We had a great premiere week for Perhaps Gilead that culminated in our May 22, 2011 performance at St. Raphael Church in Iowa City. St. Raphael provided wonderful acoustics and a beautiful backdrop to the video of the concert.
Movement 1: Constructing a Horizon: Prairie Sunset and Moonrise
Movement 2: The Armed Man
Movement 3: Fantasy-Potpourri: Sunday Afternoon Music at Reverend Boughton’s
To get the composer’s thoughts on this music, you can:
- Read his introductory remarks to the edition of the music –
Perhaps Gilead Composer’s Introductory Comments by Harvey Sollberger
Perhaps Gilead would not exist without the novels Gilead and Home by Marilynne Robinson. Ms. Robinson’s gift for linking the everyday to the eternal shows us that life is here and now – here and now but also everywhere and everywhen in that our thoughts and deeds reach and reverberate far beyond our immediate surroundings and wildest imaginings. She reminds us of the distinguished history and implied promise (or is it a threat?) bound up in Ulysses S. Grant’s dictum, “Iowa, shining star of radicalism”, as her novels simultaneously depict our earthborne nature offset by our ability to hope and remember, dream and imagine. Hers is not an easy universe, but it is, coupled with our effort and attention, a redeemable one in which a field alight with flickering fireflies can evoke the smoldering earth: “well, it was and it is. An old fire will make a dark husk for itself and settle in on its core, as in the case of this planet. I believe the same metaphor may describe the human individual, as well. Perhaps Gilead. Perhaps civilization. Prod a little and the sparks will fly.”
Perhaps Gilead is in three movements:
Movement I, Constructing a Horizon: Prairie Sunset and Moonrise, was inspired by an incident described on page 14 of Gilead where the boy who will become Reverend Ames, on a visit with his father to the wilds of Kansas to find his grandfather’s grave, looks up and sees the setting sun and rising full moon balanced on their respective horizons with “the most wonderful light between them”. “I never could have thought this place could be beautiful. I’m glad to know that,” says his father. I saw this myself on January 29, 2010 in Strawberry Point, Iowa.
Movement II, The Armed Man references the conviction and near-Biblical intensity of Ames’s grandfather, an abolitionist and fighter – in a literal sense – for slavery’s end. In Gilead, William Faulkner’s words – “the past is never dead, it’s not even past.” – return to doubly haunt us as we perceive slavery’s ongoing legacy both in the novel’s 1950s setting as well as in our present historical moment.
Movement III, Fantasy-Potpourri: Sunday Afternoon Music at Reverend Boughton’s, is set as an opera scene without words, and draws its scenario from pages 188 and 189 of Home from “they ate their pie” through Lila’s saying, “that’s a good song, though.” The three characters who speak in this passage, Reverend Boughton, his son, Jack, and Reverend Ames’s young wife, Lila, are “sung”, respectively, by the first violin, cello and viola in a series of recitatives. The text, though not spoken or sung in performance, is written beneath the notes so that each player knows what he or she is “saying”. I think that much of Jack’s essence is captured in this scene – his mercurial imagination and playfulness, his sense of humor and self-wounding bitter irony and, finally, his despair. This is counterbalanced here by the serenity of Lila and the yearning severity of his father.
The medley-potpourri aspect of the title refers to the music Jack performs on the piano at this Sunday gathering – a succession of hymns (“potpourri” in French means literally “rotten pot”, and refers to a stew made of different kinds of meat; it later came to refer to a medley of different musical works joined together and played in succession). Movement III references and quotes all of the music mentioned in the novel’s text, making, in effect, a potpourri of the pieces performed in Reverend Boughton’s parlor. To further tax the opera metaphor, we might see Perhaps Gilead’s quoted hymns and songs as equivalent to the arias set between and counterbalancing characters’ recitatives in eighteenth-century opera.
Can Movement III makes sense if the audience can’t hear the words and follow the “libretto”? I’m betting that it can, as a kaleidoscopically-evolving mosaic of the new and the familiar, the exotic and the mundane, powered (I hope) by elements of musical contrast and design, change and surprise that allow the music to penetrate beyond and behind the words to the emotional truths and experiences that called them into being
And finally, I think I should address the topic of musical quotation – or borrowing. During past years I’ve frequently found myself quoting from others’ works. I do this not from some rejection of the concept of authorship (hardly!) or from lack of inspiration, but to open a door to a broader context of musical reference and expression than I’d have without the quotations. Each quoted work or passage draws new and extended meaning from its relation to the music of mine in which it’s embedded, and in the tiny space between the incited/new and the recited/quoted, a charge of metaphysical lightening is coiled -up, one which when released flashingly illuminates the musical landscape through which the listeners, performers and I are passing. In broader terms, the quoted works already reside in me and form part of my mental and spiritual furniture. To reference them in my music is, in my terms, to supremely compliment them, and I do so with full respect for their uniqueness and creators.
- Click on Harvey Sollberger’s photo below to hear Iowa Public Radio’s story of Perhaps Gilead for All Things Considered and Morning Edition by John Pemble
- Click on Harvey Sollberger’s photo below to hear an interview with rehearsal out takes by videographer John Richard