Composer and vocalist Jessie Downs explores loss, hope, and self reflection as guided by Psalm 29:3-4; 31:9-10; 81:3.
3 The voice of the LORD is upon the waters: the God of glory thundereth: the LORD is upon many waters.
4 The voice of the LORD is powerful; the voice of the LORD is full of majesty.
9 And hast not shut me up into the hand of the enemy: thou hast set my feet in a large room.
10 Have mercy upon me, O LORD , for I am in trouble: mine eye is consumed with grief, yea , my soul and my belly.
3 Take a psalm, and bring hither the timbrel, the pleasant harp with the psaltery.
For my little sister, Aleksandra. May you rest in God’s arms.
“Lamentations” is a a piece for (2-3*) voices and piano which takes the text of Psalm 31:9-10 as its inspiration. In composing the piece, I intermingled three translations of the chosen text (Good News, NKJV, NIV), using it both concretely and abstractly. Concretely, I used the combined texts as a “libretto” for the work, which is written in the form of an operatic scene. All three translations trace a common emotional arc – from cries for mercy to resignation in weakness – while subtle differences in the translations reflected variations of sentiment about the universal theme of loss. Consider, for example, whether one’s “strength fails” because of an “affliction,” “troubles,” or “iniquity.” By using all three translations, I was able to present the singers both as a unified group and as individuals.
More abstractly, writing the piece served as a vehicle through which I was able to explore my own feelings of loss as they were experienced during the time of the work’s composition. 2016 was an immensely difficult year for me, as it seems to have been for many. In April – around the time I began serious work on the piece – an 8 year long partnership came to an unexpected end. This proved not only to be a tremendous loss in and of itself, but also a huge blow to my understanding of my identity, life, and of meaning more generally. From that event onward, the Psalm text spoke to me anew and became a vehicle for reflecting on these difficult emotions.
The piece is written in a more classical style than has been typical for my work to date. This was done intentionally in an effort to to bridge the gap between my studies of experimental composition and bel canto singing, the latter having served as a most precious outlet for self-affirmation in life’s more difficult moments. I wanted to pay homage to this practice which means so much to me, as well as to create a vehicle for myself and other singers to showcase the technique which they attend to with such devotion. The sung lines and the dramatic narrative thus serve as a ready vehicle for vocal interpretation, whilst the colorful harmonies, textures, and unexpected twists of moment-to-moment form provide a setting for introspection.
The piano, too, plays an important role in the piece, both sonically and formally. Some of the piano sounds I have chosen to use – such as the rolled and otherwise arpeggiated chords – are intended to elicit images of “Heavenly” instruments such as lyres and harps, surrounding the human lament with an ethereal presence. Likewise, the opening piano solo serves not only as an obligatory introduction, but as an overture which lays out the overall form of the scene. The piece begins with a dark fanfare – almost as though the archangels are playing on their trumpets. When the voices enter (2:02 in the recording, m. 30 in the score), they articulate a fanfare of their own, the earthly choir calling up to Heaven. In the piano overture, the fanfare gives way to a distraught turning texture, and so too the voices when they enter with their cascading cries (2:39, m. 40). The strange solo line in the piano’s lower register which uses a traditional Jewish scale returns in the alto voice about half way through the piece (5:08, m. 77) and is developed, growing a whole network of lines around it. Both the overture and the piece come to a rest in fragmentary and distorted versions of their initial materials, which have by that point been changed by exploration of that crucial, lamenting line (7:50, m. 124). While I expect that the barrenness of the ending will convey tragedy to many, I hope that some of the unexpected consonances and soaring lines which emerge might subtly suggest a hopefulness and faith buried beneath the gloom.
*In the provided recording, the piece is only for two voices, though ideally it would be performed with a tenor as well. The score provided shows the piece’s ideal instantiation – three voices and piano – which will hopefully be performed live in Buffalo, NY this spring (2017).
Jessie Downs (b. 1991) is a composer, vocalist, and teaching artist for whom music is a medium for sharing personal experiences and entering into community with others. As a composer, her aesthetic is one which treasures the uncanny and surprising beauty of wild yet delicate things. Over the past five years, her work as a musician has also involved developing and implementing music curricula, workshops, and informal learning environments in Ohio (Musical Service for Peace Community Church, Oberlin Choristers Music in Everyday Life camp, Northern Ohio Youth Orchestra residency), New Jersey (Sonic Explorations after-school music Program, ORNG Ink Creative Musicianship classes, MTMS Wind Symphony residency, NJ Youth Symphony Percussion Ensemble residency), and New York (NullPoint Old First Ward Found Sounds Project, Buffalo String Works‘ Listening Workshops). A classically trained vocalist, her passion is performing works by other living composers, both as a soloist and with her group the Sotto Voce Vocal Collective, for which she serves as artistic director. Jessie is currently a PhD candidate in Music Composition and TA in Aural Skills and Theory at the University at Buffalo (NY). http://jessiedowns.tumblr.com