THE CHILDERMASS was inspired by the novel of the same title by Wyndham Lewis, the painter and writer who founded the British Vorticist movement, was a member of the Pound circle in London, and a key figure in British and American High Modernism, the period of contemporary arts and letters to which I have always felt the greatest attraction. In fact this is an understatement; I believe Modernism to be the only legitimate artistic movement of the Modern era.
I have always been circumspect about the nature of the musical correspondence between my septet THE CHILDERMASS and its literary "source." I had in mind that the visionary landscape described by Lewis at the opening of his novel very definitely was depicted in my music:
"The City lies in a plain, ornamented with mountains. These appear as a fringe of crystals to the heavenly north. One minute bronze cone has a black plume of smoke. Beyond the oasis-plain is the desert. The sand-devils perform up to its northern and southern borders. The alluvial bench has recently gained, in the celestial region, upon the wall of dunes. The 'Pulse of Asia' never ceases beating.
But the outer Aeolian element has been worsted locally by the element of the oasis." And, later in my piece, there is a passage that is meant to depict this line: "To the accompaniment of innumerable lowing horns along the banks of the river, a chorus of mournful messages, the day breaks."
However, aside from these few parallelisms, the music of THE CHILDERMASS is meant to reflect only the atmosphere and some aspects of the style of Lewis's Expressionist prose tale of a tour of the other world after death, intended to parallel Dante's Divine Comedy. It was the correspondences I found between the literary themes in my work and those of Dante and Lewis that made realize that I was working on the large cycle of cyclical pieces I call The Festival. Another way to hear this Chamber Concerto is as a musical extension of the Lewis novel, in which the same sorts of events occur, only in an otherworldy physics created musically, rather than literarily.
The novel The Childermass relates how Pullman and the babyish Sattersthwaite, two Englishmen killed in the war, find themselves in a camp set in a plain within sight of the walls of the Magnetic City; they await the moment they will be allowed to enter the City. The novel is about their adventures in the terrain around the Magnetic City; Lewis's description of a world that functions according to a physics other than our own is quite vivid, in fact astonishing. Lewis took his own title from the name of the day in the Church year allotted to the memory of the Jewish baby boys slain by King Herod Agrippa in his fear of the coming King of the Jews whose birth was predicted by the Magi, those supposedly wise men who gave away Jesus's existence as a threat to Herod - if the Scriptures are to be believed, the persons paying tribute to Jesus almost got him killed. Presumably the two dead soldiers are "children" sacrificed for the sake of a tyrant.
As I worked on THE CHILDERMASS I often thought of the individual musical ideas as "beings" in states of attraction and repulsion, quite the way Varese thinks of them, with the added distinction that to me my "beings" seemed actually alive. Themes were points of sound expanded into lives like those of Whitehead's monads. Many ideas must begin or end in certain places, especially on certain pitches; others must be shaped according to certain rhythmic possibilities; these points of departure or arrival are the monads; their spinning forth is their lives. Several of the commonest themes in The Festival received their first extensive development in this piece. It was the life in them that inspired my involvement in these subjects and objects after death, and it was my belief in their reality that excited my interest in composing the piece. (One idea was rejected because, to my mind, it too strongly resembled the sound of a sports event.) I was directed toward this line of thinking by the iconigraphical thinking not only of Varese but also of of Ralph Shapey, who wrote using what he called "Graven Images." Shapey personally gave me a description of his idea of the "Graven Image;" it was a prescient encounter, and thinking about his idea helped when I came to fashioning ideas according to similar lines. However it must be said that I prefer a type of iconography that is more developmental; Shapey was content with repetition; I never am. Almost every work in The Festival refers to THE CHILDERMASS. The SAINT PEREGRINE'S CONCERTO was written as its direct companion piece.
THE CHILDERMASS was first performed by my ensemble, called the Composers Chamber Players, under my baton on October 5, 1986, at an Old First Concerts program. Concluding the first half of the program was the ARABIA FELIX by Charles Wuorinen, who attended the concert; Elliott Carter's SYRINGA concluded the afternoon. Every piece on the program was some kind of premiere: World (my own), West Coast (the Wuorinen), or San Francisco (the Carter).
The newspaper review that was published the next day shamed its reviewer. Robert Commanday wrote a stern review, positive in its own way, in that he seemed to be taking my program and my music seriously... but too seriously, actually; he concluded that taken together the pieces were all too tough for enjoyment. Typically of newspaper reviewers, he oversimplified the type of musical material I had used in the piece, dismissing it as "chromatic and whole tone scales." He titled the review "Hard Listening and No Letup."
However, Commanday got my very name wrong... in the review, he called me "Charles Fulkerson!" Reading that review the next day my friend, the composer and music critic Charles Shere left a humorous message on my answering machine "...this is Christopher Shere calling for Charles Fulkerson..." My friends and I all had a good laugh... for several years. It is difficult to call an error like that on the part of a reviewer an "honest mistake." (When his colleague Hewell Tircuit had earlier lambasted my SCRITTI DI LEONARDO, he chose a perfectly wrong example as "proof" of my allegedly wrong-headed text setting. Tircuit said I set the word "silenzio" incorrectly... he missed the fact that there is a Grand Pause after that word, which means "Silence." I have yet to find a critic who even shows any ability to hear my music as it is, let alone to criticise it properly.) Some months later, the real Charles Fulkerson came down from Northern California to say hello... when he appeared at my door, he said, "Hello, I'm Charles Fulkerson." As if there were an issue about keeping ourselves straight.
THE CHILDERMASS was written in 1986, and is fifteen minutes long. It is dedicated to Elliott Carter. The Score is 98 pages long in the composer's fair hand. The percussion required for this work is: Vibraphone, Orchestral Bells, Crotales, Five Suspended Cymbals, Gong, Two Anvils, and Two Triangles. The part may be played by two or by three players.
The Bass part exists in an arrangement for cello and bass. This arrangement is 30 pages long, and is separate from the score.
A SKETCH OF THE FESTIVAL
Page upload of December 30, 2014