Penn Live Arts Blog

The Crossing @ Christmas: Thoughts from the conductor

Posted November 30, 2022

Accelerator Program Holiday Music New Music Philadelphia Premieres World Premieres

I remember the first time I encountered Percy Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” with its chilling reference to the ephemerality of civilizations. 

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

What remains on those sands is art:
a toppled statue,
and the following words,
communicating with us over great spans of time and geography:

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!

Back then, I didn’t fully understand the raw truth of this poem.
Civilizations decay and vanish, leaving future cultures to speculate on them by what’s left:
Scattered fragments of art and architecture, communicating over vast distances of time.

Caroline Shaw’s Ochre feels like one such communication. Fragments of poetry of the 16th and 19th centuries emerge and recede absent of their contexts, as if only partially visible – etchings in a broken piece of marble, the rest lost. We understand the words, but not their full meanings. We can deduce that words are missing:

Contemplate all this work of Time;

As dying Nature’s earth and lime,

Within oneself from more to more,

Life is not as idle ore,

We sense that Ochre is an elegy from an imperiled civilization, told mostly through sounds and colors; there is mystery in the absence of text, and in the words we sense are absent. We can piece together a story of “humans walking upon the earth.” In Caroline’s words, Ochre “is about soil…how we consider and care for the ground beneath our feet – our Earth, ourselves, our histories, our sense of the scale of our lives in the context of geological history” with text communicating a “subtle hint at the sense of regret about the state of climate policy over the last century in the U.S.”

A thousand regrets at deserting you
And leaving behind…
That is seems soon my days will dwindle away.

Communication across great distances is also at the heart of Mason Bates’ Mass Transmission.
Transcripts and records of our first wireless communications:
a Dutch child leaves her mother to serve as a page in the colony of Java;
their only means of communication is to be found at the Dutch Telegraph Office.

The voice from the East.
Nothing is farther apart than the two straits that separate us.
In this way the world grows closer and closer, even as we move further apart.

These records of those strained communications are like fossils, telling the tale of inventions that are, today, omnipresent. They are in our pockets, how we explore space, how we bought the ticket to this concert, how we paid for parking.

Holland and Java lie in the deepest part of a mother’s heart,
and in every sigh is a wireless signal: Hello, oh, my child…

What does any of this have to do with Christmas?

Holiday music is available to us at every turn; on every device; in every store, street, parking lot; in churches and schools. The world doesn’t need us to sing that.

Instead, we sing about our relationships, trying to explore themes - not of birth and rebirth - but of you and me: family to family, nation to nation, human to Earth. Christmas. Life is not as idle ore.

In our ‘absence of idleness,’ we seek peace in those relationships.
Peace, the backstory of every civilization, the story of the holiday for which our concert is named.

We find that story, our story, in the works of David Lang that open and close our concert.
David, whose new work poor hymnal will premiere at next December’s The Crossing @ Christmas, has a way of distilling text to the bare essence of our thoughts.

Our concert closes with these thoughts:

let me lie down in peace
let me rise up again in peace

…and opens even more simply, communicating as directly as we are able, with our wish:

if you can make peace
make peace

The lone and level sands stretch far away.
We can do so much more than despair.
We can sing.

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