A Prayer to the Storm Gods

 

Fashion a Hymn in the Mouth (Audio Recording)

In a book of quotations about music I found at a second hand bookstore years ago, I found the following astonishing line:

Fashion a hymn in the mouth.

Expand like the cloud.

Sing a song of Praise!

All I knew was that it was from the Rig Veda, meaning about 3500 years old, but other than that it was just an strange and enigmatic text- the sort I like to contemplate for a musical setting. I thought about it over a number of years, once planning to use it for a tour of European Cathedrals undertaken by the Pacific Lutheran University Choir of the West. I imagined abstracting the syllables of the text and making them waft and sail through the shadowy arches of vast Gothic ceilings in luminous veils of overlapping chords. But I wrote another piece instead- in fact several times.

When asked to write a piece for a tour to Texas for the choir in January 2012, and to include the viruosic pianistic skills of my new faculty colleague Oksana Ezhokina, I once again returned to this text. But this time I had the internet… I typed the text in and pressed search and… up came an entire website devoted to “Hymns to the Maruts” (storm gods)- one section of hundreds of texts from the Rig Veda. My text was near the end of a longer poem that pleaded with the storm gods to send rain to the parched land, and scolded them for not doing their job. The images were primal and vivid and I knew I had to expand my text to include some of them. As usual, I excerpted and paraphrased the text to make it more mine and ended up with the following:

Where are you going, white clouds?

On what errand  in Heaven and not on earth?

Where are your favors, your blessings, your delights?

Even to the deserts you bring rain that never dries up.

Where are you going, white clouds?

 

The lightening lows like a cow.

It follows as a mother follows after her young, when the shower has been let loose.

Even by day you create darkness when you swell and drench the earth.

 

Speak forth for ever with thy voice to praise the Lord of Prayer

Who is like a friend- the bright one.

 

Fashion a hymn in the mouth.

Expand like the cloud.

Sing a song of Praise!

I returned to the octatonic scale for this piece to produce that exotic but intense flavor I had used thrice before in the previous year. I broke the text up into four sections (as seen above). The first section begins with prepared piano and whispered aleatoric text from the choir- as though both are too parched to play or sing. Gradually pitches emerge and a soft wailing motive in the sopranos interspersed with sparse piano notes. The prayer to the gods intensifies until, in section two, the piano enters with a thunderous cadenza joined by the choir who flatter the gods to inspire them to gather the storm. In increasing frenzy the choir, in section three, return to aleatoric chattering while a soprano and tenor soloist exhort the crowd to pray. Then in section four the opening returns and builds to an ecstatic climax as the choir “expands like the cloud and sings a song of praise.”

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