musical beauty, the surgical precision of Lax’s words remains undimmed. … Despite the complexity of one motif piling upon another, Smith’s music never diminishes the paramount importance of Lax’s poetry … The final movement…offers a hurtling crescendo of rolling phrases cascading one upon the next until its shattering conclusion brings the entire sonic journey to a majestic consummation. Under Donald Nally’s inspired and inspiring hand, The Crossing sang The Arc in the Sky with passion and precision. The sound the choir produced was never a matter of mere singing pitches and rhythms. It was more a case of projecting tones that opened up the listener’s mind, heart and soul to free his or her spirit to soar to the heights of revelation only great art can see and hear in the distant promise of self-knowledge.”

“The creative arc of Kile Smith”—David Patrick Stearns, Condemned to Music, Arts Journal, 4 July 2018: “maybe his best piece yet … the audience at the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill…gave him a rock-star ovation at the end … Though Nally had little part in Smith’s discovery of poet Robert Lax (1915-2000) – who traded New York City jazz clubs and the company of Thomas Merton for the semi-isolation of a Greek island – Smith loved the stuff and knew Nally would too. The distinctive synergy they enjoy is downright entertaining. Would any outside observer ever think to put these two guys in the same room? At Saturday’s pre-concert lecture, the freewheeling, quick-witted Nally was barefooted (typical) and wearing shorts. Smith looked like a brainy version of a 1950s suburban dad. Both were earnest and unfiltered in their own way, and each focusing on different elements of Lax, a pioneer of minimalist poetry. Smith loved the be-here-now spirituality, manifested in a Lax’s straightforward description of fishermen mending their nets. Nally was fascinated by the experimentation, in which words are spelled out, letter by letter, vertically down the side of the page just so we don’t take words for granted. … Serious music is often no longer serious when it becomes breezy. Not here … the composer would do something that gave the music a kind of cumulative impact. … Most significantly, that final movement brought together many previous elements … Smith’s music has never lacked conviction, but what previously seemed carved in wood now feels chiseled in stone. And who would ever think that jazz chords were his means to get there?”

“Reaching skyward”—Gail Obenreder, Broad Street Review, 2 July 2018: “Smith…honors Lax’s rhythms by writing in an overarching rhythm of his own. Some movements are highly embellished tone poems, while others are transparent, quasi-religious and more musically spare. Thus, taken as a whole, Smith’s work speaks to the poet’s emotional dichotomy. … contains the ecstatic energy and improvisatory syntax of hot jazz, with musical gestures that seem informal but are tightly constructed. The second movement, “there are not many songs,” is filled with haunting slow rhythms, augmented triads, rich chords, and ninths that quote jazz but never sound derivative. … “I would stand and watch them,” a luminous canonical section evoking the Sisyphean-yet-sacred nature of repetitive activity. Akin to the Shaker credo of work as prayer, this movement marks the work’s center and most strongly carries its message — melodically and textually. It weaves a thick aural tapestry that drops away to a single thread of sound, asking over and over (with a rising musical inflection), “why must you mend them?” … Smith’s final movement, “The Arc,” is an extended coda; “the arc in the sky, the arc of the sea” repeats like a mantra. Here, the pillars of sound were often overwhelming in the church’s acoustics. … The work ends with triumphant chords, a release for both singers and audience. It must have been a huge challenge to create and present this work, and the audience responded ecstatically to both composer and choir. “Ultimate tensile strength” is the maximum stress something can withstand while being stretched or pulled, and here the Crossing certainly displayed it. … sections of translucent beauty … Right from the start, it was clear the choir had a great love and appetite for Smith’s composition and was ready to do whatever he asked of them. He asked a lot, and they complied perfectly and joyfully.

“The Crossing choir premieres vivid new Kile Smith work”—Peter Dobrin, Philadelphia Inquirer, 1 July 2018: “With the world premiere Saturday night of The Arc in the Sky, a vivid new work for unaccompanied choir, Smith moved into the vaguely spiritual realm of the Crossing, the Philadelphia-based professional chamber choir. … Smith has a sensitive ear, and different styles emerged from Lax’s language. … Smith’s textures suggest that he hears his musical world with all of the complexity and layering of orchestral music. … Smith concludes his piece with a big statement — a bright-as-sunshine shout of ecstasy that looks to the horizon and suggests a broad spiritual quest. I think, though, the music that stayed with me most was the penultimate movement that observes fishermen mending their nets. Smith followed Lax’s prosaic specificity with great warmth and atmosphere, and by creating layers of meaning. There was something of Britten in the vocal writing, a quality that widens the potential connotations of the words through the music, but not in an obvious way. … Here the essence of poet and composer became one, and the piece made the case that the mundane in life can be a window into greater meaning when framed by the right artists.

Movements

I. Jazz
1. why did they all shout
2. there are not many songs
3. Cherubim & Palm-Trees

II. Praise
4. I want to write a book of praise
5. The light of the afternoon is on the houses
6. Psalm

III. Arc
7. Jerusalem
8. I would stand and watch them
9. The Arc

Notes

The Arc in the Sky, on texts of Robert Lax (1915–2000), is a 65-minute pilgrimage for unaccompanied choir. Some know of Robert Lax only through Thomas Merton’s autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain, so to discuss The Arc in the Sky, I should say something about Lax for those who have not yet been acquainted with his work.

Lax and Merton were close friends from their meeting at Columbia University, writing for the student-run Jester. Lax made an immediate and life-changing impression on Merton, playing a decisive role in Merton’s turnaround from debauchee to monk. In his book he describes Lax as “a potential prophet,” an Elijah, a Hamlet, a Moses to whom words came with difficulty:

A mind full of tremendous and subtle intuitions, and every day he found less and less to say about them, and resigned himself to being inarticulate. In his hesitations, though without embarrassment or nervousness at all, he would often curl his long legs all around a chair, in seven different ways, while he was trying to find a word with which to begin. He talked best sitting on the floor.

Lax had a “natural, instinctive spirituality, a kind of inborn direction to the living God,” and an “affinity for Job and St. John of the Cross,” Merton wrote. (The spirit of The Arc in the Sky, if not its music, is similar to Canticle, my 2016 setting of The Spiritual Canticle by St. John of the Cross.) Merton and Lax hung out at jazz clubs together. They wrestled with philosophy and religion and writing, in New York City and at Lax’s family’s cottage in Olean in western New York. The two pacifists tried to work through their place on a planet hurtling, in the late 1930s, toward another world war. They had in common “the abyss that walked around in front of our feet everywhere we went.” Then, walking to Greenwich Village on Sixth Avenue one spring night,

Lax suddenly turned around and asked me the question:

“What do you want to be anyway?”…

“I don’t know; I guess what I want is to be a good Catholic.”

“What do you mean, you want to be a good Catholic?”

The explanation I gave was lame enough…and betrayed how little I had really thought about it at all.

Lax did not accept it.

“What you should say”—he told me—“what you should say is that you want to be a saint.”

A saint!… “How do you expect me to become a saint?”

“By wanting to,” said Lax, simply.… “All that is necessary to be a saint is to want to be one.… All you have to do is desire it.”

Merton’s journey led him from that conversation to his Catholic baptism and eventually to a Trappist monastery. Lax himself converted from Judaism to Catholicism in 1943. He wrote for the The New Yorker and Time magazine, moved to Hollywood for a brief go at scriptwriting, wrote poetry, and produced The Circus of the Sun, a bright gem of a book about the Cristiani family of acrobats. He traveled with the circus for months, learning to juggle and to clown. He would move from New York City to Olean and back, to Marseilles, to the Greek island of Kalymnos and, finally, to sacred Patmos, the island where the apostle John had been exiled to, where he had written The Revelation.

Lax experimented with line in his writings, but mostly, with how to speak. Michael N. McGregor, author of Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax, quotes Lax: “All of this was to please myself. I certainly wasn’t trying to invent a new form and startle anyone with it. I don’t like startling people.”

He wrote some of the first minimalist poetry: one word, one syllable, or even one letter to a line. Friends saw to it that some of it was published. He corresponded with readers and with friends such as Merton and Jack Kerouac, who called him “one of the great original voices of our times … a Pilgrim in search of beautiful innocence.” Richard Kostelanetz wrote that Lax is “among America’s greatest experimental poets, a true minimalist who can weave awesome poems from remarkably few words.”

He was called a hermit but was not. The many poetry and spiritual devotees who looked for him on Kalymnos or Patmos only had to ask the first resident they met for “the poet,” and his house would be pointed out. They sought him for his wisdom, quietude, and advice, and received those with a humor that was always bubbling to the surface. He observed fishermen, sponge divers, the sea, and the sky, and wrote poems about them, poems of stunning simplicity. James Uebbing, in an alumni appreciation for Columbia, wrote, “Lax is essentially simple and devoid of secrets.”

This is what struck me. As soon as I read Lax, I knew I wanted to set his words to music. The nine texts I chose worked themselves into three sections: Jazz, Praise, and Arc.

Almost from the first I knew I would open the work with why did they all shout. Jazz played a big part in Lax’s early life, and in his poetry. It was a metaphor of life, an intentional, communal improvisation with others and with God. The ecstasy of being carried along is what I wanted to capture, the feeling not so much of a performance, or of listening to a performance, but of performers and listeners together being caught up in something bigger than them all. The first movement doesn’t sound like jazz, not really, but a few features echo it: close and parallel harmonies, a kind of syncopation through changing meters and twos-against-threes, and, from time to time, a walking bass.

Jazz harmonies—augmented triads, 13th chords, and flat 9ths abounding—come to the fore in there are not many songs. There’s an abandonment to the idiom (or one corner of it that’s dear to me), reflecting a giving of oneself over to the “one song.” If I was to use jazz, I decided, I would go all the way in and see what happened.

Cherubim & Palm Trees is by far the longest of the texts. I set the declamatory words conversationally, as I felt this was the voice of Lax, intimate and humorous, speaking to his good friend Jack Kerouac. (I was encouraged to this view by delightful talks with Lax’s niece Marcia Kelly, by the author of Pure Act, Michael McGregor, and by Paul Spaeth, director of the library and the Robert Lax archives at St. Bonaventure University in Olean.) I lightened the approach with straightforward syncopation and with music that returns as a chorus. A solo quartet separates itself from the choir; the movement and first section crescendo to “the courts of the house of God.”

I want to write a book of praise serves as a tonic at the beginning of the second section, while summing up Lax’s work wonderfully. It recalibrates attention from the panoramic temple to the little and common things. I use a recognizably “religious” syntax for the men to sing in, a chant.

Women then sing The light of the afternoon is on the houses, a collection of common images that prompt illumination. I am always text-painting, on a small or large scale, in my attempt to elicit emotions through music. What colors the movement, even the opening images filled with heat, is “the laughing speech.” In this swaying waltz, parallel harmonies are again voiced closely.

Ending this section, Psalm confesses love and thankfulness while facing the coexisting states of remembrance and non-remembrance, a fuzziness echoed in the tonality. Alternating between G-sharp minor and B-flat mixolydian (five sharps and three flats), the music is further muddied by see-sawing pitches, such as Ds and D-flats, As and A-flats, Es and E-sharps. These play the role of the blues third—heard in blues, jazz, and folk music, it’s a note slid or bent between the minor and major third. In classical music (or on any keyboard instrument) this in-the-cracks note has been approximated by Bartók and others by playing both notes at the same time: a “crushed” third. In Psalm they’re alternated or overlapped. “Cross relations” such as these are avoided in traditional counterpoint but here they mirror the text’s simultaneous proclaiming and questioning.

From Jerusalem, “for none would hear her” was an early possible title for The Arc in the Sky. This almost unbearably moving poem was one of the first I chose to set. Lax returns to his theme of searching, and with it, to dichotomies held comfortably at the same time. Descending and ascending, ruin and beauty, and solitude in the midst of the city are all here. The nonchalance of the first line is darkened as more and more flats are introduced into E-flat major. Presented, removed, and presented again, they presage the triumphant yet lamenting chorus in G-flat major: “for lovely, ruined Jerusalem / lovely sad Jerusalem / lies furled / under cities of light.”

Two texts showing the heart of Robert Lax become the destination for this pilgrimage. I would stand and watch them is all observation, innocence, and wisdom. The idea of using canons seemed appropriate for the unstudied sound I wanted. Each phrase is a new canon, always at the unison but for two exceptions near the end. I alter voice entrances and the number of repetitions, depending, as always, on the sense of the text. This brings up the issue of the last two words, “we mend.”

Composers know that repeating text alters its meaning. The driving force for me is always the emotional impact of the music, but the risk is in changing the meaning to something beyond what the author intended. Usually I avoid that, but not always. For instance, I repeat “there” at the start of there are not many songs, once or twice eliciting a “there, there,” as a mother might say to soothe her child. That was not Lax’s intention. Similarly, at the end of I would stand and watch them the words “we mend” mean we mend the nets. But in repeating “we mend” over and over I change the meaning from a transitive to an intransitive verb: it is not only the nets, but we ourselves who are mended. Lax may have intended that—I don’t know—but I hope he won’t mind.

Without an inkling of how I would (or could) set it, I knew I wanted The Arc to end the work. I did know that I wanted to capture the feeling of awe in the simplest things, and return to some form of the ecstasy with which The Arc in the Sky opened. The result turned out to be broad brush-strokes of simple chords, as if this one defining moment of clarity—this vision—was a painting. Not only do we view it whole, but we are creating it as the succession of details are slowly laid on the canvas, as our eyes take in the images of arc, sky, and sea, separately and together.

The chorus forms into two choirs. They alternate blocks of chords, complementing and striking sparks off each other. The use of two choirs give the singers places to breathe within these long corridors lined with pillars of sounds. Dynamics and ranges adjust during the procession to the end, creating an emotional commentary, a drama. The pilgrimage closes near where it began, in awe, in ecstasy, seeing in an instant yet slowly pondering the immensity of the vision, there, right in front of us.

My thanks to Marcia Kelly and Paul Spaeth for their time, their openness to this project, and for permitting the use of these texts, and to Michael McGregor for his invaluable insights by correspondence and in one long, generous, conversation. I highly recommend his Pure Act to anyone wanting to know more about Robert Lax. I am indebted to The Crossing and to Donald Nally. As always, their faith in me by asking for another work opens my heart in gratitude. I am humbled by their trust, and astonished by the magnitude of their talent and artistry. I thank my wife Jackie for her patience through my long hours, weeks, and months of composing in a little room away from everyone, but then again, it was she who introduced me to the works of Robert Lax, so without her there would not be The Arc in the Sky.

Texts

I. Jazz
1. why did they all shout

why did they
all shout:
louis
is de
lawd?

because
there was something
prophetic
about his trumpeting:

to be that right
is to be at one
with the source
of all good
things

hit it!
higher
and higher
and higher:

to be that high
is to be at one
with the source
of all true
blessings

that is why they shouted
when louis hit the
high notes:
they thought
the roof
would open
and the angels
would burst in

2. there are not many songs

there are not many songs
there is only one song

the animals lope to it
the fish swim to it
the sun circles to it
the stars rise
the snow falls
the grass grows
there is no end to the song and no beginning
the singer may die
but the song is forever

truth is the name of the song
and the song is truth.

3. Cherubim & Palm-Trees
for Jean-Louis Kerouac

what I want to say
to (jean-louis) is:
if yr really
a jazz writer,
then stop
thinking about
literature
and think
about music.

music can speak,
and words played
like music can speak;
but words played like
music are not the same
as words just played
like words.

words played
like music
have meaning
as words,
like words
and music,
but not the same
meaning
and not
the same value
as words
just used
like words.

words played like
music
are poetic words;
words played like
music
are themselves
a kind of
music.

they are fetched
words,
fetched from deep
like rocks
and fish,
not hunted down
like quarry.

they are words
to cry,
are lyric words,
words which
hold a feeling.

any word
any word at all
can sing,
but some are strange,
as dinosaurs
are funny
when they
fly.

what we are talking
about is the kingdom
of heaven:
a jam-session
civilization,
a civilization
of jazz.

a culture
of new
and spontaneous
music;
spontaneous
order of
play.

a civilization
in which each man’s
songs
and each man’s
dances
are new
spontaneous
his own
individual
(not to be
copied)
yet filled
with grace
and decorum.

a jam-session
of the
just

where each
is filled
with wonder
for the
other.

where all
delight
in the all
and the
Maker
of all.

how will this begin,
it will begin
by prayerfully
beginning;
and by a prayerful
beginning,
it is even now
begun.

the instruments
are tuned,
the first notes
sounded,
even now
the music
has begun,

how many players
does it take for a session?
one, two or ten
as many as can play;
one, two or ten
and all will have
their licks.

the tune,
the tune
is always
the same;
the music
is always
different
and new.

jazz
doesn’t do
any work
at all,
no work
at all,
just sing.

jazz
doesn’t hoe
any fields
or plant
any crop.

jazz lies back
to sing its song;
jazz leans forward
to hear the tune;
jazz doesn’t walk
it dances.

jazz is made
of sound and flame;
jazz is made of vision
and song.

jazz rejoices
in the judgments
of the Lord
and waits for His
epiphanies

jazz is for
the outer temple,
for the courts
of the house
of God.

II. Praise
4. I want to write a book of praise

I want to write a book of praise, but not use the religious words. That is because they should not be used lightly, and all the words I will be using for a while must be used lightly, set down tentatively. The holy words hold terror for some, are not respected by others. I will try to talk in little words that people respect and do not fear. They respect them like hammers, they fear them no more than they fear doors or windows.

5. The light of the afternoon is on the houses

The light of the afternoon is on the houses
the white houses
wedged in the hill
set in the hillside like slabs of stone
like flats of canvas
like stiff paper.
Only the palm leaves toss and rattle.
Only the palm leaves nod & whisper
in the cool breeze of the afternoon,
And the movement of the palms is like a dance
is like nothing but a
dance
& the laughing speech
of high born ladies.
The palms are feminine.
They are as beautiful as ancient dancers caught upon a vase.
And they sing the song of the afternoon
of the beauty of the sunlight and the wind.

6. Psalm

It is you yourself
who urges me
to find you.

I believed you
when you spoke.
I believed myself
when I answered.

I can’t remember
exactly what you
said
I can’t remember
what I said either
exactly

But I remember
that there was a moment of trust—a long,
full moment of trust that passed, that existed
between us.

If that is true, I have found you:
you are within me,
urging me to look.

I have long desired to find some one to love.
One who would have certain qualities & not
others.
But who could have
awakened
that dream in me
if not you?

III. Arc
7. Jerusalem

reading of lovely Jerusalem,
lovely, ruined Jersualem.

we are brought to the port
where the boats in line are
and the high tower on the hill
and the prows starting again
into the mist.

for we must seek
by going down,
down into the city
for our song.
deep into the city
for our peace.
for it is there
that peace lies
folded
like a pool.

there we shall seek:
it is from there
she’ll flower.
for lovely, ruined Jerusalem
lovely sad Jerusalem
lies furled
under cities of light.

for we are only
going down,
only descending
by this song
to where the cities
gleam in the darkness,
or curled like roots
sit waiting
at the undiscovered
pool.

what pressure
thrusts us up
as we descend?

pressure
of the city’s singing

pressure of
the song
she hath witheld.

hath long witheld.

for none
would hear
her.

8. I would stand and watch them

I would stand and watch them
as they sat at their work.

<<what are you doing?>> i’d say.

<<we’re mending our nets,>> they’d say.

<<mending?>>

<<yes. mending our nets.>>

<<why must you mend them?>>

<<they’re torn. they’ve been broken into.
the night-fish have leapt through them
in the sea. every night they break them;
and every day, we mend.>>

9. The Arc

the
arc

in
the
sky

the
arc

of
the
sea

the
arc
of
the
sea

the
arc

in
the
sky

the
arc

in
the
sky

the
arc
of
the
sea

the
arc

of
the
sea

in
the
sky

%d bloggers like this: