In his poem “Auguries of Innocence,” William Blake writes of holding “infinity in the palm of your hand / And eternity in an hour” — a meditation on humankind’s ability to comprehend the limitlessness that surrounds us.
Blake is but one of the influences on the Emergent Universe Oratorio, an ambitious, cosmos-spanning musical work by Vermont classical guitarist and composer Sam Guarnaccia. In fact, Blake – along with environmentalist/writer Wendell Berry, poets Rainer Maria Rilke and Gerard Manley Hopkins, and scholar/philosophers Brian Swimme and Mary Evelyn Tucker – is so strongly present in the oratorio that Guarnaccia credits them as “contributors.” The composition explores ideas similar to those in Blake’s poem: eternity, infinity and the interconnectedness of all the universe’s life and energy. Composing it was no small task.
The oratorio is a type of musical and choral work related to opera in that it features recitatives and music, but different from opera in that it contains no performance or dramatization. Guarnaccia’s work premieres at a free performance this Sunday, September 15, in a monumental space that suits the oratorio’s scope: the cavernous Breeding Barn at Shelburne Farms.
Emergent Universe begins at the very, very beginning of everything — the Big Bang. Or, as Swimme and Guarnaccia prefer to call it, “the Great Flaring Forth.”
Guarnaccia relishes the metaphorical connections between a venue designed for reproduction and birth and a musical work about the life-energy that connects all things, inanimate and sentient alike. “That’s the theme of this whole thing,” Guarnaccia says. “That we are intimately, irrevocably, irreversibly interconnected with each other, interdependent with each other and with all life systems through the whole 13.8 billion years of this tremendous story, which is the greatest story there is.”
The music itself, which will be performed by 11 instrumentalists and nearly 40 singers, is swooping, majestic and unexpectedly playful for a piece that is, by design, spiritual and inspirational. One of Guarnaccia’s previous works, the widely performed A Celtic Mass for Peace, explores similar ideas.
The oratorio’s soaring music interacts organically with the words of its recitatives, which quote from Rilke, Hopkins and an unlikelier but central source: the 2011 Emmy-winning documentary Journey of the Universe, which also explores such ideas as interconnectedness and universal energy.
The documentary approaches these gigantic topics with such wonderment and reverence that it would not be unfair to call it “wide-eyed” or “fuzzy” — at times, it’s frustratingly imprecise. Guarnaccia’s oratorio is a bit fuzzy, as well, but actually uses that imprecision as a strength: This is a work of art, not an academic paper, and it’s intended to inspire reflection and contemplation on subjects so vast that they defy comprehension. The oratorio, though directly inspired by the philosophies and stories of many and varied religious faiths, is anything but preachy. Instead, it relies on ecological metaphors and soaring harmonies, themselves suggestive of interconnectedness.
At the same time, a satisfyingly scientific superstructure supports the piece’s spirituality. Guarnaccia’s writings about the Emergent Universe Oratorio suggest that the work’s godfather is Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), a philosopher and priest who linked Jesuit philosophy, cosmology and evolutionary theory. Teilhard’s careworn books rest on tables and armchairs in the composer’s home, and Guarnaccia is quite clear on the significance of science to his own work. “The science is what links everyone on the planet,” he says. “I’m not talking about something magical.” The composer is just as likely to invoke chaos theory as he is the notion of ecological consciousness.
Cellist Eugene Friesen, of the “earth-music”-focused Paul Winter Consort, will also participate in Sunday’s event, with a solo performance preceding the oratorio. But the event is not solely a musical experience. The performance at the Breeding Barn also incorporates a visual component: a painting series called “Endless Spring” by Cameron Davis, a University of Vermont art professor and painter whose works explicitly address ecological consciousness in ways similar to Guarnaccia’s.
Davis, Guarnaccia and Guarnaccia’s wife, Paula, constitute the “creative team” for the project, on which they have been collaborating for three years. “[It was] almost like we were a small study group,” Davis says, “exploring readings … pertaining to the idea that there is a collective need for humanity to wake up if we are to create a flourishing future for Earth, humans and the more-than-human world.”
Ultimately, if there is a “message” in the work (a term Guarnaccia is reluctant to use), it relates to the personal and ecological obligations imposed on humankind by the universal interconnectedness that is central to the oratorio. Guarnaccia humbly professes mystification about the workings of the universe, something he hopes will come through in the piece’s words and music.
“What the universe, or life — and, if you’re from one of the great traditions, you might say ‘God’ — is asking from us is participation, really being involved,” Guarnaccia says. He explicitly and animatedly draws parallels between the complexity of such artworks as Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and that of the universe — specifically, the idea that both the symphony and the universe are so vastly complex that, no matter how much you think you know about either, you’ll never really know it all.
"Emergent Universe Oratorio" by Sam Guarnaccia, with artwork by Cameron Davis, Sunday, September 15, 3 to 5 p.m. at the Shelburne Farms Breeding Barn. Info, 734-0279. samguarnaccia.com
The original print version of this article was headlined "Composer Sam Guarnaccia Premieres New Work About ... Everything."