Saturday, September 06, 2008

Landmarks (35)

Daniel Lentz: Missa Umbrarum for a mixed choir of 8 voices, solo male performer, and 263 shadows (1973)

A setting of the ordinary of the Mass, with an interlude and a postlude, for singers, who also play wine glasses (except in the Kyrie). Each section of the Mass has a distinct character, each emphasizing, in effect, an alternative region of the continuum between song and speech. The individual sections of the Mass share a pattern of gradual composition from layers — "shadows", hence the name Umbrarum — which accumulate, via a tape-delayed recording system, until a final, vertically and horizontally complete, statement of each section. Further, the Mass, as a sequence of the sections, accumulates, with first some layers of the Kyrie, then the Kyrie and the Gloria, and the Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei each, in turn, woven into the linear sequence.

While the gradual quality of this music (in which the gradations are not a measure or two, as in roughly contemporaneous work by Steve Reich, but rather movement-long periods), Lentz's pioneering delay techniques (which continue to be technical challenges, even with contemporary digital technologies), certain discrete theatrical elements, and his exquisitely drawn scores were the elements that first drew me to the Missa Umbrarum (as well as other works by the composer), the element that has drawn me back most, and at times, urgently, is his harmony and voice leading. Lentz's harmonic practice is clearly more intuitive than systematic — an important point of contrast to the discipline at the formal level of the work — but the luxurious and sensual immediacy of the harmony appears guided by some constants, among which are the use of chords which are tonally ambiguous and balanced on the edge of consonance and a contrast between melodically smooth voice leading and a Lentz innovation which might be described as "register leading": motion between registers — frequently a drop from treble to bass — as opposed to that along individual melodic lines. In New Mexico this year, Lentz himself identified Gregorian chant and Debussy as sources for his tonal practice, and it is not difficult to recognize that he has drawn much from Debussy's strategic use of both smooth transitions and abrupt juxtapositions.

Aside from being a landmark work of experimental music, the Missa Umbrarum may also the most substantial (relatively) recent setting of the ordinary, and it is perhaps useful, given the interval in time since its composition, to consider its significance, if any, as a Mass. Written at the height of Vatican II's turn to the vernacular and requiring some unconventional musical and technical resources, is this setting of the Latin ordinary necessarily a concert work or might it not also have liturgical potential? The cool and rational (shall we say Jesuitical?) analysis into layers and sections and its recomposition into a whole contrasts with the sensual, experiential quality of the tonal materials; the added theatrical elements suggest the ritual use of minor sacramentals; and the gradual delay process, in which the music is perpetually "becoming" rather than "being" would appear to be quite in keeping with Catholic intellectual, aesthetic, and mystical perspectives.

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