Introductory Program Note for Bard Degree Recital: "Speculating on Eternity" Mar 2016

The following is my introductory program note for "Speculating on Eternity," my culminating degree recital at Bard College. The recital will be live streamed at this link on Saturday May 14 at 8 PM and event information can be found on facebook at this link

Time eludes and encapsulates us. In our sensory experience we ask, “where has the time gone?” or “when will this end?” as the time we share flies by or drags on. An objective understanding of time escapes us as well. Though we can glance at our phones and agree that it is 7:53 PM on May 14, 2016, the phenomenon that we measure with our clocks and calendars defies definition. Theorists of time differ—is time a dimension of physical reality in which events occur in measurable sequence, or is that which we call time a cognitive effect of the mind that enables us to organize reality into discrete events, an aspect of a user interface our brains generate for us to navigate physical reality? Whether time is real or cognitively generated, both theories posit an eternity beyond human knowledge. Time as reality offers unthinkable expanses that precede and follow our brief existences. If indeed time is cognitively generated, then what is reality beyond the veneer created by our senses?

This evening’s program deals with our relationship to time, particularly to eternity and eternal realms in the Western imagination. In Claudio Monteverdi’s Ab aeterno ordinate sum divine wisdom speaks to us of her origins before the world came into being and rejoices in the advent of humanity. Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Tierkreis, the German term for the Zodiac, winds through the program as a circular journey through the Zodiac’s archetypal characters. Gaetano Donizetti set Dante Alighieri’s visceral painting of eternal damnation in Canto XXXIII: Il Conte Ugolino, in which Dante’s theological imagination and the power struggles between medieval Italian city-states intertwine in a grisly tale. Four lieder of Franz Schubert flow from the underworld of classical antiquity in Friedrich Schiller’s poem Gruppe aus dem Tartarus, to the contest for power between humanity and the Gods in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Prometheus, to Johann Mayrhoffer’s meditation on the ephemerality of human achievement in Auf der Donau, and conclude with Goethe’s Grenzen der Menschheit, a meditation on the ways in which humanity is both exiled from and fundamentally bound to the fabric of eternity.

The ways in which we imagine eternity, and the forces the govern it, shape the way in which we navigate our individual and collective lives. In these poems and the compositions they inspired, we find distinct ideas of the humanity’s relationship to eternity, each deeply embedded and continuing to shape the cultural imagination.  Meditating on scales of time beyond our existence is not merely an exercise in humility. In time’s expanse we are small, yet we also live in an era that human activity is setting in motion processes that will unfold for millions of years; climate change, nitrogen cycles, radioactive half-lives, to name a few. Time dwarfs us, but we cannot claim insignificance. Perhaps in the past, wrestling with the human relationship to the eternity was strictly an intellectual or spiritual practice. Today, it is a materially necessary practice as we come to understand humanity’s power to shape the course of time far into the future.

Music exists on a canvas of time, and is uniquely suited for its exploration: its subdivision, its suspension, its cyclical nature. Perhaps in moments of writing, composing, and performing we each tear away little scraps of time from the canvass of eternity, scribble our messages on them, and toss them back onto the metacanvass of time, hoping they stick in our collective memories. It is a sacred privilege to be in this time and place with you.

Andrew MunnComment