Sacred Music: The Holy Minimalists and James Primosch

08/26/2015 09:27 am ET Updated Aug 26, 2016

From the beginning of human existence, art and music were part of the group or tribe. The people, or the cult, worked together to survive, and observed certain ceremonies and rites of passage. The rituals practiced were religious, as this was the over-arching way of approaching the mysteries of the cosmos and the mystery of human existence: birth, life, and death.

Roger Scruton, the philosopher, writes that death "shows us the natural origins of the experience of the sacred," for this primal mystery underlies our wonderment. It is therefore no surprise that in our culture, which idolizes youth, and hardly recognizes the occurrence of death, that it is rare to find music that strives for the sacred, or to help us enter the transcendental realm.

Such music in the West has existed in almost all musical periods, some in which it predominated, and some in which it was subservient to the religious domain. After the Enlightenment, music certainly separated from the realm of the sacred, became more about the individual than the community, and yet took over the goal of creating the vestige of a sacred experience. In our time of disbelief, of the diminution of the notions of sacred space and time, is it possible to produce music that pushes toward the transcendent, and helps us realize it as a possibility?

The latter part of the 20th Century saw the emergence of what Terry Teachout called Holy Minimalism. Or rather this was the title given to the music of composers, including John Tavener, Henryk Górecki, and Arvo Pärt. They were (Tavener and Górecki are no longer with us), or are (Pärt is 80), religious believers of one religious orthodoxy -- Christian to be sure -- or another. While much of their music is religious, it is a music that is primarily meant for performance in the concert hall and not in a sacred space.

Their music came on the scene with a splash, purveying a resurgent tonality and other aspects of the musical tradition, including melody, counterpoint, and normative orchestrations, including for the orchestra. Of their differences, Teachout wrote:

...Pärt uses the word 'tintinnabulation,' a term meant to evoke the bell-like repetition of chordal tones typical of his mature style. Górecki's more conventional array of compositional techniques includes both elaborate counterpoint and the ritualistic repetition of melodic fragments and harmonic patterns. Tavener's music relies primarily on the deployment of florid, chant-derived melodies over static chordal backdrops.

In their music, there is also clear reference to their forebears: the Stravinsky of Symphony of Psalms and the Mass; Britten, whose name is in a title of a work by Pärt, and particularly, in the case of Górecki, to plainchant. If there is one other composer around whom all of these composers orbit, it is assuredly Olivier Messiaen.

The teacher of Boulez and Stockhausen, Messiaen was a devout Catholic who wrote music aiming towards the experience of divinity. Thus much of his music is static, even when full of energy, as it aims to be the music of an ecstatic in the presence of the Holy. His displays of birdsong call to the relationship of the natural world as a creation of god: wondrous, but subservient. His forms are usually cyclic or arch-like, suggesting the possibility of infinite repetition or of continually staying in the same place, producing a formal stasis.

Messiaen and the latter day musical saints all have a defined and personal musical language, and this is both their salvation and curse. The quality of a simple human joy is infrequently found, and with Tavener's and Pärt's music in particular, a certain tedium frequently sets in -- the language is just not up to sustaining its musical and religious goals, however fervent in intent the composer may be. Górecki may end up being a one-piece composer -- not a terrible thing, by the way -- as his Symphony No. 3, Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, is wonderfully evocative, if emotionally limited. Messiaen's music is always in a holy space, and even in his lighter birdsong moments, it is hard to find moments of true humanity. The best music traverses the space of both the sacred and the profane, and so also the widest panoply of human experience and emotion.

And what of now, and in America? In the time of Lady Gaga, techno, metal, etc., sacred music, or music aiming for a sacred space -- and not a new-age sacred space-is not a burgeoning field. One who is in it, and doing very fine work, is James Primosch. This is nowhere so clear as in his recent disc, appropriately titled Sacred Songs.

The four works presented are on sacred and high literary texts, including Rilke, St. Bernard, Prudentius, Psalms, and Stewart for a start-sung wonderfully by William Sharp and Susan Narucki-in English, Latin, and German. Like the languages used, the music is eclectic, as there are many influences: plainchant, expressionism and folk songs are a few. Yet this is an integrated eclecticism, where the whole is much greater than the sum of its parts, and all is formed into a widely (this is important) expressive language, one that has a basis in tonal relationships, but that can be abundantly clear or mysterious. It is hard for some composers to know when to stop or be quiet, but Primosch gauges that well in these works. The pacing is elegant, movements are never too long or over stay their material, and the balancing of movements is delicate and done with assurance. The music, unlike the Holy Minimalists, doesn't strive always to be in a holy space, but instead to describe it and give it a human response. In this way Primosch is able to take us to, be in the presence of, and then take us out of, sacred time and space, an attribute which is at the center of the Western musical art form. For example, Dark the Star, on beguiling texts by Susan Steward, is a bit of an askew palindrome, and at 22 minutes passes swiftly but with the sense of a journey taken that is of note and meaning, finding sacred space and then retreating from it. The other works are similarly well judged in their pacing and emotive reach.

Christopher Kendall's 20th Century Consort brings out the glistening textures and
rapid fire alterations of orchestration. This is a modified Pierrot Lunaire orchestration (flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano, voice), and Primosch does wonders with it. At times savagely thick, at others wispy, delicate, almost desiccated, it is always in the service, and supportive, of the texts.

John Harbison, whose cantata The Flight Into Egypt is an earlier and wonderful sacred work, wrote the linear notes, which are movingly informative and insightful. "The music sounds like it intends to be remembered. Motives are felt, rather than just being useful. Quiet static moments are driven home, not just waiting for something to happen." He is right. As Hillel might have said, the rest is commentary, now go listen.