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©2019 by Daniel Elder Music

Featured Project

See what's right around the corner

ABSALOM

mixed chorus, percussion, and piano

World Premiere recording is available now on iTunes, Amazon, Spotify, and more,

on the album "Truth & Fable" by The Thirteen.

 

Sheet music for Absalom is now available for purchase at Sheet Music Plus.

Download the full libretto.

To study history is to learn from one's mistakes. Perhaps it is often taken for granted that this study is of action; of the tangible consequences of past events and how they observably changed their worlds, large or small. "Absalom," however, proposes a different way to study history: through the perilously subjective lens of emotion. Though it is personal, transient, and nearly impossible to quantify, emotion is nevertheless still a major subject in art everywhere. Can history and art truly merge their goals into a three-dimensional message for the ages?

The concept of this work began with a knee-jerk reaction. Though here and gone in an instant, it left a lingering echo of a desire to speak; a message to translate and communicate. The modern world seems governed by social media, which in itself seems governed by the tendency to shout into the same space at the same time, with a delusionary expectation of being heard. All keyboard warriors are also academics, legislators, artists, leaders; expression is at an all-time high, while reception is at an all-time low. One day after hearing of another mass shooting, I found myself surprised at the realization that I was already resigned to watching the same debate unfold; light shed on yet another identical stalemate, heralded by "thoughts and prayers" and played out until the inevitable closing curtain of "second amendment rights." The real shock was that I thought I had a side in all this, but I found I didn't want to be in the debate. I would rather change this endless loop of polarized loathing and unfruitful, flawed rhetoric. Thus "365" was born in a single afternoon—an expression of my frustration at our inability to productively address an issue that quietly continues to destroy lives, and the frightening normalization of the whole thing. However, I didn't want to be seen as a gun-control activist just because I was addressing gun violence. A label is the quickest way back into the endless loop I had just attacked. I needed a bigger statement to underline this quick inspiration, and I needed to achieve a larger perspective to do it.

Two things resulted: I withdrew from social media, retreating from the trenches, and I began forming the concept of a protest-inspired oratorio: A mammoth choral project aimed at putting the voice of "365" in a larger context; not just about gun violence, but about all those discussing gun violence. Not just about protesting, but about the flaws of protest itself. Something about David's grief—the ageless torment of a parent losing a child, complicated by religious devoutness and political turbulence—rang true to today. To my knowledge no well-known musical work has depicted Absalom's story beyond the limited context surrounding "When David Heard." I therefore chose to dive into this larger drama with the hope of cultivating an altogether new voice outside today's clamoring debate.

"Absalom" adopts a unified starting point then diverges onto two distinct paths: One continuing the Biblical narrative while the other speeds chronologically through history, pausing at significant points which each teach some small lesson to place in context the final arrival at present-day. Even the narrative of David and Absalom finds its way straight back to the present as David's final recitative ("every day...I lose you again") rings true to the modern, endless loop of tragedy. Something about this layout creates an unsettling, suspicious voice in the back of my mind that whispers accusingly "have you learned nothing?" The suggestion that David's grief is still our grief today supports that voice. An overarching template was drawn from the five stages of grief, allowing each of the work’s five historical pillars to depict a different psychological aspect of loss. These two divergent paths are themselves broken further into distinct components—the narrative is delivered both as direct story and as an occasional voice inside David's memory as we hear the whispered echo of things he’s heard and ponders. The opening line "May all who oppose you suffer the fate of that young man" replays endlessly (yet distorted by shock) in his ears as he weeps, fresh and raw, for his son's death, and subsequent lines whispered similarly by the tutti chorus follow in this same context. Musically the chant-like motives develop towards their full maturity in "365," and the chorister-played percussion additions of chime and bass drum are themselves gradually evolved over the same course. The story is told in five abbreviated sections, all paraphrased from their original scripture for brevity and dramatic intent, and these sections themselves follow a distinct story arc that builds alongside Absalom's rebellion and climaxes at his defeat on the field of battle.

The other principal component in this two-pronged libretto focuses on five historical moments chronologically, divided into recitatives and laments. These five chapters outline the five stages of grief, and act as episodes placed in purposeful interruption to the primary narrative. In this way the emotions felt by all characters can be drawn together and compared to our modern experience. The first episode spins directly out of the introduction as David reels in the shock of learning of his son's death. He demonstrates this first stage of grief as he retreats to a chamber over the city gate, seeking isolation with his recitative of "why am I never alone?" which is constructed as seven lines of seven syllables each; a Biblically-significant number echoing David’s holy status. In the ensuing chorale he utters the lament of a heartbroken father for his son's death (a poem laid out in the shape of David’s lyre). The musical form follows the classical lament tradition of falling chromaticism in the bass, later stripped to bare diatonicism as his emotions reach their zenith. This usage of varying amounts of chromaticism acts almost as a focusing lens, letting more or less clarity of emotion through the veil of grief.

As Absalom turns the hearts of Israel against their king, the second episode emerges. It depicts Pontius Pilate contemplating the aftermath of his condemning Jesus of Nazareth to be crucified. Pilate's mode of thought and function as judge outlines the bargaining stage of grief, and his recitative expresses bewilderment at the inability to reason against a mob mentality. His subsequent lament then whispers a creeping horror at witnessing the "inherent evil" of humankind. There is nothing indirect about its musical presentation; spartan, unsettling arpeggiations create a macabre music-box effect as Pilate lays bare his emotional judgement of humanity, aided by an ironic poetic meter like that of a Christian hymn. His words serve as a warning: "beware the beast within" the soul, as well as an example of the unpredictability and venom born of religious extremism—Jesus' executioners were the very same who heralded him as a king just days before.

David’s flight from Jerusalem leaves him homeless, both in body and heart, as he contemplates betrayal by his son. The third episode depicts King Henry VIII of Tudor-era England, a notoriously emotional figure who in some ways steered his country by the whims of his heart. His famous love affair with Anne Boleyn caused a national schism from the Catholic church and the formation of an entirely new Church of England, all so he could divorce his first wife (Catherine of Aragon) and marry Anne. Henry's mind is a turbulent place and serves as an exploration into the depression bred out of anger. Here Henry has just executed his wife, and sits alone, horrified at himself, and struggling to justify his emotions. His recitative " I frighten myself. I hate myself." smacks of self-loathing, and he rationalizes an encroaching realization that he himself caused his loss. His lament, set in the form of a Shakespearean sonnet, is a wrenchingly emotional cry of a self-sabotaged love that chips away at Henry’s bloodthirsty façade and exposes a simple man’s grieving mind. The text incorporates numerous references to the king’s own writings, including some of his love letters to Anne herself. At the center lies his refrain “Alack, alack, what shall I do? For care is cast into my heart And true love locked thereto.” and the subsequent ironies torturing him in his present grief. It is the simple song of a broken heart, proving that even kings can make mistakes. Henry's story warns of the dangerous combination of power and emotional instability, yet also hints at the peril of mixing the church with political or personal agenda.

As Absalom reaches open rebellion, so its parallel story depicts civil war in the United States. Two neighbors recite a tragedy of friends becoming enemies based solely on political differences, and the death borne of their tribal allegiances. Anger, the most volatile stage of grief, is at the root of this infamous chapter in American history. In the recitative the two neighbors begin together, growing slowly more out-of-sync with each mirrored recitation, until the middle lines that split their perspective entirely. This pattern then reverses itself back to where it began, with a simple “We.” The lines grow in length to thirteen syllables and back to one, depicting the construction and destruction of the spirit of the original thirteen colonies. The poem is laid out to suggest a combative shape, while also faintly outlining the confederate battle flag as a symbol of rebellion. The ensuing lament, "Blue and gray," seems to pace meditatively through the deafening silence of a bloody battlefield filled with the corpses of these enemies that were once neighbors. As with Henry VIII, anger and depression are forever intertwined, and elements of both can be felt in each of these chapters. In a hyper-polarized modern political age, the cost of civil war should never be forgotten.

Finally, "365" depicts a stage of acceptance. Acceptance, however, is not synonymous with peace. David's preceding recitative about his endless grief for Absalom shows his inability to make peace with such a loss—his son was never pardoned politically or forgiven personally. Everything here suggests a deep wound that is tragically reopened every day, yet a numb acceptance of its pain. Its accompanying lament is both the source inspiration and the finale of everything; a grim observation of our current impasse to repetitive violence and suggestive of a daily cycle of it. The poem is structured in seven stanzas for the days of the week, and there are twelve iterations of “Three hundred and sixty-five” for the twelve months in the year. The final, introspective stanza parallels the poignant Christian story of Christ’s crucifixion at the hands of his brethren and lends a darker side of thought with the chosen grouping of words (read either “no more; God forgive us” or “no more God; forgive us”). Musically the poetry has taken on the full context of Absalom’s narrative chant, culminating with all the venom from the climactic heart of his fight, and waning again with the same harmonic lamentations beneath “Blue and gray.” The lesson of this has already been delivered: We must learn about ourselves and our nature as humans, not just the record of our actions, if we want to break the cycle of violence felt throughout history and still played out today.

“Absalom” is a call to listen; not to protest others, not to educate others, but to connect with them. The painful truth I’ve come to in the process of birthing this work is that no one is safe from criticism in this modern struggle, and no one is safely on the right side of history. Every individual, including myself, lies in the crosshairs of this musical statement. Only by stepping outside the borders of what we think is comfortable will we learn understanding. And by learning understanding, peace just might follow.