Thursday, June 20, 2013

The Peaceable Kingdom

I have two recordings of Randall Thompson's The Peaceable Kingdom. One is by the San Jose State College A Cappella Choir conducted by William Erlendson, and appears to be from about 1956. This review from 1958 is by someone who apparently can't stand the piece (the snippet tantalizes with disdain: "...the less said the better. It sounds for all the world like the sort of stuff church organists write for each other by the yard. Incredibly awkward, stilted..."). The other is by the Whikehart Chorale, conducted by Lewis E. Whikehart, about 1965.

Thompson's text for the oratorio is taken entirely from the book of Isaiah. It dramatizes the choice of path. You can choose iniquity or righteousness, and you will be rewarded according to your choice. As George Clinton said, Good thoughts bring forth good fruit, bullshit thoughts rot your meat.

Here's what you should do: say to the righteous that it shall be well with him. (Make sure it's a man.) They will eat the fruit of their doing. Don't bother talking to the wicked, because they will be sorry. The reward of his (remember, it's only men we're talking about here) hand will be given to him. Look at my servant: he'll sing, he's so psyched. You, on the other hand, will cry and howl because you're fucked. Serve.

Who's wicked? Partiers and smug fucks, apparently. Them who are wise in their own eyes, and prudent in their own sight. Them that rise up early in the morning, that they may follow strong drink, that continue till night, till wine inflame them. And the harp, and the viol, the tabret, and pipe, and wine are in their feasts. They think they're pretty smart now, but will they laugh so loud when they're anally raped by giant scorpions for eternity?

The stuff that's bound to happen to the wicked people sounds an awful lot like what happens to people when other people disagree with them on points of ideology, theology, and/or resource distribution. Everyone that is found shall be thrust through. Their children also shall be dashed to pieces before their eyes. Their houses shall be spoiled and their wives ravished. (Remember, only men can be wicked - ladies, make sure you don't marry a wicked man or you'll get ravished. Either way I suppose you'll burn in the lake of fire, you know, cause of Eve, but at least if you marry a righteous man you can avoid the rape on earth.)

Drink their blood. It's ok, they were on the wrong path. You know you want their blood.

When you hear a police siren, are you like, "Thank god, they are upholding the law," or are you like, "Oh shit, throw that out the window!"? As it happens, the day I'm writing this, a friend is telling me how he picked up the "legendary" Coven record Witchcraft Destroys Minds and Reaps Souls. Coven, who kinda sound like a goth Jefferson Airplane, are famous for having a song called "Black Sabbath" a year before Black Sabbath's first record came out, and for having a dude named Oz Osborne in the band (not the same guy), and for getting their record pulled due to controversy about connections between the counterculture and the occult.

Choose your path. Witchcraft destroys minds and reaps souls. Sin makes it hard to contribute. If you're on the drugs you're not working. If you're not working, the harvest will rot on the tree. Pollute your body and you pollute the body of mankind (again, ladies, you're not part of this. You can go on and get back to your washing now).

The baby boomers were like, fuck that noise. We're gonna do what we want. They did all kinds of drugs and sin and went on to complete dominance of the cultural conversation for half a century. Rock revolution ended the war, liberated consciousness, and ushered in tolerance and humanity. Thank god for those hippies and their class and race privilege that allowed them to go down the sin party path and still enact civil rights and women's liberation. Thank god they only ever used their cultural power for good, and thank god that from their position at the pinnacle of cultural power they figured out how to protect their own money and interests so their values would propagate through the generations. They reached across the generations with their message of love and hope. Thank god they ended war. Thank god they ended racism. Thank god that money isn't fast replacing whatever used to be called humanity.

Symbolic capital.

In the new world, the ones with privilege don't have a harvest to reap. The new world figured out resource distribution. Technology makes things take less time, like travel and communication. More time to do drugs. The old world rules as a code of practical conduct are less relevant when the new world makes you a god. Now, from your godly position, you can exploit technology, pay less for more, and blame the outcast for their sloth.

Decisions are hard. Drugs, money, rape, power, privilege.

Ok so now that I blamed the baby boomers for everything, back to the music. Thompson's Handel-y runs and beautiful, crowd-pleasing counterpoint sections butt up against clangs of dissonance and jerky shouts, which are also crowd-pleasing. He mixes the old world and the new but never gives up the pop sensibility. Didn't he know no one was supposed to be doing that shit in 1935 Harvard Tanglewood world? Pick your dogma: twelve tone or neoclassical. What's all this free style mixing? It's like he thought it was 1975 or something.

You'll never find a recording of The Peaceable Kingdom whose cover isn't this wackadoo painting of the same name by Edward Hicks. That's because the painting inspired the piece, as noted in this 2001 Harvard Magazine biography by Elliot Forbes:

That summer [1935] the Worcester Art Museum acquired a version of The Peaceable Kingdom by the American primitive painter Edward Hicks. Thompson went to view the painting and became aglow not only with what he saw but also with the biblical passage portrayed (Isaiah, 11:6-9), which ends: "For the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea." Like Hicks, Thompson was drawn to the theme that the wicked will be destroyed and the good will go to heaven.

What a humdinger, that painting. Actually, Hicks made tons of versions of it. In this amazing criticism by John Braostoski, I learned that Hicks (who had followers called "Hicksites"!) was passionate about the damage that the material world could inflict on the human spirit, but ultimately identified the struggle for peace as an inner one. Peace. Decisions.

I face a choice between two recordings of the Thompson piece. In the Erlendson, they have that annoying fake British accent that choral groups do, roll their R's, and generally attack the piece with a block-headedness that feels, yes, smug and self-righteous. They know who's on their side, and they know the answer. The Whikehart abounds with juicy nuance and delicious dynamics. They sing without affect. They are asking the question.

Contemplate your choices. As you do so, look at these anime avatars singing Thompson's most famous piece, "Alleluia", in little computer voices. Relax, it's gonna be ok.

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