Notes & Lyrics

A child said, what is the grass?

music by Toivo Tulev (b. 1958)

words by Walt Whitman (1819-1892)

 

Commissioned by The Crossing and Donald Nally for The Month of Moderns and premiered June 21, 2015, at The Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill.

 

A child said, What is the grass? fetching it to me with full

       hands;

How could I answer the child?. . . .I do not know what it is

       any more than he.

 

I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of

       hopeful green stuff woven.

 

Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,

A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropped, Bearing the owner’s name someway in the corners, that we

       may see and remark, and say Whose?

 

Or I guess the grass is itself a child. . . . [the produced babe

       of the vegetation.]

 

Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic,

And it means, [Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow

       zones,

Growing among black folks as among white,

Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the same, I receive them the same.]

 

And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.

 

Tenderly will I use you curling grass,

It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men, It may be if I had known them I would have loved them; It may be you are from old people and from women, and

       from offspring taken soon out of their mothers’ laps, And here you are the mothers’ laps.

 

This grass is very dark to be from the white heads of old

       mothers,

Darker than the colorless beards of old men,

[Dark to come from under the faint red roofs of mouths.

 

O I perceive after all so many uttering tongues!

And I perceive they do not come from the roofs of mouths

       for nothing.

 

I wish I could translate the hints about the dead young men

       and women,

And the hints about old men and mothers, and the

       offspring taken soon out of their laps.]

 

What do you think has become of the young and old men? What do you think has become of the women and

       children?

 

They are alive and well somewhere;

The smallest sprouts show there is really no death,

And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait

       at the end to arrest it,

And ceased the moment life appeared.

 

All goes onward and outward. . . .and nothing collapses, And to die is different from what any one supposed, and

       luckier.

 

—f​rom Song of Myself, ​Leaves of Grass​ (bracketed text omitted by the composer)

 

 

 

The Tower and the Garden

music by Gregory Spears (b. 1977)

words by Keith Garebian (b. 1943), Denise Levertov (1923-1997), and Thomas Merton (1915-1968)

 

This work was commissioned by The Crossing, Cantori New York, Notre Dame Vocale, and Volti with funding provided by The Ann Stookey Fund for New Music. www.annstookeyfund.org

 

a note from the composer:

The Tower and the Gar​den is a four-movement setting of three poems for choir and string quartet. The texts juxtapose the dangers of technological hubris (the tower) with the need for a place of refuge (the garden) in a world threatened by war and ecological disaster. Each text suggests ways in which Catholic thought and imagery might challenge the technological status quo.

 

The first text, poem “80” from the collection ​Cables to the Ace,​ was written by Trappist monk and social activist Thomas Merton. It is an eschatological meditation on the garden of Gethsemane, where Christ’s disciples slept on the eve of his crucifixion. Merton compares their slumber to society’s indifference to the destruction of our natural world by dangerous new technologies and war.

 

The second text was written by poet and Catholic activist Denise Levertov. It is a meditation on the Tower of Babel and the tendency for technology in the nuclear and information age to serve only its own growth and to potentially destroy society in the bargain.

 

The third poem, written by Keith Garebian, is an homage to queer filmmaker Derek Jarman and his cottage garden at Dungeness on the English coast. Situated precariously between a towering nuclear power plant and the sea, the garden was Jarman’s austere refuge during the final months of his struggle with AIDS. While an atheist and highly critical of the church, Jarman was intrigued by the role religious hagiography and poetry could play in his filmic indictments of Thatcher-era Britain. This is most notable in his film ​The Garden,​ which was shot on location in Dungeness.

 

The fourth movement is a more expansive setting of Merton’s poem “80” and a meditation on his larger views on technology and language. Merton saw language both as a potential garden that could bring us together in dialogue or as a vehicle for political propaganda that could tear us apart. Today, both forms of communication are increasingly being manipulated and distorted for profit by information technologies. Perhaps singing — and communal singing in particular — might allow us to step outside this technological system and reclaim communication at a moment when the digital world seems itself to be a looming Tower.

 

I. / IV.

 

Slowly slowly

Comes Christ through the garden

Speaking to the sacred trees

Their branches bear his light

Without harm

 

Slowly slowly

Comes Christ through the ruins

Seeking the lost disciple

A timid one

Too literate

To believe words

So he hides

 

Slowly slowly

Christ rises on the cornfields

It is only the harvest moon

The disciple

Turns over in his sleep

And murmurs:

“My regret!”

 

The disciple will awaken

When he knows history

But slowly slowly

The Lord of History

Weeps into the fire.

 

— "Cables to the Ace: 80’' By Thomas Merton, from THE COLLECTED POEMS OF THOMAS MERTON, copyright ©1968 by The Abbey of Gethsemani. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.

 

​II.

 

Each day the shadow swings

round from west to east till night overtakes it,

      hiding

half the slow circle. Each year

the tower grows taller, spiralling

out of its monstrous root-circumference, ramps and

       colonnades

mounting tier by lessening tier the way a searching bird of prey wheels and mounts the sky, driven

by hungers unsated by blood and bones.

And the shadow lengthens, our homes nearby are

       dark

half the day, and the bricklayers, stonecutters,

       carpenters bivouac

high in the scaffolded arcades, further and further

       above the ground,

 weary from longer and longer comings and goings.

       At times

a worksong twirls down the autumn leaf of a

       phrase, but mostly

  we catch

only the harsher sounds of their labor itself, and

       that seems only

an echo now of the bustle and clamor there was

       long ago

when the fields were cleared, the hole was dug, the

       foundations laid

with boasting and fanfares, the work begun.

The tower, great circular honeycomb, rises and

       rises and still

    the heavens

arch above and evade it, while the great shadow

       engulfs

more and more of the land, our lives

dark with the fear a day will blaze, or a full-moon

       night defining

with icy brilliance the dense shade, when all the

       immense

weight of this wood and brick and stone and metal

       and massive

weight of dream and weight of will

will collapse, crumble, thunder and fall, fall upon us, the dwellers in shadow.

 

— ''In the Land of Shinar'' By Denise Levertov, from COLLECTED POEMS OF DENISE LEVERTOV, copyright ©2013 by Denise Levertov and the Estate of Denise Levertov. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.

 

III.

 

Timbers black with pitch

shiver on the shingle.

Gulls wheel,

squabble over the fishermen’s catch,

quicksilver of the sea.

The tide invades

the arid strand,

home to larks and tough grasses,

cormorants skim the waves.

A cottage with two prospects

(the old lighthouse

and nuclear plant)

both lit by sights and sighs.

Barbed wire around your garden

cannot keep melancholy at bay.

 

—“Dungeness Documentary (Blue: The Derek Jarman Poems) by Keith Garebian. All rights reserved by the author.

 

 

 

I enter the earth

music by Joel Puckett (b. 1977)

words spoken by Kxao =Oah of northwestern Botswana in 1971; edited by the composer

 

Commissioned by The Crossing and Donald Nally for The Month of Moderns and premiered by The Crossing on June 14, 2015, at The Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill. I enter the earth was made possible by the Dale Warland Singers Commission Award presented by Chorus America, funded by the American Composers Forum.

 

When people sing ... I enter the earth. I go in at a place like the place where people drink water. I travel a long way, very far. When I emerge, I am already climbing. I climb threads. I climb one and leave it.

...

When you arrive at God’s place, you make yourself small. ...

You do what you have to do there.

...

Then you return to where everyone is, and you hide your face. You hide your face so you won’t see. ... And then you come and come and come and finally you enter your body again. All ... who have stayed behind are waiting for you. They fear you.

...

You enter, enter the earth, and you return to enter the skin of your body ... Then you ... sing.

 

—excerpted from “Folklore and ritual of !Kung hunter gatherers,” Ph.D. Dissertation, Dept. of Anthropology, Harvard University © 1975 Marguerite Anne Biesele (current pen name Megan Biesele) and used with permission. Grateful acknowledgement is made to Dr. Biesele who has granted permission to set and reprint these words. She asks that anyone moved by them consider making a donation to:

 

The Kalahari Peoples Fund

PO Box 7855

University Station

Austin, TX 78713-7855

 

 

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