Week 25: Friday, September 7, 2018
“I Just Lightning” by Libby Larsen
Text by Maria Sabina
If you are looking for a gripping, eccentric, and women-focused tour-de-force for SSAA chorus and one very busy percussionist, this selection is for you.
I Just Lightning, by composer Libby Larsen, was commissioned by MUSE: Cincinnati Women’s Choir in 1994 and published in 1998. It is scored for four, six and eight part women’s/treble voices, with percussion. The percussion part covers timpani, toms, suspended cymbal, and chimes. An excellent recording can be found on the CD “I Just Lightning: The Music of Libby Larsen,” by Las Cantantes, the University of New Mexico Women’s Chorus, Bradley Ellingboe, conductor.
The text is originally in the language of the Latin American Mazatec tribe, written by curandera (native healer or shaman) María Sabina. Larsen uses an English translation, published in a 1984 collection by the Latin American Literacy Review Press. In this collection, Woman Who Has Sprouted Wings: Poems By Contemporary Latin American Women Poets, Sabina’s work was translated from Mazatec to Spanish by Eloina Estrada de Gonzales and then from Spanish to English by Henry Munn.
Sabina’s poetry is an adaptation of a ceremonial chant from the Mazatec, an indigenous people of Mexico. According to the composer, the chant “evokes the Divine Spirit with a supplication for healing; in this composition, the supplication is for healing and bringing strength to the spirit.” [notes from the score]. It encompasses both male and female aspects of deity, with the text often from a strongly women-identified point of view.
In this chant, the text moves through many facets of women and their lives – lawyer, banker, saint, spirit, healer, teacher, and so many others. These aspects are given as many purposeful “I am…” statements. Each line of text then ends with the original Mazatec word “dice” [‘di se], meaning “say” or “speak.” For example:
“I am a mother woman beneath the water, dice”
“I am a woman wise in medicine, dice”…
Besides “dice,” another word that is used in a unique way is “lightning,” as in the opening line “I just lightning.” Given the adjacent phrases of “I just shout” and “I just whistle,” it is clear the intention is that of an action. The use here seems to mimic actual lightning; meaning “to explode” or “to flash,” as in “to burst out in joyous celebration.” Together, all these layers of Sabina’s poetry serve to remind the listener of the speaker’s identity as a strong, powerful, capable woman.
Larsen’s setting of Sabina’s poetry is at times feisty, meditative, angular, and lyrical. For the repeated word “dice,” Larsen frequently incorporates accented and rhythmic interjections, which reinforce each individual “I am” statement. These interjections may fall after each line of text or sometimes concurrently with the text sung in another voice part. Each time it is strong and emphatic, to accentuate the particular “I am” characterizations of women. This work feels as if it is a celebration of women, by women – evoking the strength of the feminine divine power.
Throughout the piece, Larsen alternates between unbarred and barred phrases, and static and changing tempi, emphasizing the different intrinsic rhythms of the text. For example, the text “Holy Father says” is sung each time in a meditative, hymn-like fashion. By contrast, the various “I am” chants, showcasing women’s many facets, are supported in driving rhythmic intensity.
Larsen also utilizes aleatoric techniques. Two separate times, the upper voices enter at will with the repeated phrase “I am,” while the lower voices, still strictly metered, share two full “I am” statements beneath. Rituals ebb and flow based on the energy of those involved and thrive best when given free rein to evolve as the spirit moves. Larsen’s use of changing meter and aleatoric techniques dramatically conjures this very real quality of ritual, while her driving rhythms support the intense emotion created by the women and for the women within their sacred space.
This is not a piece to undertake lightly, but the time spent will be more than worth it. The unbarred phrases, the overall tonal structure, and the sparse nature of the pitched accompaniment will likely be the most complex aspects to initially learning the piece. I programmed this selection with the Ball State University Women’s Chorus, as part of my doctoral lecture recital. The rehearsals were intense, the energy was palpable, and the performance was powerful. To this day, it remains one of my top memories from the three years I conducted that ensemble.
|Title:||I Just Lightning|
|Composer:||Libby Larsen |
|Date of Composition:||1998|
“I Just Lightning” as published in Woman Who Has Sprouted Wings.
Translated by Eloina Estrada de Gonzales and Henry Munn.
|Subject(s), Genre:||Inner strength, women, empowerment, religion, ritual, spirituality|
|Language:||English, with some Mazatec|
|Voicing Details:||SSAA w divisi|
|Accompaniment:||Percussion (4 timpani, 5 toms, suspended cymbal, chimes)|
|Tempo:||Metered: MM=96-104; Unmetered: MM~60|
|Commissioning Ensemble:||MUSE: Cincinnati Women’s Choir, |
Catherine Roma, director
|Publisher:||Oxford University Press |
(available through C.F. Peters)
Until next week!
Dr. Shelbie Wahl-Fouts is associate professor of music, Director of Choral Activities, and music department chair at Hollins University, a women’s college in Roanoke, Virginia.
Some material for this week’s blog post was taken from my doctoral dissertation, “By Women, For Women: Choral Works for Women’s Voices Composed and Texted by Women,” (July 2009, Ball State University, https://tinyurl.com/ydeyuyk8) and my doctoral lecture recital, “The Representation of Women in Four Representative Works by Libby Larsen,”(February 2007, BSU).