Natural selection

Darwin to music
March 6, 2013

A guest blog entry from Gregory Brown, the composer of the Missa Charles Darwin:

“I went to college to become a scientist. My first foray into academic publishing was a coauthored paper with the catchy title The Variation of Tourmaline Chemistry with Metamorphic Grade in Southwest Maine. You’ve read it? I thought not. At some point my undergraduate geology advisors realized that I was spending much more time in the music building than in the lab. With their help, I soon realized it, too, and devoted the rest of my studies to music. I dug into the choral repertoire with a natural energy not always matched with natural vocal talent. I slowly grew in ability, eventually becoming a choral conductor and composer — though never losing my love of the science that finds its way into my music from time to time.

Kyrie eleison, by Hilton Abbott

In May 2010, I was in the corner of my basement office at Smith College, dealing with the usual business that goes along with the imparting of ‘wisdom,’ when Craig Phillips emailed me about New York Polyphony’s upcoming visit to Smith. The email dealt with some of the usual contractual nonsense — green M&Ms and so forth… and then he drops in this line:

Now for the real reason I’m writing… I had a bit of a creative outburst the other day… and I’m secretly hoping that you’ll be interested in playing along.

Camarhynchus crassirostris

Platyspiza crassirostris,
by John Gould

The “creative outburst” was nothing less than the basic skeleton of what would become the Missa Charles Darwin. Over the next few days we worked closely on the texts and the overall structure and both quickly came to a greater understanding of Darwin through his compelling and surprisingly elegant language. We realized that we needed a framework well-suited to enhancing the expressive potential of Darwin’s words. As choral musicians, we naturally gravitated toward a familiar musical form: the canonic five-movement Latin Mass — a distinct form with proportions, structure, and drama. Casting Darwin’s texts into that form provided a way to draw parallels and explore contrasts between the two. It was also a way to venerate Darwin and his legacy in a form that is associated with public celebration of belief.

As it turns out, I was interested in playing along. It has been my ongoing pleasure to work on the piece and to hear it come to life in both concert hall and recording session. I cannot wait to take this show to the dinosaur hall of the Berlin Museum für Naturkunde. Bratwurst, Dinosaurier, Bier, und Poliphonie. Perfect.”