It’s been an extraordinarily busy last few weeks, leaving me no time to blog But Master Chorus Eastside is gearing up for our December concerts on the 6th and 14th, which feature some exciting works by composers who live here in the Northwest, and I’m itching to write about them. So, deadlines notwithstanding, it’s my pleasure to begin with Seattle composer John Muehleisen, creator of a beautiful and otherworldly work in our program called Invocation.
I first met John several years ago, and he struck me as friendly, unpretentious, outgoing, easy to talk to—a relief for us introverted types who find hardly anyone all that easy to talk to! Plus he exhibited an impish sense of humor, always an appealing trait! He showed me a piece of his, Aversion to Carrots, part of his cycle called Eat Your Vegetables!; it fit right in with a quirky concert I was planning called Sound Imaginarium, and so we performed it. Here is the entire cycle, sung by the Central Washington University Chamber Choir. Carrots is the middle piece, sandwiched in there between Bounty (as in the ubiquitous zucchini) and Rah! (short for Rutabagas)!
Invocation couldn’t be more different: enigmatic, mystical, Celtic in its sensibilities. It’s part of a three-movement Christmas cycle called This Night for chorus and harp, commissioned by the Dale Warland Singers in 2003-2004. John later reformed it into an a capella version for Seattle Pro Musica. The poem comes from The Carmina Gadelica, a massive compendium of folk lore and remedies, poems and hymns, legends and proverbs, charms and blessings, in Gaelic and English, gathered from crofters in the Highlands and Western Isles of Scotland by a tax collector named Alexander Carmichael, and first published in a limited edition in 1900.
Here is a link to the 1940 edition, volume 3:
The poem appears on two separate pages in volume 2, numbered as if it were two separate poems but John set it as one work, linked by text and music.
God of the moon, God of the sun,
God of the globe, God of the stars,
God of the waters, the land, and the skies,
Who ordained to us the King of promise.
It was Mary fair who went upon her knee,
It was the King of life who went upon her lap,
Darkness and tears were set behind,
And the star of guidance went up early.
Illumed the land, illumed the world,
Illumed doldrum and current,
Grief was laid and joy was raised,
Music was set up with harp and pedal-harp.
God of the moon, God of the sun,
Who ordained to us the Son of mercy.
The fair Mary upon her knee,
Christ the King of life in her lap.
I am the cleric established,
Going round the founded stones,
I behold mansions, I behold shores,
I behold angels floating,
I behold the shapely rounded column
Coming landwards in friendship to us.
It invokes the presence of God and overflows with conundrum and contradiction, darkness and light, mystery and nature, all in service to the Nativity of Christ: the star (of Bethlehem? The Morningstar Himself? Who can say?), the sun, moon and waters; stagnant doldrum and flowing current, indeed the entire world, illumined; humble Mary holding the King of life; grief laid low and joy upraised; the releasing of music; the enigmatic cleric with his ecstatic vision of mansions and angels and founded stones.
John’s music is passionate, expansive, expressive, challenging! He uses dissonance to obscure key centers and create an atmosphere of mystery, and fluid melodies and time signatures and subtle tempo shifts to build a sense of eternity, of space and time unleashed. But the piece isn’t formless. He brings the music of the first two strophes to the related fourth strophe, but shortened and transformed, as is its text. The cleric begins with a new melody, befitting his sudden appearance in the poem, but then the “illumed” music reappears as he beholds mansions and shores and angels, perhaps because his vision is equally illuminating. The “star of guidance” melody, which rises and rises in layered tiers, bears a strong resemblance to the soaring lines that accompany the setting up of harp and pedal-harp. And in a really lovely touch, a similar music unfolds as the shapely column comes “landwards in friendship to us,” but this time inverted, moving downward from heaven, even as the star and harp music moved upward toward heaven.
The above is only a brief analysis of this wonderful work. There is no YouTube recording, so you will simply have to come and experience it 1n December. There will be a composers’ forum before each concert, where John and several other local composers will discuss their compositions. May it illume your Christmas season!
Dr. Linda Gingrich
Artistic director and conductor
Master Chorus Eastside