John the Revelator
Phil Kline on John the Revelator:
Who's that writing? John the Revelator!
Those were the words coming out of my radio speaker. I was a teenager in Akron, Ohio. The voice, which seemed to reach back to the beginnings of time, was that of the great Son House, though the song was actually written by gospel-blues legend Blind Willie Johnson. Before I even began to write this Mass I chose the title John the Revelator because the song is like a window to a deeper world. The ritual of the Mass itself is a kind of spiritual portal through which one can become part of a universal body. I figured I might enter that portal myself in the process of discovery, and I wished to pass unburdened by a rigid plan, formal or stylistic. This is not a "blues" Mass any more than it is a medieval one, though such music lurks near my heart, along with doo-wop, Byrd, Bruckner, Brian Wilson and Oum Khalsoum.
My concept was to set the traditional Latin Ordinary (the parts of the Mass that remain the same from week to week) for chorus alone, and to add my own set of Propers (the parts that change according to season) using a variety of texts, and to have those sections accompanied by the string quartet. The texts I ultimately chose suggest a narrative of redemption in a blighted world. Several are from the Old Testament, including two from the Lamentations of Jeremiah. Rather than use the New Testament apocalypse of Revelation, I chose one by the American poet David Shapiro, whose image of indifferently falling snow recalls the ashes falling from the skies of lower Manhattan. Offered as a prayer, Samuel Beckett's monologue The Unnamable brilliantly portrays the the struggle of the mind in present tense. And while Dark Was the Night has no text that can be heard, it is a fantasy on Willie Johnson's 1927 recording of an old hymn depicting Jesus' doubt at the Passion, paraphrased in wordless moaning.
Bookending the Mass are treatments of two early American shape-note hymns from the The Sacred Harp: Northport and Wondrous Love, which have long been favorites of mine. They stir the vestiges of an unforgettable and mysterious beauty, the sound of the strong emotion, unconditional and utterly lacking in malice, that I remember from the rural religion I witnessed as a child in Pennsylvania and Ohio. It seems like a dream in today's blurred politic. My favorite part of religion has always been the mystery. What wondrous love is this? Not reasoned or forced, it's just there.
For more information on the composer, visit the artist page for Phil Kline.
For more information on the performers, visit the artist page for Ethel.
For more information about this release, click here.