In the Book of Judges, Jephthah — then leader of the Galileans — praises God, promising that if he saves them from the attack of the Ammonites, Jephthah himself would sacrifice the first person to walk out of his house. The Galileans win, but Jephthah’s own daughter is the first to leave, making her the victim in his burnt offering.
This story is captured in Giacomo Carissimi’s oratorio “Jephte,” one of several pieces recorded by Sacred Music at Notre Dame’s Concordia choir for a new choral installation, “Out of Silence.” Together, the pieces contained in the 40-minute performance express the range of different emotions evoked by the coronavirus pandemic.
“I chose ‘Jephte’ because, in the darkest part of the winter, it felt like there was no one coming to rescue us from the pandemic, and cases were getting worse. I wanted to provide an outlet where people could actually grieve and lament,” said Mark Doerries, SMND director of graduate studies and head of the graduate conducting program. “It's really hard to express the isolation and the sadness, and the anger. I think all three of those — anger, sadness, grief — are encapsulated in this oratorio, as well as feeling like you've been betrayed.”
The installation — currently set up in the O’Shaughnessy Great Hall and accessible through May 20 from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. — features 16 speakers arranged in a surround-sound pattern, each playing the voice of one singer. By standing at the center of the room, a listener will feel as if they are on stage, surrounded by the performers during a live concert. Walking around the room helps a listener hear each voice in isolation.
Each song represents a unique perspective from which to view the pandemic — with enough variety, Doerries hopes, that each singer and listener will be able to relate and find their own meaning in the pieces. “Jephte” focuses on lament; another piece, “Resignation,” involves the feeling of being oppressed to the point of giving up. Other pieces express the hope and joy of the vaccine and the possibility of being able to gather and sing with friends and family again.
“Usually you just hear the entire choir sing and it sounds like a beautiful wall of sound. In this case, you could experience each singer as a soloist and walk up and listen to them one-on-one in a more personal experience.”
As singing in groups indoors proved to be one of the riskiest means of transmitting the coronavirus, rehearsing or performing together as an ensemble proved challenging this year. Warmer weather months brought more opportunity to sing outdoors, but Doerries wanted to find a new way to return the sound of vocal performance to the campus community that would also reorient the listener’s perspective on the piece they were hearing.
“Usually you just hear the entire choir sing and it sounds like a beautiful wall of sound,” Doerries said. “In this case, you could experience each singer as a soloist and walk up and listen to them one-on-one in a more personal experience. You'll be closer — you could actually be closer to the singer than you would even just having a conversation.”
The “Out of Silence” project required five weeks of predominantly virtual rehearsals in isolated recording booths in O’Neill Hall, and perfecting each piece’s timing and rhythm proved difficult on Zoom. The choir, comprised of graduate students and community members, then recorded the performance in a socially distanced manner.
Alissa Plenzler, adjunct professor of voice at Notre Dame, Saint Mary’s and Holy Cross, is a soloist featured on “Jephte” as well as other pieces by Thomas Tomkins and Johann Sebastian Bach. Reflecting the hope and joy Doerries mentioned, the Bach piece expresses “overwhelming faith in God to bring us through uncertainty and insurmountable odds,” she said, and she couldn’t help but smile reading the lyrics.
“I think this is relatable to so many at this time as people, young and old alike, have been stripped of their lives and livelihoods so unexpectedly,” she said. “Good-natured, well-intentioned people are suffering and sorrowing because of this pandemic. And we look for solace. We look for hope.”