I'm heading down to Raleigh next week for the premiere of my new sacred orchestra piece "Pneumenon." It's a piece that explores the wild, unexpected power of the Spirit by tapping the "hidden" sonic capabilities of the orchestra. Here's the program note. I'll post a live recoding once I get it!
“The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit." John 3:8
“Pneumenon” is a word I coined that combines two Greek terms of central to ancient philosophy and theology: “noumenon” – which means the hidden world beyond our senses – and “pneuma” – which means both “breath” and “spirit.” This new piece is a musical attempt to demonstrate the way these two contrasting terms and concepts can be reconciled.
The notion of “spirit” denotes some kind of ineffable yet powerful force that resides inside of us, ready to make itself known in a transformative way. Catholic mystics, African griots, and Christian Pentecostals are well-known examples of religious people who - when filled with the “spirit” – sing, dance, pray, feel, or see things that are amazing, powerful, and even out of their control. But “inspiration” of this sort can be felt by anybody who is moved by a powerful experience to do something beyond that which they might normally feel capable – or even comfortable.
Our “spirit” is what we are really made of; it’s that which reveals our true nature – or allows us to experience that which cannot normally sense (the noumenon.) For some, this base reality is God. For others, it is love, or nature, or community. Regardless, we all sometime feel a connection to something that is greater than ourselves, and prompts us to act in ways we might not have been able to anticipate.
When we go to an orchestra concert, we hear beautiful music emerging from the instruments we see before us. In a sense, we can think of those instruments as the world of “phenomena.” We can easily sense it and understand it. But holding those instruments are dozens and dozens of human beings, usually dressed in black, who are acting almost as puppeteers. We are not supposed to pay attention to them – even though it is THEY whose physical actions are bringing the music to life. The performers make no sound. They are not supposed to be sense - yet they are really the “base reality” at any concert. They are, in essence, the noumenon.
In Pneumenon, I wanted to explore the ways that the musicians themselves can contribute to the music we hear. In addition to playing their instruments, the performers are asked to contribute to the sonic landscape by making a variety of sounds using their hands, feet, legs, and mouths. The idea is to bring into the world of phenomena the incredible sonic potential of each musician’s body and breath, and thereby challenging the separation between the idealized, abstract world of classical music and the corporeal foundation of live music-making. Consistent with the idea of the spirit as surprising and resistant to control, the piece reveals a wildness and intensity that may be out-of-the-ordinary, humorous, and sometimes even uncomfortable in its directness.