Credo [to believe]

by Jae Cosmos Lee

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about this particular quote by the potent, American Catholic writer and mystic, Thomas Merton:

Peace demands the most heroic labor and the most difficult sacrifice. It demands greater heroism than war. It demands greater fidelity to the truth and a much more perfect purity of conscience.

It resonates so much, because it intuitively has the message of patience, firmly suggesting the suppression of rage and hate, and a straightforward promotion of altruism, all woven inside a few words. I often go back to it and read it out loud, also because I enjoy hearing the consonants of Peace, Perfect and Purity. 

A Far Cry was on tour performing in Palm Beach, Florida on Valentine’s day, which was precisely the day, when the Parkland shootings took place, only a mere 40 miles away. We were going about our day, without the knowledge of what had happened (at least for me) until after our concert was over that evening, also because we are usually pretty focused on making sure that we play and convey the best performance possible to an audience, especially if they’re a crowd we haven’t played for before, and at a short run out concert like this one, our schedule tends to be pretty jam packed.

I remember seeing the news reel on Twitter the next morning as we left early to travel back to Boston, and tears just kept running down my face as I watched the footage of the cries of the victims’ families, as we waited for lift off on the runway. Ironically, on our way to Florida from Boston two days before, I was reading on one of the news outlets that there had already been 40 mass shootings in the first 6 weeks of 2018, and being just flabbergasted by the statistics. And then those 17 students at Stoneman Douglas High School lost their lives on Valentine’s morning the next day, and things have not quite been the same since.

A Far Cry initially had a project of expanding Schubert’s monumental G Major string quartet for string orchestra (which we performed during our 9th season at Jordan Hall in 2015), and knowing that the Miró Quartet was performing the specific work that whole season, I got in touch with Will Fedkenheuer, the second violinist of the Miró Quartet (whom I had known when he was the second violinist of the Borromeo Quartet, when I first landed in Boston in 2004), to see if the Mirós would be available and interested in leading the work as a collaboration with us. Not enough lead time and scheduling conflicts sidelined that project but we took rain checks to try doing something in a later season. When we finally got on the phone the following summer, I suggested that we try programming Richard Strauss’ anti-war masterpiece for 23 solo strings, Metamorphosen, which A Far Cry hadn’t performed since our 3rd season. Will suggested a companion piece by the New York composer, Kevin Puts, a concerto for string quartet and orchestra, that the Mirós had commissioned and was performing a fair number in recent seasons, called How Wild the Sea, which the composer had written after seeing the images of a man on a rooftop, alone and being pulled out to sea during the horrible Tsunami that hit the Japanese coasts in 2011.At the end, Kevin’s busy schedule wouldn’t make it possible for How Wild the Sea to be re-orchestrated for a strings only accompaniment, so the next suggestion by Will and the Quartet members, was still a piece by Kevin, titled, Credo. Originally written for the Miró Quartet back in 2007, the composer said this about the piece in his program notes:

When Daniel Ching of the Miró Quartet asked me to write a quartet for a program he was planning exploring ‘the lighter side of America’, I wasn’t sure I could deliver. It was hard to find things to sing about. The government stubbornly and arrogantly continued to pour young lives and billions of dollars into a hopeless war, one to whose protest millions at home and abroad marched with what E.L Doctorow described as “the appalled understanding that America was ceding its role as the best of hope of mankind,” that “the classic archetype of democracy was morphing itself into a rogue nation.” Also around this time, a disturbed loner finally enacted his plan to gun down a record-breaking number of his fellow students at Virginia Tech and—amazingly—this failed to prompt any heightened talks over gun control by politicians who feared they might offend their gun-loving constituents before the next election. One day on my weekly commute from New York to teach at the Peabody Conservatory, I noticed as the train pulled into Baltimore the word believe emblazoned across a building. I later learned this was part of a campaign by the city of Baltimore to do something about the fact that ten percent of its population is addicted to either heroin or cocaine. As one who relies little if at all on blind faith, I found this to be a rather alarming approach. On the other hand, sometimes it seems all you can do is believe.

We decided that the Criers would make a new arrangement for A Far Cry and Mirós to join forces on Credo and additionally for the concert, Beethoven’s last quartet, the F Major, op. 135 would be the opener to fill out the program. And that was all in the summer of 2016.

Surprisingly enough, Kevin Puts’s Credo, is an extraordinarily hopeful piece of music. Beautiful in texture, virtuosic and adventurous in counterpoint among the four voices, engaged, but ultimately serene in his harmonic choices, from the first hearing of it (The Miró Quartet has a fantastic live recording of the piece recorded right after its premier), it really pulled me in. The composer, rather than dwelling on the tragedies that he talks about, goes onto write a quartet comprised of 3 different scenes and then finally a prayer, culminating in a 5 movement work that would be played without pause. the workshop of a stringed instrument specialist in Katonah, New York, you can believe nothing in the world matters but the fragile art of violins and violas hanging serenely from the ceiling. He listens chin in hand as his clients play excerpts for him, then goes to work on their instruments with sage-like assuredness...
...on the jogging path along the Monongahela River in Pittsburgh, you encounter above and below you the steel girders, asphalt and railroad ties of infrastructure, an immovable network of towering bridges and highways engineered by some deific intelligence...
...from my apartment, I watched in a window across 106th Street a mother teaching her daughter how to dance.

I was convinced to do the arrangement myself for the expanded forces and as I started living with the piece, for weeks, months, and after a year, at some point, Credo started to remind me of the Thomas Merton quote, like a neon sign. In the days of endless protest songs, images and art works that portray the devastation and chaos, Kevin chooses to write a piece about finding solace, and inspiring hope, a prayer to believe that things will be okay. More than 10 years after the Mirós first premiered the piece in 2007, I wanted to reach out to Kevin to hear what he had to say, on the eve of us finally performing Credo together.

Jae: In the wake of our current mass protests happening thru everyone of the conscientious High School students all over this country after the Parkland shootings (without forgetting Sandy Hook or Las Vegas prior to this one and the gun control issue still in stalemate nationally), and how the Iraq war that you talk about in your program notes written back in 2007, having indirectly and eventually spawning the Islamic State, as that entity's warfare in Syria has turned an ancient kingdom into utter rubble, and never mind the millions of refugees and countless who've perished on those grounds in the last 8 years. And now in 2018, have things really changed?

Kevin: I would say things have not changed in the slightest. But we artists need to keep commenting on the sad state of affairs in the best and most convincing way we know, through the power of music and the possibility of hope which music can communicate. 

Jae: For me, Credo has this sort of "When they go low, we go high" type mantra to it, because in the face of despair, rather than writing something like the the war movement of Shostakovich's 3rd quartet, which vividly depicts the brutality of war, or a Penderecki like display of horror, instead you chose to write about the beauty and gestures that made you appreciate your surroundings. Obviously we all know that the underlying problems didn't go away, but admittedly for me, the kind of peace that you decided to find instead has a searingly a powerful message, and I feel its timeliness and hope resonates even clearer now. From the statement, "As one who relies little if at all on blind faith", I hope it's not presumptuous of me to guess that you're not a religious person, and if you're not, do you have a favorite author, thinker, a piece of literature, a favorite movie, a director, that have inspired you to find a common filament in your compositions?

Kevin: Music is a refuge for me. I do not dwell on feelings of anger of hopelessness. I escape into the solace of harmony and the music I love. And the music I write is naturally a reflection of the music I love. I could write angry music, and it could be somewhat cathartic for the listener to experience this, but this is not where I want to spend my energies. I am not religious in the slightest. I believe in the potential of humankind and I am as amazed by our achievements as I am horrified by our evils. I am inspired by many books, films, composers. I do not know where to start with that! My admiration for one just leads to another and another. We are all interconnected in our desire to understand ourselves and the universe. I was recently inspired by the film Interstellar in which love is explained in its likeness to gravity, which of is of course the most powerful governing force we know of in the universe. It's a beautiful idea.

Jae: Have you ever written a piece of music that conveys a political statement? Credo, in my opinion, is in no way a piece of music that protests our gun control issues nor our military spending, but by way of your words and giving the music its context, by letting us know why your beliefs and hopes mean what they do, it does make us, especially the musicians who play it, very conscious of why we're performing it. That is what we do as artists and curators right? We find the materials to share that are not only constructed intelligently and possess exquisite beauty, but to help our audience find joy and catharsis, giving a frame of reference to all of our lives and times.

Kevin: I have never meant to make political statements, the pieces I write come from the emotions I feel toward certain events. For example, my new oboe concerto which will premiere this summer was one of the hardest pieces I have ever had to write, because I had to work on it during and after the last presidential election. I felt utterly drained, hopeless and disillusioned in the wake of that madness (which continues). My feelings are clearly reflected in the music, and I will be quite clear about it in the program notes. There would have been no way for me to avoid writing about these feelings because they were so much a part of my daily life, especially in the year following the election.

As I walk past the numerous protesters at the Boston Common on an overcast Saturday afternoon, the last movement of Credo is playing in my head. Some 50,000 people are gathered here, to give credence to an international movement that a core of courageous and eloquent Stoneman Douglas High School students have emblazoned, they are people of all different sizes, generations, race and nationality. The plethora of protest signs are as unique as the faces themselves, but a united voice shouting, “Enough is Enough!”, is too powerful an energy to ignore, and I find myself joining in. The thousands of kids who are here remind us that they are the generation who will represent this change in this country and they’ll be the ones not too long from now, who will become the leaders, and I want to believe that day be one where a day like today was the catalyst to making it a reality. Although, I’d be lying, if I didn’t feel a tinge of sadness witnessing these precocious kids with worldly issues, because they’re forced into having to think about these all too dangerous and devastating problems of 2018, when they really should be trying out different flavors at the local Ice Cream store, and running around playing Dodgeball. A part of me hopes that they still get to on most weekends. But the collective spirit this afternoon is awe inspiring and the passion is infectious. We listen to a teacher who is on stage, who’s strong but shaking voice is raging out to the politicians and the NRA that she doesn’t need to be armed with a gun, but rather arm her with more books, art supplies and an instrument, which brings a thunderous ovation thru the crowd. I see a couple of teenagers in the distance wiping away their tears, and I’m reminded once again of those Thomas Merton words: Peace, Perfect, Purity.

(photo: March For Our Lives, March 24, 2018, Boston Common)