The texts for the work all belong to the “songs of ascent” — a set of fifteen Psalms (#120 – # 134) that were sung by pilgrims en route to Jerusalem, and which may even have been sung ritually in the ascent of the steps of the Temple itself. Several famous psalms are part of this set: Psalm 121 “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills,” Psalm 122 “I was glad when they said unto me, ‘Let us go into the house of the Lord,’” and Psalm 130 “Out of the depths have I cried unto Thee.” All but four of the complete set are utilized in this collection, and they are ordered in such a way to trace a dramatic arc from estrangement to reconcilation, dispersal to reunion, and anticipation to culmination.
I “Lord, remember David”
Psalm 132, cantor (bass), chorus
II “I was glad when they said unto me”
Psalm 122, chorus and cantor
III “Lord, my heart is not haughty”
Psalm 131, soprano soloist, chorus
IV “Except the Lord build the house” & ““Blessed is every one that loveth the Lord”
Psalm 127/128, chorus
V “If it had not been the Lord”
Psalm 124, tenor and baritone soloists
VI “In my distress I cried unto the Lord”
Psalm 120, women’s chorus
VII “Many a time have they afflicted me”
Psalm 129, tenor and baritone soloists
VIII “Out of the depths”
Psalm 130, chorus
IX “I will lift up mine eyes” & “They that sow in tears”
Psalm 121/126, soprano, tenor, and baritone soloists, chorus
X “Behold, how good and how pleasant” & “Behold, bless ye the lord”
Psalm 133/134, chorus and cantor
COMPOSER’S NOTES on SONGS OF ASCENT
Big projects often begin innocently enough. In the case of Songs of Ascent, the year was 2012, and I was looking to set my grandma’s favorite psalm, the 121st. Consulting my King James, I happened to notice the psalm’s subtitle: “a song of degrees.” Investigation revealed a subset of psalms, ranging from the 120th through the 134th, each referred to as a “song of ascents” – all considered to be traditional songs for pilgrims making their way to the Temple in Jerusalem, most likely for festivals of first-fruits or harvest. I needed a substantial work to round out my composer residency for the LA Master Chorale, and Songs of Ascent became my culminating project, with a targeted 2015 premiere.
But the project became its own sort of pilgrimage for me, and along the way there were mid-life and religious crises, and many mixed feelings. My research into the history of Jerusalem revealed a constantly contested place; its very first mention in the Bible includes a massacre. And when I reached the point of delving into the project in earnest, in the summer of 2014, a flare-up of violence in Jerusalem led me to strongly question the wisdom of contributing another religious work to a world already torn apart by religiously-motivated conflict. Writer’s block!
At the same time, some of the psalms struck deep chords in me. Psalm 122 (“I Was Glad”) has been famously set by other choral composers, and I wanted to contribute my own “take.” I was raised in the Church of the Brethren tradition, which has a rich history of a cappella four-part singing, and I have vivid memories of the first time I heard the massive choir of participants at the Church of the Brethren Annual Conference sing hymns together. I know what it feels like to be glad to “go into the house of the Lord.” As a matter of fact, that first time, back in 1988, I annoyingly hurried my family into the hall in St. Louis so we wouldn’t miss any of the glorious singing of thousands.
I was also taken by the notion of Jerusalem as a universal symbol of “sacred center,” and the deep need for such a center as expressed intensely in Psalm 132: “Neither slumber or sleep will I give to mine eyes, until I find out a place for the Lord.” But all cultures have their central holy places of reunion, of circling back, of honoring the Source of Being. From my reading of J.R.R. Tolkien, I was also struck by an analogous notion, the danger of “neglecting the hallows.” Tolkien’s writings that pre-date The Lord of the Rings contain an elaborate “Atlantis myth” about a society whose long downfall begins as the tradition of taking the first-fruits up to the “high hallows” is forgotten. Looking around at contemporary society, I am distressed by a lack of reverence for the natural world, and by the extent to which materialism, greed, and vanity set the tone of our times; my “idealist’s heart” has plenty of feelings to express on this point.
The obviously relevant theme in the psalms was reconciliation, never more clearly expressed than in Psalm 133: “How good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity.” The long history of conflicts between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — the three “brother” faiths that each trace their descent from Abraham, and which each hold Jerusalem in reverence — intensified my feeling that the theme of estrangement and reconciliation had to be a central focus in the work. My Church of the Brethren tradition places high importance on peace-making, and I grew up with the notion that the act of worship is irrelevant if it disavows the conditions of one’s relationships: “If you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” (Matthew 5:22-23).
So I structured the cycle’s middle section of “conflict” psalms – the 120th, 127th, 129th, and 130th – to vividly demonstrate inter-religious violence, as the tenor and baritone soloists, representing opposing peoples each sing about “the Lord” being on “their side” as well as the suffering that their ongoing conflict has caused (“many a time have they afflicted me from my youth.”) Psalm 130 offered a way forward in its final lines: “but there is forgiveness with thee.” In this way, I hoped to shape an entrance into the Temple in the final movement that was fully “earned” by acts of peace-making, so that the worship there could be a whole-hearted overflow of true gratitude for healed relationships.
Much more could be said about musical elements in the work: rising note patterns in many of the songs of “ascent”, or certain recurring melodic motives that are found in multiple movements. Some have heard traces of Mendelssohn, and the contrapuntal tendencies that run through my fingers from decades of Bach are never too far away. Meredith Monk once likened her compositions to “folk music from another planet.” At times I would say that I have tried to write music that I could imagine sung or played by Tolkien’s elves (in all seriousness, because I am a die-hard Tolkien person.) All comparisons aside, it would suffice to say that I have tried to express themes that are important to me in musical textures that I find beautiful, and fitting. I hope the listener may find moments within the piece that touch, heal, uplift, and inspire.