Among my plans, activities and resolutions for the New Year, I have decided that every day I will listen to a new piece that I had never heard before by a living composer. This blog brings my impressions of my favorite ones.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Andrew Norman's Sacred Geometry

The Chartres Cathedral
I was drawn into Sacred Geometry from the very first note: mysterious, scary, low contrabassoon sounds move slowly, like old, enormous cracking doors, followed by a quick run that evolves into a loud clash of brass and percussion, bells and echoes, expressive and impressive harmonies. I imagined the heavy doors of the Chartres Cathedral opening before me, and I was suddenly standing inside and looking in awe at its arches, statues and ornaments. Andrew Norman got the inspiration for his piece when he came across a book in the library called Gothic Cathedrals and Sacred Geometry by George Lesser. Lesser devoted the third volume of the book to the study of the Chartres Cathedral, the gothic medieval French cathedral which is located about an hour drive southwest of Paris.

Whether you are religious or not, there is something spiritual about the experience of walking into a cathedral and feeling how small you are in comparison to the building, and how small you are in comparison to nature. I love walking around inside cathedrals, because sometimes the magnitude of the space makes you also look inside yourself. In Norman’s piece, those moments of introspection come in a meditative middle section, where the string instruments are playing harmonics – a special technique in which the player touches the string lightly (instead of pressing it down the whole way) and therefore evokes the overtones of the basic note and creates a sound of a high whistle. Slowly, a melody develops and the music becomes rich and songful, somewhat sorrowful, as it is played by multiple instruments. The interesting thing is that instead of playing exactly together, the different instruments are playing in a slight retard, like a small canon. It creates an impression of a singing congregation, where a few people are a little behind (this happens a lot in synagogues actually).

From Lesser's book
"Gothic Cathedrals and Sacred Geometry"
plan of the Chartres Cathedral
After listening to Norman’s piece, I went to the library and got Lesser’s book. As I was flipping through the pages, I found this beautiful description of the Chartres Cathedral, explaining that its beauty comes from its imperfections and what it’s been through over the years: “The west front of Chartres Cathedral is not of a flawless classical beauty like that of Notre Dame of Paris, nor does it proclaim… the triumph of one master mind whose design was adhered to by consecutive generations. It betrays five building periods; five times either a new start was made, or loose threads had to be taken up. Yet it is, despite all its incongruities, perhaps the most breathtaking face of all the Gothic churches that have remained to us.”

Listen to Andrew Norman's Sacred Geometry here.

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