The Origin: An Opera-Oratorio Inspired By Charles Darwin

Photo courtesy of Scott Hurst -

by tristero

Note: This is not a post about politics. I’ve received many inquiries about my music and, while I’ve been hesitant to talk about it here, I thought some readers might be interested in what I’ve been up to.

After a year and a half of near-daily composing, I have finally finished The Origin, an opera-oratorio inspired by the life and works of Charles Darwin. It was a challenging, and very enjoyable, project and will premiere February 9, 2009 at the State University of New York, Oswego – that’s 3 days before Darwin’s 200th birthday!

The music is scored for Soprano, Baritone, chorus, orchestra, and the wonderful Eastern European female choir, Kitka. In addition, the brilliant filmmaker Bill Morrison – known for his work with Ridge Theater, Michael Gordon, and others – will be creating films and other visuals for the performance.

I’d like to give you a brief introduction to the piece and share some short clips of the music in rough demo form. If you are interested, I’ll describe and post more of the music in subsequent posts,.

The texts used in the Origin are taken entirely from the writings of Charles Darwin – with a brief cameo by his wife, Emma. They were compiled and arranged by poet Catherine Barnett and myself. Most of the words come from The Origin of Species; the so-called “transmutation notebooks;” Darwin’s autobiography; The Voyage of the Beagle; and his letters (you can find a huge selection of Darwin's writings at this incredible site). My purpose was to celebrate Darwin’s thought and life in music, concentrating specifically on the writing and ideas in The Origin of Species.

I had wanted to do a piece with a scientific subject for a very long time. Many years ago, someone in the New Yorker– very likely Richard Dawkins – noted that while religion had its masterpieces like Bach's St Matthew Passion, science had no comparable works. That struck me as an amusing, and exciting, challenge. I knew I could never write anything remotely approaching the St. Matthew, but the notion of setting to music a classic scientific text really stuck in my mind. The question was: which one? Galileo’s Starry Messenger? Newton’s Principia (which I had already used in a dance piece)? Einstein’s first paper on relativity?

A few years later, I had a big argument with a close and very smart friend, who argued that “intelligent design” creationism should be taught alongside evolution in science classes. I was so shocked that my friend had been bamboozled that it reawakened my interest in evolution and Darwin. I started to follow closely the social “controversy” – as you know, there is no controversy about the reality of evolution – and have posted many times about the issue.

I can’t remember a time I was not aware of Darwin’s theory - my father, a doctor, had probably explained evolution by natural selection to me by the time I was seven or eight. Then, in high school, I read John T. Scopes’ autobiography, Center of the Storm, and saw Inherit the Wind. I was amazed then, and remain just as amazed now, to learn that anyone could reject or be repelled by this incredibly beautiful, and so obviously correct, theory of life’s diversity. Since then, I’ve remained interested in the science of evolution, reading both pop science books like The Beak of the Finch and, very occasionally, an actual scientific text, such as Patterns and Processes of Vertebrate Evolution.

After my friend and I argued – to be frank, I was openly rude and contemptuous, and it damaged the friendship for a while – I started reading about evolution in earnest and decided that somehow I would address the subject in music. I toyed with the idea of addressing creationism directly, but the thought of having to set all those lies and stupidity to music really did not interest me in the slightest. Then I saw the Darwin show at the American Museum of Natural History – it’s now traveling to different cities - and I saw the notebooks Darwin kept. I knew immediately I had to do a piece about the making of the Origin of Species. I had my science subject.

I contacted my friend, conductor Julie Pretzat at SUNY Oswego, who had expressed interest in commissioning a large new piece, and told her my idea (Julie had conducted a fine performance of Voices of Light a few years before). She loved it and contacted Mary Avrakotos, who runs ARTSwego, which presents many exciting arts events for the upstate New York community. She was equally excited and so they applied for, and got, a special New York State Music Fund grant for large interdisciplinary music projects (thank you, Eliott Spitzer!). I asked another friend, philosopher and bete noire of creationists, Barbara Forrest, to be one of my advisers on Darwin. I read everything I could get my hands on. Then, I started to compose. And compose. And compose.

The finished piece is evening-length, 105 minutes long. Before it gets started in earnest, there is a wordless introduction called “Representation of Chaos.” This is one of many “in” jokes and hidden references in the piece. Almost anyone who has sung in a large choir has performed Haydn’s wonderful oratorio “The Creation” which opens with a wordless introduction called …”Representation of Chaos.” Haydn’s “Representation” ends as a singer intones, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. And God said, let there be light, and there was LIGHT.” At which point, the orchestra explodes with an overwhelming C major blast, eradicating the chaos and creating order.

I roughly imitate this idea, although my music is completely different from, and, of course, not comparable to Haydn’s masterpiece. Here’s a brief excerpt from the middle of my Representation of Chaos as “performed” by sampled orchestra with a montage of Scott Hurst's beautiful Galapagos photography (I’ll talk about the technology I use to compose in a future post, perhaps):

That’s about 1/4 of the entire movement. After Representation of Chaos ends, the piece proper begins. Three different kinds of music alternate, which represent three different parts of Darwin’s life.

Kitka, the Eastern European music ensemble, sings Darwin’s autobiographical writings; they are his public persona, his worldly voice. I used this group because it is such a haunting, unusual sound - and I wanted Darwin's life to have a unique voice. If you are familiar with Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares, then you know how beautiful that sound is. The two vocal soloists sing mostly excerpts from Darwin’s notebooks and letters, what I call the Sandwalk music, after the pathway at Darwin’s house which he frequently walked. They represent his efforts to construct a valid theory of evolution. Finally, the chorus mostly sings excerpts from The Origin of Species, ie, the theory fully realized and described.

Here are some excerpts from “Annie’s Memorial,” which is sung, in a live preview performance, by Kitka. Darwin had ten children. His most beloved daughter, Annie, died at the age of ten from a mysterious ailment. Her death is often taken as a turning point in the development of Darwin’s scientific worldview of a universe ruled by impersonal forces, not a benign Creator. A week after she died, Darwin wrote a touching memorial to her and I set several parts of it. You'll hear part of the opening as well as the second to last section. The montage shows Darwin, his wife Emma, Annie, their home, Darwin's writing, and the contents of Annie's memorial box:

My dear Emma
My dear, dearest Emma
I pray God Fanny's note may have prepared you
She went to her final rest
most tranquilly, most sweetly.

Our poor child Annie was born on Gower Street
On March Second, Eighteen Forty One.
Our poor child Annie expir'd at Malvern
At midday on the Twenty Third of April Eighteen Fifty One...

Once when she was very young she exclaimed ,
”Oh Mama what should we do if you were to die?”

I don’t want to make this post too long, so I’ll stop here. If you’re interested, I can post some more music and explain both the techniques and processes behind this score. It was a tremendous pleasure to work with Darwin’s words and ideas. I hope sometime you have a chance to see the entire piece performed, with Bill Morrison’s films.