This work-in-progress is based on a series of lithographs of the same name by Czech surrealist Toyen. Toyen’s lithographs are bleak, war-torn glimpses of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, conveying disturbing images of war through the eyes of children.
We tend to think of war as being loud and dramatic, but the reality is that wars are long and drawn out. Life goes on, but it is exhausting and uncertain, and children growing up in these situations seem to develop an incredible capacity for survival, suffering, and endurance. I want this piece to be a testament to these children, and to raise awareness. Ideally, I hope to perform the piece with the original lithographs.
This project was inspired by 12th century composer Hildegard von Bingen’s Ordo Virtutum, the oldest liturgical drama that has survived with both text and music. It tells the story of the struggle for a human soul between the Virtues, represented by 17 female voices, and the Devil, played by yelling/grunting male voice (since the Devil can not produce divine harmony). In the story, the soul, Anima, is eager to get to Heaven, but troubled by the weighty challenges of mortal life. The Virtues council her to be patient, but she is seduced by the Devil. Eventually, Anima calls out to the Virtues for help, whereupon they sail in like superheroes and bind the devil hand and foot.
In my mind, the Ordo is especially interesting because of its realistic nature. Although the Virtues are clearly on the “good” side of the story, the Devil taunts them for their ignorance, pointing out their limited view of the world due to their sheltered lifestyle, (“your womb is empty of any fair form taken from man, wherein you transgress the command of pleasant intercourse which God commanded; wherefore you know not what you are.”) Moreover, at the end of the story the Devil is not vanquished for all time, but simply subdued for the moment. Hildegard was clearly speaking to the daily struggles that all mortals must contend with.
The idea behind this project is to give the performers the opportunity to reinterpret this story in their own musical voices. The initial performance took place in New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall on February 17, 2015, where students drew on Hildegard’s original score and text as well as works by Tom Waits, John Coltrane, traditional American and African folk music and sacred songs, tap dance, Korean Exorcism dance, and Turkish Sufi zihkr.
Hildegard’s message is universal and timeless, and it is my hope to take this project to many places in the world. Fellow NEC Faculty Cristi Catt is currently working on a performance in Latvia next summer, and I hope to take it into Boston area schools as well as to the Afghanistan National Institute of Music on my next visit to Kabul.
I have been invited to participate in a sound/art installation entitled SEEN/UNSEEN, which will take place this summer on Boston Harbor’s Spectacle Island. This invitation was only recently extended to me, so I am still very much in the planning stages, but I am thrilled to have the opportunity to participate in such an interesting event, especially as a new resident of East Boston. Stay tuned for details about my piece. Here is more information about the general project: