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Harmonious history

Musical composer blends biblical history, electronics and music

By Hee Ju Kang
On October 7, 2013

  • Chasalow closely studied the Dead Sea Scrolls and used them as direct inspiration for his newest electro-acoustic composition which was featured at the concert. Courtesy of Eric Chasalow

The dichotomy of ancient texts and modern musical sensibilities can be perplexing. Nevertheless, the two have been combined to form a cohesive form of art with a wide, expressive range. The combination is striking, verging on eerie-even otherworldly, and left its listeners in a reverie throughout.
"Where it Finds Nothing But the Wind," the musical composition based on the Dead Sea Scrolls, premiered as the final piece of the concert on Oct. 5 in the Slosberg Music Center.
Prof. Eric Chasalow (MUS), composer and director of the Brandeis Electro-Acoustic Music Studio, composed the piece, basing it on 10 texts from the Dead Sea Scrolls-a collection of texts discovered in caves near the shore of the Dead Sea including manuscripts later incorporated into the Hebrew Bible canon. The texts are written in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek.
The premiere was sponsored by the Brandeis University Office of the Provost and the Dead Sea Scrolls: Life in the Ancient Times exhibition hosted by the Museum of Science in Boston.
Prof. Marc Brettler (NEJS) explained his involvement with the project in an email to the Justice. According to him, the idea of a partnership with the Museum of Science was proposed by Malcolm Sherman, then chair of the Brandeis Board of Trustees and former chair of the Museum of Science Board: Once the partnership was in place, the provost contacted Brettler and asked him to chair the committee.
Chasalow became involved soon after. Brettler emailed the faculty asking whether anybody was interested in a project about the Dead Sea Scrolls, and Chasalow was intrigued by the idea.
He emailed Brettler proposing the composition of a piece in relation to the scrolls, and Brettler consented, setting the idea into motion.
He took this opportunity to blend the sounds of the flute, guitar, percussion and electronics with the vocals of Tony Arnold-the commended soprano of the International Contemporary Ensemble-to heighten the ancient scrolls.
Brettler explained in his email that as a biblical scholar, he had been intrigued by the project. The insight the scrolls provide into how the Bible developed and the light they shine on the development of Judaism fascinates him.
With his expertise and passion for the project, Brettler assisted Chasalow with deciphering the text.
The project was not without difficulties, however. "The most challenging [part] was writing out and recording the scrolls that will be sung. The scrolls are written without vowel points, so figuring out how they should be pronounced was very challenging and time-consuming," Brettler said.
The piece required a hefty time commitment. "I spent the entire summer starting at the beginning of June [...] writing this music. I didn't finish until the beginning of September, actually," Chasalow said.
Despite the challenges, the two enjoyed working with one another. "[Chasalow] is very curious, came up to speed very quickly concerning the scrolls and their content. [He] did a great job, with minimal advice, on selecting scrolls that could work for his new musical composition," Brettler said.
Their efforts came to fruition on the night of the concert. The concert began at 8 p.m., headed by three different pieces unrelated to the scrolls before the premiere of the Dead Sea Scrolls piece. The three pieces were "Cendres" (1998) by composer Kaija Saariaho, "The Furies" (1984) by Chasalow himself, and "The Riot" (1993) by Jonathan Harvey.
Throughout the performance, palpable excitement hung thick in the atmosphere, and the audience sat hushed throughout until the start of intermission, after which the Dead Sea Scrolls piece, "Where It Finds Nothing But the Wind", finally made its debut, performed live by the aforementioned soprano Tony Arnold and professional musicians from all around the country: Flutist Sue-Ellen Hershman-Tcherepnin, percussionist Jonathan Hess and guitarist Daniel Lippel.
The texts in the piece draw several selections from the scrolls, ranging from Psalms to the lurid tale in the Book of Enoch, in which celestial beings look down on earth, pick women to bear them children and copulate with them. The women give birth to giants who drink blood and rampage on earth. Following this are selections from the War Scroll and benedictions.
"Imagery in these texts is everything from what you'd expect which is 'prayerful,' and the voice of the individual song is very intimate and pastoral-beautiful. The language is fantastic," Chasalow said.
The music, the text and Arnold's vocals, blending with the fragmented voices in the piece, enthralled the audience and evoked soft gasps of surprise from several.
For one of the movements starting with the flutist, Chasalow commented, "It's an unusual sound, and it's very distant. It's like an ancient voice," he said.
Chasalow also made a note on audience feedback. "You raise the bar very high as a composer when you write a big piece like this. And I'm just hoping that people will take that ride, and get lost in the world of those texts ... leave feeling that they've experienced something new," he said. 

By Hee Ju

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