Notes on Heaven and Earth: A Song of Creation
Heaven and Earth: A Song of Creation
Dedicated to Richard Toensing (+2014) and Archimandrite Ephrem Lash (+2016) of blessed memory
Program Notes by Richard Barrett, Artistic Director, The Saint John of Damascus Society
The Saint John of Damascus Society is a sacred arts nonprofit that seeks to raise general awareness of the rich, diverse heritage of Orthodox sacred music. In 2012, our founding board president, Dr. Harold (“Hal”) Sabbagh, was inspired by the European Organization for Nuclear Research’s 2012 discovery of the Higgs boson, the subatomic particle that enables objects to have mass. Dr. Sabbagh wanted to celebrate this achievement through the music of Orthodox Christianity, and we hit upon Psalm 103 (LXX numbering), sung or read at every Orthodox Vespers service, as the concept’s vehicle. The psalmist here praises the divinely created order from the very large to the very small, from the seas to the heavens, exclaiming, “How magnified are your works, O Lord, in wisdom have You made them all, and the earth has been filled with your creation.”
We decided that the psalmist’s text lent itself to the idea of “unity in diversity,” which parallels the richness of Orthodoxy’s sung worship, whether we are speaking of Russian choral music, Byzantine chant, Georgian polyphony, or some of the American expressions that are emerging influenced by elements of all of those things. With this in mind, we approached six very different Orthodox composers with a challenge: collaborate on a setting of Psalm 103 intended for concert performance, in which each of you will set a section of the psalm in your own musical voice, while still finding a way to make it sound like a cohesive, unified piece of music.
The six composers we approached, Matthew Arndt, John Michael Boyer, Alexander Khalil, Kurt Sander, Richard Toensing, and Tikey Zes, all looked at us like we were out of our minds; then they all said “Yes, of course.”
We also conceived of a film project as the project’s final phase. Carl Sagan’s original Cosmos TV series (1980), a masterpiece of public engagement, served as a touchstone here, particularly in the way that it juxtaposed images of the macroscopic, such as galaxies, quasars, and the like, and the microscopic, such as DNA and subatomic particles, with music – Bach, Mozart, Vangelis, and beyond. Inspired by Sagan’s work, we planned it out so that once we had the music recorded, we would collaborate creatively with a filmmaker to produce a film project that would be a cinematic meditation on science and faith from a uniquely Eastern Orthodox perspective, using the music as the jumping-off point.
In October 2013, we brought all of our composers together for a working weekend. They needed to wrestle with the new translation of the psalm that Archimandrite Ephrem Lash of blessed memory (+2016) had produced for us, and they needed to figure out how their own musical idioms ought to be integrated with one another. There was some trepidation in the air; they were having to trust a vision they did not fully understand initially, and nobody knew exactly how this collaboration between the six of them was going to work. Thankfully, the common language the composers had as practicing liturgical musicians in the Orthodox Church emerged very early in the process. As they discussed the psalm’s context in the Vespers service and demonstrated to each other different ways to sing it in different repertories, the uncertainties lifted quite suddenly. Two days after this “aha!” moment propelled the idea into a more concrete reality for the composers, they had come up with a schema for the work, and they all went home to compose.
Richard Toensing was the first one to submit a completed score, sending it along in the early spring of 2014. It is a tremendous and ambitious piece of work, scored for an eight part double choir. In May of that year, as we were trying to coordinate a follow-up composers’ meeting, he emailed me saying, “I’m sorry, but I’m not going to make it.” By July 2014 Richard had left us; may his memory be eternal.
In June of 2015, the last sections were turned in, and we set about to bringing it to life. The piece was always intended for Cappella Romana and was tailored to their manifold strengths, and they graciously agreed to take it on. Following these concerts, we will begin planning the recording in earnest, as we will also start to consider the film project.
I am indebted of course to our composers, Matthew, John, Alexander, Kurt, Tikey, and of course our absent friend Richard, who are the co-creators of this vision’s centerpiece. I have no adequate means to thank another absent friend, Fr. Ephrem, whose translation for us determined to a large degree the work’s character, in no small part because it was the common ground that every composer shared.
I must also offer my gratitude to His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople for his blessing of the The Psalm 103 Project. His leadership with respect to the dialogue between the religious and scientific communities has been a major influence for us, and his interest, prayers, and encouragement have been a humbling gift.
It has been our objective to ensure that the whole of The Psalm 103 Project stands on the own merits of its individual parts; that is to say, that Heaven and Earth be a piece of sacred music worthy of a life beyond the premiere performances, and that regardless of it being the basis of a film that is yet to be made, it is not heard as merely a movie score. And also, yes, that the film, when it is produced, will also be seen as a good film, and not merely a vehicle for the music. My hope is that these premiere performances will inspire in its own way, and that audiences will discover in it, not just musical beauty, but serious spiritual reflection about the nature of God’s Creation and how He reveals it to us.
Τῷ Θεῷ δόξα. How magnified are your works, O Lord, in wisdom have You made them all, and the earth has been filled with your creation.