New Year, new recording, part 4: The Daniel Window

Part four in a series on my new album, “Refracted Light.”

Introduction: I composed five chamber works based on stained-glass windows at my church, St. George’s Episcopal Church in Arlington, Virginia. In 2017, I recorded the project in the nave of St. George’s, where I collaborated with some of my close musical colleagues to record these compositions: the stories of creation, Daniel, Epiphany, the Crucifixion, and Judgement Day. I call this group of compositions “Refracted Light.” This recording has just been released on the Arts Laureate label and is available on all major platforms like Amazon, SpotifyiTunes and CDBaby.

Note: The audio tracks for this blog have links for the Spotify platform. 

 

The Daniel Window at St. George’s.

The companion piece for the Daniel Window at St. George’s is the most sonata-like of any of my compositions. The window shows three episodes from the old testament Book of Daniel. At the top there is a flaming furnace with Daniel’s friends, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego unharmed by the fire. Also at the top is crown which represents King Nebuchadnezzar, whose dream Daniel correctly interpreted. The icon of a lion is depicted under Daniel’s feet, because he emerged unscathed from his punishment of spending a night in the lion’s den. Each of these events are given their own movement in “Daniel Window.” The piece is written for trumpet and piano. Ina Mirtcheva is the pianist on this recording.

Movement I: In the “Fiery Furnace” (from chapter 3 of the Book of Daniel) I wanted to solve the dual problem of economy of material and evoke the dancing flames of the furnace at the same time. The opening interval of a perfect fourth (associated with Daniel) gets into the fabric of the whole piece. Chromatic motives, loosely based on the shape of the opening motive, as well as trill gestures, suggest an intense fire. Interrupting this flow is the downward motive of G, E-flat, A (as it first appears in the left hand of the piano). This declamatory motive evokes the harshness of Babylonian law. The accused friends are spared from the heat of the furnace, the miraculousness of which is underpinned by a hymn-like section based on the opening motive. The story ends with the Jews’ political detractors being thrown into the furnace themselves. Only now, the furnace is seven times hotter, which justifies the ending of this movement being as technically aggressive as possible.

Movement II: In “Visions and Dreams,” I focused on downward-stepping scales to evoke a dream-like state. Toward the end, a contrasting, declamatory section depicts the vision as Daniel tells King Nebuchadnezzar in chapter two, “Your dream and the visions that passed through your mind as your were lying in bed are these. . . . Your Majesty looked, and there before you stood a large statue. . . . [And] the rock that struck the statue became a huge mountain and filled the whole earth.”

Movement III: The story of “The Lion’s Den” comes from the sixth chapter. Now under the rule of Darius the Mede, Daniel is trapped by a new decree that states that anyone praying to a god or man other than Darius himself would be thrown into the den of lions. Since the faithful prophet cannot abide by the rule, he is thrown into the den for the whole night. Nevertheless, he comes out at daybreak, unscathed. I wanted to conjure some musical flavors of the middle east, such as the dervish dance of the Sufis and gestures suggested by the Phrygian mode. At the same time, the low register, especially that of the piano, is explored extensively to evoke the visceral predatory nature of the lions. As in the fiery furnace episode, Daniel’s detractors are, themselves, later thrown into the den of lions to die a horrible death articulated by rumbling arpeggiation shared between the piano and trumpet.

 

 

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New Year, new recording, part 3: “Advent”

Part three in a series on my new album, “Refracted Light.”

Introduction: I composed five chamber works based on stained-glass windows at my church, St. George’s Episcopal Church in Arlington, Virginia. In 2017, I recorded the project in the nave of St. George’s, where I collaborated with some of my close musical colleagues to record these compositions: the stories of creation, Daniel, Epiphany, the Crucifixion, and Judgement Day. I call this group of compositions “Refracted Light.” This recording has just been released on the Arts Laureate label and is available on all major platforms like Amazon, SpotifyiTunes and CDBaby.


The Crucifixion Window at St. George’s.

In 2012, I began to compose Advent, which, despite its name, is the companion piece for St. George’s Crucifixion Window. I was greatly moved by a poem of the same name by the American Poet Laureate Donald Hall (1928-2018). I wanted to provide a “Trinity” of variations for each of the three stanzas (three flexible interpretations based on the concepts of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost). Each stanza, therefore, has a set of three variations, making a total of nine statements of the melody first sung at the beginning by the soprano.

Text for “Advent

When I see the cradle rocking
What is it that I see?
I see a rood on the hilltop
Of Calvary.

When I hear the cattle lowing
What is it that they say?
They say that shadows feasted
At Tenebrae.

When I know that the grave is empty,
Absence eviscerates me,
And I dwell in a cavernous, constant
Horror vacui.

“Advent” from The Back Chamber by Donald Hall. Copyright ©2011 by Donald Hall. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

Regarding the text, “rood” in the first stanza is a cross; “Tenebrae” in the second stanza refers to a Christian religious service celebrated during Holy Week marked by the gradual extinguishing of candles; “Horror vacui” in the third stanza literally means “fear of empty space” and usually describes artwork which fills the entire space with visual detail. The original version of this extended aria featured an extremely unsettling phase-shifting mixed-meter melody between trumpet and piano with soprano singing in the rests, in an effort to imitate the artistic meaning of “horror vacui,” but an alternative, lyric, ending proved more effective in the long run.

In May of 2018, I presented “Advent” at the International Trumpet Guild New Works Recital with the original performers, Tia Wortham, soprano, and Ben Keseley, piano.

Below is a video of us recording “Advent” at St. George’s.

“Advent” was published in 2018 by Balquhidder Music. You can purchase the music here.

“Advent” was reviewed in the Journal of the Association of Anglican Musicians in October of 2019 by Jason Overall: Curtis “explores each impressionistic statement from a variety of perspectives, allowing listeners to follow along this journey. The music never abandons functional tonality, yet it has touches of sophistication that effectively undermine expectations. While piano is Curtis’s choice of keyboard instrument, the accompaniment could be adapted for organ quite well. Coloristic possibilities unique to the organ would more than make up for the timbral warmth of the piano. The aria may stretch the bounds of liturgical use, yet it would fit well within the confines of an Advent Festival of Lessons and Carols or other seasonal concerts.”

 

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