Sixth World Symposium on Choral Music: Composers’ Forums

From The Bible to Blake

[Alberto Grau and Jorge Córdoba are often speaking through interpreter, Christian Grases]

TOM HALL: I am the music director of the Baltimore Choral Society here in the United States. To my immediate right is Stephen Paulus who is a resident of the Twin Cities, right here in St. Paul, Minnesota. To his right is Jorge Córdoba, from Mexico, whose wonderful piece on a poem of William Blake we just heard a few minutes ago. We have a saying for that choir that sang your piece—Those guys have got game! And to his right is Alberto Grau from Venezuela. We are delighted to have him. And to his right is our good friend, Christian who I understand is going to translate. We are grateful to have you here to help us out with that. Tonight we are going to hear Steve and Alberto’s work sung by the VocalEssence, as well as the Dale Warland Singers, and we just heard Jorge’s piece just a few minutes ago. So, why don’t we start at your end, Alberto? Could you tell us a little bit about the piece that you wrote for the Dale Warland Singers, and give us a little background as to what we might expect tonight?

ALBERTO GRAU: I chose the text in Latin, because I thought this was better for a world symposium and that this text praises God. The piece is divided into several parts, and in some of the parts, the main thing is to experiment with the consonants, and how those consonants should be sung, like the percussion.

TOM HALL: We should note that his text is Psalm 32 from the Vulgate. “Give praise to God upon the harp, play upon the ten-stringed psaltery, sing to him a new song, sing skillfully with a strong voice.” It is a text that many of us are familiar with. And indeed, you assigned separate notes, for example in the word “con-fi-te-mine.” It is a really wonderful effect. Jorge, how about your piece? You set a beautiful poem by William Blake, which I just thought was particularly poignant and special text for this kind of gathering. Beautiful text. Tell us a little bit about that.

JORGE C"RDOBA: I will try to speak English—I would confess that for me it was very difficult to find this text. When I received the invitation for this symposium, it was a little late for the deadline. I looked in many books of my friends, and I could find nothing. I was very worried. I searched in the Bible; nothing stood out. I prayed and I prayed, and nothing came to me. And then September 11 happened, and I was very depressed after this notice, and I was very afraid, because I thought—if this happened in the US, what would happen next? This was very frightening. Then I continued to try and find a good text, and I went to a bookstore that was starting to close, and I found the book of William Blake. I began to read it, and I found this poem, “The Divine Image,” and I felt a real contact and my heart cried and my feelings began to flow and I thought that this is the poem that I wish to give to the people that come to the symposium. And the curious thing about this is that I wrote the piece very quickly. Sometimes it is the idea in the air, and it could arrive at any moment; it can be written walking, and like thunder it comes. And I was at a concert of 20th century music, and the idea just came, and I said, “That’s it! That’s my composition!” It was very complicated to hear the music at the same time I was receiving, from who knows where, all the ideas for my composition. Heavenly e-mail. (laughter) “You’ve got notes!”

TOM HALL: For those of you who were not able to hear the concert this afternoon, the poem is called “The Divine Image.” The first verse is, “To mercy, pity, peace and love, all pray in their distress, and to these virtues of delight return their thankfulness.” And the last verse is particularly poignant and applicable to our wonderful gathering her: “And all must love the human form, heaven, in heathen, Turk, or Jew. Where mercy, love, and pity dwell, there God is dwelling too.” Steven, how about you? You wrote a piece called, “Love Opened a Mortal Wound.” Tell us a little about that.

STEPHEN PAULUS: Well, actually, some of what Jorge said I resonate with because I always look at a commission as permission to go into a bookstore and buy books on poetry. My wife insists that she would like to start giving some of the books away, but I never know when I am going to need a book. Oftentimes, I have a backlog of things that I would like to set, waiting for the right commission to come along. And in this case, for some time, actually I proposed to a few choirs settings of some of these poems by Sor Juana de la Cruz. And 2 other people had said, “I don’t think so.” One person said he thought they’re erotic; they’re downright sensual. And I said, “Well that’s what I like about them.” And he said, “But it’s not for my choir.” I don’t know why. They are for a choir. I don’t know why. They didn’t ask the choir. I had had some of these poems sitting around, and I had really wanted to set some of them. And then this commission came along and I dug out my file of texts. Actually I wanted to do others, I wanted to do a something longer than just one poem, but the commission specified a shorter piece. So I chose this one called, “Love Opened a Mortal Wound.” Because of some of things I just said. Philip Brunelle is a great intuitive mentor, and he has done many of my things, and he knows much of my work that I had done prior to this time, several slower, nice melodic things. One in particular called, “Pilgrim’s Hymn” which has sort of been done all over the map. I really didn’t want to do that. As a creator, you are constantly looking for new areas to go into, because otherwise what’s the point of writing. So I wanted to do for this symposium something that moves along more quickly, as I wanted to expand my craft. When I called Philip, he said, I think it would be smart to do something a little quick. Those are the very words that he took out of my mouth. This has nothing to do with 9/11, and maybe I’m the only one. I don’t know; I’m beginning to feel left out! But it is a wonderful text, which is where I start, and to sort of add to some tension to this poem, this woman was a 17th century nun in the Mexican court, and she wrote some sacred poetry, and she wrote some rather erotic, sensual poetry, so she was perhaps a bifurcated personality. I haven’t read her bio, there is a very thick bio on her that I haven’t read yet, because there was a deadline, and I wanted to get the piece done first. One of the things I did after a short, 4-bar opening that is sort of a pyramid in sound, one of the things that I did with the text is to sprinkle it liberally with rests. So it starts with a quarter-note chord, then a rest, then two quarter notes and then a rest, and then three quarter notes and then there is a whole bar of rest. It is not a lot but just enough to put the listener on edge and to make the listener listen to the text. And that’s what I want, to emphasize the text, and also to the choral sound.

TOM HALL: Can we share with them the text?

Love opened a mortal wound, in agony I worked the blade to make it deeper.
Please, I begged, let death come quickly.
Wild, distracted, sick I counted, counted all the ways love hurt me.
One life, I thought, a thousand deaths. Blow after blow my heart couldn’t survive this beating.
Then, how can I explain. I said, Why do I suffer? Love ever had so much pleasure?