By Ruth Ross
I don't know enough about music to write a review, but I want to tell you about an extraordinary musical experience I had on Sunday at the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Montclair.
Schola Cantorum on Hudson (full disclosure: a college friend is a member of the ensemble) presented a program entitled Spirit Earth that featured melodies infused with Native American rhythms and lyrics (and even animal and insect sounds of the prairie) taken from writings by such notables as Chief Seattle, Sitting Bull, the Sioux Najinyanupi and poet Arthur O'Shaughnessy, among others.
In a series of pieces that make the term Mother Earth more than an advertising slogan, the concert focused on humankind's interaction with and dependence upon the Earth. The first section extolled the Earth as Sacred with a four-part cantata by Jackson Berkey. Accompanied by a Native American flute played by Darius Kaufmann, the Schola Cantorum choir captured "the spacious eternity that is nature" (as written in the program notes) and gave the listeners the feeling of being caught in a prairie fire. The text even admonished us for our pollution, "I have seen [Mother Earth] stricken with a curse/Of fools, who build their lodges up so high/They lose their mother, and the father sky/Is hidden in the darkness that they build."
The second section, "The Earth Is Tired," was exceptionally stirring, although the only thing sung was syllables and sounds. The Choir repeated the phrase "Kasar mie la Gaji (The Earth Is Tired)" to various rhythms and handclaps; listening to them was an experience more felt than understood. And the New Jersey Youth Chorus imitated monkey chatter as Balinese warriors charged onto the battlefield; these unintelligible sounds (tjak! tjak!) dramatically represented the sounds of Earth under extreme stress. It was very moving.
Part II connected the Earth to Humanity with a prayer, "Give Us This Day," with music composed by Ward Swingle (of the Swingle Family Singers popular in the 1960s and still giving concerts) and words by Tony Vincent Isaacs. The images of the Earth's beauty were especially inspiring and magnificent ("Budding clouds of crimson blush" and "Dragonfly, neon's treasure,/Strafes the pool in summer's hush" were just two that really touched me), and the refrain repeated four times reminded us to "cherish the earth before it dies." What a way to inspire us to conservation and environmentalism!
A group of young singers called the Schola Phoenix Singers joined the larger adult choir to offer a Sioux Prayer that illustrated the strong connection felt by our Native American brothers and sisters with Mother Earth, Father Sky and the Spirits of the North, South, East and West, and a selection from Sunrise Mass composed by Ola Gjello.
The two pieces that especially affected me were "We Are..." by Yasaye M. Barnwell (who sang as a member of Sweet Honey in the Rock group). The profound message of this song—"We are One"—was reinforced in the final selection, "We Are the Music Makers," from an ode by Arthur O'Shaughnessy. The soaring melody and harmonies praised the healing power of music and its eternal gifts to humankind.
The adult's, teenagers' and youngsters' voices that filled the church (which has wonderful acoustics) Sunday evening lifted up everyone in the audience. As I looked around, I saw faces young and old, beaming as they took it all in. It was a remarkable experience. I plan to attend more Schola Cantorum concerts the next time they sing in Montclair. Look for notices on the blog so you can be sure to experience the wonder at the power of music and the human voice as I did.