Instructions for Angels (text: Kenneth Patchen) for 6-part mixed choir; 6' (2001)
performed by the University of Wisconsin-Madison Chorale, dir. Bruce Gladstone:
composer’s note: Kenneth Patchen has long been one of my favorite poets, and “Instructions for Angels” is one of his most powerful works. In it, he asks the angels to relay this message to God: that we here on Earth love nature, babies, flowers, rain & snow, our fellow humans… but hatred and war can go to Hell (both metaphorically and literally). My setting of Patchen’s verse aims to capture both the beauty of all the amazing things we have here on Earth, and the desperation and pain we’re surrounded by in our war-torn and generally broken world. It begins with a long wordless introduction, just the sound of human voices joyfully singing together. But as that music continues it gets increasingly dissonant and complex, until finally it reaches a thorny, angular climax. At this point, the text begins, commenting on how to retain what is beautiful when so much evil creeps in to our sacred places.
As the piece goes on, the descriptions of our world’s beauty get increasingly lush and rich, blossoming into huge romantic textures. In contrast, the poem's refrain “to Hell with power and hate and war” gets quieter and quieter as the piece continues, until finally one lone voice is left singing it all alone as the rest of the choir stands by silently. We can’t let that lone voice die out. We must continue to hold on to beauty and peace in this world.