The vocal quartet New York Polyphony delights in surprises — whether it's a matter of singing some rather raunchy Italian madrigals or making a video to introduce their album Times Go By Turns (released on BIS Aug. 27). The piece that the foursome of countertenor Geoffrey Williams, tenor Steven Caldicott Wilson, baritone Christopher Dylan Herbert and bass Craig Phillips selected for their video, "A Colloquy with God" by English composer Richard Rodney Bennett, has a very particular — and haunting — story behind it.
"We loved Sir Richard's work," Phillips says. "We always wanted to work with him, but we never had the nerve to ask. But we invited him to come hear us sing at Miller Theatre here in New York in January 2012, and he came. He was very kind and offered to work with us."
As pleased as they were, the quartet was astonished by what happened next. "Two days later," Phillips says, "a scan of a handwritten score arrived in our email inbox."
After premiering the work in Canada, the group planned to give the incandescently beautiful "Colloquy" its American premiere in New York in January of this year with the New York-based composer in attendance. They never had the chance: Bennett died Christmas Eve 2012 at age 76. "Colloquy" was one of Bennett's last works, if not the last.
The group decided that they needed to find an innovative way to introduce "Colloquy," and thought that a video, which is still a rare medium for classical music, would be a fitting tribute. But with the piece's already elegiac text — taken from "Evening Hymn" by the 17th-century author Sir Thomas Browne — the quartet, Phillips says, was concerned that in the wake of Bennett's death, the result "might be something exploitative, or sentimental, or obvious."
"We wanted something iconic but definitely not narrative — something more like an art installation," Phillips continues. So they turned to the director, filmmaker, designer and choreographer Mark DeChiazza, whom they had met while collaborating on a pair of operas by Jonathan Berger at Stanford University. Phillips says, "We gave Mark complete artistic control and said 'Here, go.'"
The young boy who is the heart of this video turns the text's meaning around. "In the best way possible, it was not at all what we were expecting," Phillips says.
"When New York Polyphony called me to discuss creating imagery for 'A Colloquy with God,' just two days had passed since the death of my uncle," DeChiazza explains by email. "Beside his deathbed, witnessing his efforts to cross that last line, the visceral process of his reckoning with death had struck me as frightening, yet also profound and pure — at once alien and completely ordinary. My experience of his death, still very vivid, shaped the way I heard Bennett's song, which discovers the lyric beauty in a man's mortal struggle. It also led me to understand the text — Browne's poem — as a grappling with opposites and dualities that, if brought into harmony, might ultimately transmute death into an eternal awakening."
DeChiazza's experience of the music, he says, is how he came to focus on a young boy: "It felt significant to me that Bennett shares 'A Colloquy with God' equally between the four voices of New York Polyphony, with no one voice featured; he does not ascribe singular identity to the singer of Browne's prayer. In response, I made the video's subject a young boy, feeling congruence in how the life force of a child can present with an abstract clarity — without carrying too strong an imprint of history or context. This child exists within a closed, blank room, which contains a sense of waiting or imminence. The bed becomes a place of unending restlessness, host to the contradictions of falling and flying, danger and safety, void and light. And I had great collaborators: in New York Polyphony's musicians, who led me through the depth of their interpretation of the music; in Mark Andrew, my director of photography, who brought his uncanny eye to the imagery; and in Harper Altschul, who reveals to the camera a truth and maturity far beyond his 7 years."