"How Could This Happen?"

Nov 29, 2010

This week, December 2,3 and 4, I’ll be conducting The San Francisco Symphony and Chorus in my Nativity oratorio “El Niño,” with a stellar cast of Dawn Upshaw, Jessica Rivera, Michelle DeYoung, and Jonathan Lemalu. The staging is by Kevin Newbury, who recently mounted the hugely successful revival at the Kennedy Center and Carnegie Hall of Leonard Bernstein’s “Mass.”

Here are some thoughts on the creation of “El Niño,” in part drawn from the chapter in “Hallelujah Junction.”

Before the Nativity oratorio “EL NIÑO” was “El Niño” it was called “How Could This Happen?” This was a phrase I’d found in one of the traditional church antiphons sung on Christmas Eve. In 1997, only a few years before I began composing it, the Pacific coast had weathered one of the most violently stormy winters in history, an event of almost supernatural force that had drenched California in heavy rains and caused large-scale disruption and even death in the poorer regions of Central America. The oceans were abnormally warm, and strange things happened. Tropical fish were sighted as far north as southern Alaska, and rains of unimaginable intensity poured forth day after day in what seemed like a never-ending sequence of drenching storms. That meteorological phenomenon gained the name El Niño— “the little boy,” presumably a mischievous one. I thought that the advent of the Christ child had caused its own kind of spiritual storm, blowing away the corruption and cynicism of the previous world order and offering a new and radically altered vision in its place.

I determined that I would set the most important of these poems not in English translations, but rather in their original language. The final version of the libretto thus became a multi-lingual mix, so richly evocative of our present-day life in California. Poems by Sor Juana and Rosario Castellanos formed the expressive core. I set other poems in English translations by the great Chileans Gabriela Mistral and Vicente Huidobro and by the Nicaraguan Rubén Darío. The emotional and sensory power of these Latin American poets is abundant. The poems are always about the spirit, about the deepest matters of our existence, but they are cast in webs of imagery that is unlike anything I’ve read in North American or European texts. Huidobro’s “Dawn Air”, for example, is an encomium to “the Queen of Heaven”, drawing on his “Creationist” techniques of seemingly incongruous juxtapositions that evoke a dreamlike, psychedelic awareness:

Ah sky blue for the queen in the wind
Ah herd of goats and white hair
Lips of praise and red hair
Animals lost in her eyes
Speak to the skeleton combing its hair
From the tip of the earth to the end of the ages
Tunic and scepter
Amplification of memories
Sound of insects and highways
Speak to the land as the ocean flows

The Nativity story is one of the simplest and most sincere in the Bible. Images of the scene in the stable of Bethlehem, with Mary and the infant surrounded by astonished peasants and placid farm animals, emphasize the humble circumstances of this particular birth. I pinned to the wall above my worktable several images by Giotto and other medieval and early Renaissance painters to remind me of the power of simplicity in rendering this myth. Peter Sellars, who assembled the libretto, drew my attention to several little stories, virtually fairy-tales, that are now classified as “Apocrypha”, miraculous events having to do with the birth and childhood of Jesus that had been written in the century after his life but which the church fathers had expunged from the official canon. One of these apocrypha tales tells of the relationship of Joseph and Mary in much greater psychological detail than anything in either the Mark or Luke Gospels. In this version, Joseph is a much older man than his teenage bride, a widower not much interested in her, marrying her more out of a sense of tribal obligation than for love. He is away on a long trip when his young wife, still a virgin, is visited by Gabriel and conceives her child.

When he at last returns to find her pregnant he immediately fears himself a cuckold, and in his violent rage he nearly does her serious physical harm. In another tale, this attributed to the Gospel of “Pseudo-Matthew,” Joseph and Mary take refuge during their flight from Herod in a cave in the desert where they are suddenly accosted by “many dragons.” The baby Jesus stands down from his mother’s lap and calms the dragons, who then bow down to worship him. “Do not be afraid, nor consider me a child,” the infant Jesus says to his parents. “I have always been a perfect man and am so now.”

El Niño opens with a polyphonic choral setting of an early English poem that I’d first spied in a poster on the interior of a London Underground train:

I sing of a maiden
a matchless maiden
King of all Kings
for her son she’s taken

He comes there so still
His mother’s yet a lass.
He’s like the dew in April
that falleth on the grass.

That lovely image of the dew raining down on Mary set the tone for the work, although later on the music, like those thrashing El Niño winter storms, would be capable of conjuring great violence and destruction.

Once the opening chorus winds down, a terrifying flapping of wings announces the apparition of the angel Gabriel. Gabriel’s voice is intoned by three countertenors singing in perfect homophony a text from one of the English Wakefield Mystery plays. The genderless purity of the countertenor voices lends an air of archaic mystery and devotion to the music, making it resonate in curious ways with music from the Middle Ages. The three of them carry the narrative weight of work, although at times they embody character roles—the angel Gabriel at one point, and the three Magi kings at another.

With their perfectly tuned and blended three-part harmonies, gave the work an aura of unforced grace and Giotto-like simplicity.

I was reminded of the sound world of the Guillaume de Machaut’s Missa de Nostre Dame that had made such an impression on me in my early experimental music days and had figured on my very first new music concert in San Francisco nearly thirty years earlier. Now, in El Niño, Machaut’s strange and alien beauty had resurfaced in my own music.

For more information go to the San Francisco Symphony’s web page on “El Niño”

WATCH A VIDEO CLIP OF THE GREAT LORRAINE HUNT-LIEBERSON SINGING IN THE WORLD PREMIERE OF EL NIÑO HERE

More on the San Francisco Symphony’s upcoming peformances of “El Niño” in the next Hell Mouth posting.

Comments (23)

Fred Reed
November 29, 2010

The two nativity stories in the Bible are also completely contradictory, for the record.

Grant L.
November 29, 2010

You said in an interview once that you'd be interested in writing a 'sequel' to El Nino - a Passion setting, perhaps? (Heavy stuff!) Whatever form it takes, though, I hope it comes to pass.

H. Paul Moon
November 29, 2010

Fred said, "completely contradictory."

I don't want to stimulate a mindless debate here (that I am sure you would cultivate, given the cranky implications of your clichéd generalization), so will not indulge any further than to ask, Socratically: "How much is completely?"

H. Paul Moon
November 29, 2010

Was referring to What Fred Said, by the way, and not The Composer when describing crankiness and cliché, just to be clear...

chase
November 29, 2010

my favorite!

Fred Reed
November 30, 2010

Sorry if that seemed cranky, but I don't see why it would.

Matthew has the Holy Family living in a "house" in Bethlehem. It is only after they get the all-clear to return to Israel that Joseph decides to take them to Nazareth.

Luke, however, puts the Holy Family in Nazareth before the birth. They have to travel to Bethlehem because of the census.

The manger scene conflates these two narratives, putting Matthew's Magi into Luke's manger scene with the shepherds. Yet, in one gospel, the Holy Family are residents of Bethlehem who flee to Nazareth after Jesus' birth. In the other, they are residents of Nazareth, who happen to be in Bethlehem when Jesus is born.

Observer
November 30, 2010

Mr. Reed. Is this really the place for this?

Fred Reed
November 30, 2010

I shouldn't think so, no.

I simply commented in response to this line, which caught my eye: "The Nativity story is one of the simplest and most sincere in the Bible."

"The Nativity story" is actually two separate narratives which are incompatible with each other. I thought that was worth mentioning, but I didn't mean to hijack anything.

a passer by
November 30, 2010

I have to share with you my experience of this page when I first reached it and without knowing any of the pieces above: the song that played on my computer was a combination of all three pieces spliced together from second 0. Surreal beauty, splendid and evocative of the opening graphic image and the past, in the repetitive tension of the present.

I use Google Chrome and apparently the media started playing at the same time for some reason. I can hear the effect again and again by reloading the page and I did it several times today. It's haunting. The 2 first pieces combined are particularly impressive.

Cathy
November 30, 2010

Greater minds than mine have debated the historicity of the two different accounts. Some Biblical scholars place the Matthew infancy narrative two years or so after the birth, i.e Jesus was a toddler not an infant when the Magi arrived.

But really our modern mindset in contrast with 1st century literary/myth traditions is what causes the contradiction here. These aren't journalistic accounts! Each account points to a particular "truth" regarding the infancy and early childhood of Jesus narratives and were probably intended for different audiences.

Be that as it may....the texts sound fantastic, can't wait to hear El Nino.

Chris
December 1, 2010

While I am not a believer, I cherish a certain reverence with regard to the humility and simplicity of the Nativity story - what an *inauspicious* beginning to what will develop into a most remarkable life! One of my favorite songs is the Catalan Christmas song "El Noi de la Mare", which I've performed on guitar in the famous Miguel Llobet arrangement, and in a chorus in an arrangement by Lloyd Pfausch, which should be more famous than it is. Pfausch had the brilliant idea of casting the 2nd verse in the minor. The effect was analogous to moving a prism ever so slightly so as to see more rainbows. "El Nino" is like that - we see the Nativity story in new ways - new rainbows, as it were. My Real Life[tm] prevents me from attending this weekend's performances, but I will be mindful that they are happening.

Susan
December 1, 2010

Mr. Adams,
THANK YOU so much for your graciousness and passion! Your work always moves me at a visceral level.

I am singing in the chorus for this performance. I appreciate your candor and your patience with us.

It is a wonder-full and ecstatic experience (Magnificat!) to be a small part of presenting this numinous piece.

With gratitude for your illuminating musical voice,

Dan D
December 1, 2010

Although I care little about the actual subject matter of the piece, I do think that El Nino is a great piece musically. I've always regarded the first few minutes of the piece as perhaps the best minutes Adams has ever written, certainly the best start to a piece--a wonderful pulsing rhythm to start things off, the synthesizer integrated perfectly. Not that the remainder of the piece isn't excellent, but I always want those first three minutes to go on for another hour. When I first listened to the piece, it was rough going. The many, many subsequent istenings have paid off.

Hunter Brown
December 3, 2010

We attended the first performance last night, sitting close up in row E and enjoyed it immensely. I had already known the work through the Nagano recording, but this concert was my partner's first time hearing the work and she loved it (as I knew she would).

The countertenors as the voice of God, via Gabriel, is just brilliant... although I was totally expecting the moment, when it happened, I cried. Such a glorious, awed, and beautiful moment. I don't want to pile on too much fan praise, but scoring for countertenors in close homophony (as you say) was a stroke of genius given the context. The ethereal affect is amazing... and if you entertain the myth, why wouldn't an angel voice be polyphonic, being the amazing creatures they are supposed to be.

All of that lead to my tears as I allowed the moment to happen and just enjoy the work wholly. I have a music degree, think a lot about music, know a lot of of music, and write my own music, but it's just wonderful that I can still have moments of rapture like this for listening and enjoying a piece in concert.

As with most of Adams vocal and choral work, the musical lines with regards to prosody is first rate. Never an awkward moment. Of course Adams' usual forces (singers), who perform with him, I've noticed have such great gift for delivering speech (not just song)...

Months ago, just like for this concert, we bought tickets (orchestral level) to Nixon at the Met on Feb 5th. Special trip to NYC just for it (we live in the Bay Area). It's an Adams extravaganza for us. I can't wait to see how the work will be staged.

Hearing and now seeing the maestro conduct his own performances (like El Nino and Nixon) adds more dimensions to my understanding, and I'm certainly glad we have this chance to witness it.

Nate C
December 13, 2010

I'm really looking forward to the next East Coast performance of this work, whenever that may be. I'm a believer, but I'm glad that this isn't something that can just be cobbled together by Backwoods Baptist for their Christmas Eve service. It's something that requires care, reflection, focus, and openness to approach and experience properly (virtues I wish more believers would pursue)!

So, from a preacher and a fellow musician, thank you for writing El Nino.

By the way, the piano part at the end of part one sends chills down my spine every time. Is it supposed to be more subtle like on the Nagano recording or more strident as it is on the DVD?

H. Paul Moon
December 30, 2010

A much belated thought. In these days after Christmas, I am charmed by the wisdom of this agnostic composer to have inserted within his nativity oratorio the fiery wrath found in the prophetic book of Haggai at 2:7 ("I will shake the Heavens"). Just as the Western world at large yearly sets its mind on the pastorale of it all, the nativity represents a moment of terrible theological confrontation that would -- as the prophet foretold -- divide the nations. Most frightening of all is that, to many and even to me, taking sides is a question of life or death.

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