Rehearsal rooms and performance spaces, New South Wales, 2018
“This is the most beautiful song I’ve done,” the singer next to me said. We had just started rehearsing Christ the King by Clare Maclean. Both of us were part of the Sydney Chamber Choir, preparing for a tour to Northern New South Wales.
I couldn’t help being sceptical. I had just edited the messiest score for rehearsal, half of which notes didn’t even belong. But we persevered, and a picture began to emerge.
It’s like seeing a tapestry in the dark – there’s beauty, but there’s also a great deal of uncertainty. And I didn’t know which thread I was supposed to embody.
Everyone made copious notes – including me. It was the only way to unpluck the thread from the tapestry. But I was beginning to agree with my fellow singer. It is, indeed, one of the most beautiful songs I’ve done.
The song’s main features are medieval chants which are then transformed into an intricate canon. Sadly they don’t lend easily to the quantifiable limits of a notation software. But in performance, it’s glorious.
The song is a composite of two poems by New Zealand poet James K. Baxter. Most of it consists of contradictions. This is a man grieving for an inaccessible city beyond the stars, while standing under an open sky.
The glitter on the river water,
Makes every stone and plant cell grieve …
The odd thing is, the words say what I can’t express. At the time, I was going through a crisis of the soul. I was far from being happy and I didn’t even know why. I began to find out more about Baxter. He was a troubled man, from a troubled time. Yet was his cause justified?
The answer lies, in part, in the visions I get performing the piece and working with different conductors throughout 2018.
Richard Gill said during that Northern NSW tour – his last before passing away- that Maclean has the touch of Hildegard Von Bingen, the 12th century composer. She certainly captures the image of Christ that is rarely brought to the fore.
This is the king with a crown of thorns, doomed to carry the burden of the world. It’s a contrast to the peaceful, all-loving, soft-hearted images cultivated by most popular churches.
It is the side of Christ I come to know well –as the patron saint of the spiritually-troubled.
Troubled by conscience, consciousness and guilt.
I carried the song against a growing environmental consciousness. It says the guilt that is placed on my generation in just a few words.
Whoever has lifted the burden of Christ,
Will find that an armful of grass
Is the same weight as the cross.
Compositionally, the song is a series of crosses too. These are the points where the chants and canon come together. Then what follows is a transition into the plea of the prisoner.
Grief is a constant companion, so is the refrains of alleluiahs that punctuates the song like a glimpse of angelic choirs.
I listened to the original Sydney Chamber Choir recording from the1980s, and was blown away by the affect of the Alleluiah refrains. The sounds seem to come from the stars, down to us through the winds and the waves. In it are echoes of an angelic choir – in broken harmony and uneven rhythm. Yet through performing it, I know it’s a feat of skills –precise counting of beats.
Nicholas Routley, who has worked with Maclean, revealed the secret: “Listen to the tenor,” he said of the refrain. This is the angelic line that is cast from heaven, and under his direction, it cuts through the texture.
The shreds of my scepticism vanished on the last of the alleluiahs. “It’s the moment when the gates of heaven open,” Sam Allchurch, our third conductor, asked of us. No longer the careful pianissimo, precisely uneven. Finally the broken chants and lines reshape themselves into a seraphic choir in full voice.
It is a balm in the days which feel like “an acre of burnt grass.” A temporary respite from the fact that whether under an open sky or a locked room, we are still imprisoned by our humanity.