The Arc in the Sky, on texts of Robert Lax (1915–2000), is a 65-minute pilgrimage for unaccompanied choir. In The Seven Storey Mountain Thomas Merton provides the best introduction to Lax I know. Lax, his friend at Columbia University, had a “natural, instinctive spirituality, a kind of inborn direction to the living God," and was “a potential prophet," Merton wrote, a Moses to whom words came with difficulty:
A mind full of tremendous and subtle intuitions, and every day he found less and less to say about them, and resigned himself to being inarticulate. In his hesitations, though without embarrassment or nervousness at all, he would often curl his long legs all around a chair, in seven different ways, while he was trying to find a word with which to begin. He talked best sitting on the floor.
They went to jazz clubs together. They wrestled with philosophy, religion, and writing. One night, with Merton trying to explain that he wanted to be a good Catholic, Lax was having none of it.
“What you should say”—he told me—“what you should say is that you want to be a saint.”
A saint!... “How do you expect me to become a saint?”
“By wanting to,” said Lax, simply.… “All that is necessary to be a saint is to want to be one.… All you have to do is desire it."
That conversation led Merton, eventually, to a Trappist monastery. Lax himself converted from Judaism to Catholicism. He wrote for The New Yorker, for Time, for Hollywood, and wrote poetry and The Circus of the Sun, a bright gem of a book about acrobats. He moved from New York City to his home in Western New York and back, to Marseilles, and to the Greek islands of Kalymnos and Patmos, the island to where it is said the apostle John had been exiled and where he had written The Revelation.
Lax wrote some of the first minimalist poetry: one word, one syllable, or even one letter to a line. “All of this was to please myself,” he wrote. “I certainly wasn’t trying to invent a new form and startle anyone with it. I don’t like startling people.” Jack Kerouac called him “one of the great original voices of our times ... a Pilgrim in search of beautiful innocence.”
He observed sponge divers, the sea, and the sky, and wrote poems of stunning simplicity about them. James Uebbing, in an alumni appreciation for Columbia, wrote, “Lax is essentially simple and devoid of secrets."
To Lax, jazz was a metaphor of life, a communal improvisation with others and with God. I opened the work with why did they all shout, capturing, I hoped, the ecstasy of performers and listeners being carried along together. Some features echo jazz: close and parallel harmonies, a kind of syncopation through changing meters and twos-against-threes, a walking bass.
Jazz harmonies abound in there are not many songs. There’s an abandonment to the idiom (or one corner of it that’s dear to me), reflecting a giving of oneself over to the “one song.” If I was to use jazz, I decided, I would go all the way in and see what happened.
Lax is conversational and humorous in Cherubim & Palm Trees, speaking to his friend Jack Kerouac. A solo quartet separates itself from the choir; this movement and the first section crescendo to “the courts of the house of God.”
I want to write a book of praise recalibrates attention from the panoramic temple to the little and common things. I use a recognizably “religious” syntax for the men: a chant.
Women then sing The light of the afternoon is on the houses, common images prompting illumination. I am always text-painting, trying to elicit emotions, and here, “the laughing speech” colors everything. Parallel harmonies are again voiced closely in this swaying waltz.
Remembrance and non-remembrance coexist in Psalm, with a tonality switching between G-sharp minor and B-flat mixolydian (five sharps and three flats), and with see-sawing pitches such as Ds and D-flats, Es and E-sharps. They’re blues thirds, really—alternated, overlapped, or crushed together—simultaneously proclaiming and questioning.
Jerusalem is an almost unbearably moving poem. Descending and ascending, ruin and beauty, and solitude in the midst of the city are dichotomies Lax holds comfortably at the same time. More and more flats are introduced into the nonchalant E-flat major, presaging the triumphant but lamenting G-flat major chorus: “for lovely, ruined Jerusalem / lovely sad Jerusalem / lies furled / under cities of light.”
I would stand and watch them is all observation and innocence. Canons reflect the unstudied sound I wanted. Each phrase is a new canon, nearly always at the octave, but with altered entrances and number of repetitions. By highlighting the last two words, “we mend,” the meaning changes from transitive to intransitive verb. Not only the nets are mended, but we ourselves.
The Arc ends the work by hearkening back to the emotion of the opening. Broad brush-strokes of simple chords are laid onto a canvas we see not only as a whole but also as a slow succession of details. We see arc, sky, and sea separately and together.
The chorus forms two choirs. Blocks of chords alternate, complement, and strike sparks off each other. (Two choirs also allow the singers to breathe during these long corridors of sound.) Dynamics, ranges, and harmonies adjust around these simple words, creating an emotional drama. The pilgrimage closes in ecstasy, seeing in an instant yet slowly pondering the immensity of the vision.
My thanks to Marcia Kelly, Lax’s niece, to Paul Spaeth, director of the library and the Robert Lax archives at St. Bonaventure University, for permission to use these texts, and to Michael McGregor, author of Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax. Their time, openness, and conversations held great insight into Lax for me. I am indebted to The Crossing and to Donald Nally. As always, their faith in me by asking for another work opens my heart in gratitude. I am humbled by their trust, and astonished by the magnitude of their talent and artistry.
— Kile Smith,19 May 2018
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