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Tenebre began as a conversation with Kronos Quartet about writing a piece as a gift for Laurence Neff, Kronos' longtime lighting designer, celebrating his 25th year with Kronos and his 50th birthday. The piece was also commissioned by the Barbican in London for a celebration of Steve Reich's 75th birthday. As I thought about how to approach the piece I spent a lot of time investigating the relationship between music and light, which led me to the Holy Week service called Tenebre. Tenebre is a mass service before Easter that many Renaissance and Baroque composers, and even some modern composers, have written music for.
The significance of the Tenebre service for me is its relationship to light. There are 15 candles extinguished through the service, the final darkness symbolizing the death of Christ. I looked at Tenebre not in the context of religion but for its use of light, and how composers have scored that descent into darkness. I used the writing of the piece as an opportunity to study some of my favorite Renaissance vocal music, and I chose to reference Tenebre settings by Tallis, Gesualdo and Palestrina, as well as an incredible Tenebre service by Couperin. These small quotes are woven together in an abstract way and my Tenebre inverts the form of the service: rather than going from light into darkness, we go from darkness to light, to symbolize Larry’s illumination of Kronos Quartet’s music.
Since Tenebre is built and inspired by vocal music, I wanted to include vocals at the end of the piece. In the finale of my Tenebre, the texture expands to three quartets playing (all recorded by Kronos), and an octet of voices sung by my friend Sufjan Stevens. He sings a layered amoeba-like melody of Hebrew letters (which are sung as part of the traditional Tenebre service), and then the first line of the Tenebre reading, Incipit Lamentatio Ieremiae Prophetae, which translates to ‘Here begins the Lamentation of Jeremiah the Prophet.’ So the piece ends where it should begin.