None More Than You

None More Than You was a dual commission from the Dessoff Choirs and Roomful of Teeth for a piece celebrating the 200th birthday of Walt Whitman.

My ideas for making a piece highlighting the very different vocal qualities of the two groups were crystallized by a metaphor I happened to come across in Kierkegaard’s Sickness unto Death: “Necessity is like a sequence of consonants only, but in order to utter them there must in addition be possibility. When this is lacking, when a human existence is brought to the pass that it lacks possibility, it is in despair, and every instant it lacks possibility, it is in despair.”

I asked the members of Roomful of Teeth to try to utter the most famous text about words in Western culture, the opening of the Gospel of John, using only consonants. Of course, it is impossible to do this. In order to make sounds, we use air, and air has shape. But that’s what Roomful of Teeth spends the first half of None More Than You trying to do:

N th bgnng wz th wrd,
nd th wrd wz wth gd,
nd th wrd wz gd.
nwn hz vr sn gd.

In response, the Dessoff choir sings lines from Whitman’s Song of the Rolling Earth, which talk about how the words we need to live are everywhere around us, and even inside us:

Were you thinking that those were the words, those upright lines?
No, those are not the words, the substantial words are in the ground and sea,
They are in the air, they are in you.

The music the Dessoff choir sings is inspired by the really stunning incarnation moment in the Credo of Josquin’s Missa Pange Lingua. It’s kind of ironic that pange lingua means “Tell, tongue” since Whitman says it’s better not to:

I will never henceforth have to do with the faith that tells the best,
I will have to do only with that faith that leaves the best untold.

In the course of the piece, the Dessoff singers help the Teeth singers move from the place of stringent necessity to a place of endless possibility, and the last part of the piece is nothing but vowels.

Many thanks to the members of Roomful of Teeth: Estelí, Martha, Caroline, Virginia, Eric, Thann, Dashon, and Cameron, and Brad Wells, the director; to Jeff Cook, who tracked and helped mix the pre-recorded track for this version of the piece; to Malcolm J. Merriweather and the Dessoff Choirs, who initiated the commission of this piece in honor of Walt Whitman’s 200th birthday and to the New Music On The Point Festival, who co-commissioned the piece.

None More Than You is dedicated with deepest love to Meredith Ward, my chavruta and family member.

Whoever you are! you are he or she for whom the earth is solid and liquid,
You are she or he for whom the sun and moon hang in the sky,
For none more than you are the present and the past,
For none more than you is immortality.

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You can hear a live recording of the piece by visiting visiting July 1st in A Book of Days. (Meredith’s birthday, not Walt’s!)

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When the day comes that singing in groups is possible again, choruses can perform this piece with the Roomful of Teeth music either live or pre-recorded. Email me for details.

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