Volume 1: music meets radicalism at The Crossing

''My shadow is trapped but not my essence. Repeat. My shadow is trapped but not my essence.''
Wole Soyinka, on making a secret record of his thoughts in prison, in The Man Died.

This is the first of a number of brief reflections on the work and process of presenting the world premiere of Lansing McLoskey's Zealot Canticles. (Sunday, March 19 in Philadelphia).

In April 2011 I had the idea of a piece based on the writings of Wole Soyinka, the Nobel laureate (Literature, 1986) whose eloquent writings on his experiences as a political prisoner and, more recently, staring into the face of Boko Haram in his home Nigeria, I found truly moving. At the time, I was increasingly concerned with the various pockets of radicalism in our own country - Rep. Gabby Giffords and 13 others had been shot (six died) that January at a Safeway store in Tucson - and I wanted to see what a piece of music might be like that asked questions about the effects of zealotry on the individual and the community. The new work was to be ten minutes long, for the 24-voice Vocal Arts Ensemble of Cincinnati (which I conducted at the time) and Ixi Chen, the brilliant, creative clarinetist in the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.

The previous summer, The Crossing premiered a commissioned work, The Memory of Rain, by Lansing McLoskey for The Levine Project. (Longtime friends of The Crossing will remember the remarkable final moments in that work, setting Levine's words that refer to the clouds of the poem's title: ''They should be punished every morning / they should be bitten and boiled like spoons.'') The work left a great impression on us; Lansing's music seems to play with, maybe even defy, time - sometimes it feels like it exists in two simultaneous yet different realms of time, at others it seems to slow time as if in a dream. His music can also give the uncanny impression that it is somehow both being art and considering art at the same time - self-reflectiveness achieved simply through counterpoint, color, and time. I felt this was the right voice for Soyinka (if, in fact, any voice is right for this) - to ask questions about oppression, imprisonment, politics, lies, suppression, and pain.

Lansing's work, premiered in early 2011, was so strong that I was convinced it was just the beginning of a substantial, important work on the topic - ten minutes of a future sixty minute, concert-length work. Of course, I wanted this larger work for The Crossing. We waited for quite a while until the time felt right, adding soloists and string quartet to the forces. Yet, eighteen months ago when we targeted this March as the premiere, neither Lansing nor I could have guessed that topic would have come home to our own country. We now stare into the face of our own fears, like Soyinka in the 1960s.

Lansing's new work is, as I knew it would be, art first. He has captured fear and anger and exhaustion and defiance in a virtuosic score that will require much of the artists who begin to rehearse it this Saturday, February 18. (We have indeed noticed the irony of it being four days before the birthday of George Washington, whose signature appears first on our Constitution.)

Our Zealot Chronicles will each include a bit of text from Lansing's libretto. But, for this first entry, I offer Lansing's beautiful program note - a little of the history, in his own words, of the creation of Zealot Canticles.

''You want to free the world, free humanity, from oppression? Look inside, look sideways, look at the hidden violence of language. Never forget that language is where the other, parallel violence, the cruelty exercised on the body, originates.''

- Ariel Dorfman, in The World that Harold Pinter Unlocked

Lansing's Program Note

''The man dies in all who keep silent in the face of tyranny.''
Wole Soyinka, Dec. 14th, 1971

Wole Soyinka (b. 1934) is a Nigerian poet, playwright, novelist, and recipient of the 1986 Nobel Prize for Literature. In 1967 Soyinka was arrested and imprisoned for ''civil defiance.'' His crimes? Denouncing the suppression of human rights and free speech by the military dictatorship of General Yakubu Gowon, intervening in an attempt to avoid the Nigerian/Biafran civil war, and condemning the genocide of the Igbo people. In the decades following his release, Soyinka has remained an outspoken advocate for human rights. 

During his two years in prison, Soyinka spent several stints in solitary confinement and went on a number of hunger strikes; some near fatal. He chronicled his imprisonment in the book The Man Died, much of which was written in secret between the lines of books smuggled in by friends and sympathetic jailers and on scraps of paper and tissue hidden in the cracks in his cell, with a stolen pen, then with ingeniously homemade ink and hand-crafted writing utensils. 

In addition to the obvious physical effect of extreme fasts, there are the psychological and mental consequences. Soyinka writes of ''achieving true weightlessness…blown about by the lightest breeze, by the lightest lyrical thought or metaphor'' and describes spells of delirium, hallucination, but also trance-like states and unparalleled lucidity. Near the end of his imprisonment (thus the end of the book), the three-part phrase ''I need nothing. I feel nothing. I desire nothing.'' becomes a repeated refrain; a mantra, if you will. The phrase is both an internal safe-haven for Soyinka’s mind as well as a defiant response to his interrogators. 

In 2002 Soyinka published a set of poems titled ''Twelve Canticles for the Zealot''; a strangely beautiful and terrifying look into the mind(s) of fanatics, containing a subtle catalog of the horrific results, past and present. One wonders how these words could have been any more relevant in 2002 than in 2016. Seven of these poems form the bulk of the libretto of Zealot Canticles. Interwoven with these poems are excerpts from plays, interviews, lectures, and speeches given by Wole Soyinka, reflecting on his upbringing in an environment of tolerance, and condemning the current climate of intolerance, bigotry, and violence. 

From the opening poem in the Preludium (which I title ''Renunciation'') I couldn’t help but reflect upon the parallels between the delirium of the religious fanatic and the delirium of Soyinka himself during hunger fasts. Self-deprivation and hallucinations are not the sole prerogatives of the unjustly imprisoned, after all, but also common among zealots of another sort. Visions of God are hailed in prophets and scripture, but wielded as weapons by the demented. Soyinka’s own renunciations of self (''I need/feel/desire nothing.'') are renunciations and exhortations echoed in ultra-devotees from Buddhist monks and Hindu ascetics to Christian hermits and the Taliban. 

Is there then not a thin line between extreme devotion – zealotry – and radicalism? And that line is both personal and public. One zealot preaches against the errors of a different faith, another spews hatred towards those who hold that faith. One extols devotion, the other breeds divisiveness. We only have to turn on the television to see how small the step can be from self-righteousness to political/social oppression or roadside bombs. 

Throughout the set of canticles Soyinka makes universal pleas for peace from multiple languages and religious cultures. 

While writing the piece, the figure of Wole Soyinka’s gaunt frame was constantly before me; weakened by hunger and isolation, yet ultimately stronger than iron bars and dictator alike. 

Zealot Canticles was commissioned by Donald Nally and The Crossing, with generous support from The Barlow Endowment for Music Composition at Brigham Young University, and University of Miami. I’d like to express my gratitude to Donald and The Crossing for their devotion to music as a living and always-relevant art form. LM