Thursday, March 03, 2011

On the way to 'Let Me In'

No, not the vampire movie. We came up with the title well before posters for the horror film hit the London Tube. Our Let Me In is a wee bit different from that. It will be premiered by the magnificent choir Chanticleer in California on 26 March and given a number of performances in the environs during the ensuing week. It's an a cappella choral piece by Roxanna Panufnik, one of three new works commissioned from different composers by the American choir for a project based on episodes in the life of Jesus. They'll perform them alongside existing music by Part, Gorecki and Mason Bates. And if you're wondering how a nice Jewish girl who likes Richard Dawkins and scribbles for the JC ends up doing the words, read on...

When Rox (who's Roman Catholic) asked me for a poem to set, I think my first words were "You do know I'm a Jewish atheist, don't you?" Of course she did - we've been great friends for more years than I'd care to state - but the human element of the story was, she felt, more important than the faith. Having selected the childhood of Jesus as her patch, she'd read the Gnostic Gospels (I wanted to know if there were some Agnostic ones too) and settled on a story in which the boy Jesus meets a grieving mother whose child has died. He resurrects the baby. As a mum of three, Rox was deeply drawn to the emotions of this tale. And she was well aware that I know more than I'd have liked to know about bereavement.

The project soon turned into one of those creative onions in which you peel off one layer only to find ten more with ever-stronger flavours underneath. I suggested that we set the narrative in the early Jewish community in which the Gnostic Gospels suggest it could have taken place (eg, in one of the other stories, to which we make passing reference, our lad is told off for making clay birds on the Sabbath).

I filled the first part of the poem with imagery from the traditional rituals of Jewish mourning: the covered mirrors, the torn robes, etc. But the twist is that the mother is nearly losing her mind in her grief and won't allow anyone into the house to sit with her. A boy appears outside, calling: "Let me in!" The crowd are suspicious: they have heard frightening stories of this child's uncanny powers. But so has the mother: she opens the door, recognising he is the one person who could help her. He does. The baby is returned to life. Amid general jubilation, the boy slips away unnoticed.

But how to depict the background in the music? Rox wrote to the marvellous Professor Alex Knapp, expert on Jewish traditional music, who talked us through early settings of the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead. We visited Jackie, a cantor in North London, who offered even more detail on the topic and sang some to us, her voice carrying exactly the focus of spiritual energy that I think Rox was hoping to find in these powerful chants. The earliest version that could be traced was a Yemenite melody infused with a rawness and intensity that grabbed us both by the innards. This Kaddish runs through the first part of the piece.

So far I've heard Let Me In only on Rox's Sibelius computer, but on first listening I was bowled over by the emotional oomph in her harmonies and the way the vocal lines rise up through the keening pulsation of the texture, rather like trying to find one's way through a forest of exotic plants. It's a story to be told - but also to be felt in the gut. Rox has just been appointed as the London Mozart Players' first associate composer. They're in for a treat.

As for the movie...well, I didn't go because I don't get on with that kindathang. But it was nice to see the title of our piece plastered all over the walls at Bond Street Station.

Meanwhile it's turned out there's still another Let Me In! Here it is...