Nuclear Introspection: A Cantata for Contemplation

In 2009, I worked closely with Australian poet Robin Muir-Miller to create This Ravelled Dust: Cantata for a Nuclear Age. The piece blends the rich Old Testament imagery and evocative language of Muir-Miller’s poem “Morning Glory: Radiant Night” (set for tenor and bass soloists and a small group of instruments) with the “O Antiphons,” a series of seven texts that have been sung in churches during Advent for centuries (set for choir). The cantata examines nuclear proliferation in light of some of the deep myths and symbols of Western culture.

In April 2010, the Toronto Choral Artists (Mark Vuorinen, director) premiered the work at the Music Gallery in Toronto. Video footage, plot overview, and a link to more information appear at the conclusion of this article.—RM

Nuclear proliferation has terrified me ever since I was a child. Growing up in the 1980s during the latter stages of the Cold War, I remember the nightmare-inducing specters of nuclear winter, fallout shelters, and radiation sickness. And I once lived through a viewing, at age 8 or so, of that awful movie The Day After.

As I grew older I began to understand nuclear energy’s two-sided nature. The perils of nuclear bombs and accidents are clear, but those same bombs may have prevented the Cold War from becoming hot, and the benefits of nuclear medicine and power are real: one tiny power plant at Indian Point on the Hudson River can provide a third of New York City’s electricity—the scale of that approaches the magical.

Nuclear energy’s inherent two-sidedness led to a series of dilemmas for me, as—I have learned—it has also done for countless others. When I first set out to compose a piece of music about the topic, that double nature baffled me from the start: if my piece simply railed against nuclear energy, that would feel superficial; but I did not intend to promote it, either. I wanted my music to reflect the complexity of the issue, but I felt daunted by it.

In preparing to write the piece I found a book called In Mortal Hands by Stephanie Cooke. Her careful recounting of the history of nuclear energy made clear to me that it represents not only a practical and political dilemma but also an existential and spiritual issue on a truly Biblical scale. To paraphrase one of the Antiphon texts used in the cantata: we have opened something that can literally destroy us, and we can never put it back again. Right here in our own modern, scientific age, we had thirsted for knowledge and were then saddled with the responsibility of new, God-like powers placed suddenly at our disposal to do both good and evil. It reminded me of a very famous story, from a very famous book….And so in our early discussions about the cantata, the poet Robin Muir-Miller suggested using a poem of hers that blends imagery of the Garden of Eden and spreading mushrooms of destruction and grief (see the plot overview below).

Of course Muir-Miller and I were not the first to apply religious imagery to nuclear energy; after all, the first test of a nuclear weapon was called “Trinity.” And Cooke’s recounting of recent history itself sounded Biblical. As her title implies, we mortals carry inherent limitations of perspective, we make mistakes, and we act from a muddle of conflicting primal urges: ambition, safety, curiosity, and so on. Cooke’s harrowing tales of theft, innocent oversight, poor planning, and greed showed me that as mortals we are simply not equipped to handle the immense volubility or vast timeframe of nuclear energy—the waste of which, to take one example, will last for the beyond-Biblical figure of 10,000 generations (that’s a lot of begats), far longer than the very containers we have devised to keep it away from living things.

Armed with a modest understanding of the subject, I tackled the cantata. I worked closely with the poet, whose textual and musical insights helped build a piece with many layers of meaning, imagery, and symbol. Those layers would, we hoped, emulate and reflect the complexity of nuclear energy itself, through a symbolic language that could transcend the more usual kind of practical and political rhetoric. Mark Vuorinen and the Toronto Choral Artists premiered the cantata almost one year ago, and all of us—poet, composer, and performers—experienced a sense of creative accomplishment.

Then, suddenly, the disaster in Japan led me into to another dilemma, deeper than the one I had faced initially in trying to do justice to a complex issue. Despite the cantata’s success, its premiere had occurred in a vacuum. I had hoped it would encourage discussion of the issue, but nuclear issues were not “current” a year ago: it had been a long time since Chernobyl, and although President Obama was talking about a nuclear-free world, the issue was not penetrating the headlines.

Now, with the unfolding horror at Fukushima, a unique opportunity had arrived for this piece to serve, as I had intended, as a spark for contemplation and discussion. But I struggled with the problem: would highlighting my cantata at a time like this seem disrespectful to those who have lost loved ones and who are now living in great fear? I wanted the cantata to foster discussion, but without being callous. I posted the video on Facebook and reminded my friends and colleagues about it—sharing with them my uncertainty—but hesitated to do more. Once again, the complexity of nuclear energy was baffling me.

Gradually, things became clearer to me. There is a fine line between the genuine desire to turn horror to a good purpose and the urge to draw yet more attention to a subject that is already so raw. But as painful as it is, Fukushima presents an opportunity, indeed a responsibility, for each of us to think deeply and hard about what it means to embrace and use nuclear energy. It is not easy, in the course of daily life, to engage in deep, personal, reflective thought on such matters. But I believe that if enough people took on such reflection, it could lead eventually to concrete, life-saving change. (I am not wise enough to know exactly what form that change should take, but I do know that it should unequivocally include the prevention of new disasters—no matter how unlikely an earthquake on the Hudson might seem.)

My cantata offers a way to approach the deeper emotions of the issue from a contemplative perspective, where genuine respect and acknowledgment of present suffering can blend with constructive hopefulness for the future, providing an emotional foundation for future practical efforts to avoid such accidents.

In a year or two, the world’s attention will have moved away from the urgent questions raised by Fukushima, and we will continue with policies that set the scene for future disasters. Therefore I feel that far from showing disrespect, the nature of this cantata and the spirit in which it was created make it a powerful means to show and magnify precisely the deep respect and attention we need at this moment.

I recently learned of the latest way in which the cantata has come up against nuclear energy’s inherent dilemmas. The Mid-Columbia Mastersingers, a wonderful choir in Richland, Washington, wants to perform the piece in the famous Hanford B Reactor nearby, alongside related works by Reginald Unterseher and others. The B Reactor was built for the Manhattan Project in the early 1940s and produced the plutonium for the Fat Man bomb that destroyed Nagasaki. It was shut down in the 1960s and is now in the process of becoming a National Parks site and museum.

The choir has everything in place to perform this healing music in the B Reactor—except permission from the Department of Energy, which oversees the site. Once more, honest mortals are facing nuclear energy’s two-sided nature: should we open ourselves to explore this complex problem more deeply through the arts, or might that merely lead to more confusion, hurt, and conflict? Shall we risk introspection and contemplation, or shall we uphold safety and respect?

The performers and I are now awaiting a decision from the DOE: will they allow a performance of this cantata at such a uniquely meaningful place, and at such a uniquely meaningful time?

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This Ravelled Dust: Cantata for a Nuclear Age

Full video, complete libretto, and audio samples are available here.

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Plot Overview and Characters

The cantata begins in the Garden of Eden. Human beings, seeking new knowledge and egged on by our twin the Serpent, create a lawless and unstoppable fungus. The story leads through the ensuing conflagration to utter grief, fused with new understanding and chastened joy.

In Prokofiev’s famous Peter and the Wolf, each character has its own distinct instrument and melody: the cat is a clarinet with a slinking melody, Peter is the orchestra’s string section with a joyful romping tune, and so on. This cantata works the same way, though some of the ‘characters’ are actually things or symbols taking active roles in the story.

Here are the six characters/symbols in the cantata and how they define the story, with a few excerpts from Robin Muir-Miller’s poem “Morning Glory: Radiant Night.”

  1. We begin in the original GARDEN of Eden (harp). Muir-Miller’s poem brings us directly into this unthinkably beautiful place:
    Glory’s lavished
    over the shale –
    a gauzed and
    shimmering hush.

  2. In the Garden we meet ADAM (viola), who represents all humankind:
    Adam the dust

    sifts quickening wind

    through his shadowy sighs;

  3. Soon the SERPENT (flute) arrives—Adam’s twin, but more knowing:
    Hissing its wisdom and
    sloughing its wiles,

  4. Together, Adam and the Serpent transgress the Garden’s laws, mutating to become MUSHROOM (french horn), the spreading fungus of nuclear destruction:

    Strains of a murmuring
    fungus explode into
    garish babbling moonblooms.

    A
    booming
    accolade
    of mushrooms
    plunders across
    the planet’s
    arable
    brow…..

  5. Mushroom leads resistlessly to all-consuming ARSON (double bass and viola). Where the original Garden once lay, we now find ourselves instead
    In a crimson country garden,
    gashed by a ravishing flashback,
    arson-blossoms rasp and hollow
    the evening’s hallowed aurora.

  6. After destruction comes NEW WISDOM (the choir), the voice of the people. The Old Testament refrain sung earlier by the boy sopranos, “His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord” (Isaiah 11:3), becomes more universal now, sung and played by everyone together: “Our delight shall be in the fear of the Lord; we shall fear the Lord”.

The hope of this cantata is that we will continue to fear, but now more responsibly, like chastened children who have grown up too quickly. We will fear not only God’s destructive potential but also the God-like power we have created for ourselves—we will fear in a profoundly new, profoundly respectful way.

(poem extracts © Robin Muir-Miller)

I am eager for this music, with all of the dilemmas that brought it to life, to spark feedback and discussion. Please write to me at robin@robinsonmcclellan.com with your comments, queries, corrections, and critiques.

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Robinson McClellan

Robinson McClellan‘s music is commissioned and performed widely. He has done residencies at the MacDowell Colony and Yaddo, where he completed this cantata in March 2010. His published scholarly writing is on piobaireachd, a type of Gaelic bagpipe music; this rarely heard music has also been a major inspiration in his creative work. Robin teaches music history, theory, and world music at St. Francis College, Rutgers University, and the Lucy Moses School. In May he will receive his doctorate in composition from the Yale School of Music and Yale Institute of Sacred Music. Robin lives in New York City where he likes to take pictures and walk in Riverside Park.

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