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Parker Ramsay performs a major new addition to the harp repertoire, commissioned by him from composer Nico Muhly along with Alice Goodman's meditations on the Stations of the Cross—here tellingly spoken by Rosie Hilal—which inform every step of the compositional process.
Passions I allow and loves I approve, onely I would wishe that men would alter their object and better their intent.
The Street is a set of meditations on the fourteen traditional Stations of the Cross. That’s what attracted me to the project. Traditionally, each Station is given a meditation and a prayer. You look at the image, you hear or read the meditation, you say the prayer: you take it in and move on. Writing these texts was the kind of technical challenge that as a librettist I’ve always found liberating.
When writing The Street, I realised that the initial challenge was going to be treating Alice’s text not as a libretto to be set (as, of course, it wasn’t one), but as a set of meditations containing clues to how the attendant music might sound. In this sense, the texts do function as a sort of hidden ritualistic play, themselves referencing a ritual, itself referencing a single afternoon in history. The presence of the plainchant provided other, more subtle, sources of material. It became clear immediately that I needed to work with a set of 'reference images'—musical building blocks which could act as touchpoints along the route of the piece: The Cross, The Hands, and Holding.
Often, a single line of text provided the starting-point for the music: when Jesus is condemned to death (Station I), Goodman describes the crowd shouting ‘crucify him’, 'the pitch dropping as it passes where you stand'. The harp, in turn, plays a modern version of the same, a kind of digital-delay effect, where the pitch creeps down the scale. These two chords—a minor chord falling into a hollow suspended chord—outline a highly abstracted cruciform shape, and this Cross motif appears in various guises throughout the piece.
'Remember the carpenter’s work' suggests an honest, folksy labour, work done with the hands. Alice’s text often points towards the quotidian nature of burial—of making, of working—and here the music is unaffected and simple; over it we hear echoes of the chant ‘Crucem tuam adoramus, Domine’ (We adore Thy Cross, O Lord). These simple chords come to represent dirt, the ground, the trees, and work done with the hands.
'These are the street sounds of Jerusalem, layers of them, all the various accents and dialects of those come up for the Passover; throat-clearing, street vendors, laughter, excuses, curses.' Here, the noises of the street are the primary focus. The text almost ignores Jesus entirely, having the effect of making us focus on him even more. The harp functions as a clattering, gossipy instrument here, with only occasional nods towards the man silently falling on the ground.
A cradle song and the music of Holding. This theme, expressed here in its purest form is less about pitch or harmony, but about rhythm; it is a rocking song, a berceuse, which is subjected to various manipulations in later movements.
'Your cross is the cross of forced labour; your yoke chafes and your burden is as much as you can bear.' A lumbering, awkward ostinato underneath fast and agitated music. A nod towards the Holding music finishes the movement.
Veronica, looking at her sudarium (face cloth), notices that 'He is printed in molecules of blood and sweat', and hears a chord, diffused and delicate, as if seen under a microscope. I wanted this to feel businesslike and almost scientific; I rememer reading about the teams of people who go around 'verifying' holy relics and what an extraordinary task it is to do this specific kind of forensic work. The chords attendant to the 'silent man' in Station III reappear here, imagining Veronica as an old woman, quietly contemplating the cloth.
A narrator—all of us, perhaps—causes Jesus’ second fall: 'My fault. I put out my foot and tripped him. What can I say?' and the harp responds with a bullying, rhythmically intense unbroken set of shifting, stumbling gestures. The harp plays aggressive, mocking, almost siren-like gestures, coming in and out of focus.
This is the most explicitly chant-based movement, in which much of the chant ‘Filiae Jerusalem’ (Daughters of Jerusalem, come and see this martyr wearing the crown …) appears verbatim. Each phrase is offset by a gentle, reassuring gesture.
Station IX is the most thematically interwoven of the movements: it begins with a fall in super slow-motion, always incorporating the Cross motif both as harmony and, eventually, as the Doppler-effect phrase we heard in Station I. 'Jesus, there he is, on hands and knees among the broken vessels' suggests a return of the manual labour music, over which a new tune emerges. This is the only time I set one of Alice’s texts explictly; the line 'However low I fall, let me not fall far from you' is played by the harp, but could be sung in the right context. It is repeated thrice, interrupted by the Cross motif in violent, block-like chords.
'Are you ashamed that your eyes are drawn irresistibly to the centre of the picture? You want to see, see for yourself, despite yourself. You want to see the organs of generation, the sign of full humanity, vulnerability, and covenant.' As in Station VII, this text implicates us and accuses us. The music is jagged, but the line 'His knees are skinned like a child' suggests a memory of the cradle song. The chant ‘Astiterunt reges terrae’ (The kings of the earth rise up, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord, and against his anointed) appears briefly.
'The nail sinks into flesh, descends through tendon, bone, wood. And another. And another, and the rich, ferrous smell of blood.' The harpist plays with a guitar pick or credit card or other plectrum, creating a strange, otherwordly, metallic sound. 'The man knows what he’s doing. This will hold' invites a perverse statement of the Hands motif: it is the soldier’s job, and he is working with his hands and with wood, but it is terrible work.
This is essentially a harmonisation of the chant ‘Tenebrae factae sunt’ (Darkness fell …) broken up by loud, violent interjections. Alice’s text asks, 'Later they said that the sun was eclipsed, the veil of the Temple torn, the dead rose from their tombs. Maybe so. Isn’t it enough though that he died?' The harp, nodding towards this, plays a kind of thunder effect, which is immediately brushed aside to return to the simple work of the plainchant.
She writes: 'Two men on ladders, one with the pincers to pull out the nails. Gently. Not that gentleness matters to him now, but not a bone shall be broken. This is not the kind of work we’re used to. Let’s get it done before it’s too dark to see.' After the moment of death, we focus on the practical work of getting the body into the tomb; we don’t yet know what the rest of the weekend holds. The music in XIII is procedural, slightly wavering, and obeys a sort of functional logic; it consists of simple chords over a single repeated pitch, and the steady tempo of ritualised work.
'Before sunset and the appearance of the first star in the sky, just before the beginning of the sabbath, two men enshroud a body. Never have they done this work before. Though well-versed in the laws and traditions involved in the task, their hands lack skill. Wash the body. Lay it out. Fetch the clean linen cloths.' It starts with the Holding music, the enshrouding of the body rhyming with the swaddling cloths thirty-three years earlier. Goodman ends her meditations with the Mourner’s Kaddish, and the harp, having played a remembered cradle-song chastened by more recent memories, fast-forwards an hour, and ends with a vision of the night sky, punctuated by three statements of the Cross motif, finally de-knotted and allowed, after a fashion, to resolve.
Nico Muhly © 2022
It was difficult to conceive of any work for King’s without acknowledgment of the chapel’s religious function and choral foundation. In my mind, any work written to be played in the chapel would necessitate some spiritual elements and even incorporate the choir. At this juncture I was very fortunate in two regards: first, that King’s was receptive to the idea of such a collaboration, and second, that I had recently been introduced to Nico Muhly, an incredibly diverse and energetic musician with an incredible dedication to sacred music. I was particularly fond of and fascinated by several cyclical works for organists James McVinnie and Richard Gowers, including the O Antiphon Preludes, Nativity Cycle, and Lenten Gospels, first performed at King’s College. To my ears, they presented a fresh means of carrying listeners through religious images and sensations, at times incorporating spoken word and plainsong chant. Having learned cycles by Messiaen (La Nativité, L’Ascension, etc.) and Dupré (Le Chemin de la Croix) as an organ student, these brainchildren of Jamie’s and Nico’s seemed like a new chapter in history of (semi-)liturgical organ repertoire.
As such, I asked Nico if he would consider undertaking a work based on the Stations of the Cross, composing fourteen harp movements to be sung in alternatim with a selection of plainsong chants which we could select together. I was overjoyed when Nico agreed to work on the project, and was so again in when we approached Alice Goodman, who agreed to write a set of meditations to guide the musical composition of each movement.
The work’s relationship to other harp repertoire is an interesting one, as perhaps the closest work in corpus is Benjamin Britten’s Ceremony of Carols. In this cyclical work for upper voices and harp, Britten famously adapted the Christmas Eve tradition of A Service of Nine Lessons and Carols, and turned it on its head. For instance, Adam lay ybounden, which is traditionally sung at the beginning of a carol service, appears at the end of the work. And rather than narrating a story in anticipation of the Nativity (as one would expect for Christmas Eve), the work opens and closes with a plainsong for Christmas Day, ‘Hodie Christus natus est’, which is likewise reiterated, note for note in the Interlude. From the harpist’s perspective, the incorporation of plainsong chant into the harp solo movements of The Street is particularly reminiscent of Britten’s Ceremony: in Station XII, when the entirety of ‘Tenebrae factae sunt’ is gently harmonised in the upper register of the harp to illustrate Christ’s death; in Station X, the antiphon ‘Astiterunt reges terrae’ arises out of a mocking chaos surrounding the abuse of Christ by the Roman soldiers; and in Station VII, cascades of arpeggios (reminiscent of great works of the French repertoire) underly an iteration of ‘Caligaverunt oculi mei’.
But another curious connection for the harpist is the relationship of The Street to Paul Hindemith’s Sonata for Harp. Composed not long after the premiere of Mathis der Maler (a dramatisation of Mathias Grünewald’s painting of the famous Isenheim Altarpiece), Hindemith selected an obscure poem by Ludwig H C Hölty to guide and direct the architecture of the work: 'Oh friends, when I am dead, hang my harp upon the altar.' This is most apparent in the third movement, where the entirety of the poem is set as an untexted melody in the third movement. I admit to having smiled when I first saw Nico’s draft of Station IX, whereby Alice’s invocation—'However low I fall, let me not fall from you'—is set three times, before appearing again in fragments in Stations XIII and XIV.
From a technical perspective also, the work is confluent with the development of the harp repertoire in the twentieth century, from the arpeggio-driven works of Gabriel Fauré to the more austere techniques used by Hindemith and Britten. Above all, the result is a work with an incredible amount of colour and variety, whereby the harpist can use fully the instrument’s acoustical potential to dramatic effect (such as in Stations I and X). At the same time, there is also space for the harpist to exploit their own individual tone to toy with subtle harmonic instability, such as in the gentle arpeggios with which Veronica wipes the face of Christ in Station VI. The work is of course not unchallenging, but it is a work by a composer who researched the core repertoire that student and professional harpists alike continually use to philosophise about technical intricacies.
The Street is also incredibly flexible in its potential for performance. In its entirety, the work integrates spoken word, plainsong and harp solos into a large work which straddles the boundaries between oratorio and liturgy. But a harpist is also free to present the work as a set of 14 harp solos with narration or a printing of the text in a programme note. In my mind, there is an appealing element of utility, whereby it can be performed as a smaller concert work or liturgical meditation. As such, the recording contains two versions of The Street: the first for harp solo, and the second in its fullest incarnation with spoken word and plainsong.
Parker Ramsay © 2022