Robinson McClellan ~ composer



for female vocal trio (SSA), two violins, and drone
Text by Tess Taylor
Duration: ca. 20 minutes

Commissioned by the Museum of Biblical Art for Trio Eos, to accompany an exhibition on the Prodigal Son, winter 2007-08.

Premiered by Trio Eos (Michele Kennedy, Kathryn Mulvihill, Jenna-Claire Kemper), with Caroline Shaw (violin solo), Peter Povey (violin with spoken part), and Robin McClellan (dual drone: shruti box and electric bass with ebow).

Premiere: November 3, 2007 MoBiA, NYC

Performed May 2009 by Goat Hall in San Francisco

Recorded at the premiere
(excerpt begins at song #VI—see below for text):

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A Midrash on the Parable of the Prodigal Son (co-written by Taylor, McClellan, and the trio):

Midrash — a Hebrew word meaning interpretation — was, in its classical form, an exegesis performed by rabbis on sacred Jewish texts. In modern form, midrash is an interpretive response to sacred text that adds meaning, opening up knots or problems in the text. As a form, it focuses more on a reader’s effort to make meaning from texts than on the authority of any text itself. The term midrash can be applied to this afternoon’s program: everything you see and hear today represents an interpretive response to the New Testament parable of the Prodigal Son.

When the Museum of Biblical Art commissioned Robinson McClellan and Tess Taylor last spring to create music and text that would resonate with this exhibition, Taylor set out to write a poem
that responded to her experience of the New Testament text. She revisited the familiar story, where the Prodigal leaves to feast on the riches of the world, only to return to be fed the great food of his father. In her reading, the problem isn’t necessarily one of feasting, but of where we find our sustenance and how we accept it. She responded with a series of meditations about hunger and belonging. Taylor’s poem creates centers of consciousness around the three main figures of father, elder son, and prodigal son, abstracting the characters themselves into stations of a meditation. While her texts evoke the dynamics of the story and powerful feelings of characters, no one voice is meant as a literal embodiment of "father” or “son.” Rather, they exist outside of a particular moment in space and time. The listener may adapt them imaginatively for his or her own use, using them as masks through which to explore the story’s surging emotions of love, ingratitude, jealousy and forgiveness.

McClellan’s musical setting gives Taylor’s poetry ample space to be turned over for contemplation in the listener’s mind—as if each of
the seven songs, and each of the tableaux presented by the two violinists (one of whom speaks and plays phrases from the original King James Version of the parable), were a work of visual art. Two drones serve as backdrop textures and colors against which the words reveal themselves like the hues of a painting.

From the beginning, the project relied on close collaboration between poet, composer, and performers. In our conversations, we tried to imagine how the figures and forms in the story could be translated into a text and musical work for treble trio and instrumentation. We began to focus on the low point of the prodigal son’s journey away from home — so often depicted in art, as this exhibition attests — in which the prodigal son, having wasted his inheritance, must tend and sleep with swine.

This provided further inspiration for this program: for the Jews who heard this parable for the first time, living in the excrescent stalls of pigs would have been especially vile, as pigs are unclean animals in the Jewish faith. We began to explore the fact that Jesus’ parable, so famous in the Christian tradition, was uttered by a Jewish rabbi for a Jewish audience.

We decided to surround our performance of Prodigal Songs with traditional Jewish melodies, texts, and themes. Bore Ad Ana (for Tisha Be-ab morning), Chasde Adonai (from the scroll of Lamentations, recited prior to Tisha Be-ab), and Ana B’Korenu (for Yom Kippur evening) will remind this afternoon’s audience of what is essential and original about this story, while Prodigal Songs, as well as Elyzabeth Meade’s reply to the Song of Songs and Robert Lehman’s settings of Psalms 98, 146, and 40, will push them forward through time to the present.

This afternoon, we present a collaborative midrash on the parable of the prodigal son. Artworks, poetry, music, expressive performance, and the biblical text itself (printed on the entry wall) represent the response of scores of individuals to this powerful text. Your response — reader, viewer, listener — belongs to the experience as well.




Prodigal Poems
seven songs for a trio of voices
~Tess Taylor

I said to the world: Give me my living.
I told my life: Give me my portion.
I wanted lush music, the riot of living.
I took and used all I was given.
O, the rich dancing! And I drank up my sources.
Also I stripped them.

I stay here. I work hard. I have been my own master.
I have tended my sheep, my soil, my shop.
Kept life ship-shape, paid bills and mended
all my worn things. Tended life’s garden.
But what is this sadness, looking at orchids?
I have worked hard, Lord. I scrub floors. I fold laundry.
I feel it: I have grown older. In the bank, boxed endeavors.
Outside the desert: Outside husks blow.
And dry wind inside me.

A long time, I wandered this city, gazing at windows.
Everything opened like a rich dream I wanted.
Fruits in fruit shops. In flower stands, bounty—
Everyone running. Cluster and glister.
Life’s textile pleasure: Desire, desire.
But I felt bitterness clutch me.
I ate and ate, but I was still hungry.

Sometimes I hear a voice say: This is my paradox. All that I have is thine.
It sings: Partake this body. Be here, dear substance.
Your famines fed. Belong.

And if you were a long way off, I would run to you.
If you came, I would prepare entry.
Let nothing be wasted: I would mend this love.
Let nothing be wasted: I would open again.

Beloved, I know it: I have gone a long time.
My own eyes have been strangers to me.
I traded myself. I lived alone in my heart:
In the city of signs so much is empty.
So much has crumbled. I know it: I have gone a long time.

If I come to myself, what do I come to?
If I offer myself, how will you know me?
Or, what if there is no place for returning?
How will I know the place to return?
What is the fatted calf of this world?
Sometimes I walk the road in a dream.
The sky widens. Wind shuffles pine trees.
I see a lit window: Sunlight like mercy.
I feel upwelling: I will arise.
It is abundance. What it is to be grateful.
Father receive me. Mother receive me. Make me worthy
To be your daughter. To be your son.