Thursday, September 26, 2013

Missa Charles Darwin

A digital acquaintance, Maura, shared with me two recent recordings by New York Polyphony: "Times Go By Turns" and "Missa Charles Darwin." This entry will deal with the latter, shorter, recording.

Written for a male vocal quartet by composer Gregory W. Brown, the composition unfolds along the traditional five-part structure of the Mass. The innovation of this composition comes both from its lyrics and its melodic composition.

The text of each piece is taken from Charles Darwin's works, such as On the Origin of Species and The Descent of Man. To some, this will appear a heretical admixture: surely the songs used to praise God are incompatible with Darwin's words! To those who do not have any great difficulty reconciling religious faith with an acceptance of evolution, the result is stunning: the ancient hymns of praise are infused with words describing the primordial process of evolution.

Ingeniously, and in a way that is boggling to my mind, the very genetic structure of the work reflects the work of evolution. The composer used the genetic sequence of Playspiza crassirostis (one of Darwin's finches" and translated this sequence into notes.

What we have, as a consequence, is the sung liturgy of evolution. To use biological language, the phenotype (or appearance) of the liturgy expresses the genotype (structure and history) of evolution. In an act of arresting aesthetic beauty, the song of creation itself is performed in a setting normally reserved for a Eucharist celebration. Perhaps this is most fitting, after all, for should we not celebrate the wonders and glories of creation?

I am reminded of Saint Augustine's Confessions. Augustine, restlessly longing to find his heart's desire, writes:
And what is the object of my love? I asked the earth and it said: 'It is not I.' I asked all that is in it; they made the same confession. I asked the sea, the deeps, the living creatures that creep, and they responded: 'We are not your God, look beyond us.' I asked the breezes which blow and the entire air with its inhabitants said: 'Anaximenes was mistaken; I am not God.' I asked heaven, sun, moon and stars; they said: 'Nor are we the God whom you seek.' And I said to all these things in my external environment: 'Tell me of my God who you are not, tell me something about him!' And with a great voice they cried out: 'He made us.' My question was the attention I gave to them, and their response was their beauty. (X,vi,9)
 While it is not the artists' intent to "reconcile or aggravate the difference between evolutionists and creationists," I cannot help but to think such a rift may be healed through works of rapprochement such as this composition. "Beauty," Dostoevsky wrote in The Idiot, "will save the world." In a culture where acrimonious debates over the compatibility of faith and science are common, it may fall to works of beauty such as this to bring together two apparently contradictory voices in a hymn of wounding beauty and meditative awe.

If you're a lover of classical music, I strongly urge you to purchase this either for pure listening pleasure or for a challenging and moving experience of meditating on the song of creation itself. 

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