Water Rites (2019)

a micro-cantata for choir

Commissioned by Choral Arts Initiative for the 2019 PREMIERE | Project Festival
Brandon Elliot, Artistic Director

SATB Choir
SATB Soli (Solo Alto plays the role of the High Priestess)

Equipment Needed: Shaman Drum (for Solo Alto), Handbells, Ocean Drum, Stones

Program Note
It’s a big departure from my usual style to write something so cerebrally explorative, and certainly an even larger departure to write a program note from a first-person perspective. This result may just be the sheer volume of influence and personal growth I drew upon when composing Water Rites. The work is a collection of six miniature prayers that draw on abstractions and reimaginations of Pagan lore I’ve studied for years. The piece is one that mimics the multi-layered intention and function of a ritual. At its most literal, Water Rites is a sacred choral work (albeit embracing the mystic rather than the doctrinal), but the approach to performance is one that is ritualistic in itself. You’ll notice the choir utilizing prescribed objects to create atmospheric effects, performing various poses and motions, and delivering the text in an unrecognizable, almost primitive sounding tongue. A solo alto, the High Priestess, leads the work with her shaman drum.

In creating the work, I drew on the evocative and theatrical works of Tan Dun, Jaakko Mäntyjärvi, George Crumb, Carl Orff, and Arvo Pärt, as well as exploring other forms of sonic ecstasy in everything from house and trance music, to Gregorian chant, to the rituals of the Mevlevi Order (the Whirling Dervishes of Sufism). After years of struggling with a hunger to contribute to Pagan sacred music in the Western idiom (of which there is little) without a way of delivery that felt authentic, I picked up the book The Art of Language Invention by David J. Peterson (creator of the Dothraki and Valyrian languages for Game of Thrones) out of sheer curiosity. The discovery that there were large communities of language constructors (known as ‘Conlangers’) who created new languages not only for practical purposes (Esperanto) or for fictional worlds (Tolkein’s languages), people created aesthetic languages that were meant to be a work of art. The concept was absolutely mesmerizing to me, so I began to create my own ‘artlang.’

My goal was to give a sacred, ‘native’ tongue to contemporary Earth-centric spiritualities for use in sacred writing or ritual observance. Out of this, a family of four languages was born: Xraðankeð (loosely translated to ‘Sacred Earth’ or ‘Earth Ritual’), Zuflūvii (‘River Wisdom’), Piþkfit (‘Flame Spit’), and Gusannq (‘Expanse’), each carefully crafted to mimic the aesthetics of each classical element in their phonetic build and grammar. The texts to Water Rites are original prayer-poems written in Zuflūvii, the language of water, an element I’ve always felt closely connected to. Zuflūvii is made characteristic by it’s large inventory of consonants mimicking ripples, waves, splashes, and other movements around or in water. The language is agglutinating, forming meaning from the stringing together of grammatical particles. Also honoring the mystery of the river, the word order is object-verb-subject (a rarity in natural languages), concealing the source (the subject) as we behold first the outcome, or even the act itself (the object).

 The six rites performed trace the span of a life from birth to rebirth, experiencing growth, loss, and war. The first movement, ñaaşe, meaning ‘birth,’ is a simple baptismal rite, emerging from a whispered mantra of “q̈āāşii,” meaning “water.”  ƀadè ҩnčii (‘The Coming’) captures the power, joy, and turbulence of youth, followed by a quiet prayer for enlightenment in asaaɹev (‘Dream’). бeƀæђ (‘Razed’) depicts the carnage of war and the need for spiritual fulfillment after a devastating loss while ‘Deep’ (ҁɹaavisq̈e) is an imagined, self-administered rite for one’s final moments of life. At the end of this section, the High Priestess chants: “like petals on the water, graceful, I depart from your shore” as the choir gently repeats “λelū...” (“beyond”) in the background like receding waves. The final rite, eҁo ñaaşe (‘Rebirth’), is an invocation for rebirth. Specifically referencing The Summerland, a conceptual representation of the afterlife for contemporary Earth religions, this movement makes a plea for the return of the departed. We end the work as we began, adrift in water, a liminal space between life and death.


Line-by-Line Diction Guide