Path of Miracles

The Westminster Choir in "Path of Miracles."

The cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain is constructed on the site where, according to legend, the remains of the apostle St. James (Santiago, in Galician) were discovered in the 9th century, amidst a field of stars (Compostela).

One of the most important sites of pilgrimage in the Christian world, Santiago is often characterized as a “thin place” where the boundary between the divine and the mundane is most easily traversed. But it is also a place long shaped by human and earthly interests, where 12th-century popes offered the faithful deep discounts on their purgatory debt for the price of a pilgrimage and a few coins, and where even today a Church-issued “passport” will get you a better going rate on hotels along the route than your favorite travel website.

In director John La Bouchardière’s staging of “Path of Miracles,” we never lose sight of either side of the veil: his pilgrims are thoroughly of this Earth, even as they long for something beyond it. The costuming seemed intended to remind us of this fact, as choristers began the journey intoning text fragments in Latin, ancient Greek, and nearly a half-dozen other languages, while dressed in street clothing that suggested the occupants of a modern Babel, from smart business casual to cargo shorts and flannel.

British choral ensemble Tenebrae commissioned composer Joby Talbot to write “Path of Miracles” in 2005, and it has been recorded both by that ensemble and their American counterparts Conspirare. Yet the work is typically performed in the resonant spaces and sacred atmosphere of large churches. The thoroughly secular Gaillard Center offered the possibility of a more theatrical staging of the work, including entrances from unexpected locations, subtle but moving lighting effects, and even a fog machine.

Talbot’s score, written for 17-part ensemble, is in four movements, each situated in a city along one of the most popular routes of pilgrimage, from Roncevalles through Burgos and León before ending in Santiago. The piece opens mysteriously, with bass voices droning a low A (while processing from the rear of the house in this production, a marvelous effect), subtly shifting vowel sounds and creating a shimmering envelope of overtones.

Talbot reportedly borrowed the technique from a recording he heard of the pasiputput, a harvest ritual of the Bunun people of Taiwan. However sonically compelling, such a wholesale recycling of an indigenous culture, particularly one whose traditional musical practices were, ironically, largely erased by Catholic missionaries, might raise a few eyebrows these days.

Yet the contemporary choral world is rife with such presumptuous borrowings, and Talbot’s borrowing is far less extensive or problematic than those of his oft-lauded contemporaries like Osvaldo Golijov or David Fanshawe. I was relieved, though, when the opening gambit segued into a compelling, unified musical language that seems entirely Talbot’s own.

As the drone expanded, thickening to include more overtones, gradually modulating up by semitone, the female voices in the choir suddenly emerged like the sunrise in a bright major chord with the work’s first text, in four languages: Holy St. James, Great Saint James, God help us now and evermore.

The joyous eruption was intensified by the decision to surreptitiously seat the singers among the audience (underlining again the message: pilgrims, they’re just ordinary people). The moment when they stood in unison and the harmony bloomed on all four sides was one of the more beautiful surprises of the evening.

The pilgrimage to Santiago is, by design, a punishing experience. One of its purposes is to allow penitents to suffer now in order to reduce their future suffering in purgatory. But "Path of Miracles" suggests that the suffering pilgrims endure is transformative not just in the afterlife, but in this one as well.

The first movement, "Roncesvalles," is a densely polyphonic texture of individual voices, rather than a unified choir, singing overlapping fragments of praise and supplication to the saint in Latin, Greek, Basque, Galician, French, German and English. The second movement, “Burgos,” begins with a slightly out-of-sync choral statement of what will become one of the piece’s clearest and most memorable refrains: “Inkeepers cheat us, the English steal.” Whatever their origins, the pilgrims are unified by the indignities and suffering of the road.

By the final movement, the singers have stripped off their individually distinct costumes, appearing in uniformly rumpled white undershirts and grey gowns. Musically and textually, too, the travelers gradually become more unified, as polyphonic and heterophonic textures shift toward the rhythmic unison of homophony, and English text predominates (a prerogative of British librettist Robert Dickinson, one presumes, rather than an attempt at demographic realism)

One does not need to look to the cathedral’s reliquaries at the end of the path to discover the miraculous, it seems: they are to be found in the shared humanity all along the way. “Here is a miracle,” the choir sings in the third movement, “that we are here is a miracle.”

Conductor (and Spoleto Festival USA choral director) Joe Miller ably led the Westminster Choir through this dense and demanding score. The group, made up of students at the Westminster Choir College, performed as consummate ensemble members, with gestural unity, stunning blend, a wide range of timbral possibilities, and clear intonation.

It is, of course, a young group, so at times some of the solo voices struggled to fill the large hall (although two standout soprano solos in the final movement were stunning for all their brevity). But their youth only served to underline the earnest, vulnerable purpose they embodied, and they did so with deeply moving musical maturity.

Reviewer Michael O'Brien is an ethnomusicologist and musician who teaches at the College of Charleston.