Chorally Yours: Whitacre’s “Water Night”

Did you ever hear a piece of music that reverberated within every single cell of your body or caused each hair on your head to stand on end?  A piece of music that you craved over and over, and each time you listened to it you heard something new?

Today we’re taking an exuberant dive into the setting of Octavio Paz’s poem Agua nocturna, composed by the much-acclaimed Eric Whitacre as “Water Night”.

But first, a caveat.  My meager vocabulary, choral and otherwise, is not going to do this piece justice.  No amount of witticism or schmancy terms like “pan-diatonic” are going to convey to you, appreciated reader, just how much this music has changed the neurons firing in my brain.  All I can offer is what follows.

“Water Night was just one of those pieces,” Whitacre writes on his website.  After spending the day with his friend and mentor Dr. Bruce Mayhall and being convinced to finish his degree, Whitacre went home and opened his book of Octavio Paz poetry.

I can’t really describe what happened. The music sounded in the air as I read the poem, as if it were a part of the poetry. I just started taking dictation as fast as I could, and the thing was basically finished in about 45 minutes. I have never experienced anything like it, before or since, and with my limited vocabulary I can only describe it as a pure and perfect and simple gift. It has become one of my most popular pieces, and I’ve heard countless people who sing it or hear it describing the same feeling I had when I wrote it down. I remain eternally grateful for this gift.

“Basically finished in about 45 minutes.” Fact:  in college, it took me at least one week to write one mostly lousy 16-measure hymn.  Fact: despite my composing shortcomings, I am able to recognize that the music Whitacre wrote exactly matches Paz’s text.  “Sounded in the air” indeed. It’s stunningly beautiful.

Here is the text in its entirety:

Night with the eyes of a horse that trembles in the night,
night with eyes of water in the field asleep
is in your eyes, a horse that trembles,
is in your eyes of secret water.

Eyes of shadow-water,
eyes of well-water,
eyes of dream-water.

Silence and solitude,
two little animals moon-led,
drink in your eyes,
drink in those waters.

If you open your eyes,
night opens, doors of musk,
the secret kingdom of the water opens
flowing from the center of night.

And if you close your eyes,
a river, a silent and beautiful current,
fills you from within,
flows forward, darkens you,
night brings its wetness to beaches
in your soul.

Octavio Paz, 1914-1998
(Adapted by Eric Whitacre, Translation by Muriel Rukeyser)

Now listen to the Brigham Young University Singers, and read the text as you listen. (I’m not bossy, just excited.)

A few thoughts:  I love those opening measures.  I see them like a piece of obsidian- smooth, glassy, deep black.  The word “shadow” is beautifully jagged. The basses give “dream-water” perfect gravel.

Moving on, the diction on “solitude” is perfect- a gently curved “u” instead of straight and flat.  It’s extremely subtle but has a tremendous effect.  Can you hear and feel the slightest crescendo/decrescendo here? The tempo also picks up slightly, adding to the pulsating sound.

There’s nothing to say next except that you just heard the most brilliant chord ever written.  What better way to express the opening of one’s eyes?

Eyeschord

A beautiful, well-timed decrescendo takes us to “the center of night”.  The last measures, focused on “a river”, again pulsate with those tiny crescendos and decrescendos (“flowing forward” is flawless) and gets gradually quieter until the final word “soul”.  I want to hang onto that one word, that final chord, forever.

For those of you who have a hankering for a serious theory analysis of this piece, this Wikipedia page does a darn good job.  Thanks, Michael Scott, for the recommendation!

As you no doubt can tell, I am quite taken with this piece.  I’m perpetually in awe of the gift composers possess.  Whitacre achieves the remarkable in this stunning musical painting, paying great homage to a much-lauded and Nobel-winning poet, and giving us a timeless gift.

I’ll Counter That Tenor!

Well, the reveling sibs have clearly given in to the indolence of summer’s furnace. But lo! This morning broke cool, cloudy, and breezy over the nation’s capital and that’s when some of us get to work, like dwarves headin’ to the mines with pickaxes and a pretty girl at home.

Today on WAMU, the fantastic local NPR station whose delightfully NPRish slogan is “The mind is our medium,” there was a piece on Morning Edition about countertenors (Sibley the Younger loves the radio, if you haven’t noticed). The impetus was a new opera opening in Santa Fe called “Oscar.” Unfortunately, it’s not an operatic look at the Tragic Magician, George Oscar Bluth, but the Flamboyant Flâneur, Oscar Wilde. The countertenor in focus is David Daniels. Here is a link to the story, which Morning Edition helpfully kitted out with several examples of Daniels’s work:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2013/07/25/205148226/The-High-Heavenly-Voice-Of-David-Daniels

I very much like the Schubert piece there, “Nacht und Träume.” But that’s not a surprise.

The piece called to mind an episode in the Sibs’ classical education which took place during the summer of either 1998 or 1999. ‘Twas the former, I believe, but my surety is low. We gaily traipsed one evening, during Mostly Mozart, to Avery Fisher Hall to hear Bach’s incomparable Mass in B Minor. It was the first time I’d ever heard it. And beforehand, there was a lecture on the piece in whatever that penthouse is called across the street. Suffice it to say it’s not the kind that receives letters of a certain nature. All in all a magnificent evening I’ll never forget (some of the pertinent data notwithstanding), in large part because the alto part was sung by a German countertenor by the name of Andreas Scholl.

I had never heard a countertenor before (recall that I’m not the choral nerd in our dynamic duo). Chills ran down my spine when he sang the lento, haunting “Agnus Dei,” as his voice filled the hall and reverberated. It is a wonderful movement because the instrumentation is exceedingly spare, allowing the voice to take and keep center stage. You won’t be sorry for listening to it, nor indeed seeing Andreas Scholl. Danke sehr, Internet, because a recording of him singing the Agnus Dei (qui tollis, as everyone knows, peccata mundi) exists on YouTube. As Uncle Jesse might say, miserere nobis indeed.

I realize I’m glossing over the physiological curio that is the male countertenor. I remember reading an interview with Scholl once, or perhaps it was in liner notes, where he said that he realized he had this capability only incrementally as he went through his singing education and development. I once asked a male opera singer whether he could just sort of “sing along” to recorded music like we plebeians (I was kind of hoping he’d belt out something like “Just What I Needed” in his opera voice). To his credit, he didn’t preface his response with either an eyeroll or a “Duh,” but told me quite simply it was a muscle that could be flexed to varying degrees. In other words, yes, he could blend in with mortals. You’d think I would have known that already, having grown up with a diva sharing a bedroom wall!

Confessions of a Choral Geek

Confession, readers:  I’m a choral geek.  A classical choral geek.  Add a little soft-shoe and I’m a triple threat!  I have been singing in a chorus since I was in fourth grade.  It is a cornerstone of my life and I have come a very long way since the sweet days of “Friends Forever”.  I regard it a true privilege to be part of an art form that brings tremendous beauty and passion to so many.

On Sunday evening, I had the pleasure of performing, with my choral group, a wonderful program of French choral compositions.  Heralded as “A French Affair”, we filled the wonderfully echoing spaces of the venue with Francis Poulenc’s Gloria, Maurice Duruflé’s Requiem, and Lili Boulanger’s Psaume XXIV.  For a bit of textural contrast, Duruflé’s Ubi caritas and Tota pulchra es were also part of the program.

Four days later, various segments of Poulenc’s Gloria are enjoying a much-welcomed sojourn in my brain.  Until this season I had never sung any Poulenc, and I quickly became enamored of his Gloria.  It is a joy to sing- clean and vibrant, melodic and exhilarating.  The last movement, “Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris” (Thou enthroned on high at God’s right hand) ends in a triple pianissimo so ethereal that you will forget to breathe.

My favorite movement is the fourth:  “Domine fili unigenite” (Hail, O Son of God).  I love Poulenc’s note in the first measure of “Très vite et joyeux” (very quick and joyful).  And that’s exactly what it is.  The movement is less than two minutes in length.  I love when the tenors burst onto the scene in the twelfth measure.  I love the elocution of “Jesu Christe”. I love how the dynamics are either piano or fortissimo- nothing in between! Most especially I love how we soprani, after one orchestral measure, leap back in the game on a piano F natural just before the end. It’s just the loveliest.

If you’ve never heard a Gloria before, or choral music, or if you’d prefer the sound of a dentist’s drill to the sound of sung Latin, I think this bright and beautiful composition will bring you over to the sunny side.

As for me, I can’t wait for the start of our next choral season.  I wonder if anyone will notice if I don’t return my Poulenc score.  Just kidding…maybe.