This crazy love of things

A second chance. 

That’s what I’m getting this weekend.

Twenty years ago, I sang in the world premiere of what Craig Hella Johnson calls “…the new great American oratorio,” The Ode to Common Things by Cary Ratcliff.  To be honest, it was almost too difficult for me at the time, with rapid-fire Spanish texts and challenging rhythms I was barely able to internalize, much less reproduce.

But this spring I’ve been given a second chance, and I'm ecstatic.

I’m deeply immersed in the poetry of Pablo Neruda and Cary’s vibrant, sensitive and profound settings.  (Find details on upcoming performances by Madrigalia with the Vocalis Chamber Choir of Buffalo here.)

What do I love about it? The beautiful tangle of high and low, big and little, profound and mundane. 

It’s playful and difficult and sad. A lot like real life.

Maybe the composer can explain it better. Keep reading.

And I hope you'll come!  ~ Brenda


* * * * *


Between 1954 and 1959, Chilean poet Pablo Neruda (1904-1973) wrote four volumes of odes to ordinary objects, common things. "I have a crazy love of things. I like pliers, and scissors. I love cups, rings, thimbles... each bloodless rebirth of gold, eyeglasses, carpenter's nails, clocks, compasses... all bear the trace of someone's fingers on their handle or surface, the trace of a distant hand lost in the depths of forgetfulness."  

Neruda's exploration of commonplace objects enriches our everyday interactions with taken-for-granted things: their feel, texture, simplicity, function, beauty, humor. The levels of meaning drawn from them create moments of insight and wonder, and point to the commonality of our lives. We are reminded by the poet of beauty, pleasure, and purpose shared across cultures and times in things of the ordinary. This theme seems especially appropriate for a large group that holds song in common. 

The text is set in its original Spanish. Aside from its semantic meaning is the musical meaning of its language. The rhythm and racket of consonants, the patterned flow of vowels, the sumptuous sound of Neruda's phrases generate much of the rhythm of the work, which is, after all, a mass of people making music with their mouths. 

The opening movement, Ode to Things, cavorts through lists of favorite objects, playfully spanning the "unstoppable river of things", but ends with Neruda's confession of deep connection:  "Not only did they touch me, or my hand touched them: they were so close that they were a part of my being, they were so alive with me that they lived half my life and will die half my death." 

The journey "from bed to bed to bed" (de cama en cama en cama...) puts Part 2, Ode to the Bed, immediately into motion. Common to "the newborn, the afflicted, the dying, the lover and the dreamer alike," the bed is an emblem of the "eternal struggle of death and life." "The earth is a bed blooming for love," but also, eventually, "into our bed comes death with rusted hands and iodine tongue." Neruda likens its sheets to the tempestuousness of the sea, final resting place, home of "celestial ashes of dying meteors." Echoes and Doppler shifts fill out the tumultuous three-dimensional musical space. 

3. Ode to the Guitar:  Born in the jungle, "you left your nest like a bird...From you poured song...thus was the entire night transformed...its infinite strings tuned, sweeping toward the ocean a pure tide of scents and regrets." From the marriage of man and guitar at the end of the movement, we hear "the untamed heart take to the roads on horseback" over the buzzing of the guitar, played by the "woman who plays the earth and the guitar, bearing the sorrow and the joy of the deepest hour."

"A long-lost pair of scissors cut your mother's thread from your navel and handed you for all time your separate existence. 4. Ode to Scissors parodies the opening wail at Fortuna (fate) which opens Orff's Carmina Burana:  Scissors were the tool of the Greek Fate Atropos, with which she could snip the thread of life. Neruda's lighthearted scissors, however, are busily snipping everywhere, "exploring the world, cutting off swatches of joy and sadness in equal measure." Rhythms get cut up, yielding Hispanic syncopations; singers cut words into syllables, and the poet edits himself "with the scissors of good sense" so the poem "won't drag out." 

The soprano solo that opens Ode to Bread (5.) grows to a duet and heats to "the hot blast of fertility" and "the joining of seed and fire" that transforms into life-giving bread.  Neruda's vision of "earth and the planets" sown with wheat, bread made "of sea and earth, bread for every mouth" is chanted by the chorus. Then follows a hymn to what will be held in common when bread is shared "open-handedly": "the earth, beauty, love."    The closing drama of the movement comes from Neruda's urgent call against those forces of hardship and greed that prevent every being from its "rightful share of soil and life."

The work calls for chorus with the men and women split into three divisions each. Tenors and Altos, naturally outnumbered, here relax into equal partnership with baritones and basses, and high and low sopranos. The six-part harmonies, in the third movement, grow quietly out of the tuning of the guitar's six strings. At the other end of the dynamic spectrum are three trumpets and three trombones, which line up exactly with the vocal registers, and are the only single instruments capable of matching the sheer unleashed force of oratorio sound. There are six other wind instruments: a pair of French Horns and one each of the individualistic colors of the woodwinds. A harp, two pianos and synthesizer add their magic to the sound. Three busy percussionists invoke sound from all manner of wooden things, metal things and skin-covered voids, and three vocalists add the intimacy of the solo human voice. Finally, the multi-textured beauty of the string family weaves all together into a rich fabric of sound.    

                         -  Notes by Cary Ratcliff