The Seven Heavenly Halls
October 19, 2016
At this point in time, Brian Current is one of the most highly regarded composers on the Canadian music scene. A native of Ottawa, he first took a degree at McGill University – where he studied under the supervision of composers Bengt Hambraeus and John Rea – before entering a doctoral program at the University of California at Berkeley, from which he graduated in 2002.
Brian Current’s career embraces both composition and orchestra conducting, two dimensions that feed into each other. The concern for orchestral textures that characterizes his style comes directly from his knowledge of instruments acquired over years of conducting. On the other hand, his work as a composer may well have an impact on the repertoire he champions in concert. Also evident in his music is a pronounced interest in a lively and fluid rhythmic writing, one that recalls the energetic minimalism of American composer John Adams.
Brian Current’s music has been performed around the world. Programmed both by large symphony orchestras and ensembles specializing in contemporary music, his works have found favor with audiences and musicians alike. They have earned him numerous awards and distinctions in the course of his career; these include a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship in the U.S., the Barlow Prize for Orchestral Music, and the Premio Fedora, which he was awarded in Italy for his chamber opera Airline Icarus. His piece for orchestra For the Time Being (1999) was also an award winner, at UNESCO’s International Rostrum of Composers, which took place in Paris in 2001.
Current’s note on the subject of The Seven Heavenly Halls:
I became interested in the Zohar (the Book of Enlightenment) while researching texts for The River of Light, a large-scale multi-movement oratorio for choir, orchestra and soloists. The name of the cycle comes from Dante’s Paradiso, where the Pilgrim enters the glowing core of heaven and declares: “And I saw a light in the form of a river, radiant as gold, between banks painted with wondrous springs.” My frequent collaborator and librettist Anton Piatigorsky has written several plays inspired by Jewish mysticism, so I asked him if he knew of any historical texts from the Jewish tradition that were similar in theme to Dante’s journey. He introduced me to the Zohar, which he described as the most central book in the Kabbalah and the most mysterious of Jewish mystical texts.
It’s a beautiful document largely attributed to Rabbi Moses de León (1250-1305), writing as Simeon bar Yochai in the 2nd century. While reading through the Zohar, I immediately heard turbulent and gestural music full of orchestral colors:
“When the King conceived ordaining He engraved engravings in the luster on high. A blinding spark flashed within the Concealed of the Concealed from the mystery of the Infinite, a cluster of vapor in formlessness, set in a ring, not white, not black, not red, not green, no color at all. When a band spanned, it yielded radiant colors. Deep within the spark gushed a flow imbuing colors below, concealed within the concealed of the mystery of the Infinite.”
Even more inspiring and brimming with musical possibilities was the Zohar’s reference to The Seven Heavenly Halls, a series of ecstatic stages where each vision is marked by a different color. After passing through each of the colored halls a mystical traveler will, much like Dante’s Pilgrim, enter a seventh and “colorless” state. Color in music refers to the timbre of a sound as created by different combinations of overtones. Sounds with high overtones produce very bright musical colors and sounds with lower overtones create darker ones. Like many composers, I like to create colors across the entire orchestra, so envisioned a piece made up of seven ecstatic stages represented by different musical colors and textures. With the addition of three introductory movements, the piece is divided into ten sections, to be performed with little or no pause between them:
- Introduction: The Enlightened will Shine Like the Splendour of the Sky
- This is the Light
- Les sept palais célestes
- Hall One: Yesod (Foundation)
- Hall Two: Hod (Splendor)
- Hall Three: Netzach (Victory)
- Hall Four: Gevura (Strength)
- Hall Five: Ahava (Love)
- Hall Six: Ratzon (Will)
- Hall Seven: Kodesh Ha Kadashim (Holy of Holies)
Throughout, the tenor soloist acts as both our guide through The Heavenly Halls and as our medium into the texts of the Zohar. In calmer moments he sings in a style resembling cantillation, using scales based on the traditional Ahavah Rabbah, Magein Avot and Adonai Malach modes. The chorus, on the other hand, is envisioned as a myriad (of) voices within the texture of the orchestra so that the music is layered with the sounds of the traditional Sefirot: keter, binah, chochmah, da’at, chesed, gevurah, tiferet, hod, netzach, yesod and malchut. These are placed stereophonically in the choir in columns of right, middle and left as they are traditionally configured (S=Soprano, A=Alto, T=Tenor, B=Bass):
Keter (T3, B3)
Binah (S3) Chachmach (A3)
Gevurah (S2) Hesed (A2)
Tiferet (T2, B2)
Hod (S1) Netzach (A1)
Yesod (T1, B1)
The Seven Heavenly Halls forms Part I of The River of Light, a large-scale multi-movement cycle for choir, orchestra and soloists. Made up of seven separate pieces, The River of Light is about transcendence and is based on the texts of several traditions (Hindu, Christian, Jewish, First Nations Canadian, Sufi, Maori and Chinese) that describe mystical journeys towards an exalted state.
Many thanks to Anton Piatigorsky for introducing me to and adapting these beautiful texts, to Yehoshua Rosenthal in Jerusalem for translating them, and to the scholars Daniel Matt (UC Berkeley), Nathan Wolski (Monash University) and Arthur Haberman (York University) for helping me find and interpret them. A big thank you as well goes to the Montreal Symphony and Chorus for premiering the work with the stellar Frédéric Antoun in the tenor role. And the biggest thanks of all goes to the Azrieli Foundation for all their work behind the scenes and for their visionary example of patronage, which I’m sure will inspire many others to support artists for years to come.
– Brian Current
The Seven Heavenly Halls is part of the Azrieli Music Project, which celebrates, encourages and ensures the creation of new Jewish orchestral music.
Listen to Brian Current’s Strata (2010), performed by the Continuum ensemble.
– Brian Current: Airline Icarus, Naxos – Canadian Classics, 2014. (8.660356)
– Brian Current: This Isn’t Silence, Centrediscs, 2007. (CMCCD 12607)