Whispers, Hymns and a Murmur was written in the winter of this year. Tonight’s performance is its premiere. The piece is part of a series of compositions I am writing for chamber ensemble and improvising soloist. This includes a piece for mixed quintet featuring the improviser Peggy Lee on cello, and a larger work for Chamber Orchestra and Voice entitled Joe Hill which features guitarist Bill Frisell in the improvising role.
I am not particularly interested in making direct political statements in my art, and I have little faith in most art that attempts to do so. I do believe that art has its place in politics, if only to provide another door to go through or as an antidote to so many other preoccupations.
Some of the musical material in this work was inspired by my current research into the life and times of Joe Hill and the IWW – in particular, the appropriation of American church hymns as the accompaniment to songs of protest, labor organizing, and general call to arms. (A classic example, “You will have pie in the sky when you die – It’s a LIE!!” To the tune, “The Sweet By and By”). Many of these re-workings were a direct slap in the face to the church, and often with considerable humor and derision. This seems to me particularly relevant today at a time when once again behaviour that is despicable, ignorant, inane and morally obscene is justified in the name of the divine.
At the same time, these hymns are truly beautiful and glorious to hear, and who are we to question their desire for a better life after this one.
As hard as I have tried to keep the my artistic expression essentially apolitical, I have found myself for the first time in my life so utterly despondent in light of the current state of affairs that these emotions may have found some expression in these works. In some ways I hope not.
I would like to thank the all the musicians, Laura Kaminsky and all the staff at Cornish. This piece would not have been possible without the generous assistance of the Seattle Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs. I would like to thank in particular Irene Gomez. Special thanks also to Misha for putting the band together, Beck Henderer for all his technical assistance, and to Eyvind who has continually been an inspiration to me both musically and personally.