Motet on a Shaker song
SATB (multiple divisi)
(text: trad. Shaker – in English)
Published by Fennica Gerhman
Asked to compose a new work for the HOL choir on their 80th anniversary, my thoughts immediately (and predictably) turned to the epic, a broad polychoral work with a big, joyful ending. The result ended up being quite different, though. On a visit to Hancock Shaker Village in western Massachusetts during the summer of 2008, I heard a song typical of Shaker ceremonies, a simple, perfect little tune that would have been repeated over and over freely during worship to induce mystical communion. After hearing this melody on permanent loop in my head for weeks afterward, I realized that I had been given a great gift, one that would form the perfect celebration of the community of friends that had played such an important role in my musical life since moving to Finland.
The original melody is sung unadorned at the outset, as it originally would have been. What follows is a gradual dissolution, where the tune’s characteristic motives, even its individual notes, are slowed down. Each singer is ultimately given their own part, but although the occasional solo floats to the surface, all that is generally perceptible is a slowly shifting mass of sound. In fact, the entire piece is the ending I was hoping to achieve, albeit a rejoicing of a much quieter sort. Absent any context or preceding drama, I was able to reduce the volume levels drastically, leaving only a softly shimmering sea of voices, later giving way to waves of pulses. There is no real climax, only a brief coda to close the proceedings.
During the weeks of composition, all these ideas of praise and community bonds seemed to coalesce in a quote I chanced upon in a newspaper article about a Catholic priest in California, whose central question in counseling terminally ill parishioners was, as he put it, “What do you have in the end but the love you gave away?”