Encores: A mass for Mother Earth
“Our awesome responsibility to ourselves, to our children, and to the future is to create ourselves in the image of goodness, because the future depends on the nobility of our imaginings.”
— Barbara Grizutti Harrison, American writer
While, as the calendar goes, Earth Day has seemingly come and gone; in another, greater sense, it, like the spirit of Christmas, remains timelessly with us. Indeed, how could it not? The planet, as gorgeous and generous as “she” is, continues to be imperiled in myriad ways.
While it has become clear in recent decades that the consciousness of the human race is awakening to these perils and striving in diverse ways and places to address the global challenges with which it finds itself confronted, the silent, urgent question that continues to arise in many whose care and concern go beyond their ability to pretend all is well is: “Will it do so soon enough?”
“Soon enough for what?” queries one friend, an environmental scholar, upon hearing of the seeming crisis. The Earth, she insists, will be just fine — and will, like any living organism, do whatever it must do to deal with and throw off the insults to its life processes with which humanity has burdened it. “What may not be so fine,” she goes on to explain, “is the life of the humanity upon it.”
Earth Day, and the environmental/ethical concerns that gave birth to it, cannot merely be relegated to the realm of unrealistic/idealistic Green Movement, because, as it happens, each of us now drawing breath are, in fact, willing or unwilling beneficiaries or victims of our precariously poised environments and their food/water/atomospheric contents, as, traveling back in time, the following facts attest:
∎ Before 1945 — virtually no chemicals, color additives, pesiticides were used in food supply; in 2014, the Pew Charitable Trusts estimate over 10,000 known nonfood substances are regularly used in food, with 1,000 more unknown to either the FDA or consumers.
Between 1990-2005, over 120,000 new processed foods developed and added to existing 320,000 processed products
Aside from food-born life-destroying substances, there is the ongoing threat of lethal radiation: the U.S. Government still sanctions the use of such dangerous substances as depleted uranium in its weaponry, which, once used, leaves a legacy of continuing and ineradicable radiation in its wake, not to mention nationwide leakage of nuclear emissions from all its national power plants.
To fully grasp the critical importance of what are so quaintly labeled “earth” or “environmental” concerns, one has only to witness the final — and most heartbreaking phase of these seemingly generic social issues — a phase which invades each of our lives intimately: the dire, often disastrous consequences of “The Chemical Culture” fostered by our lifestyle — not merely environmental, but also very human, loss.
To have gone through the trials of losing even one friend, parent or child to cancer is to know, in a very personal way, the profound hit humanity is taking for its investment in “a better life through chemistry,” an irony infinitely compounded by the medical establishment’s recourse to a toxic chemical solution to the toxin-caused illness. Such, it seems, is the exorbitant cost of modern “civilization.”
One soul who has been abidingly sensitive to the interdependence of earth’s life and our own is Paul Winter, saxophonist and creator of “Missa Gaia,”the next offering of The Brattleboro Concert Choir, to be directed by Susan Dedell, Saturday, May 17, at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, May 18, at 4 p.m. at Centre Congregational Church in Brattleboro.
Writes Winter: “The idea of writing a Mass seemed far-flung. I had never even been to a Mass! Trying to imagine what I would want to hear in a truly contemporary Mass, I realized I would want to create a Mass that was both ecumenical and ecological, one which would embrace all the voices of the Earth. I wanted to feel the Earth-power of percussion in harmony with the serene voices of the choir, and to share with the congregation that spirit of celebration we know with our concert audiences. The title would be ‘Earth Mass.’
“Could a Mass celebrate a vision of the entire Earth as a cathedral? Dean Morton assured me it could. Could Mass music be based on themes from whales and wolves? ‘You can write a Mass on anything,’ the Dean said.”
This last comment, because, in addition to the requisite vocal components one would expect to be present in a work with the title of “Missa” or “Mass” — traditionally, a musical setting of the core sections of the Eucharistic liturgy — there is the oft-heard, at least in Winter’s works, voices of wolves, loons, whales, and harp seals. And while billed as a “joyful celebration upon the beauty of the Earth,” one cannot help, in hearing Winter’s creation, laced, as it is, with the outcries of these wild and wistful creatures, feeling more a sense of poignance and forlornness. Even the pure, seamless voice of his soprano saxophone, endeavoring to embody the musical equivalent of these feral and primal beings, evokes a wordless grief that sounds like nothing less than unrestrained mourning.
While I did have the opportunity of meeting Winter some years ago at a Brattleboro venue, I did not avail myself of the opportunity to ask him about his aesthetic choices, the next time I do so, I will take pains to question him if perhaps “Requiem-Missa Gaia” might not possibly be a more accurate label for his strangely soulful celebration, alternating between waves of jubilance and lamentation.
The work was conceived when the dean of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City asked Winter to create new music for the Mass, a request that plunged the composer into a crash-course in historical “Mass-ology,” culminating, of all things, in “... a fine melody from a wolf that fit perfectly with the words ‘Kyrie eleison!’” But, he goes on, there is a redeeming promise in his seemingly counterintuitive choice of themes: “... it is entirely appropriate that this wolf-call be the main motif of the Earth Mass. For just as we are now graduating from our inherited European fear of wolves and wilderness, so may other devils and dragons we conjure with our minds disappear, as we come to resonate with the greater community of life. This is the purpose of the Missa Gaia.”
Winter shares his spotlight with other collaborators from his Paul Winter Consort, including Paul Halley, Jim Scott, Oscar Castro-Neves and Kim Oler.
In subsequent performances, the core movements of the “Missa Gaia” remain, but new movements have been written — and are still being written — that may be added to the work as the director desires, giving “Missa Gaia” a work of ongoing creation and evolution.
In that collaborative spirit, music director Dedell has invited a bevy of new-generation musicians to participate in the performances, including: Zara Bode, a founding member of the Sweetback Sisters; soprano saxophonist Tony Speranza Jr. of the Asylum Quartet, a Gold Medal winner at the 2014 Chamber Music Competition in Boston; cellist Marta Roma, from Barcelona, Spain, a student of one-time Winter Consort cellist Eugene Friesen; percussionists Stefan Amidon and his former teacher Steve Rice; oboist Aaron Ichiro Hilbrun; and pianist Brian Fairley.
Centre Congregational Church, 193 Main St., Brattleboro, Vt. Tickets, $15 general, $8 students, are available by calling the Brattleboro Music Center at 802-257-4523, or by visiting www.bmcvt.org.
An author and composer, columnist Joseph Marcello of Northfield focuses on music and theater. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.