On an eerily comforting morning in early March, composer Heather Christian visited the Ars Nova space in Greenwich Village, Manhattan, for the first time in two years. The bright sun, radiating the warmth of a spring day, was enough to make her momentarily forget that she was frozen. Once inside, she found the setting for her delicately epic choral piece “Oratorio for Living Things,” which had two previews before the pandemic hit, and is back until April 17.
“I felt the weight of time,” she said in a recent Zoom chat, reflecting on her return to acting. “It was the weight of expectation or even the grief of the last time I was in this space.”
It was fitting that time should be Christian’s companion, since “Oratorio for Living Things”, in the words of its creator, is a study of time “on three different scales: the quantum scale, the human scale and the cosmic scale”.
To achieve this, she says she tried to find parallels between the way particles move, for example, and the way a fugue is structured, or by looking at cosmic violence (the Big Bang) and connecting it to trauma. human.
Then, to explain these concepts on an emotional level, she collected hundreds of voicemails she had solicited from strangers, inviting them to share a memory anonymously. (“I left business cards all over the place!” she laughs.) Those delicious memories – of carrying grocery bags on a sled in Moscow, or knowing that someone’s mother “will bring my little brother with her” when she leaves the hospital — make up the second act.
As for the musical composition, performed by a six-person orchestra, “Oratorio” layers a myriad of genres – gospel, jazz, baroque and a range of pop styles – to create harmony where cacophony might otherwise exist.
“The more we sing these songs and say these words,” said Onyie Nwachukwu, one of the 12 singers who bring the piece to life, “the more deeply I become aware of the almost fantastical nature of humans and everything around us. .”
Show director Lee Sunday Evans envisioned the production as taking place in a Quaker meeting house “where there is no pulpit or proscenium and so the music wants to be among us”. The performers move through the space gently interacting with audience members, almost inviting them to sing.
“I knew I wanted to do a piece about time,” said Christian, 41. “Music itself is a study of time, a dissertation on how time moves in a specific way.” She tried to dissect Carl Orff’s cantata “Carmina Burana”, a celebration of earthly passions which she describes as “spaghetti exploding out of the bowl”. It’s been a favorite of his since high school due to its mysterious nature – it asks big questions without offering answers.
A self-proclaimed cultural omnivore who finds as much wisdom in “The Golden Girls” as in Bach’s compositions, Christian revisited Orff by reading Carlo Rovelli’s “The Order of Time,” on time in physics, and rewatching old episodes from “Cosmos” by Carl Sagan. “Her fascination with the way they all explained complex subjects in an digestible way eventually culminated in a eureka moment: she would do the same with a piece of music. And that’s when she started working on “Oratorio”. (The booklet is dedicated to the three Carls.)
Christian composes by ear. “Things come to me suddenly,” she says. But lacking a consistent practice for transcribing her work, she found an invaluable collaborator in musical director Ben Moss, who also performs in “Oratorio.” Moss came to an early workshop of the piece in 2018 and offered to help with the transcription. At the time, Christian had the skeleton of the work, Moss added the details. He said he felt like he was “crawling inside his mind and his musical and poetic imagination”.
Using voice notes and memos, Christian communicates his intentions to his collaborators, making them an essential part of the process. “I would like us to record some of the sessions where she explains things and her whys and hows because that in itself is art,” said Nwachukwu, who also appeared in a 2019 workshop by Christian “Annie Salem: An American Tale” at Vassar’s Powerhouse Theatre, found herself approaching acting from a new angle: “less restrictive and structured” than what she was used to in opera and more traditional musicals. “What Heather asked of me was to go to a somewhat uncomfortable place,” she recalled, “where the first thing I had to do was throw out the convention.”
Rachel Chavkin, the “Hadestown” director who oversaw the “Salem” workshop, described Christian’s music as “somewhere between a creature howling at the moon and the sound of the moon itself.” Her music, she continued, “is not meant to advance the story, each song feels a bit more like a spiritual or emotional event than a story beat.”
Chavkin began collaborating with Christian in 2008 when they created a musical called “Mission Drift,” a show about the recession and the rapacious brand of American capitalism. Each time they work together, Chavkin said, “I can see my own experience with the possibilities of these shapes.” She added: “Heather invents the wheel for herself.”
FOUR DAYS BEFORE the theaters in New York closed, I attended the last dress rehearsal of “Oratorio”. I remember very well leaving the theater with the impression of having witnessed a work that succeeded in establishing a dialogue between the sacred and the banal, between the invisible and what we grasp with our senses. . In many ways, this has left me open to viewing the pandemic as an opportunity to find wonder and solace in the things we often take for granted.
During this enforced hiatus in 2020, Christian herself found and made music out of things she had never tried before. “I was swimming in a sea of early drafts,” she laughed, “but I also had chickens and decided to take gardening seriously.” Spending time with her husband at home in Beacon, NY, she also reflected on herself. “I tried to investigate my relationship to ambition and slowing down, especially because all of my shows deal with exactly those things,” she added.
Born in New Orleans, Christian was raised in what she called “vanguard Catholicism.” At age 11, she became a cantor in Natchez, Mississippi, where her family had moved when she was 3. But soon “the functional magic of religion lost its mysticism,” she explained. She remembers being backstage and seeing “a priest pick out a wedgie in the middle of the host’s consecration.” Suddenly it was all theatre, a new type of sacred space.
She received formal training in musical theater at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, where her acting teacher observed that she was quite complex and wisely encouraged her to join the theater wing. experimental.
Christian describes himself as someone who “would go crazy if you took away my pens and my microphones”. During the confinement, she found new channels for her creativity in projects like “I Am Sending You the Sacred Face”, a solo musical about Mother Teresa in collaboration with Joshua William Gelb, and even became a sound artist to to adapt his show. “Animal Wisdom”, an autobiographical cabaret, for the cinema, which she hopes will be picked up by distributors. “I’m incredibly prolific, and I’m not saying that to brag,” she confessed, “it’s just how I operate.”
She explained that she needed to find functionality in her art, returning to work in “Oratorio” presents a new set of challenges. “Initially I did a Rorschach test for everything people brought in,” she said, but now she wants to “give people some optimism.”
“I honestly think it’s going to take some work for me and for people to reimagine the performance space as a womb and a safe space,” Christian said. “Luckily, with theatre, all it takes is lighting, sound and bodies to completely transform a space.”
She added: “I forgot how much I love people, how much I thrive on people.”