Thought Catalog
January 8, 2015

Music For Writers: Martin Bresnick And The Terrible Beauty Of Sorrow

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iStockphoto / smartmessenger
iStockphoto / smartmessenger

 ‘We Will Always Sing Such Songs Of Longing’

Each time I visited, my grandmother wept bitterly about the murder of her parents, her brother, her two sisters, and all their children. Can a child comfort a grandmother, a grandfather? I became a witness, a musician, and a composer.

Martin Bresnick is a native New Yorker. In his youth, his grandparents lived near him in the Bronx. The stories he heard from them were about their own earlier lives in Vysoke Litovsk, their “old home” in Russia (now Vysokoye, Belarus).

And it’s with “Going Home — Vysoke, My Jerusalem,” that he opens his new album, Prayers Remain Forever.

Thanks to New York Public Radio’s Q2 Music, which is featuring the new recording as its Album of the Week, the album has come to our attention for coverage. This is easily one of the most beautifully moving evocations of loss and confirmation of the season.

I call this “confirmation,” in the sense that we are driven in our lives, all of us, in myriad ways, to confirm with ourselves and for ourselves what and whom we’ve lost.

Bresnick’s colleague, the composer David Lang — whose thoughtful liner notes grace this recording from Starkland — points out that the second track, “Ishi’s Song,” is “a kind of musical reliquary for a song sung by the last surviving Yahi native American, who was recorded singing this song but who did not leave a translation or any indication of what it meant.”

Recently, in #MusicForWriters, we looked at the work Oceanic Verses, in which the composer Paola Prestini explores “fading civilizations” — and how much power the threat to endangered languages means to our art, that of writing.

This time, in Bresnick’s work, we hear something more individualized. As Prestini speaks to us on the macro level, Bresnick sits right beside us, so close.

Another friend of #MusicForWriters, the seminal composer Caleb Burhans, whose profoundly effective Excelsior was our first entry in this series, is heard playing violin in the “Going Home” ensemble.

Martin Bresnick
Martin Bresnick | Image: MartinBresnick.com

Lang notes that “Strange Devotion” was inspired for Bresnick by a Francisco Goya sketch from the devastating Los desastres de la guerra, “The Disasters of War,” showing strangers kneeling as a coffin is carted past them. Bresnick writes that in this work we hear “the donkey shake his bells.” But note that, as in the goodness of Goya’s fondness for truth, Bresnick adds, the animal is “looking at us with bemused indifference.”

Two works of Franz Kafka inform Bresnick, too.

He writes of “Josephine the Singer,” performed her by violinist Sarita Kwok, and of speculation that “a certain vermin-like fecundity might permit the survival of our kind (mice and men) in the face of disaster.

And in “A Message from the Emperor,” all is anticipation — really all, and only all: the message never arrives. Over tense, any-minute-now marimba, we hear heralds announcing:

You will soon hear the splendid pounding of his fists upon your door!

But, of course, as in what makes Kafka Kafka, a snafu is preventing this enunciation of the news…whatever it is.

Somehow, however, the dying emperor’s respelendent messenger — “a strong indefatigable man” — is unable to make progress, “still forcing his way through the innermost chambers of the palace,” we’re told. “Never would he prevail over them.”

For my money, it’s in this piece that we hear the only missteps on this valuable album. Michael Compitello and Ian Rosenbaum are listed as performing on vibraphone, marimba, and as the speakers. It’s a highly textual piece, dependent on a forceful delivery of some very difficult narrative about this “message from a dead man.” The instrumental work is excellent. But I want to hear someone else’s voices.

But what follows more than makes amends for my own quibbles about the verbal delivery of that “Message.”

Prayers Surely Rising, However Heavy

Prayers Remain ForeverThe closing track is, like the album, titled “Prayers Remain Forever.” A work for piano and cello, it’s played by Ashley Bathgate (cello) and Lisa Moore, the duo TwoSense. Dark without bogging down, desolate without melodrama, this 14-minute work opens with a lonely, sostenuto vigil and then, at 4:10, suddenly begins a restless, inconsolable search, first in the cello, then in the piano.

Without ever sacrificing the elegiac grace of his voice, Bresnick here is singing “such songs of longing” — he references Yehuda Armichai — as a sturdy enough soul, himself, it seems, not to shy from the fact that we never understand these timeless breaks in our lives and our experiences.

Scrambling, darting across her keyboard, Moore comes out of the deepest octaves with a fretful energy that you might understand as our resistance, our denial, our utter incapability of handling a question so big as life and death.

In the final minutes of “Prayers Remain Forever,” both pianist and cellist determinedly climb and climb, alternating tremors of a wondrous little panic, quick, tight runs without giving up the pressure, the strain to gain ground.

Bresnick in his most formidable iterations of his theme, presses and presses the drive into its final moments, prayers surely rising, however heavy, unstoppable, undefeated, not lost, never lost.

In his write-up for Q2 Music, Daniel Stephen Johnson correctly tells us that Bresnick has created here “some hope that even the most human, ephemeral and fragile part of us could indeed remain, somehow, forever.”

If you have wondered how the ineffable language of contemporary classical music can support your work as a writer — and unless you’re writing unrelieved, laugh-riot comedy — Martin Bresnick’s Prayers Remain Forever is your lamp-lifting Virgil in the twilight of your work’s most tragic elements.

Mercifully free of stereotypic trappings of negativity — just listen to the chiming, dancing turns of “Ishi’s Song” — you’ll find Bresnick handing you refreshingly new and yet fully authentic meditations on things we least understand.

As Lang puts it in his eloquent commentary:

This music tells us how to remember. TC mark