SATB divisi, a cappella
The Taylor Festival Choir, a professional chamber choir based in Charleston, South Carolina, commissioned A Clear Midnight as a companion piece to one of my earlier works, On Meditation. In contrast to the text of On Meditation (from the Tao te Ching), which provides active instructions for entering a state of enlightened meditation, the subject in Walt Whitman’s A Clear Midnight makes a conscious decision to put the pen down, and let himself enter a “free flight into the wordless.”
The music is meant to depict a progression from an active mind to a restful sleep, from a cluster of sounds and events to the beauty of a simple harmony. At the opening, the choir operates in two meters—the sopranos carry the melody in a shifting 9/8 and 7/8 metrical structure, while the lower parts essentially operate in a “simple” 4/4. Things come together as the character begins drifting off into the world of the wordless, “away from books, away from art.” As “the lesson [is] done,” the element of time—the vertical structure—is resolved and aligned, but the harmonic sonority (in essence a circle of fifths) remains clustered and enigmatic. Finally, “night, sleep and the stars” win over, the poet sleeps, and the work concludes with a release into a “perfect” harmony: a simple B-flat, F, and C sonority of perfect fifths.
The work is featured on a commercial recording by the Taylor Festival Choir, This is Thy Hour, O Soul, released by Centaur Records in November 2006.
This is thy hour O Soul, thy free flight into the wordless,
Away from books, away from art, the day erased, the lesson done,
Thee fully forth emerging, silent, gazing, pondering the themes thou lovest best.
Night, sleep, and the stars.
— Walt Whitman (1819-1892)