Music For Writers: Gregory W. Brown’s Natural Selections

Image - Acis Productions
Image – Acis Productions

Missa Charles Darwin — And Amino Acids

In order to bind the work together I devised an opening idea linked to Darwin, evolution, and genetics. Using a portion of the genetic sequence from Platyspiza crassirostris(a bird from the group commonly known as Darwin’s Finches), I translated the amino acids into notes, thereby deriving a melody.

And Gregory W. Brown knows Darwin’s finches. In answer to my question about what a nice composer from Massachusetts is doing creating a chamber Mass based on Darwinian writings, he tells me:

I toured the Galapagos as part of a high school trip in 1993. We spent a week on a boat sailing from island to island and observing the geology and biology that Darwin had observed over a century prior. We saw Darwin’s finches and visited (the late) Lonesome George at the research station. Naturally we read and discussed Darwin’s writings as part of our explorations. It’s hard not to wonder (even as a petulant teenager) at the magnitude of both his insight and his thoroughness.

On the Origin of the SpeciesLonesome George was the last surviving Pinta Island tortoise. He died in 2012 at what is thought to have been age 100 or more. As soon as you know that — and that Brown saw this animal in the Galapagos, new meaning seems to gather around his selection of texts from Darwin’s 1859 masterwork, On the Origin of Species. In the Credo of the Missa Charles Darwin, for example, you hear the New York Polyphony sing:

 We may console ourselves
that the war of nature is not incessant
no fear is felt
death is generally prompt
and that the vigorous, the healthy,
and happy survive and multiply

In the newly released album of his work, Moonstrung Air  fromNavona Records, you hear a great deal that sounds like compassion set singing.

The idea for the Missa Charles Darwin came out of an email I received from New York Polyphony’s bass — Craig Phillips. I think he had seen somewhere that the two books most influential on Western thought were the Bible and On The Origin of Species. That got him to wondering why we have so much music coming out of one of and not out of the other. After all, why not venerate and celebrate a great human accomplishment?

Thanks to New York Public Radio’s Q2 Music’s selection of this CD as Album of the Week, we’re able to feature this new release for you. And if New York Polyphony rings a bell for you, it might be because we covered the vocal quartet’s Sing Thee Nowell release in December, in Music For Writers: New York Polyphony’s ‘Four Naked Voices Singing.’

Moonstrung Air cover artPolyphony’s singers — bass Phillips, countertenor Geoffrey Williams, tenor Steven Caldicott Wilson, and baritone Christopher Dylan Herbert — here find a complex, elegiac peace that might have been of comfort to Darwin. After all, this man was glimpsing before any of us today what would come to be understood as the very mechanism of mortality in our world.

An orderly sense of acceptance seems to embolden Wilson, for example, in his lead on the “We may console ourselves” sequence.”

And if you feel baffled at the very idea of translating amino acids into the notes of a melody, the final moments of the Agnus Dei will remind you that even Darwin himself was humbled by the astonishing embrace of his own construct. Brown quotes again from On the Origin of Species, from the 10th chapter, “On the Geological Succession of Organic Beings”:

If we must marvel
let it be at our presumption in imagining
that we understand the many complex
contingencies on which existence depends

You can learn more about the compositional process Brown has used here in this TEDx Woods Hole presentation that features both the composer and New York Polyphony.

There is also a tape of commentary made by Sarah Darwin, Charles’ great-granddaughter, from the work’s March 2013 performance in the dinosaur hall at Berlin’s Museum für Naturkunde.

As for the Missa, itself, a slight variant on “The Mass is ended, go in peace.”

Brown’s benedictus keeps the Darwinian drive in mind — Alleluia / Ite missa est:

Go, you are sent forth.

Read More

There’s more: Read the full story at Thought Catalog

By Porter Ander­son

Writing on the Ether: Music For Writers: Gregory Brown’s Natural Selections

Originally published by Thought Catalog at


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