I’m never quite sure that unaccompanied choral music is quite my thing but The Crossing’s new recording of music by James Primosch caught my eye. It was the idea of the title track; Carthage, on prose by Marilynne Robinson from her novel Housekeeping, which employs the devastated city of Carthage as a metaphor for desire and imagination that drew me in. The image of once-fertile fields, salted and wasted, has haunted my imagination for decades and I wanted to see how it might play out in musical terms. I wasn’t disappointed.
The piece is eleven minutes long and it’s substantial and much more dramatic than a good deal of choral music. I guess it helps that it was written for a professional and very accomplished choir. (After all the money is in writing for amateurs!). The soprano part sits high and all sections have some complex and sustained sections. I think it’s worth quoting Robinson’s text in full because in its way it describes the music better than I can.
Imagine a Carthage sown with salt, and all the sowers gone, and the seeds lain however long in the earth, till there rose finally in vegetable profusion leaves and trees of rime and brine. What flowering would there be in such a garden? Light would force each salt calyx to open in prisms, and to fruit heavily with bright globes of water — peaches and grapes are little more than that, and where the world was salt there would be greater need of slaking. For need can blossom into all the compensations it requires. To crave and to have are as like as a thing and its shadow. For when does a berry break upon the tongue as sweet as when one longs to taste it, and when is the taste refracted into so many hues and savors of ripeness and earth, and when do our senses know any thing so utterly as when we lack it? And here again is foreshadowing — the world will be made whole. For to wish for a hand on one’s hair is all but to feel it. So whatever we may lose, very craving gives it back to us again. Though we dream and hardly know it, longing, like an angel, fosters us, smooths our hair, and brings us wild strawberries.
It’s good stuff.
The second substantial piece on the disc is Mass for the Day of St, Thomas Didymus (aka Doubting Thomas). The texts combine the text of the Latin Ordinary of the Mass with poems from Denise Levertov’s Mass for the Day of St, Thomas Didymus. It’s about the dialectic between doubt and belief. To quote the Credo:
I believe and
interrupt my belief with
doubt. I doubt and
interrupt my doubt with belief.
It’s very clear in the music that spiritually this is where the composer is coming from too. It’s a varied and rewarding piece but there’s a kind of questing at its heart.
The disk is filled out with a few shorter pieces that i found less interesting though well crafted. Carthage and the mass though are worth a concentrated listen; perhaps best taken each on its own rather than listening through the disk.
Technically it’s a well recorded disk and while haven’t seen the documentation (I listened to the electronic copy provided for review) Navona have made notes and texts available on line.