The Princeton Festival adds film to its universe of presentations for 2016 by including Carl Theodor Dreyer’s celebrated silent film “The Passion of Joan of Arc” along with Richard Einhorn’s esteemed oratorio “Voices of Light,” inspired by the film. The performance takes place at the Princeton University Chapel on Thursday, June 9, at 8:30 p.m.
Festival offerings, running from June 4 to 26, include jazz events, baroque music, a piano competition, French organ symphonies, dance, Stephen Sondheim’s musical “A Little Night Music,” and Benjamin Britten’s opera “Peter Grimes.” Richard Tang Yuk is artistic director of the festival.
Director Dreyer’s 1928 film is on almost every list of significant films for many reasons. Based on the actual record of Joan of Arc’s trial, it stands out as a cinematic achievement for its absence of makeup, extensive use of close-ups, unusual camera angles, and innovative lighting. An additional buzz was attached to the film because some in France objected to Dreyer’s filmmaking because he was a Danish Protestant, not a French Catholic.
The film gave new impact to the astonishing life of Joan, the illiterate French national hero born in the farming village of Domremy in northeastern France in 1412. When she was 13, Joan started hearing the voices that led her to become, for a time, France’s successful military leader against the English in the Hundred Years’ War. When her military prowess failed, she was tried in a court of French clergymen loyal to the English. The court declared her a heretic and ordered her to be burned. She died at age 19 in 1431. In 1920, almost 500 years later, Joan was canonized and adopted as one of the patron saints of France.
Composer Einhorn happened upon Dreyer’s film in the archives of New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1988. Out of curiosity, he looked at it because a friend had once suggested that he write a piece based on Joan of Arc. “I walked out of the screening room shattered,” he says, “having unexpectedly seen one of the most extraordinary works of art that I know.” Six years later, in 1994, “Voices of Light,” the piece that resulted from Einhorn’s viewing the film, was performed publicly for the first time. Sony Classical released a recording of the piece in 1995.
Einhorn thinks of “Voices” as a meditation on the life and personality of Joan. He labels it a “stand-alone piece.” The composition has been performed as a concert work in South Africa, choreographed numerous times, and used for a dramatic performance of “Dracula” in England.
Interviewed by telephone from his home in New York City, Einhorn compares the CD with the planned performance of the piece in conjunction with the movie, at the Princeton Festival and elsewhere.
“The performance is about 10 minutes longer than the CD, which is a slightly edited version of the entire score,” he says. “The score begins before the movie starts and ends after it finishes. There are 15 movements. Each lasts approximately the same time as a movie scene, but the film and the music are not tightly synchronized; a particular musical event does not correspond to a particular moment in the film. That way the music can breathe.”
Einhorn has also prepared scores for 16 feature films and a host of documentaries, where music must be coordinated with films to within a fraction of a second. “The way in which ‘Voices’ works with ‘The Passion of Joan’ is organic and depends on the conductor,” he says, contrasting the two approaches. “Some conductors have found relationships that I didn’t foresee. I like that. The piece changes from performance to performance. It’s very exciting.”
“Voices” is scored for chorus, soloists, acoustic instruments, and a digital recording of the bell in the church of Domremy, the town where Joan was born. Having learned that the church was still standing, Einhorn recorded its bell for his composition. Church bells were essential to Joan’s leadership. They activated the guiding voices that she heard. When necessary, Joan would halt her army to hear church bells. In “Voices of Light” the Domremy bells sound three times.
The conductor for the Princeton Festival performance is Venezuelan-American Carmen-Helena Tellez. Soloists are Jessica Beebe, soprano; Eva Gigliotti, mezzo-soprano; Casey Finnegan, tenor; and Christopher Job, bass; along with the Princeton Symphony Orchestra and Princeton Festival Chorus.
Tellez has conducted “Voices” successfully at Indiana’s University of Notre Dame. Women of Notre Dame Vocale — Jessica Bush, Katherine Surine, Halle McGuire Hobbins, and Erin Donegan — perform portions of the piece in an early music style.
The name “Voices of Light” has its roots in Joan’s hearing voices, Einhorn says. The word ‘Light’ refers to film, which depends on light.”
A conversation on “Voices of Light”/”The Passion of Joan of Arc” takes place the day of the performance at 5 p.m. in the Princeton Garden Theater. Participants are composer Einhorn; Daniel Hobbins, associate professor of Medieval history, University of Notre Dame; and Andrew Lovett, professional specialist, Princeton University Department of Music.
Composer Einhorn tends to write provocative, complex pieces. “I like to create pieces that have many layers of meaning, some of which contradict each other,” he says. “The idea is for the perceiver to put together his/her own meaning, to construct a personal narrative from a shared experience. All my music is composed as a layered experience.”
The voice of Joan in Einhorn’s composition is taken by a vocal quartet of two sopranos and two altos. He explains that since no one knows what Joan’s voice sounded like, he settled on two simultaneous registers. The parts are in simple harmony and rhythmic unison. “The important thing is for the role to be sung in a style different from the rest of the music,” he says. “I wanted a straight non-vibrato delivery. It’s not important whether the role is done by members of the chorus or by soloists. It’s important that Joan’s voice has no vibrato.”
The texts of “Voices of Light” are primarily the words of medieval female mystics. Einhorn has set them following the patterns used in medieval motets where independent vocal lines sound simultaneously. The lines are likely to differ in their melodies, their rhythms, their time signatures, and their languages.
“The notion of a work of art with simultaneous layers of text struck me as a medieval idea that was also delightfully modern as well,” Einhorn says. “Medieval motets were highly sophisticated. They worked together harmonically, but didn’t have to be related rhythmically. They were very complex. ‘Voices of Light’ is simple compared to medieval models.”
Pushing his affection for layers of meaning further, Einhorn says, “On another level, you can think of the film as two texts — the words and the visuals. You can think of the text being sung and of the visual images as another kind of text.”
“Once my piece is finished, it is up to the performers — conductor, instrumentalists, singers — to find their own way to interpret the piece. There is no ‘right way’ to perform my music. I’ve had the good fortune of working with terrific musicians, so usually I’m delighted by what I hear. Sometimes I might suggest a certain nuance or correct a note that was misprinted in the parts — we’re still discovering tiny little things 20 years later. I’ve learned over the years that the less I say, the better, for the simple reason that music is an aural language, and it is best approached entirely in terms of sound, not verbally. I’m often delightfully surprised when great musicians find things in my scores that I didn’t know were there.”
Composer Einhorn is working on a new project at the moment, a violin, cello, and piano piece for Trio 180, an ensemble based at Stockton California’s University of the Pacific. “It’s a single movement 15 to 20 minutes long, very different from ‘Voices of Light,’” he says. “I’ll be in touch with them. I always contact groups that I’m involved with. I study their live performances, if possible, and study the performers. All my pieces are different from each other.”
Einhorn was born in Newark in 1952 to a doctor father, and a mother who taught high school English and then worked for her inventor father, who developed and manufactured liquid solder, railroad crossing lights, and motorized car antennas.
The composer grew up in East Orange and Short Hills. In 1975 he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from Columbia University, where he studied composition and electronic music. For five years he produced records for CBS Masterworks.
He lives in New York City with his wife, Amy Singer, an adjunct professor at Columbia’s Journalism School. Their daughter Miranda is a sophomore at Colorado College in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
In recent years Einhorn has become a hearing loss activist. “I was unlucky,” he says about a 2010 episode. “At that time I had moderate hearing loss in my left ear. A viral infection wiped out the hearing in my right ear. So the only hearing I have left is in my left ear. I was a record producer; therefore, I was interested in audio technology. Hearing aids are a variety of audio technology. So I applied what I knew. I became known as an advocate of better hearing loss technology. Now I’m on the board of the Hearing Loss Association of America. And I was one of the speakers at a Food and Drug Administration day-long workshop on hearing aid regulation.” Because of his activism and that of others, Broadway theaters have installed hearing loops that make it possible for people with hearing deficits to suppress ambient noise and enjoy high-quality sound by using a magnetic receptor known as a t-coil.
Not only is Einhorn writing music, but he is also helping people with problems hear it the way it is meant to be heard.
Voices of Light/The Passion of Joan of Arc, Princeton University Chapel. Thursday, June 9, 8:30 p.m. $35 to $50. 609-258-2787.
Conversation on Voices of Light/The Passion of Joan of Arc, Princeton Garden Theater, 160 Nassau Street. Thursday, June 9, 5 p.m. With composer Einhorn, Daniel Hobbins, associate professor of Medieval history, University of Notre Dame, and Andrew Lovett, professional specialist, Princeton University Department of Music. 609-759-0379 or www.princetonfestival.org.