The Phoenix Symphony enjoys a long
history of premièring new works that
bridge gaps between Western art music
and Native cultures. Hailed as
'a master', Mark Grey 'is a composer as
well as a sound engineer, and what he is
up to has far-reaching implications for the
direction that classical music will take this
century' (Los Angeles Times). This
recording of Enemy Slayer: A Navajo
Oratorio is of the world première
performance of the first oratorio based on
an indigenous North American creation
story. 'Mark Grey's score is perfectly
crafted, impeccably paced, beautifully
scored' (The Arizona Republic).
Mark Grey (b. 1967) is relatively new to composing but has a solid résumé in what has become an allied field: sound design. After studying music at San Jose State University, majoring in composition and electro-acoustics, he began a career that has included collaboration with major West-Coast composers such as John Adams and Steve Reich. This involved designs for a variety of works, including two operas I've recently admired a great deal: Doctor Atomic and A Flowering Tree. He also collaborated in the production of the elaborate and heart-breaking audio track of names, messages, and remembrances for Adams's On the Transmigration of Souls and the sound installations for its performance. Grey's parallel composing career has produced works for the Kronos Quartet and for violinist Leila Josefowicz, among others. It also resulted in two orchestral works for the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra.
Enemy Slayer was written during Grey's Music Alive residency with that orchestra as part of their 60th anniversary celebration in 2007. The text is by Diné (Navajo) poet and Arizona State University professor of English Laura Tohe. It is the story of the healing of a Diné war veteran suffering from the trauma of combat after his return from a foreign war, most likely in the Middle East, though this is not explicit. It follows the outline of an ancient Navajo healing ritual, rooted in Navajo mythology, for the reintegration of warriors into oneness with themselves, their community, and a peaceful life. The language is direct, often quite beautiful, or decidedly unsettling: "Mothers' hopes wrapped in bloodied rags/the children lay like broken toys spilled on the streets/Red rags. Limbs and dreams rearranged by war/a sister recoils."
It is powerful stuff, much of it unforgettable once read. I wish I could say the same of the music. Mark Grey's score is far from negligible. It is well crafted, most effective in atmospheric moments such as the lovely prelude with the flute duet and several of the choral sections. It does not, however, consistently reflect the power of the libretto and too often is generic in its setting of the text when something more distinctive is needed. Mere volume is offered, and oddly stuttering melismas, and repetitions of words and phrases to express anguish, when the need is for something more tumultuous and expressive of the protagonist's crisis or more transformative and cathartic in his reclamation. Surely the vocabulary inherited by a 21st-century composer contains the means to express the agony and comfort of these words better than the unremitting earnestness offered here.
The performance itself is good. Scott Hendricks makes much of the possibilities the role offers with his resonant baritone and intense characterization. The 140-voice chorus is fine, but seems made up of a fairly large proportion of younger and relatively untrained voices. Their whitish sound has been mitigated by a softer recording focus--the sound of the orchestra is marginally sharper--but this exacerbates the chorus's tendency to swallow consonants. Though the work is sung almost entirely in English, the downloadable libretto is essential for understanding many of the words. Conductor Michael Christie paces the work with conviction and the orchestra plays well up to their reputation as a fine provincial orchestra. The sound provided by Meyer Sound, a California-based audio company more associated with theater and rock-concert sound production (and Mark Grey), has great bass and percussion impact, but washes much of the work in excessive and rather artificial sounding resonance.
The notes for this release suggest, obliquely, that Enemy Slayer is a Messiah for the present century. That hardly seems likely. However, this work does offer something important. On one level about a Navajo creation myth, Enemy Slayer is much more a statement on the crushing effect of war on many veterans and the spiritual healing that many need upon their return. The words are Navajo. The ritual of healing, the Anaa'jí, is Navajo, but the cries of pain are universal, as is the need of understanding and support of those who fight the monsters in our world. That the Navajo traditions include such a ritual suggests that we could benefit from greater sharing of their wisdom. If Enemy Slayer, as the Music Alive endorsement suggests, has begun a bridge between Western and Native American cultures, it has served a great purpose aside from any decision of musical worth that time imposes. That is enough to recommend it. Hózhô náhásdlîî dooleeã: Let peace prevail. -- Fanfare, Ronald E. Grames, Nov/Dec 2009