Metal-on-Metal: the libretto of David T. Little

The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled. Each evening we see the sun set. We know that the earth is turning away from it. Yet the knowledge, the explanation, never quite fits the sight.
                           -          John Berger, in Ways of Seeing

There is a moment in Act I of Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Saint of Bleecker Street in which Anina, who receives the stigmata, is having a vision; she is standing by the cross as soldiers raise their hammers and drive nails into Jesus’ limbs.  Through a kind of visionary veil, her perspective is that of a distanced, helpless onlooker, unable to stop the suffering; the sound of metal-on-metal (hammer blows on an anvil in the orchestra) are real to her, the bleeding holes in her own hands a witness to the brutality.  It is the climax to a violent scene in which a crowd attempts to get near enough to touch her, convinced of her divinity and ability to perform miracles. In the chaos, everyone’s perspective shifts; nothing is quite what it seems.

I am fascinated by the way in which perspective determines how I perceive the world – how my view differs from others; my insights, my biases, my loves, all determined by the ‘view from here,’ shaped by my past, contextualized by my present. And because I interact with many, many people, I have the opportunity to experience daily how each of us carries slightly different, nuanced ways of seeing... and of feeling. 

Perspective – both visual and emotional – plays a role in Buxtehude’s Membra Jesu nostri. We are standing at the foot of the cross; our eye is drawn to that perfect intersection of the X and Y axis, two wood beams crossing, over which lies the heart – the center, the motivator and receiver.  Outlying, like satellites, are the hands we use to effect so much good and evil – to shape and mold great monuments, wheat fields, and guns; the head, cursed to look within (as Rilke says, ''outward toward eternity'' like all other animals); and the feet, frustratingly earthbound, slow, and tired.  As we stand at the foot of the cross and look up, the feet are in our foreground, dominating the frame.  It is here, at the feet, we asked David T. Little to pause and ponder, imagining a response to Buxtehude’s setting of Arnulf of Leuven’s meditation:

The nails in Your feet, the hard blows
and so grievous marks
I embrace with love,
Fearful at the sight of You
Mindful of Your wounds

David did just that; he clearly lingered and contemplated, and what emerged into his view were those nails, hammered through the feet of Jesus, portrayed in so much art through the centuries, a symbol of our darkness, of how much suffering we can cause, of how much we experience it in ourselves, of how often we fail to notice that suffering in others.  The nails piercing the limbs of every martyr, the nails of Dachau and of Hiroshima, the nails in Bonhoeffer and King, nails in the children of Brindisi and those of Syria, nails of Paris and of Beirut, piercing our own hearts and bodies – in your hands and in my eyes.  Not metal-on-metal as they were forged, but metal-through-soul as they are used. Nails.

Because the Church believes that Jesus was assumed wholly into heaven, his body does not serve as a source of reliquary. So, these nails, like the wood of the cross, remain important relics, forged into the bridle of Constantine, the iron crown of Lombardy, objects of veneration capable of calming a storm in the Adriatic, protecting an emperor, healing the sick. While there is an historical argument as to whether there were three or four nails (if any) used in the crucifixion of Jesus, there are nevertheless about thirty scattered about the world, the center of shrines and pilgrimage destinations in Nuremberg, Prague, Venice, Aachen, etc. It is to these holy nails that David addresses his new work:

dress in magic amulets, dark, from My feet explores the troubling historic use of crucifixion nails as magic or medicinal amulets. Inspired by both Catholic rituals and the equally ritualistic nature of extreme drone metal, the work seeks to create a meditative, almost unearthly space, where a post-modern Christ figure comments on the practice of crucifixion, the ghastly use of crucifixion nails, and the complexities of His own death in the context of the salvation narrative.

His result – David’s libretto for our first response:

_ _ _ _ _ _
Dress in magic amulets
Dark, from My feet

Take this,
All of you,
Take these…

Dress in magic,
Dress in magic amulets,
Take these…

Dress in magic,
Dress in magic amulets,
Dark, from My feet.

…My feet.

You rejoice in wounds.
My demise.
Our demise.
Magic pain.
_ _ _ _ _ _ _

No mention of love here, yet written with so much of it. 

In the course of David’s new work, these words serve as the foundation of a story told through expressions – each new musical section taking on a specific character described by the composer:

Calm /
A sudden jolt / Deceptively serene / Expansive /
Unnerving / Growing / Intense / Frightening /
Struggling for peace / Triumphant/ Still /

In this progress, ''struggling for peace'' stands out to me – wedged between ''frightening'' and ''triumphant,'' as if summarizing the perpetual cycles of adulthood.  It reminds me: It’s about wounds. Seven Responses is about wounds, and about healing.  It’s about perceptions – of noticing the nails in the feet of our friends, and the amulets around the necks of strangers.  Of changing the sightline and seeing the world as another does – getting around to the other side of the camera to see what is in their frame.  It asks questions about the dust of the relics of martyrs we use to claim ownership over land and each other, that we fling in the faces of our enemies and friends and by which we create new saints and martyrs.  It asks questions about our ability to consider that the sun may not be setting, but rather, it is we who are spinning at an unimaginable speed through a space that barely notices the ball we’re on, that doesn’t consider our globe-centric perception, that won’t note our absence.  It asks, at what point will we have pulverized Christ and his elements – and those of the saints of all religions – until there's nothing left of them but a memory of the dust.  And, it asks, at that point, will there be enough love left in that memory to heal our wounds?