Robinson McClellan ~ composer
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GATHER ME (2009)
View score (some pages omitted)
Excerpt recording with score samples:
Hear the full September 2010 performance:
Sailing to Byzantium
That is no country for old men. The young
An aged man is but a paltry thing,
O sages standing in God's holy fire
Once out of nature I shall never take
(used by permission of AP Watt Ltd. on behalf of Gráinne Yeats)
This piece was commissioned by Nektarios Antoniou for his Greek Byzantine chorus, Schola Cantorum for Hellenic Music. It was written during a residency at the MacDowell Colony in December 2009.
The music borrows harmonic patterning found in Celtic and Greek music. Medieval Welsh harpists used a written ‘binary code’ to record harmonic progressions: A famous manuscript of 1623 lists the 24 patterns harpists were expected to know and be able to improvise on. In the manuscript “1” represents the “home,” consonant chord, while “0” represents the “away,” dissonant one. These served as sets of ‘chord changes’ (like jazz charts).
Any pattern of two chords could be described with ones and zeroes; the distinctive thing about these Celtic patterns was their preoccupation with symmetry and inversion. Two typical patters are: 1011, 0100 and 110100.
The pattern I borrowed for this piece repeats audibly throughout, in different guises:
When Nektarios asked me to set Yeats’ famous poem ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ for his Greek Byzantine chorus, I wanted to find a way to link Yeats’ Ireland with Byzantium (now Istanbul), a city that remains a spiritual center of Orthodox Christianity, and which gives its name to the fifteen-hundred-year old music tradition in which the chorus specializes.
Thus it was an amazing discovery to find that the exact same ‘Celtic’ pattern I had chosen (1100, 1011) also governs a Greek folk song I happened across, musically linking (however tenuously) the two nations between which Yeats’ protagonist figuratively travels in the poem.
Composers are often asked what they are trying to add to a given text in setting it to music. So: what in Yeats’ poem does my musical setting seek to draw out? Interpretations of the poem have varied widely, but to me it involves a subject close to the heart (for better or worse) of many artists: posterity. Let the text speak for itself.
Gather Me was written during a snowstorm in a cabin in the MacDowell woods in New Hampshire, next to a crackling fire — truly the “artifice of eternity.” The piece is in four movements, one for each stanza. Many images and ideas guided the music, but I'll offer just a few.
In the first stanza/movement, the poet is overwhelmed and disgusted by the life he sees around him. He hears a quick Irish slip-jig, but it's not pleasant for him — it's too fast, too chaotic, too loud, and it gets all jumbled up with too many layers piling on top of each other (i.e. the "young", the "dying generations"). He resists it, singing more slowly, trying to keep his jangled nerves calm.
At the opening of the second movement we hear his dragging steps, which then begin to take flight as he hears the distant singing of the sages.
My image for the third movement is from a picture I saw in National Geographic magazine of Simonopetra monastery, on the Mt. Athos peninsula in Greece (a monastic center of Orthodox Christianity), very high on a cliff. I picture the poem’s protagonist standing hundreds of feet below, on the rocks of the coast, looking up and crying out passionately to the sages to let him come up into eternity. Over and over he bends down and then suddenly stands and throws up his arms, in supplication.
Finally, after he has been gathered into eternity, the music becomes serene; in the final movement the melody imitates the elaborate Greek Byzantine vocal style in which a moving drone (ison) supports the melody (omitted from this performance) and Byzantine-style vocal ornaments can be added extemporaneously.