Between the Knife and the Heart
Movement I is named after the first painting in Hurd’s series. The music portrays the emotional state of a person who receives news of a debilitating tragedy. He cries out in shock, anger, and disbelief as he attempts to process the reality of the violence that has transpired. He is destitute, drowning in painful denial and incomprehension. Dissonant string harmonies grind against the sustained and cutting sound of the uilleann pipes to portray the intense anguish of this emotional process. The tempo and melodic vocabulary of this movement are inspired by the Breton bagpiping tradition of northwestern France. Gatherings in this musical tradition are often initiated with the slow, unmetered playing of the bombarde and biniou whose music calls the community into place. The movement concludes with a virtuosic cadenza for solo violin that is fraught with violent and confused outbursts, bitter tears, labored gestures, and wandering passages that evaporate into silence.
The Ghost of These Days
Movement II is named for the fifth painting in Hurd’s series. It directly addresses the Ghost of These Days, a being or force imagined to be the very incarnation of volitional evil. The music of this movement gives insight into the psychological state of the individual living out the tragedy, and who is succumbing to the realization of what has transpired—both the event that has taken place and the superhuman forces involved in its execution. Grasso’s music suggests that the individual’s inner thoughts are not still, but extremely active, slamming the mind and soul between disconsolate angst, bitter acceptance, and surging despair. A spinning, repeated ostinato pattern in the violins depicts this inner struggle, that is, the whirring of the mind when it can find no rest. At the halfway point, the individual experiences momentary stasis as he glimpses hope, represented by slow, sustained harmonic suspensions. In his paintings, Hurd depicts hope with the color blue. A striking ultramarine stripe marks a border above dripping gray and beige of the sixth painting, “Nothingness / Somethingness.” The relief from surging despair is fleeting, but real—a significant part of the process. Beyond this momentary relief, the other instruments will in time be silenced as the solo violin finds its way to the end of an uneasy peace. The movement concludes with an aggressive and densely contrapuntal prolation canon in which all the musical voices repeat a single melody in various rhythmic durations to create a disorienting layered effect.
Elegy and Gold
Named for the final painting in Hurd’s series, Movement III is divided into two parts. The first part, Elegy, is precisely that: it is the weighty acceptance of what has transpired. It is resolution—and recognition—that the tragedy cannot be undone, that the consequences are final. The opening phrases express this finality with chant-like sobriety followed by melodic variations on a descending D harmonic minor scale. The original chant returns without violin in the lowest range of the cello.
The second part of Movement III, Gold, is an instrumental arrangement of the thirteenth-century Franciscan lauda, Cristo È Nato et Humanato. In the Middle Ages, laudae would have been sung in public processionals through the streets of Italian cities as an act of penance. Singers would scourge themselves with whips affixed with shards of metal, bone, wood, or stone. These acts of self-violence were performed not solely for the benefit of the singers, but for the entire city in order to reconcile war and pestilence besieged areas to God. The medieval man was able to trudge through the painful mires of physical, mental, and emotional distress because the medieval mind embraced the hope that this arduous process was fundamental to reaching the unsurpassable peace of heaven that lay on the other side. Suffering and salvation were intertwined. Cristo È Nato et Humanato stresses both the extent to which man has strayed from the paths of righteousness, and the completeness of man’s reconciliation and forgiveness through the life and redemptive work of Jesus Christ. In the lauda, Jesus is referred to as the “king of great peace,” the one whose suffering brings salvation to all mankind.