Heaven and Earth, with John Tavener’s Ikon of Light.
Guest post by Richard Barrett, Artistic Director of The Saint John of Damascus Society
In July 2012, nine years ago this month, my friend Dr. Harold Sabbagh and I had initial conversations about a spark of an idea. He was infectiously enthusiastic about CERN’s then-recent confirmation of the existence of the Higgs boson.
He then asked me, “How can we produce a unique musical and artistic work of art that both draws inspiration from humanity’s legacy of scientific inquiry and discovery while also having an Eastern Orthodox voice, perspective, and beauty?”
The Vesperal psalm, Psalm 103 (LXX numbering), was an obvious framework for the concept. This psalm celebrates creation, micro- and macrocosmic.
In October 2013, we brought together six contrasting Orthodox composers to Bloomington, Indiana: Matthew Arndt, John Michael Boyer, Alexander Khalil, Kurt Sander, Richard Toensing of blessed memory, and Tikey Zes. We asked them to rise to a very specific challenge. Each set a section of Psalm 103 in his own distinct musical idiom while still producing a single piece of music as a unified whole. These idioms included Byzantine chant, Russian polyphony, Georgian chant, and contemporary American choral writing.
In June 2015, the composers completed the score, titled Heaven and Earth: A Song of Creation. Directed by composer John Michael Boyer in October 2018, Cappella Romana premiered the work to standing ovations.
We intended to perform Heaven and Earth in New York at the biennial American conference of the International Society for Orthodox Church Music in July 2020, and to record the piece immediately after.
As we all know, 2020 did not go as planned. Heaven and Earth remained a priority for Cappella Romana regardless. Our friend and close collaborator Vladimir Morosan at Musica Russica published the score. This lovely performing edition is now available to all. We then dedicated ourselves to making the recording as soon as it was feasible.
Now, the sessions for Heaven and Earth will mark Cappella Romana’s return to in-person, vaccinated, unmasked, non-socially distanced music-making!
We are planning a fall release for the disc: the first post-COVID release on Cappella Records.
As the chief advocate and custodian of the project’s vision, I am deeply humbled by care and commitment that everybody has devoted to the work: John Michael Boyer’s thorough preparation of the score, Mark Powell’s and Alexander Lingas’ generous and collaborative spirit, Grammy-winning producer Blanton Alspaugh’s handling of its sonic challenges, and the sheer skill of the singers in bringing this rich stylistic tapestry to life.
I am also honored by the confidence with which Mark, Alexander, and John chose to pair Heaven and Earth with Sir John Tavener’s Ikon of Light. Tavener was a pioneer and forerunner without whom Heaven and Earth could not exist, and I am thrilled to experience the pairing.
A final thought: Much has happened since 2012 when we conceived The Psalm 103 Project, and our world has changed even more since the premiere of Heaven and Earth in 2018. However, changed world or no, the project’s vision is as relevant now as it ever was.
In the psalmist’s beautiful words as rendered by our dear departed friend Fr. Ephrem Lash, “God reveals the majesty of His divinely created order to us.”
In this sense, science is nothing less than the methodology through which we can learn about the world God made. This is a lesson we can all take to heart after the challenges and the discoveries of the last two years, and apply it just as well to the stunning images of the M87 black hole as to life-saving medical research. The beautiful work of our composers provides a sublime guide to Psalm 103 that we hope will help people reach that understanding.