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The Crucified Earth: Jan Zwicky, Robert Bringhurst and Haydn’s ‘Seven Last Words’

Jan Zwicky and Robert Bringhurstcomposed new poetry for a week-long series of performances of Joseph Haydn’s “Seven Last Words” for string quartet, collaborating with a quartet from Early Music Vancouver that included Marc Destrubé and Linda Melsted on violins, Stephen Creswell on viola and Tanya Tomkins on cello. The last concert of the series took place on January 24, 2015, in Pyatt Hall in the Orpheum Annex in downtown Vancouver, with the space arranged as a café with candlelit tables, setting a mood of intimate intensity. Performing Haydn’s Op. 51 presents some unique challenges, not the least of which is what to do with what Bringhurst and Zwicky call in their programme notes “the presence of a text” in a work “designed as a magnificent musical envelope with seven pockets for spoken words.” The seven “words” are “seven short phrases from the Latin bible” that register in the rhythms and phrasings of musical lines, and it’s tempting to hear a form of textual mimesis in Haydn’s music, not unlike (for example) the fourth section of John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, in which a “psalm” is delivered as a verbal recitation in the lead melody: “the musical phrases,” Zwicky and Bringhurst note, “rise from the meaning and shape of the text.” This noetic melopoeia seems to be what draws Bringhurst’s ear, in particular, to this work; his poetry recurrently pursues what he has called “the musical density of being.” I’m not sure that Haydn’s classicism would effect quite as much pull, although its measured textures mesh well with the chiseled exactitude of Bringhurst’s sense of line. Zwicky, too, shapes lyrical meshes of the musical and the philosophical in her poetry, and she has mined both Classical and Romantic European musical history for source material for her work.
In a pre-concert interview, Zwicky and Destrubé described the rehearsal process (at Zwicky and Bringhurst’s Quadra Island home), with Zwicky noting how for her, above all else, both poetry and music strove to realize an immediacy and a clarity, that the work could be taken in at “one hearing.” In their programme notes, Bringhurst and Zwicky describe how they developed a more ecumenically ecological set of texts, cued by the lines from the Latin translations of gospels that provided Haydn’s music with its original scaffolding, the seven last words of Christ at his crucifixion; noting that other poets – notably, Mark Strand – have written poems to accompany Haydn’s music, and that performances and recordings of the quartet have included interleaved readings from the biblical texts and other “poems on Christian themes,” they frame a pressing compositional problem:
After all these experiments, and in the face of Haydn’s own wordless eloquence, could there still be something to say? One reason to think there might be is, of course, that the crucifixion has never ceased. Man’s deliberate and vengeful inhumanity to man – and to just about everything else – is no less vivid and casual in the twenty-first century than in the first. So in 2014, when we were invited to supply some words for a performance of Opus 51 by Early Music Vancouver, we said yes. And our theme became what we thought it had to be in our time: the crucifixion of the earth.
This last phrase echoes the title of Zwicky’s award-winning 1999 collection, Songs for Relinquishing the Earth, as well as the text of Bringhurst’s “Thirty Words” (1987), which was revised and expanded in the subsequent decade into an ecologically-focused liturgy, his “Gloria, Credo, Sanctus et Oreamnos Deorum”:
Knowing, not owning.
Praise of what is,
not of what flatters us
into mere pleasure.
Earth speaking earth,
singing water and air,
audible everywhere
there is no one to listen.
(Selected Poems, Gaspereau Press, 159)
The kind of listening Bringhurst both calls for and wants to enact in his work refuses the “mere pleasure” of distraction and pushes instead toward the excoriation and even the extinction of the callous “inhumanity” of the human, an audibility that demands that “no one” be listening, not in the service of nihilism but rather of the dissolution of our domineering egocentrisms. Zwicky can sound, at times, less confrontational, but she is no less exacting in her demand that, as Rilke famous has it, we change our lives: “Learn stillness,” she writes, “if you would run clear.” The clarity of style and the communicative immediacy that she wants in her poetry incline toward just such an attentive stillness, an extinguishing of our all-too-human desires for control and agency: a relinquishing.
         I’m going to concentrate my commentary on the poetry, which I’m recalling from memory (none of the texts is published, and all were newly written for the Haydn) and from whatever notes I managed to take. The string quartet played with lyrical ferocity and focus throughout; their performance was, for me, a marvel of concentration and emotive power – not at all, I have to confess, what I expected from a concert of Haydn. As for the poetry, the first of the seven pieces was a colloquy, a dialogue between the two poets modeled on the polyphonic (that is, multi-voiced) forms of Bringhurst’s “The Blue Roofs of Japan” or “Conversations with a Toad,” or Zwicky’s Wittgenstein Elegies. Both poets exchanged admissions of failure, their mea culpas, with Zwicky intoning how, as human subject, “I” have “failed to let the great breath of you move through me.” Uncannily, the concentrated, collective intake of breath by the members of the string quartet was audible as they launched into Haydn’s music with fierce conviction and palpable energy, making the lines appear to breathe through them. If Zwicky and Bringhurst acknowledged human failure, that loss was answered by the creative drive of the music that followed, a gesture at some form of responsive forgiveness. Bringhurst’s poetic prelude to the second sonata  (“Today shalt thou be with me in paradise,” Luke 23:43) declared that “This is it,” that humanity needs to recognize that paradise is present to us on earth, if we can recognize it. To lead into Sonata III (“Woman, behold thy son,” John 19:26), Zwicky picked up on this same imperative, to behold, to come to awareness, but again stressing the haecceity, the this-ness or the present-ness of the earth as it is, vitally:
Look up.
It’s the sky.
And the rain that is falling
is rain.
(I have no access to the print text: the line breaks are based on how Zwicky paused as she read.) That honouring of things in themselves was counterpointed by Bringhurst’s hard-edged text for Sonata IV (“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Matthew 27:46), which began by declaring almost Miltonically that “Hell is the absence of heaven and earth.” Bringhurst also composed the poem for Sonata V (“I thirst,” John 19:28), which again took up a condemnatory tone: “They will take much more than everything you have.” Notably, Bringhurst’s texts often distanced and objured the human – theywill – while Zwicky’s texts tended to emphasize collective complicity – we will . . . . For Sonata VI (“It is finished,” John 19:30), Zwicky offered a list of extinct species, in what was perhaps the most deeply affecting moments of the performance. She also closed out the poetic part of the performance, leading into Sonata VII (“Father, into Thy hands I commend my spirit,” Luke 23:46) with a lyrical framing not of guilt or condemnation but of tenderness,
                    a tenderness we can’t imagine
but still recognize, opening
and opening
its hands
(Again, my line breaks – not necessarily Zwicky’s.) That recognition, if only a prayerful gesture toward the relinquishment of shared self, a selflessness we might share at the limits of words, opened into a passionate musical response from the quartet, as the potentially cold edges of Haydn’s calculated classicism evolved into what felt to me almost Steve Reich-likerhythmic loops and cascades: a present-tense music that wanted to open our ears, collectively in that space and that moment, to hope and to possibility.