Music For Writers: Gregory W. Brown’s Natural Selections


Missa Charles Darwin — And Amino Acids

In order to bind the work together I devised an opening idea linked to Darwin, evolution, and genetics. Using a portion of the genetic sequence from Platyspiza crassirostris (a bird from the group commonly known as Darwin’s Finches), I translated the amino acids into notes, thereby deriving a melody.

And Gregory W. Brown knows Darwin’s finches. In answer to my question about what a nice composer from Massachusetts is doing creating a chamber Mass based on Darwinian writings, he tells me:

I toured the Galapagos as part of a high school trip in 1993. We spent a week on a boat sailing from island to island and observing the geology and biology that Darwin had observed over a century prior. We saw Darwin’s finches and visited (the late) Lonesome George at the research station. Naturally we read and discussed Darwin’s writings as part of our explorations. It’s hard not to wonder (even as a petulant teenager) at the magnitude of both his insight and his thoroughness.

Lonesome George was the last surviving Pinta Island tortoise. He died in 2012 at what is thought to have been age 100 or more. As soon as you know that — and that Brown saw this animal in the Galapagos, new meaning seems to gather around his selection of texts from Darwin’s 1859 masterwork, On the Origin of Species. In the Credo of the Missa Charles Darwin, for example, you hear the New York Polyphony sing:

 We may console ourselves
that the war of nature is not incessant
no fear is felt
death is generally prompt
and that the vigorous, the healthy,
and happy survive and multiply

In the newly released album of his work, Moonstrung Air  from Navona Records, you hear a great deal that sounds like compassion set singing.

The idea for the Missa Charles Darwin came out of an email I received from New York Polyphony’s bass — Craig Phillips. I think he had seen somewhere that the two books most influential on Western thought were the Bible and On The Origin of Species. That got him to wondering why we have so much music coming out of one of and not out of the other. After all, why not venerate and celebrate a great human accomplishment?

Thanks to New York Public Radio’s Q2 Music’s selection of this CD as Album of the Week, if New York Polyphony rings a bell for you, it might be because we covered the vocal quartet’s Sing Thee Nowell release in December, in Music For Writers: New York Polyphony’s ‘Four Naked Voices Singing.’

Polyphony’s singers — bass Phillips, countertenor Geoffrey Williams, tenor Steven Caldicott Wilson, and baritone Christopher Dylan Herbert — here find a complex, elegiac peace that might have been of comfort to Darwin. After all, this man was glimpsing before any of us today what would come to be understood as the very mechanism of mortality in our world.

An orderly sense of acceptance seems to embolden Wilson, for example, in his lead on the “We may console ourselves” sequence.”

And if you feel baffled at the very idea of translating amino acids into the notes of a melody, the final moments of the Agnus Dei will remind you that even Darwin himself was humbled by the astonishing embrace of his own construct. Brown quotes again from On the Origin of Species, from the 10th chapter, “On the Geological Succession of Organic Beings”:

If we must marvel
let it be at our presumption in imagining
that we understand the many complex
contingencies on which existence depends

You can learn more about the compositional process Brown has used here in this TEDx Woods Hole presentation that features both the composer and New York Polyphony.


There is also a tape of commentary made by Sarah Darwin, Charles’ great-granddaughter, from the work’s March 2013 performance in the dinosaur hall at Berlin’s Museum für Naturkunde.

As for the Missa, itself, a slight variant on “The Mass is ended, go in peace.”

Brown’s benedictus keeps the Darwinian drive in mind — Alleluia / Ite missa est:

Go, you are sent forth.

‘A Visceral Connection To The Music And To The Text’

In his extensive and matter-of-fact liner notes for the new album, Brown offers insights into a remarkable range of source materials and inspiration.

The album opens with Five Women Bathing in Moonlight, for example, sung with robust precision by the mixed vocal ensemble The Crossing under the direction of Donald Nally. This work, it turns out, is a setting of a poem by Richard Wilbur, whom Brown describes to me as “an exceptional talent.”

This is yet another gorgeous text and so gently approached by composer and ensemble that the opening lines do seem to emerge from darkness:

When night believes itself alone
It is most natural, conceals
No artifice. The open moon
With webs in sky and water wields

Fans of choral music will hear something immediately in this of Eric Whitacre. Brown, like Whitacre, is adept at isolating and then conjoining sections of the chorus so that this piece in particular moves like a watery surface, ripples of sound speeding ahead and then slowing, easing, the sopranos’ grace notes describing a Matisse-worthy scene of vulnerability and uncertain light. Per Wilbur’s lines:

The bathers whitely come and stand.
Water diffuses them, their hair
Like seaweed slurs the shoulders, and
Their voices in the moonstrung air

When I ask Brown about Wilbur and his text, he tells me that the poet “lives not far from me, and I had the pleasure of talking with him a out Five Women Bathing in Moonlight before I set it to music.”

It may be hard for an author to think of anything more magical — perhaps quite jarring, too — than having a strong composer’s intelligence set one’s words in music. From the composer’s standpoint, Brown tells me, it may well be his own personality’s predilections that govern what’s chosen:

There is something about certain texts that suggest music to a composer, and I think that the connection — the spark — is very idiosyncratic to the composer. For me there is something about the vowels and how they line up with the drama that make certain texts fit into the mouth better than others. Issues of cadence and rhyme are also important, but if it doesn’t feel good to say it out loud, then I will probably look for something else.

Brown has set two more Wilbur pieces — Then and A Black Birch in Winter — and you can learn more about those here.

‘Respect And Curiosity’

Brown’s relationship to sacred music seems no more or less conflicted than it is for many of us. Being a minister’s son, I tell him, I’m fascinated by his use of the hymn Sweet Hour of Prayer. Among the most forlorn of the American Protestant canon.

“The drama and history associated with churches fascinates me from a human standpoint,” Brown tells me. “I am drawn to the stories and how they are still relevant today… The ‘religious purview’ I bring to my sacred (and skirtingly sacred…)  music is one of respect and curiosity — respect as someone who has been a part of the musical tradition from a young age, and curiosity as a person who wants to better understand the power of these narratives within our culture.”

And having read in his notes for the album Brown’s comments about singing, I ask him how that background affects his work today. The influences I tell him I hear — Whitacre and the masterful work of Morten Lauridsen — are indeed engaged in his work:

It’s hard to escape the influence of Morten Lauridsen and Eric Whitacre in contemporary American choral music, and I have sung and conducted a number of their works. The piece of Lauridsen’s that I enjoyed most as a performer were his — sadly underperformed — Mid-Winter Songs. The piano writing is fantastic — far more than simply an accompaniment –the texts are varied and engaging, and it’s delightfully challenging and rewarding to sing. I came to know Eric Whitacre’s Three Songs of Faith as a singer on choir tour. Again, the texts are exceptional, as is the marriage of text and music.

‘The drama comes together when the individual lines assert themselves in the context of one another.’
Gregory W. Brown

As you listen to Brown’s work, you realize that this is very much a writers composer, the importance he places on text is resonant in every nuance of the work. And so, it turns out, is his process — which might sound quite familiar to many authors grappling with long days and nights at the keyboard:

For me the experience of writing is an active process of music making. I play at the piano. I walk around singing lines over and over to myself. It’s not simply about creating idiomatic music; it’s fundamentally important to me that each line has its own impulse and character. It comes down to creating a visceral connection to the music and to the text.

Where writers might talk of the importance of the “immersive” experience of reading, Gregory Brown looks for an intimate experience of text-made-music:

Music should feel like it is part of your body when you are performing it. It should have a certain weight and fluidity. The drama comes together when the individual lines assert themselves in the context of one another.

Not so far from each other, artists who work in language and in music are, it might seem, above all good listeners. Brown:

Even when I’m reading silently, I still hear the sounds in my head clearly — It’s still a physical experience.