McCloskey’s Fascinating “Zealot Canticles”

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McCLOSKEY: Zealot Canticles / The Crossing; Donald Nalley, cond; Doris Hall-Gulati, cl; Rebecca Harris, Mandy Wolman, vln; Lorenzo Raval, vla; Arlen Hlusko, cel / Innova 984

From the composer’s preface in the booklet:

From the opening poem I couldn’t help but reflect upon the parallels between the delirium of the reli­gious fanatic and the delirium of Soyinka himself during hunger fasts. Self-deprivation and hallucina­tions are not the sole prerogatives of the unjustly imprisoned, after all, but also common among zealots of another sort. Visions of God are hailed in prophets and scripture, but wielded as weapons by radicals and the demented. Soyinka’s own renunciations of self (“I need/feel/desire nothing.”) are renunciations and exhortations echoed in ultra-devotees from Buddhist monks and Hindu ascetics to Christian her­mits and the Taliban.

Is there then not a thin line between extreme devotion – zealotry – and radicalism? And that line is both personal and public. One zealot preaches against the errors of a different faith, another spews hatred towards those who hold that faith. One extols devotion, the other breeds divisiveness. We only have to turn on the television to see how small the step can be from self-righteousness to political/social op­pression or roadside bombs.

But it’s not just roadside bombs we have to worry about. I was composing this piece during what was the most distressing U.S. presidential campaign in modern history, when every day we were faced with words of divisiveness, demeaning, mocking and degrading “the other,” and images of our fellow citi­zens, red-faced with both rage and glee, shouting for the removal – even killing – of those of a different faith or ethnicity, while openly waving racist banners. Alarmingly casual suggestions to “knock the crap out of” those with whom they disagreed were not just empty rhetoric, and we watched with horror the footage of people punched, kicked, and beaten up.

And just as I was about to start composing the final movement, the election took place. Hate crimes in our own country immediately surged in the aftermath. I was shaken to the core. The words of Wole Soy­inka were not just generalizations or universal in nature, but specifically about us. Right here, right now. Zealot Canticles was commissioned by Donald Nally and The Crossing, with generous support from The Barlow Endowment for Music Composition at Brigham Young University, and the University of Miami. I’d like to express my gratitude to Donald and The Crossing for their devotion to music as a living and always-relevant art form.

I completely concur with McCloskey’s view. I, too, saw the hate and divisiveness being hurled at supporters of Donald Trump on a daily basis; of the left’s fanatic screams for the removal of Christians and Jews in America, wanting them replaced by Muslims, and of radical leftist groups like Antifa literally beating up anyone who disagrees with them. I go to bed each and every night scared to death that we are not-so-slowly losing our precious freedoms, seeing the radicals shutting down free speech, invading political rallies to cause racial and political fights. My African-American friends are even more frightened than I am, because they know that if anyone even suspects that they voted for prosperity and freedom, they may not only be beaten to a pulp but ostracized from their community. As an old-line Democrat disgusted and appalled by what my former party has become, changing from a party of tolerance, open-mindedness and inclusion to blind, unreasoning hatred, I envision the end of civilization as we know it. Thus I embrace this work in that light.

That being said, the actual text of this work is a litany of religious fanaticism, but with the exception of one worldwide faith that insists on such a thing I see no relationship to America, where all religions are tolerated and considered of equal value. The radical Buddhist monks referred to by McCloskey exist primarily in Japan and Thailand; they are small in number and are considered outcasts by mainstream Buddhism. I was a Buddhist for several years myself (I now consider myself a Deist, based on the writings of Thomas Paine and others) and went to hear the Dalai Lama speak several years ago, so I am quite familiar with this. Nonetheless, I know very well that there are fanatic Christians who take it over the line; one need only recall the Jonestown suicide massacre or the number of mass shooters who claim “God made me do it.”

Taken on its own terms, however, Zealot Canticles focuses on how what begins as a simple or at least a sincere belief in a creed can explode into fanaticism, and applied in a broader concept this can also refer to Socialism and Communism, which are viewed by many as violent but necessary paths to take down the prevailing world order and replace it with their vision. The late Whittaker Chambers went from being a gentle man, first a Deist, then a Quaker, but eventually a Communist, who later rejected their views of “necessary” murders and genocide in order to “purge” the less rabidly faithful and create a new world order because he recognized that, in order to do so, one must purge one’s natural feelings of loathing violence and murder. All of this, and more, is either implied or stated in Lansing McCloskey’s text, based on the writings of Wole Soyinka, the Nigerian poet and playwright.

McCloskey’s music is somewhat based on minimalism, using repetitive rhythmic patterns and sometimes motifs, yet constantly shifting and changing. It struck me as a more through-composed sister to George Russell’s great anti-war cantata, Listen to the Silence, although McCloskey’s music has a somewhat different profile.

And there is no question but that McCloskey was blessed to have an exceptional group of singers to perform his work. Both as an ensemble and in the solo spots, the singing is uniformly superb. All of the solo singers have fine, clear voices and exceptional diction, which helps a great deal.

The pain and fright of this work is clearly reflected in the composer’s music; occasionally, it is over the top in its angst, but not too often. The recorded sound is also very bright, almost metallic in places, which actually helps project the feelings of madness and menace in the piece although that, too, can become wearing on some listeners. McCloskey’s use of descending minor chromatics, i.e. in “I shall place werepe on every tongue,” adds to the feeling of madness in the text; in “I’ll drop ratsbane on my tongue,” the chromatics move somewhat sideways. Some of the music reminded me a bit of Priaulx Rainier’s song, Tom O’Bedlam. McCloskey also did a nice job of contrasting these “mad” sections with others that sound like religious music, such as “I turned to stone.” In “The man dies,” he also uses space (pauses) in a very interesting manner.

Towards the end, however, I felt as if the music became too consistently dirge-like. I understand what he was trying to do, but it didn’t quite hold my attention at this point. Nonetheless, a very fine and interesting work—more disquieting than healing, but interesting all the same.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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