Let’s start at the very beginning…
These words of Simon Stanford introduce an interview in which Wole Soyinka explains his spiritual heritage – born into a Christian household, a parsonage, and ''exposed to all the various facets of faith, micro cultures'' which exist with the three Abrahamic traditional religions. These words open Movement 2 and are the first narrative words we hear in Lansing’s libretto, which is sprinkled with prose but dominated by Wole’s poetry and canticles. Only four times do we hear Wole’s non-poetic voice, and each time we are reminded of his intellect and humor, as well as the breadth of his experience.
In the interview he admits to having lost his Christian faith, yet maintaining ''a very good relationship with all the various religions.'' This nostalgic duet for baritone (Wole) and Stanford (soprano) is followed by a poetic, choral study on zealotry within those religions, which provides a caesura to the first ‘scene’:
Come with me or __
Go to – hell!
How to set narrative or prose – here, colloquial speech not arranged into formal poetic meters – is a challenge Lansing faced in each of these four moments. Wole speaks with an authoritative Voice – he knows he has a Voice, first as a successful playwright from the 1960s and then as the 1988 Nobel laureate, and he uses it to great effect to speak to the challenges faced by those under oppressive regimes, at war, or in religious conflict. Lansing meets the first challenge by creating a kind of bluesy background rhythm in the strings over which Elijah sings lines that are part parlando (speech) and part lyric melody. The music feels almost like someone has a radio on in another room, tuned to easy-listening music of the sixties, while Wole thinks about his childhood and how it shaped his life.
This is a lovely solution to the challenge of setting speech, but how do you set a line like that heard in the next narrative moment, drawn from a 2013 speech:
When you live in an environment of the progressive insemination of fear as an agency of faith, it is no time for palliatives of speech and timorous euphemisms.
Here, Lansing creates a feeling of motion through perpetual movement in the string quartet; there is a wonderfully strange balance between the luxurious harmonies in the strings and their nervous energy living under Wole’s words, which are presented with detailed attention to natural speech rhythms and inflections (he instructs ''reflective''), which brings great poignancy to the carefully chosen closing words:
There is no lavender word for lynch.
Lansing’s thoughtful consideration in choosing these narrative ‘endings’ (how he closes an excerpt from a lengthy document) is clear; he provides two piercing sentences, one assigned to Becky (soprano), the next to Maren (mezzo), before they continue in duet on a poem from ''Elegy to a Nation.'' Becky sings (''solemnly'') that ''the writing on the wall'' now refers to ''the blood on the walls'' of our schools and nurseries, ending with:
The writing is the universal language of nations, on the road to perdition.
She sings a high B on ''perdition'' (not so solemnly), which is picked up two octaves lower by Maren, singing:
Permit me to recall an exercise in a minor key.
After this, Lansing waits twelve movements – a series of violent twists and meditative turns – to set more of Wole’s philosophical ruminations, bringing the entire twenty-movement, concert-length to an end with a final quotation from the 2013 acceptance speech heard in Movement 4.
What is on fire today is not only within the mind, but the very nation space in which we all draw breath.
Here, Lansing marks ''Preach it,'' and Elijah sings in broad, sweeping, confident strokes that get higher, larger, more dramatic with each phrase (''increasingly agitated and insistent''). This is a very different Wole from that describing fondly the missionary atmosphere of his upbringing or his lamentations over inaction; it is the Wole of the poems and canticles, the one who spits on the abusers of dogma, who will drop nettles and rat poison on his tongue in order to spit out his words of defiance, who urges us to ''Take Justice'' in two hands, ''who can or dare.''
The latest, smirking unctuous face of Power in whatever guise is exposed, and neutralized.
Here, the ‘ending’ feels like ending, with Elijah reaching his highest full-voice note of the cantata in a dramatic flourish:
Only then shall we have truly fulfilled our existence and deserved our Freedom, only then would we have concluded our final assignation with – History.
Final assignation. It does feel this way: the movement breaks open at the start with Doris and Rebecca (clarinet and violin) slashing the air in raging musical gestures and the aria builds on this, gradually, toward its powerful conclusion. Yet, behind this aria of condemnation, in which the thin line between radical and moderate dissolves and the mirror looks on us from behind, has been an ongoing relentless, immovable, quiet choral harmonic mantra of reflection. It continues on after the aria, as if into eternity – the repeating, mesmerizing chords of the Voice heard in the first line of the cantata: the one who ''wakes from a prolonged delirium,'' who is meditative and subdued by resignation to position, brought on through oppression – the internal Voice:
I need nothing.
I feel nothing.
I desire nothing.
The mantra continues. The ending is no ending. The fire within the mind burns quietly, intensely, as the chords die out and there is silence.