notes on a modern oratorio
The Time Remaining Band recorded most of "ecclesiastes: a modern oratorio" in 2004. We had been playing together for three years at the time, the sextet and me. A rich, instinctive rapport had developed and I wanted to capture it. All living in New York City, we drove upstate to a small church, turned rock recording studio decades back. With recordist Julie Last’s and co-producer Tom Bogdan’s help, the septet recorded and ate and recorded and slept and recorded, for three days in June of ’04. On our breaks we picnicked and played ball on the hilly green lawn.
At the time, although I’m a singer, I was only present in the oratorio, subliminally, highly processed, in the underlying drone. Live—up through our recording in ’04—I conducted and dj’ed, mixing and cross-fading the drones and soundtracks underneath the six players, and left the singing to my beautiful quartet: David, John, Keith and Mark. Matt, cello, and Alex, percussion, “sang” in their own way. I modeled the main melodies on rehearsal tapes.
The band had long since gone its way, on to other parts of their lives, in other parts of the world, as Scott Lehrer and I mixed the record in Scott’s Lower East Side studio. As Scott worked at the board, I had been studying Ecclesiastes and translating and thinking. I was looking for words that prepared and explained the poetic Chapter 3 verses—
To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace…
That which has been is now; and that which is to be has already been…
—Eccles. 3:1-8, 15 [KJV, KB]
Much of "ecclesiastes: a modern oratorio" addresses this ancient poem about the cyclic rhythm in human life, cycles which seem inscrutable, unpredictable, nevertheless inevitable:
• The third movement, motet, sets the entire poem. The wordless second movement prepares its statement. The fourth movement, bells, voiceless, cello-less, drum-less, reiterates cyclic independence and the oblivion of number.
• In the fifth and sixth movements, time to go, time to remain and that which has already been is now, individual vocalists each deconstruct a phrase, or interpreted phrase (“time to go time to remain” was my modern addition to the antithetical series which the poem outlines) from the poem.
• In the seventh movement, heaven, and the ninth movement, under, the group joins in a conducted deconstruction of the words “heaven” and “under.” Antithesis.
• In the eighth movement, a time to every purpose, the vocalists mesh their phrases into a machine-like whole, which generate a new view of closeness of purpose and pointlessness.
• Similarly, in the eleventh movement, the vocalists weave their personal phrases into a fugal whole, but this time the cumulative effect is more compassionate. Sad but triumphant. The huge blind achievement of human living. The wordless twelfth movement eases death into infinity by returning us to where we began.
But the poem asks a question, which no amount of deconstruction and reconstruction seemed to answer.
So in 2007 with Scott’s gracious and warm support, I sang the words that open the Book of Ecclesiastes. Chapter 1’s verses 4-7 also describe cycles, but these are the grand cycles of nature, which place the human cycles into the vast immutable order of creation itself. Framing the question of human existence in the larger question of the universe, recasts of the human question. Doesn’t answer it. But the color darkens and the weight presses heavier. And so the first movement, preface, opens the oratorio:
Generations come and go but the earth endures beyond mind.
The sun is risen and set and returned to begin again.
The wind wheels around the zenith—dark north, bright south—and repeats the circle.
Every river runs into the sea but the sea does not fill yet the rivers continue to spring.
All these things are incomprehensible: we cannot fully behold them nor consider their extent.
Whatever was before is what will be again; nothing is new.
There is no memory of former things. There will be no recollection after this.
Everything you've done will be done again by someone who thinks it's the first time.
Only god knows the beginning and ending of all things.
—Eccles. 1:4-11; 3:11 [KB]
The last line became the title of the second movement, which was what it had been about all the way along. And the phrase “beyond mind” became the title of the other wordless, twelfth movement that closes the oratorio.
For the tenth movement bells and words, I sang the words that follow Chapter 3’s time poem:
What do you gain from working hard all your life?
I have been in this world of affairs where God has placed the family of humankind.
God has made all things beautiful in their time but he has hidden this beauty in forever so that no one of us can see our true calling from start to finish.
I feel then that there is nothing to do but be happy, joyous and of service while we are alive.
We must eat and drink and enjoy the good things which come of all our worry and toil because these are God's gifts to us.
I know that whatever God does it is forever. Nothing can be added, nothing taken away. And we must accept and respect it.
And the future God seeks is the past: That which has been is now and that which is to be has already been.
—Eccles. 3:9-15 [KB]
These words made a sort of dénouement. An answer to the questions quietly raised by the time and nature poems: why do these cycles happen? When is next time? Where are we going? What is the meaning of this endless repetition? These words hold author Qohelet’s own answer:
Behold that which I have seen: it is good and comely for one to eat and to drink, and to enjoy the good of all his labour that he taketh under the sun all the days of his life, which God giveth him: for it is his portion.
—Eccles. 5:18 [KJV]
The Time Remaining Band and I will always hope to play live again. And when we do, we will all sing.
for more thoughts on the book of ecclesiastes, please go to 3ecclesiastes2kaleidoscope1time.wordpress.com/about/