Despite the title, this is neither a Stephen King adaptation or that of a given miniseries. This is an actual medieval mystery play which was performed to disseminate religious ideas during that period. The medieval passion plays are better known but eclectic composer Robert Moran managed to find an actual drama and added to it his unique blend of experimentalism, minimalism, jazz and lyrical melodies to create this visually and musically striking (there is a Video here) setting of this forgotten little play.
Moran (1937- ) studied in Vienna with Hans Erich Apostel, a student of both Berg and Schoenberg. He earned a master’s degree from Mills College having studied with Darius Milhaud and Luciano Berio. He has produced everything from electronic music, to happenings involving whole cities and has written in musical styles derived from chance operations to minimalism and is not afraid to write beautiful melodies. His collaboration with Philip Glass in The Juniper Tree (1985) is a fine example of his facility with vocal writing and music drama.
This drama is performed in a cathedral space and Moran takes advantage of the resonant space by the inclusion of Alphorns, harp and organ whose tones are transformed in part by that space. Musical styles vary suited to the unfolding drama and work well with the staging of the piece.
Moran, who professes a love of opera since about the age of 9 or 10 has a great sense of the dramatic and for beautiful vocal writing. He says he listens to operas all the time. His 2011 Trinity Requiem was written for similar forces and performed in a similarly resonant space also to great effect. And his sense of eclecticism allows him to select from a wide variety of musical styles and effects.
The end result is, for this reviewer, a very successful integration of the composer’s various skills and influences. It would be hard to imagine a better setting of this piece. He starts with an anonymous text from Quirinus Monastery Cloister Tegernsee in Bavaria ca. 1150 and, with Alexander Hermann, creates a realization for performance. The piece is scored for children’s chorus, vocal ensemble, soprano, mezzo-soprano, counter-tenor, oboe, english horn, Alp horn, Bar piano and organ. In addition there are two other defined ensembles consisting of harp (representing the Heathen and his Babylonian followers), guitar, recorders and synthesizer (representing the Synagogue and Jerusalem), trumpets, horn, trombone, bass trombone, tuba and percussion (representing the Church and its Devotees).
There are roles for dancers and, in the performance depicted on the CD cover, choreography by Jarkko Lehmus and Bettina Hermann design by George Veit and menacing puppets created by Fabian Vogel. Unfortunately there are no current plans to release a DVD of this work but settling for the music alone is hardly a terrible sacrifice. Moran brings his eclectic musical range, knowledge of opera and music theater combined with careful selection of dramatic text to create a piece that can work as aural theater as well.
The disc concludes with another piece, Within a Day (2014), of aural theater which, in this case, has no specified stage actions. It is a collaboration with the Thingamajigs Performance Group, Edward Shocker’s improvisational ensemble. It is an example of Moran’s ability to write less determined music as well as his ability to collaborate with other creative artists. The piece premiered at San Francisco’s Center for New Music in January, 2014 and subsequently recorded in Lisser Hall at Mills College in May, 2014. It is a collective improvisation based on what appears to be an indeterminate score by the composer.
This is a clearly different music with more abstract aims and it contrasts strangely with the music drama but this is a good example of Moran’s facility with the art of composition as well as collaboration (Can you get more collaborative as a composer than an indeterminate score?). This more ambient sort of music is a little sonic theater for the mind based loosely on Moran’s interest in Tibetan texts invoking the gods and goddesses through their chants.
This disc made one of my best of 2014 and I highly recommend it for listeners interested in music drama and sound theater.