Concerto for Chorus, op. 53

On texts of Abu l-‘Ala’ al-Ma’arri as translated by Kevin Blankinship

I wrote this piece as a passion project in the late winter and early spring of 2021, just as the U.S. (or my portion of U.S. society) was beginning to come out of the pandemic.

I began laying the groundwork for this piece much earlier. I discovered the work of the great vegan, antinatalist, pessimist philosopher-poet Abu l-‘Ala’ al-Ma’arri early in 2020, and I immediately began researching his work with voraciousness. Never in my life have I been so instantly and overwhelmingly moved by the work of a writer.

Al-Ma’arri was a Syriac-Arab hermit who lived in a cave outside Aleppo in the early 11th century. He turns up in far-flung corners of the vegan internet for a poem in which he admonished his fellow humans for eating meat, drinking milk, and harvesting honey. While the history of vegetarianism has its roots well into antiquity (Pythagoras, some early Christians, and many others), Al-Ma’arri’s is the only example outside of Jainism and certain Buddhist sects of full moral veganism prior to the modern era.

I first read Al-Ma’arri in translations from the early 20th century, and I would have used them as the basis for this work, but before doing so, I was lucky enough to be put in touch with Kevin Blankinship, professor of Arabic at Brigham Young University, who happens to be the leading scholar on the works of Al-Ma’arri. I wrote Kevin in October 2020 asking if he knew of alternate translations of the Al-Ma’arri poems that I might consider.

This is when things got interesting. It turns out that Kevin is not only a scholar, but he is also a tremendously talented poet in his own right, and he had translated some Al-Ma’arri poems himself. He proposed a collaboration, and I was thrilled to accept.

Kevin’s versions of the poems are masterpieces in themselves, which you can easily glean from comparing the earlier ones against his new ones:

Reynold A. Nicholson, 1921:

World-wide seems to spread a fragrance
From the sweetness of the flowers.
All praise Him, the All-sustainer,
Clouds and plants and rocks and water.
We — we burden Earth so sorely
That she well-night sinks beneath us

Kevin Blankinship, 2021:

The earth

her blooms spread like perfume
her streamlets praise the Master
so do the shrubs
the water
the stones

and here we are
heavy on her soil
she fairly groans with the weight

Not only are Kevin’s translations beautiful, concise, and direct, but they are also lyrical. What I mean by that is, they are written in a way that allows music to lift them up. They work perfectly well on their own, but I felt that they were ideal words to set. I’ve never had the pleasure of setting something so exquisite, not even by Martha Stewart.

Why did I want to compose a concerto for chorus, and what even is a concerto for chorus? The term comes from the Orthodox (Slavonic) Church tradition, and it’s basically an extended anthem, usually on a hymn text. At least, that’s how the term was used from the 17th century up until 1984 when Alfred Schnittke totally redefined the genre with his epochal Concerto for Mixed Chorus, a four movement symphony for voices that was, is, and ever shall be among my very favorite pieces.

Schnittke’s concerto is dark — musically, at least. The problem I’ve always had with it is that the text is uplifting, and so I don’t think it really matches the music. I wanted to write a large-scale choral work that would build on Schnittke, but match the darkness of the music with an equally dark text. And holy mother alive did I ever find some dark materials to work with.

I recorded the work, at my own expense, in London in late July, 2022. The purpose of the recording was to bring the work to the world, as I do not anticipate that it will have any life as a piece of performing repertoire. It’s simply too dark. If you’re a choir director who wants to prove me wrong (at the risk of alienating your singers, your friends, and your community) be my guest!