Eric Chasalow, GSAS DeanNovember 11, 2016

By Jarret Bencks | BrandeisNOW

Eric Chasalow, Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, describes his new piece, “Elegy and Observation" as an “environmental requiem.” Commissioned by the French vocal ensemble Musicatrieze, and premiered by them at Brandeis Nov. 12, the work takes listeners on a journey through ancient Chinese texts, biblical passages, scientific abstracts, found poetry, oral history from Hurricane Katrina, and a sobering, long list of the birds that have gone extinct over the centuries.

All these texts come together to paint a sweeping picture of climate change.

Chasalow met the music director of Musicatreize, Roland Hayrabedian in his home city of Marseille during a residency at the Camargo Foundation in Cassis, France in 2014. When commissioned by the ensemble in 2015, Chasalow decided to focus on climate change, remembering his weeks at Camargo, gazing out at the Mediterranean Sea.

“The sweeping view of Mediterranean was spectacularly beautiful,” Chasalow said. “But it also brought climate change and rising sea levels to the front of mind. These communities that are on the sea and rely on it are going to be some of the first to be really devastated."

The piece is comprised of 8 songs. The first is a setting of a Chinese poem from the Tang Dynasty-era about the beauty, delicacy, and unsettling power of a rainstorm. The songs that follow include reportage from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and scientific abstracts assembled into poems - others incorporate ancient Celtic text and the Noah story from Genesis. The 7th song in the piece features a reading of the birds that have become extinct over the last 500 years. They come together in a way that's both serene and pastoral, but also threatening.

"This mix of texts, is what I found really exciting," Chasalow said. "Once they are together, the drama is there as you move from one to another. Given it's an eclectic, disorienting mix of texts, I did the same thing with the music – mixing styles and perspectives."

“Elegy and Observation" made its US premiere at Slosberg Music Center Nov. 12. The concert also included performances of "Eléments de vocabulaire pour dire quelque chose de simple et de doux" by François Paris and "Dionysos, le vin, le sang" by Alexandros Markeas.