New England’s Prospect: Pulvis et Umbra

Mohammed Fairouz’s oratorio Anything Can Happen is a serious piece of music. No, that doesn’t work—“serious” has become far too slippery a word in music, referring in various proportions to tone, or ambition, or size, or merely in opposition to “popular.” (Never mind that plenty of popular music has also become serious, in all its different guises.) So try this: Mohammed Fairouz’s Anything Can Happen—which was given its Boston premiere on March 17 by the Back Bay Chorale, one of the work’s co-commissioners—is a piece of music in which multiple strategies for communicating connotations of seriousness are utilized with unusual skill.

Mohammed Fairouz Photo by Samantha West

Mohammed Fairouz Photo by Samantha West

That’s a little unwieldy, but it gets at the effect of Anything Can Happen, and also its effectiveness as a serious piece now, in 2013, when most corners of culture have become permeated with seriousness’s prodigal sibling, irony. I am not criticizing irony: I think that, over the past century or so, ironic cultural responses have acquired ever-increasing validity. But it does mean that there are a lot of contexts in which seriousness can no longer be taken for granted. It is now incumbent on composers to somehow signal to their audiences the absence of any sort of wink, however rueful. Fairouz, a composer with a penchant for seriousness, has developed one of the more interesting toolboxes in that regard.

It was especially apparent in comparison with the other piece on Sunday’s program, that paragon of classical seriousness, Mozart’s Requiem (in Franz Süssmayr’s completed edition, itself a musicological funhouse of serious intent). Start with the text: the very opening of Mozart’s opus would have been enough to create a serious aura. (No one was writing ironic requiems in Mozart’s day.) The framework of Anything Can Happen, by comparison, is a trio of poems by Seamus Heaney, leading up to the title poem, an evocation of the 9/11 attacks. Even that is not enough to create an automatically serious framework: Heaney’s imagery is oblique, distancing, playing with metaphor in a way that could plausibly be interpreted in an ironic manner as well. Two of the poems are portents: “In Iowa” wrests unease from the sight of a mowing machine, abandoned in the field after the harvest, covered with snow; “Höfn” surveys a melting glacier with strings of hyphenated compounds, Hopkins-esque streams of description flooding the meter. The title poem, too, is layers upon layers. It is a loose translation of a Horatian Ode, number 34 in Book I:

                      namque Diespiter
igni corusco nubila diuidens
plerumque, per purum tonantis
egit equos volucremque currum

In Heaney’s version:

You know how Jupiter
Will mostly wait for clouds to gather head
Before he hurls the lightning? Well just now
He galloped his thunder cart and his horses

Across a clear blue sky…

The connection to 9/11 is made explicit (“Anything can happen, the tallest towers / Be overturned”), but that’s balanced by the connection to antiquity, the name-checking of the Roman god, the gap between Horace’s Latin and Heaney’s deliberately colloquial English—one mediation after another. Even the source is tricky: Horace’s original is a seeming conversion story, the clear-sky thunder (“per purum tonantis”) jolting Horace into jettisoning his Epicurean ideals in favor of piety; but scholars have argued for two thousand years about whether the ode is sincere or not, whether the literal bolt from the blue is meant to be a warning or an irony.

Fairouz’s frame works multiple angles to banish any ironic ambiguity. The first is textual: he buttresses Heaney’s poems with a pair of passages from the Injeel, the Muslim version of the gospel story. “In Iowa” is answered by the moment of Jesus’s death, the veil of the temple torn in two; “Höfn” by the image of a deluge unleashed by a Lucifer-like dragon. This yokes the poems back into an apocalyptically sacred space. That translates into the music as well. The choral writing might best be described as ritualistic: chant-like, largely homophonic, slow and declamatory. Mozart’s Requiem is thick with imitation—the fugue of the Kyrie, the clipped echoes of the Confutatis. But in 2013, such contrapuntal play is possibly too pleasurably ingenious for a serious atmosphere; Fairouz’s excursions into counterpoint are brief and, one suspects, only to better set up the next massed block of sound.

Mozart’s orchestra is big, colorful, flexible, the work’s seriousness embodied in added trombones and timpani; a full quartet of solo singers is on hand for coloratura commentary. Fairouz, though, augments the chorus with only a single solo viola (Roger Tapping, in this performance), and a solo bass-baritone (David Kravitz). The viola writing is not the long-line melodic thread of Romantic practice, but more motoric, at times a kind of implacable tabulation, be it the cross-string arpeggios of the opening movement, or the winding five-note ostinato that binds the fourth movement. The bass soloist functions more as a cantor or a preacher than as a virtuosic extension of the chorus. (Indeed, much of the soloist’s material is accompanied by choral drones.) Part of this is practical, of course, lowering the barriers, logistical and financial, to performance, but it also felt like a posited alternative to older orchestral luxury—a luxury, perhaps, too well hijacked by film, television, and pop-song aspirations to grandeur.

The major-minor axis, too, is more purposefully blurred than in the Mozart, where a simple D-minor triad is enough to establish the work’s thematic weight. Fairouz is more interested in accent and atmosphere. The melodic material often borrows from Arabic sources, while the harmonic material is more traditionally European—there’s a neat premonitory move that Fairouz uses, particularly in the opening “In Iowa” setting, in which the major-minor inflections in the scale seem to prompt major-to-minor shifts in the harmony. But the tonality is grey, brooding, only intermittently cathartic.

It’s that color that is the work’s most obvious banner of seriousness. The sound of Anything Can Happen is sometimes gentle, sometimes forceful, the depth of sound changing as it goes; but the sound is never bright, never sparkling. Even at its grandest, there’s an overcast quality to everything. A lot of this is in the way Fairouz treats the choral parts—where Mozart might put his widest intervals on the bottom, giving the upper voices clearer overtones to sing into, Fairouz reverses that, most often putting hollow fourths and fifths up top, while the lower voices trouble the waters with more closely spaced parts. (This can be tricky for a chorus to pull off, but the 120-voice Back Bay Chorale, under the direction of Scott Allen Jarrett, was confident and precise, every texture dropping into place on cue.) Everything is dark metal and clouds—I thought of the famous description that opens William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer, of the sky “the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”

The brief of Anything Can Happen is not an easy one: sustain a consistently grim mood, dreadful in the older sense of the word, while still maintaining enough textural interest to carry a half-hour of music. But it works: angry and reflective all at the same time, the piece doesn’t merely assert its seriousness, it explores it, comes at it—like Heaney’s poetry—from various angles. But it also makes plain the qualities necessary to conjure this type of seriousness in an era in which seriousness needs to be conjured, and the qualities are austerity and bleakness.

Horace, in general, regarded the vagaries of life and death with more wryness than despair. Still, every once in a while, he turns serious—and when he does, the colors he draws are those of Anything Can Happen, stark and grey, the imagery of serious intent, then and now. Nowhere is the contrast more acute that in the seventh Ode of Book IV. Horace pays homage to spring, to its warmth and renewal—only, it turns out, to contrast it with the inevitability of death. The “swift moons,” the passage of the seasons, will always make good the losses of winter, but when we descend to the underworld, all that we leave behind is pulvis et umbra: dust and shadow.

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