Interview: ‘Terce: A Practical Breviary’ composer Heather Christian believes in theater
“Singing softly is the hardest thing to do—it takes so much energy,” the singer and composer Heather Christian told a singer during a rehearsal for her new show, “Terce: A Practical Breviary,” recently. It was a technical note for a particularly intimate portion of the piece, an hourlong Mass-inspired vocal work for 31 singers that Christian conceived and wrote around the concept of the divine feminine.
But it struck me, having now experienced the immersive glory of “Terce” at the Space at Irondale in Brooklyn, where it runs through Feb. 4, that the difficulty of singing softly is an apt précis for “Terce,” and for Christian’s work in general, which has included “Oratorio for All Living Things” and “Animal Wisdom.” Not that any of these works goes quietly—they express a full dynamic range, from a whisper to a scream. But Christian handcrafts music that makes performing arts spaces pulse with a singular humanity, and which compels us to lean in to hear that proverbial still small voice.
‘Terce’ doesn’t feel all that far from a worship experience—at least, what an ideal worship experience might be.
It doesn’t feel all that far from a worship experience—at least, what an ideal worship experience might be. In “Terce,” the unamplified chorus of women in denim-based variations on choir robes moves in formation around the two-story space, a former Presbyterian Sunday school, singing around and in front of us, in a disarming mix of individual and collective sound. Transparency projectors display the dense, allusive mix of Scripture and poetry that comprises Christian’s take on the Mass. And though we are not encouraged to sing along, at the end we are welcome to join the gentle tapping sound that closes the piece in a hushed fadeout.
Christian, who not only grew up Catholic but worked as a cantor in Catholic services from her youth into her early 30s, comes to this material with some authority, as well as with a mix of reverence and questing skepticism. When I spoke to her recently about the creation and meaning of “Terce,” she began by telling me about her upbringing in the South, in both Natchez, Miss., and New Orleans, where Catholicism is infused with African and Haitian traditions and ghosts are matter-of-factly real. It’s the kind of place, she said, where the owner of a local bowling-and-music hot spot has a shrine to Mary in his back room, which is what led Christian to utter the remarkable sentence, “My mama went to a novena service at the Rock ’N’ Bowl.”
That explains a lot about how she ended up making work that effortlessly braids religious forms and content with secular concerns. But it doesn’t entirely explain the impulse behind “Terce.” The way Christian described it, the piece sprang from questions about her inherited faith tradition.
“It came from feeling alienated from a creator who did not understand how a woman moves socially through the world and the hardships that come with that,” she said. Articulating a common critique of patriarchal Christianity, even or especially when bundled with veneration of the Blessed Virgin, she said, “It feels like we subsumed all of these ideas of feminine wildness and fertility and bounty and alignment with nature in the early church to focus on how to tame those things, to take dominion over creation, over the earth, to govern people and make the wildness of women subservient to that.”
The theater is one place where a collective search is still possible, both among performers and audiences.
This in turn led her to look into the literature and history of goddess cultures, and into the writings of Julian of Norwich, a 12th-century mystic often credited as the first in the Western Christian tradition to articulate the image of God as a mother. Other inspirations for “Terce” included the popular 14th-century saint Hildegard von Bingen and Robin Wall Kimmerer, a Potawatomi elder and author of Braiding Sweetgrass, a book Christian described as being “about seeing eye to eye with nature, and about a gift economy with both people and with nature.”
Christian confessed that she now considers herself neither a believer nor an atheist but “a cynic,” both in the word’s popular sense and in the Greek philosophical tradition of countercultural asceticism. She said that an “active, deep searching for divine guidance” still infuses her work, because it’s what she needs—and what she said she misses from the church.
“I find that when I go back to the Catholic church, it doesn't feel active in the asking of the questions. It feels like we’re doing it because this is what we do,” she said. “I’m sure that people with strong faith have a private practice where they’re truly asking questions, but it doesn’t feel like we’re doing that in community. So I’m really interested in making a place where cynics like myself can ask those questions.”
Like certain religious ceremonies, “Terce” both instantiates and requires presence, immanence, incarnation.
The theater is one such place, where a collective search is still possible, both among performers and audiences.
“Theater is always about the investigation—at least the rooms that I try to curate,” she said. “It’s about the process of finding what the piece is, and that remains a growing thing throughout the run. Keeping that kind of ritualism alive makes me believe in the theater.”
Well, not all kinds of theater.
“Musical theater right now feels kind of stagnant,” she said, apologizing for getting on a “soapbox” about it. “There’s not a lot of it that is reaping the full potential of the medium. You can kind of do everything when you involve all of the senses—or theoretically, you should be able to.”
“Terce,” an invigorating sensory hybrid, may point one way forward. It is presented by New York experimental mainstay HERE Arts Center as part of an annual festival called Prototype, which is billed as a platform for new opera, though it has increasingly programmed pieces that stretch that definition. Christian’s work, like that of Meredith Monk before her, is music as theater, its tight harmonies and meticulous fugues alternating with open-ended grooves and loosely embodied choreography (the director is Keenan Tyler Oliphant). While I am sure it could be enjoyed as a recording, it is expressly designed as a 360-degree, you-have-to-be-there experience.
In other words, like certain religious ceremonies, not to mention the revelations they are based on, “Terce” both instantiates and requires presence, immanence, incarnation. To paraphrase the title of a Sinatra song about God: That’s what church looks like to me.