On 16 June the National Chamber Choir of Ireland conducted by Paul Hillier premiere Cassandra Miller’s The City, Full of People, at the annual Louth Contemporary Music Society festival in Dundalk. The piece, for sixteen unaccompanied voices, was commissioned by Eamonn Quinn of Louth Contemporary Music Society with funding provided by the Arts Council of Ireland and Robert D. Bielecki Foundation.
The 16-minute work emerges from the concluding refrain of Thomas Tallis’ Lamentations of Jeremiah I, transformed by Miller’s own automatic-singing as she traced canons in the original work while meditating. Miller says of the piece,
I remember the first time I heard the Tallis Lamentations as a teenager; the choir singing from the back of the church in a dark service during Holy Week. I don't remember if I knew in that moment – the moment where Tallis' music pauses for the striking call to return – that the words meant 'Jerusalem, Jerusalem, turn back to the Lord your God', or if I knew about the destruction of the First or Second Temple, or if I had any way to understand these ancient laments for Jerusalem, “How lonely sits the city that was full of people!” (Lamentations 1:1).
What I do remember is the clarity of that message through the music. Tallis' setting of the word 'Jerusalem' is enough to make anyone yearn to come back to a long-forgotten god. I suppose I've become a non-believer over the years; always holding a vague but deep-felt sense that I might need to return one day. In my wanderings (certainly aimless when compared to my youth), I have turned to company and community in lieu of a spiritual life. This composition – with each duo and trio as a congregation of its own – celebrates that scenario, both for its beauty and its incompleteness.
The sixteen voices are divided into 6 groups, whose music alternately overlaps and separates as the piece unfolds. The singers may choose to face slightly towards the audience while still maintaining a close group mind-meld. The piece can be staged in different ways, with singers surrounding the audience, spaced out amongst them, or positioned down the central aisle.
The piece reflects the preoccupation in Miller’s music with longing, lamentation, and return, as in her acclaimed viola concerto I cannot love without trembling that premiered this spring by Lawrence Power (“This is music that reminds us how to cry”, wrote Alex Ross in The New Yorker.) Explore Ensemble, who have just released the first commercial recording of Miller’s Perfect Offering, also perform her 2011 work for string quartet Leaving at LCMS on 17 June.
June will also see Miller’s work featured at the Aldeburgh Festival, where she is an artist-in-focus. Nine of her piece will be performed by a host of artists including the BBC Philharmonic, EXAUDI, Quatuor Bozzini, Juliet Fraser, and George Xiaoyuan Fu; Miller discusses her residency at Aldeburgh with Benjamin Tassie on Resonance FM here.