ad puram annihilationem meam ("to the purest annihilation of my self") came about as a highly specific request from Nils Schweckendiek and the Helsinki Chamber Choir for a solemn, spiritual piece using a French text, for inclusion on an Easter-time program of French music from the Middle Ages to the present. The performance would also include an original choreography drawing on the Japanese noh theater tradition, commissioned especially for the occasion from dancer-choreographer Nina Hyvärinen.
Overwhelmed by the many demands and restrictions of the project, not to mention my own reluctance to set an explicitly Christian text, I initially despaired of ever finding words that would be both appropriate and, for me, an honest expression. After a little research, though, I rediscovered the Jesuit priest and paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, whose writings I had studied in high school. Despite his occasionally dubious evolutionary theories, I'd remembered being intrigued by his attempts to reconcile his scientific learning with his deep faith, the rational and the mystical, as it were, which to me spoke of a very human need in the face of creation for both comprehension and awe. Reading through his 1923 tract La messe sur le monde ("The Mass on the World"), I realized that Teilhard's mystical personal closeness to the Divine was analogous in many ways to the Buddhist concept of dissolution of self, albeit expressed in Christian terms, creating a neat intersection between my Catholic upbringing and education and my later interest in Japanese religion and aesthetics. Teilhard was offering up a fervent prayer for self-immolation – not of a destructive, punitive nature, but one of quiet, radiant transcendence of affirmation and negation, self and "other" – a concept referred to in Zen texts as 'mu' (emptiness), through which 'satori' (enlightenment) is ultimately attained.
The music juxtaposes facets of Christian liturgy, like plainchant, with a more spacious ritual atmosphere influenced by gagaku music. The Latin portion of the text, in which Teilhard repeats the prayer for annihilation in the language of Catholic ritual, was its most attractive feature: I've long been an admirer of the haunting, virtuosic and unconventional music of Hildegard of Bingen, and was thrilled to finally have the chance to write a sort of plainchant of my own. This music opens and closes the work, framing the central rite, which is more responsory in character. The percussion part, written to be performed by the vocalists, plays a minimal but central role, with tuned glasses providing a halo for the chant passages, and a bass drum and antique cymbals punctuating the starker middle section, marking time and shaping the silences, and providing the rhythmic impulse for the dancer. A large gong adds its weight to the penultimate section, in which the long-desired illumination is glimpsed.
I am deeply grateful to the Sibelius Fund for making this commission possible, and to the Seaside Institute in Seaside, Florida, for the gift of time and space, both physical and mental, that enabled me to complete the work.
© Matthew Whittall (2008) Instrumentation
chx [perc] Category
Vocal and Choral Works Language
Helsinki Chamber Choir, cond. Nils Schweckendiek, Helsinki, April 12, 2008. Commisioned by / dedications
Commissioned by the Helsinki Chamber Choir.
+ Add information