#MusicForWriters: Joby Talbot On The ‘Path Of Miracles’

Jobi Talbot ,Potrait,2011, Credit: Johan Persson/
Joby Talbot. I’mage: Johan Persson

‘Translated To Heaven And Spain’

For most of us, it would be a miracle that a single element of aboriginal music survived in our memories from youth to adulthood. For composer Joby Talbot, however, retrieving his teenage hearing on BBC Radio 3 of the Taiwanese Bunan tribe’s Pasiputput seems to have been an easy stop on his own Path of Miracles. What he has done with the Pasiputput — which he tells me is pronounced just like it looks — is arresting.

Austin's Conspirare, Company of Voices, with its artistic director Craig Hella Johnson
Austin’s Conspirare, Company of Voices, with its artistic director Craig Hella Johnson

Thanks to New York Public Radio’s 24/7 free contemporary-classical streaming service Q2 Music and its Album of the Week series, we’ve highlighted the new Harmonia Mundi release of a superb recording of the work with the extraordinary precision of the vocal ensemble Conspirare under the direction ofCraig Hella Johnson.

Crank your volume. You’ll think nothing is there at first. Keep listening. The opening passage of the first section, the Roncesvalles, in Talbot’s own plotting of the holy road is a series of devastating glissandi — big, big ones. But they start way down in the basso profundis of a mystery that has driven pilgrims to take on the arduous Camino de Santiago for centuries. You hear the ensemble’s men masterfully sliding up and up and up, slowly, weirdly, their overtones glimmering around them until they hand off to the sopranos’ “O Santiago / Great Santiago / God help us now /  And evermore.”

‘Back To The Land That Denied Him In Life’

Path of MiraclesRichard Dickinson’s libretto begins at the end, in a way, at what scriptures say was the martyrdom of St. James at the hands of Herod, a ruler who wanted “to vex certain of the Church.”

The great Cathedral at Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain, tradition tells us, holds the remains of James, who was one of Jesus’ twelve disciples. And so it is that the ancient Camino de Santiago — which comprises multiple routes — culminates, as does Talbot’s work, at the spectacular cathedral. In Dickinson’s libretto:

Herod rots on a borrowed throne,
while the saint is translated to Heaven and
Spain, the body taken at night from the tomb,
the stone of the tomb becoming the boat
that carries him back ad extremis terrarum,
back to the land that denied him in life.

The “Way of St. James,” as it’s sometimes called, is frequently symbolized by the scallop shell, and you’ll see such imagery on Harmonia Mundi’s typically meticulous packaging. If anything, a custom so hallowed as the pilgrimage and so enjoyed even today, often by hikers who have no specific religious intent but want to travel this legendary route.

Talbot’s 2005 Path of Miracles, originally commissioned by Nigel Short’s ensemble Tenebrae, is divided into four sections, each representing one of the church towns along the away — Roncesvalles, Burgos, Leon, and Santiago. Sung a cappella, the piece is at times (as in the first movement) breezily syncopated with Latin rhythm and a dancerly, sprightly energy.

At other times, as in the opening of the Burgos movement, a quiet, tentative sense of melancholy sets in, something in the harmonics reaching right back to the stark, Medieval gravity with which pilgrims of the ninth century might have seen the act of walking the Way: for us today, maybe it’s a retreat of sorts. For those before us, this was no holiday highway but a potential approach to immortality. Talbot talks to me of his own exploration of Burgos impressing him with its grisly emphasis on saints’ relics, and you hear this in Dickinson’s lines — “His arm is in England, his jaw in Italy, / And yet he works his wonders.”

By his third movement, named for the town of Leon, Talbot places his listener so rightly on the road that the sequence’s warming, rising conclusion is the anticipation of what awaits: something prayerful, transformative, redolent with peace and accelerating with the ascent to the cathedral.

We have walked out of our lives
To come to where the walls of heaven
Are thin as a curtain, transparent as glass,
Where the Apostle spoke the holy words,
Where in death he returned, where God is close,
Where saints and martyrs mark the road.

An ebullient dynamic seizes the rhythmic structure of the Path of Miracles: the choir now is vocally skipping, leaping, bounding into the light of the Galician high ground. An anthemic grace crashes into the revelry at about 11 minutes into the final, Santiago movement. And from there, the work moves a little above the ground. The ethereal solace sought for so many centuries by so many souls is gathered up by the composer into an extraordinary, walking three note continuo created for the altos by Talbot.

And the last words are those that started the journey:

Holy St. James, great St. James,
God help us now and evermore.

In talking with Talbot, what I learned was that he and his young family all but “walked out of this life” — or drove out of it, to be precise — on the Path of Miracles he was researching.

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

By Porter Ander­son

Writing on the Ether: Music For Writers: Joby Talbot On The ‘Path Of Miracles’

Originally published by Thought Catalog at www.ThoughtCatalog.com



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