Penn Live Arts Blog

poor hymnal

Posted December 6, 2023

come and rest with us

One-syllable words.
A command.
No, an invitation.
A compellingly stark appeal.

I need your kindness

I do.
We do.

This is the world of David Lang’s poor hymnal, premiering December 15 in Philadelphia. .

Season of giving.
Season of talking about giving.
Season of singing about giving.
We want to see what it will feel like, in December, to realize David’s experiment, poor hymnal, for the first time. His question:

I wondered if the hymns of a community that did not want to forget our responsibilities to each other, and that wanted to make our responsibilities to each other the central tenet of our coming together, might be different from the hymns that we are singing now. I wrote poor hymnal to find out.

Sounds like we might get a hefty portion of blame, maybe with some guilt. Another piece about how awful we all are?

Not in David’s world.
Not in poor hymnal.
Because there is space in the words and space in the music.
Those familiar with David’s words and music know that he has a way of making those spaces for the listener. In that world, intersecting musical patterns and simple, direct melodies are mesmerizing, yet absent the imposition of the composer’s worldview, or the demand that view be acknowledged. Laconic sentences are comprised of short words in grammatically uncomplicated constructs. They are most often distillations: florid prose writings of another thinker, sifted down to their essence. Here, in poor hymnal, original sources – hymns, Biblical sources, Wisdom writings – are refined to concise, unadorned thoughts.

We call them hymns.
Remarkably plain, direct hymns.
Hymns that are not like those in our hymnbooks.
Here, words are refracted through a musical prism of transparency and modesty.
Like a child’s emotions.
It is what it is.

Open your hands/Open your heart

The core of thoughts we all have, we all feel, daily, but seldom voice.

How can we? That level of vulnerability is not invited in our media-drenched world, our “at war” world. A world in which increased connectivity seems to only magnify our aloneness. A world that craves intimacy, listening, humanity.

We have artists like David to remind us of our humanity. Not to talk at us, but rather to create pieces that allow us to recall, on our own terms, what we want for ourselves and for others. He speaks of his most famous work, the little match girl passion, in these terms:

The girl’s bitter present is locked together with the sweetness of her past memories. Her poverty is always suffused with her hopefulness. There’s a kind of naïve equilibrium between suffering and hope.

I live with that naïve equilibrium.
With that hope.
We all live in our own poverties.
And yet we forget.

David, again:

Many religions - mine included - profess that an important part of their belief is to care about how people who are comfortable should act towards people who are not. How we were strangers in a strange land, the least among us, the camel going through the eye of the needle, etc. Of course, it is hard for us to remind ourselves to keep caring, and it would be so much easier to forget.

How often do we feel like strangers in a strange land?
Often, I guess. And so, with good reason, many composers write music for The Crossing that captures that stranger-ness through complexity, through outburst, through virtuosity. We wander through the forest of their astonishingly creative thoughts, inviting listeners on the journey. We cry out. We love those works.

poor hymnal is not that.
It is a work of simplicity – of intentional quiet and tangible thought. Many of the usual adjectives fail in describing it; it is not meditative (it’s too thought-provoking), not healing (our desire to do better, to be better, personally, is omnipresent), not conclusive, nor even intentionally personal. And by not being those things, it seems to become the essence of them: what healing might be like in the absence of wounding; what personal is like when there is only that and everything else is stripped away, gone.

I am reminded of William Carlos Williams’ poetry – particularly his most famous poem:

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

Ten one-syllable words, six two-syllable words.
So much.

I’ve thought a lot about “depending” while living with poor hymnal. About whom depends on whom and where I fit into that. Working on David’s piece has made me a calmer person. It has insisted that I stop studying it and look out the window… at nothing, really, just the thoughts in my head.

I do not hold expectations for outcomes of our performances. But I imagine that, if the singers and I have delivered what David has written, many will find themselves staring out windows as we sing.

Resting with us.
Needing our kindness.

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