- Eric Banks
This delicate universe will be a cappella cycle for 16-parts, performed in both Greek and English — it draws on five poems by the Greek-Egyptian writer Constantine Cavafy (whose poetry served as a spiritual guide to Alexandria for Lawrence Durrell). Banks is also trying to round up funding for an Olivier Wevers ballet with the St. Helens String Quartet.
Earlier this month, The Esoterics were performing Haptadâmã (subtitled “The seven creations of ancient Persia”) at the PACCAR Pavilion in SAM’s Sculpture Park, which turns out to be an amazing preparatory setting for transcendent choral experiences.
Based on, yes, ancient Persian texts, the work employs 40 singers, singing “in” Avestan and Pahlavi (the languages are broken down phonetically for them).
As Banks has arranged them, verses from the extremely old hymns of Zoroaster, the Gathas (“Who will rescue my soul? / What will protect my flock?”), are responded to and supplemented by verses from the Bundahisn (“The Sky Spirit, an agile warrior / Clad in metallic armour / From the Sky itself, / Prepared to lead the defence”).
While they may be 4,000 years old, Banks believes the Zoroastrian outlook in the Gathas is still gripping:
Every day we have to choose between good and evil. It’s all around us. We’re a combination of that. I loved that even in the creation of the world we know, evil exists.
While maintaining the folk simplicity of the Gathas, Banks surrounds the listener with creation itself. Water and fire, for instance, are unmistakably gurgly and flowing; and sparking and dancing, respectively. When the Evil Spirit claws his way up from the Abyss, the music charts his upward path with cinematic expressiveness.
Numerous solos dot the densely peopled piece; fire, earth, water, an ox, a first man. (Though Banks calls it an opera, it’s not Tosca; the solos are declamatory and no one throws any punches, so more like Monteverdi.)
As in Zoroastrianism the dynamics of Good and Evil are what have created the world we know, in the music, the serenity of solo melodic phrases is echoed and propagated in vocalese or choral canon. When the sky turns black, a dissonant soprano canon captures the eerie, queasiness of it:
And the World, at midday,
Was so consumed by his Demons
That the metal of the Sky appeared black
and caused a darkness to fall over the Earth.
In seven movements, Good and Evil first clash, the world is created and the immortals, Evil attacks and is repelled, and the world is repaired into the world we know. In that time, the music sprouts twining tendrils, clangs and roars in battle, and rains down in torrents. (The subtitles come in torrents, too — midway I began to lose myself in listening, and only checked in every few minutes to the story, so my understanding of why the planets are demons is a bit truncated.)
It’s worth emphasizing that the music here is solely the human voice, in startlingly elaborate arrangement. Banks tells me that, basically: «the vision that I have as a composer is much more symphonic, just without instruments — I don’t want to pay a bunch of instrumentalists.» That said, he wanted this work to be «harmonically accessible for the most part, except for a few moments, like the end of Part Four, in the nightmare, when it’s really thick.»
- The Esoterics
- At PACCAR Pavilion.
With The Esoterics, the variety of the human voice is an attraction in itself; I have a feeling that Banks is less enamored of a monolithic sound than some directors. His singers range in age from 19 to 69 with (to my ears) greater and lesser vocal training. Though no one is paid, somehow Banks is able to produce fiendishly complicated works.
A few days after the concert, I caught up with him to discuss it, and brought up how much there is to take in. «I know it’s layered and I know it’s complex», Banks said, «that’s why I’m excited there will be a CD because people can hear it again and again.» (He recorded Haptadâmã after the live concerts.)
Tell me about your trip to Bombay to research the original music for the Gathas.
I didn’t go to the fire temple, because I’m not allowed in it — I’m not Zoroastrian — but my hosts arranged for their priest to come to their flat and sing for me there. I have to tell you, it was one of the most amazing experiences I’ve ever had. They have this modest flat in downtown Bombay, but it’s on the 27th floor of this really tall building. Their living room opens through French doors out onto this veranda, where it’s covered in plants, and you just look out at the Arabian Sea. So I’m sitting on the couch in their living room with a priest singing. Coomi and Nariman are both praying. I would just ask him: «Okay, sing this Gatha.» If I gave him the incipit text he would know exactly which one I was talking about. He just sang.
Contrast this style of religious song with Gregorian chant.
The Gathas are really only four pitches and occasionally a fifth pitch as an ornament. It’s a D, G, A, B and a C occasionally, up a half step. It’s a really closed set. The expression I think comes from the ornament, occasionally there’s a little triplet, a little melisma. You’re just going back and forth or up and down, just making a wave within those four notes. The lowest note is further away from the other three, so you dip down for it.
In Gregorian chant, it’s much more about going up and down the scale, and all of the notes in the scale are almost equidistant. There’s a bit more randomness in that because it’s a more open set — there are six pitches in Gregorian chant. The Gathas are older. They’re much older. And for me, they come much more from a folk idiom. At the time of Zoroaster, when this religion was invented (let’s say), the ancient Persians were nomadic herders — they didn’t have a strong agriculture yet. You can imagine them singing it in a field. You can’t not teach it because it’s so simple. It’s taught rote and people just know it.
When the priests sing the Gathas together, they sing something really close to organum. It’s like parallel fourths or parallel fifths. So organum, you’ve heard it when like on Monty Python the priests sing Dona eis requiem. They’re singing parallel intervals. They’re singing the same thing but they’re stacked on top of each other, and they sound the same, have the same contour.
When the priests sing the Gathas they sing from muscle memory they pitch that they have, within a certain degree of error. They either go up or down depending on the day they’re having. But they really don’t read music; they just know it’s based on the inflection of the texts. So when more than one priest sings the Gathas at the same time, you get them all singing on their own starting pitch and you get this really weird parallelism that’s similar to organum.
The Gregorian interval is a fourth, but Zoroastrian priests sing a tritone, a dissonant interval, that sounds out of tune. That would be really hard for singers to do, to sing parallel tritones, but I went back and forth between fourths and fifths in my settings of the Gathas. The soloist at the beginning, when the next soloist comes in and sings a parallel with him, that’s a fourth, then I stack another person on top of that, another fourth.
I can hear that it’s a complex score, but that’s not just in a musical sense, is it?
I don’t write music by feel, I’m very logical. I choose my set material so I can do the details by feel, but it’s very highly organized. The Gathas are a pentatonic scale; each of the creations, as it’s created, is using five notes. When evil comes, I add the tritone. So the planets, they only sing tritones. All of the different elements have their own key on the circle of fifths. Air, water, earth: each is only one pitch away. In the nightmare, you have all these pitches clashing against each other, and that’s why it sounded so thick.
Tell me about the composition of the Bundahisn music. What were you aiming for, and what did you use to get there?
I wanted the melodies more based in nature, more onomatopoetic. If you study music history, there’s a word called Mannerism. In music it means like Monteverdi madrigals. When Monteverdi is describing water, it sounds like water. You try to get the emotions of the adjectives and verbs out into the music. There’s one part in the attack where all of the basses are in falsetto shaking back and forth — moving by a half-step, shaking — and it’s supposed to be like:
And the Sky feared him greatlyso I really wanted that quivering idea.
like the sheep fears the wolf
I really tried to have things sound like the things they were supposed to be. I really wanted the section on air to be very metallic because of the myth, and water to sound really fluid. The earth was supposed to be rock, iron, not like soil but more metallic as well. But the plants would be growing into each other, and the fire would have lots of jumping.
How did you score Ahriman’s climb out of the Abyss?
Ahriman climbs in a canon in thirds. I made accented syllables line up as he climbed so you really felt like he was grabbing something and then pulling himself up, then grabbing again. It was in four, and the grabbing happened on beat four. At the very end, when everyone’s holding the fourth, the men slide up the octave at the end. So it’s the same chord but you get the tenors going way up into the high voice.