Christopher Chaplin ~ Patriarchs

The Bible has inspired some astonishing works of art, along with a plethora of maudlin works.  The material is so dense and rich that it deserves a powerful sonic treatment.  Christopher Chaplin has delved into this treasure chest before, adapting Milton’s Paradise Lost ~ an interpretive piece built upon yet another classic.  On Patriarchs, he tackles a subject only dabbed at by others: the ten antediluvian patriarchs from Adam to Noah, or for those unversed in the Torah, the first ten heads of family.  This stretch of story allows Chaplin to touch upon larger themes, including the journey from darkness to light and the relative calm of this period between disasters, although only the tenth patriarch knows what’s coming next.  First, all of humankind (albeit only two people) fall from grace and are driven from the Garden; eventually all of humankind will sin and be destroyed by the Flood, save for Noah and his family.

Word fragments dance in Adam’s track, slow to unfurl, representing thought and consideration.  Anything can happen; the future is unclear.  The track is unlike most others of its kind in that it is neither triumphant nor light-infused.  Dark synth notes flash in foreboding.  Adam will soon eat the forbidden fruit and lose one son to the angry rock of another.  That son ~ Cain ~ will be cursed and driven out, while Eve will conceive again, beginning with the “pure” Seth.  This track yields a bit more form, imitating the other creation story of Genesis 1:1-2:4a.  One might even glean a hint of gratitude in the fragments of melody that weave through the ominous chords.

From this point, Chaplin is able to exercise more literary-compositional license, as little is written of the next few patriarchs.  They are born, they have children, they die:  Enosh, Kenan, Mahalalel, Jared.  The words have grown more legible, the strings developing longer phrases.  Humankind is spreading, developing.  Water appears in “Enosh” with hints of birds, hearkening back to the now-hidden Garden.  Families struggle to survive, but the knowledge of the Fall has been passed down.  What might they think of their ancestors?  Are they content with their inherited legacy?

Darkness grows even darker in “Kenan,” while electronic warbles rise like an R2D2 incantation.  But let’s not call it anachronistic; there were no violins then either.  As the first chants surface in “Mahalalel,” one flashes past the Flood to the Tower of Babel.  When “Jared” begins in choral “da da din din”s, civilization has begun to sort itself out.  One thinks, “but this part was worth saving,” and one is right.  The sprightly “Enoch” features attractive percussive and hints at the life of the one who “walked faithfully with God and was taken away.”  Some believe Enoch will return along with Elijah, two witnesses who never experienced an earthly death but will presage the final end of the world.  Words have become sentences; light pokes through the cracks.

The phrase “old as Methusaleh” refers to the patriarch’s 969 years, perhaps deserving of more than five and a half minutes of music, but Chaplin conveys age through a weary voice and a subdued palette.  If there is any doubt of leftover bitterness, it is answered by Lamech, who proclaims of Noah, “He will comfort us in the labor and painful toil of our hands caused by the ground the Lord has cursed.”  Yes, humans hold grudges, and it is about to go very poorly for them.

A crow haunts Lamech, who will never witness the seeming madness of his son, the ark, the flood, the rainbow.  The rising drone is akin to the threatening waters.  In the closing track, the crow is balanced by the dove, and finally the music turns bright.  Here Chaplin’s description of the album diverges from the Torah; Chaplin writes of a journey toward enlightenment, while the text suggests that humankind did not do very well with its second chance and is now on its third.  When viewed through the lens of these patriarchs, one might consider the journey more of a stumbling, with a few secure points along the way.  Should one wish to impose modern history, one might note that little has changed: we experience disaster, followed by brief golden periods, eventually leading to another decline.  The best we can hope for is the moral courage to extend such periods, and stave off the next Ragnarok as many generations as we can.  (Richard Allen)

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