Two pieces for string orchestra or 13 solo strings (2011 and 2013, 12′) – consisting of Ossuary Cross and Mantle of Stars

Program Notes

  1. Ossuary Cross
  2. Mantle of Stars

Icons is a set of two pieces for strings, written about two years apart, which may be played individually or combined into a larger piece.

As someone who grew up in a pretty austere religious tradition (Presbyterian in the Texas Panhandle), I did not get much exposure to the emotional extravagance of Roman Catholic art and architecture until I was a young adult, when I lived in Latin America for several years, and then later traveled in Europe. I was subsequently fascinated and often overwhelmed by the great Catholic churches in both Europe (especially Spain and Italy) and Latin America, and by the art and artifacts in them. One thing in particular that captured my attention were reliquaries, containers made to house relics of saints, usually but not always their bones-definitely one of the things that Presbyterians. Just. Don’t. Do.

The idea of the reliquary was the inspiration for the first movement, particularly an especially gorgeous example that my wife and I saw in the St. Agnes Convent Museum of Czech Medieval Art in Prague. Not surprisingly, Christian reliquaries are often cross-shaped, as was this one, and the English translation of this artifact was Ossuary Cross. Apart from the beauty of the piece itself, I just liked the way that phrase sounds and so made a mental note of it as a possible future title. The incongruousness of a few bone fragments housed in such a splendid piece of art struck a deep chord in me. Despite its beauty, it still had a definite aura of the macabre and bizarre for me, as do all reliquaries.

In this movement I have attempted to recreate some of the beauty and mystery of such objects, but I will confess that it’s really more about the darker images these creations conjure up for me. Much of the harmony of Ossuary Cross is built on the contrast of two chords: the very dissonant opening sonority, and a simple major chord. I have also consciously exploited the wonderful kinds of sounds that strings, and only strings, can make. A slow, intense, opening gives way to a faster section with skittish, nervous, scurrying music as well as more assertive passages. A compressed version of the opening leads to the final climax, which in turn gives way to the quiet, but still very unsettled, ending.

Ossuary Cross was written at the request of conductor José Serebrier for a performance and recording with the St. Michel Strings of Mikkeli, Finland in 2011. If is recorded on their CD, Adagio, on the Alba label (Finland, released in the USA by Albany Records).

After the premiere and recording of Ossuary Cross, I thought it could perhaps use a companion piece with a related inspiration. Mantle of Stars is inspired by the painting that is supposed to have been miraculously imposed on the cloak of an early Aztec convert to Christianity, Juan Diego, by the Virgin of Guadalupe near Mexico City in 1531. She is shown wearing a mantle, which has a number of stars in its decoration. The cloak is undoubtedly the most famous icon in Latin America, and the image of the Virgin is an instantly recognizable symbol of Latin American, especially Mexican, Catholicism. I have seen the cloak on display at the Basílica de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe near Mexico City several times, and, whatever its origin, it is very beautiful indeed. Mantle of Stars was written for the University of Louisville Symphony Orchestra and its conductor and my colleague Kimcherie Lloyd.

This movement seeks to interpret some of that beauty, especially that of the sparkling stars in the background of the Virgin’s cloak. It uses natural and artificial harmonics extensively, as well as other idiosyncratic string techniques, to bring out that beauty and luster.

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