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Case: Strange Energy

Delvyn Case: Strange Energy (2018)

STRANGE ENERGY (2018) features sacred chamber and vocal works by American composer Delvyn Case (b. 1974).

The pieces explore a wide range of topics within the Christian tradition, including the Trinity, the immanence and transcendence of God, the divine nature of Christ, the suffering of Job, and the possibility of darkness as a metaphor for God’s creative power.

The recording features the Firebird Ensemble, Triton Brass Quintet, Bayside Trio, clarinetist Todd Brunel, sopranos Jean Danton and Elisabeth Marshall, and organist Edward A. Broms.

Recorded at Dreamworld Studios, Lynn, Massachusetts. Produced by Delvyn Case. Engineered by Doug Hammer. CD Art by Emmanuelle LeGal.

Composer website: www.delvyncase.com


PERICHORESIS

performed by the Triton Brass Quintet

John of Damscus, one of the most important theologians of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, writes the following about the relationship between the three Persons of the Trinity:

...[they] dwell and are established firmly in one another. For they are inseparable and cannot part from one another, but keep to their separate courses within one another, without coalescing or mingling, but cleaving to each other. For the Son is in the Father and the Spirit: and the Spirit in the Father and the Son: and the Father in the Son and the Spirit, but there is no coalescence or commingling or confusion. And there is one and the same motion: for there is one impulse and one motion of the three subsistences, which is not to be observed in any created nature.

The Greek word “perichoresis” has come to refer not only to this multi-dimensional, incomprehensible unity, but to a particular metaphor describing this relationship: that of a “divine dance” between/among/within the Trinity.

Perichoresis presents my impression of what that “divine dance” might “look” like: an ecstatic whirling-about in which all three members become lost in the joy of their very being(s). Though not an entirely “fast” piece, the moments of stillness serve to highlight the motoric triplet material that returns again and again.


DAYSPRING

performed by Todd Brunel, clarinet and Brady Millican , piano

The archaic word “dayspring”, meaning sunrise, occurs a handful of times in the King James Version of the Bible as a metaphor for Christ.  The theological richness of this analogy is what inspired Dayspring.   As every sunrise brings with it the possibility of both joy and sorrow, the only way we can face each day is by remembering faithfully that  Christ is “before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Col. 1:17). The piece explores the mystery of Christ’s reconciling power by juxtaposing and eventually combining a variety of contrasting musical ideas. At times peaceful and at times angst-ridden, Dayspring is a musical depiction of the challenge of holding onto hope despite living in a broken world.   I think of this ten minute piece as a musical expansion of that infinitesimal moment just before the sun appears above the horizon -  that split-second when the beauty of what we see reminds us of the possibility that hope and peace may be within our grasp.


NUMBER THE CLOUDS

performed by The Bayside Trio

 
Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind, and said…
Who can number the clouds in wisdom?...
Shall he that contendeth with the Almighty instruct him?
— from Job 38

Number the Clouds is a musical reflection on my spiritual journey after losing my first wife to cancer in 2011. After she died I took many long, prayer-filled walks in the woods or by the sea, trying to make sense of what had happened, questioning God, and pleading for an understanding of God’s will. But as in the Biblical book of Job, satisfactory explanations and answers never came.  Instead, I received something more powerful and necessary: comfort and healing. As I considered the beauty and intricacy of the natural world surrounding me, I began to feel a deep sense of calm and peace.  I saw that the same God who created the universe was the same God who created me, who was holding me, and who wanted me to heal. 

Number the Clouds is a narrative piece whose dramatic shape reflects this journey of spiritual growth, emotional healing, and the role of the natural world in those processes. The piece begins “in media res” with the three instruments crying out to God in righteous anger and pain. The turbulence of the piece increases until a cataclysm leaves them utterly defeated. But out of that moment, glimpses of hope appear in the form of a sonic depiction of nature: specifically, the tiny waterbugs that skitter across the surface of a stream. The musical evocation of these delightful little creatures grows into an intimate and then passionate hymn of praise, leading to a final, ecstatic song of thanksgiving for the Creator – a God whose gift of the natural world reminds us that there is hope for restoration, for healing, and peace for all of us.


THE LORD’s PRAYER

performed by Jean Danton, soprano and Edward A. Broms, organ

My setting of The LORD’s Prayer is understated and humble, reflecting both the prayer’s simplicity and its depth. Every phrase of the prayer is introudced and answered by the organ, which provides space for the listener to meditate upon its meaning, and also reminds us that prayer is an act of listening, not just speaking.

The musical landscape perhaps reflects the way I imagine Jesus may have spoken the prayer: with a profound appreciation of its mystery and a deep sense of thanksgiving.

The Lord’s Prayer was was recorded at St. Dunstan’s Episcopal Church in Dover, Massachusetts.


STRANGE ENERGY

performed by the Firebird Ensemble

 
O power of the divine fire, O Strange Energy: You who dwell, Christ my God, in light wholly unapproachable: how – in your essence totally divine – do you mingle yourself with grass?
— St. Symeon (10th century)

Strange Energy contemplates one of the great mysteries of Christian theology: the simultaneous immanence and transcendence of God. Underscoring the eternal nature of this mystery, the musical form is heavily ritualized: the same basic sequence of events happens several times, marked by a recorded recitation of a 10th century prayer which repeatedly asks the provocative question that energizes the piece.

Many aspects of Strange Energy attempt to explore the paradoxical mystery posed by this prayer. The aural environment of the piece – composed of a variety of quiet sounds created by glass bottles, crystal wine glasses, and the voices of the musicians – invites us to explore the tiny details of our sonic existence that we might otherwise ignore. Similarly, when played live, the piece is performed in the dark along with projections of photographs of  individual flowers, each of which remains displayed for more than three minutes. Looking deeply upon their intricate beauty can bring us to a renewed awareness of the presence of a transcendent God in the minutiae of the created world.   

Photography by Laura Kjeldgaard Case

Photography by Laura Kjeldgaard Case

The final section of the piece explores yet another way of answering the prayer’s question: by considering the Incarnation. This section coincides with the projection of the fourth image – not a flower, but a bare thorn, pointing us toward the Passion: the time when Christ’s suffering simultaneously affirmed and defied the inescapable reality of death for all of God’s creation.


DARKNESS FROM WHICH I COME

A song cycle on poetry by Rainer Maria Rilke. New translations by Mark S. Burrows.

performed by Elisabeth Marshall, soprano and Brady Millican, piano

Darkness from which I come is a song cycle that sets six poems by the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926) in new English translations by my friend Mark Burrows, an American scholar and poet and former Theologian-in-Residence at Old South Church.  The 60-plus poems collected by Mark in his new volume, Prayers of a Young Poet (Paraclete Press, 2013), are fictitiously attributed to a Russian monk, an icon painter whose experience of God is one that reflects his own solitary, artistic vocation.  The monk experiences God in his cell alone at night, or in walks in the woods at dusk, or in the icons he paints by himself by candlelight. This allows Rilke to build a matrix of metaphors that strikingly contradicts the almost axiomatic (and Biblical) association of God with things bright, clear, and brilliant.  In these poems, Rilke’s God is often a dark, powerful, awesome presence whose inescapable power (though ultimately a source of strength and confidence) is overwhelming.  Rilke also associates God –who, like the monk,  is a creator –with the thick blackness of the earth – the rich, dark soil that forms the basis for life on our world.  Again, this contradicts our culture’s neo-Platonic view of the spiritual world as a domain beyond or outside of the physical world – one that is purer or more authentic the further it gets – literally and figuratively - from the earth.  

Though linked by a collection of repeated images drawn from this matrix, the poems and songs reveal a wide variety of emotional responses to God, combined into a narrative arc that presents perhaps one path the monk’s prayers may have taken him during one dark evening in his cell.  Sublime wonder, passionate love, confused anger, self-righteous confidence, holy terror: he feels all of these and more as he prays to his Creator.  The music reflects these wild shifts by featuring extremes of dynamic, register, tempo, and articulation, and overall mood – even within individual songs.   Certain musical ideas occur in every song, particularly a pattern of repeated chords, which symbolize God inescapable power, moving forward on and on and into eternity. These chords become transformed into the repeated notes that occur at the very end of the piece, as the monk’s spiritual ecstasies continue forever and ever….  

Purchase Mark S. Burrows’ new translation of Rilke’s poems, Prayers of a Young Poet, from Paraclete Press.

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