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26 November 2008

Stations of Creation - 15 premieres for Advent

Christina Abdul-Karim Image: Christina Abdul-Karim  
© Daniella Abdul-Karim

The St Ives Uniting Church in NSW is taking a bold approach to Advent music by premiering no less than 15 new works in their 'Stations of Creation' concerts at the end of November. resonate asked one of these composers, Christina Abdul-Karim, to tell us how she approached her 'Station 13: The Naming'. The other composers involved are: Daniel Walker, Jessica Wells, Claire Jordan, Benjamin MacDonald, Judy Pile, Kevin March, Andrew Batt-Rawden, Alex Pozniak, Alexander Garsden, Daniel McCallum, Anthony Dunstan, Scott Sanders, Julian Day and Simon Charles.

Approaching Christmas, it is hardly surprising that numerous Advent concerts are scheduled to take place around the country. What is unique, however, is an Advent concert consisting of entirely new music. St Ives Uniting Church will host such a project entitled 'All Heaven Shouted for Joy: Stations of Creation'. The concert program features world premieres of music by 15 Australian composers, each composer asked to write a work for a designated 'station' which reflects a particular aspect of creation or birth. The instrumentation encompasses SATB voices, flute, cello, horn, and harp: an unusual mix with many exciting possibilities.

When I was asked to be involved and compose music for 'Station 13: The Naming', a number of potential conceptual and musical directions came to mind: a piece that takes into account the process, implications and significance of giving a name to a being; a programmatic work that traces the naming of a particular being, such as one referenced in the scriptures; a work that referentially depicts, through musical means, the process of growth that the named might experience towards the fulfilment of the meaning of their given name.

Having considered the festive season, particularly the preparation for Christmas, I decided to compose a work specifically about the naming of one who is both God and man: Jesus, Emmanuel. Emmanuel is a setting of texts related to the naming of the Lord, drawn from biblical references: prophecies from Isaiah, the Gospels of Luke and Matthew, the Psalms, and some Orthodox Christian hymn texts and verses including excerpts of 'God is with us' (Tr. Fr Ephrem Lash) from the Great Compline and excerpts from the Festal Menaion*.

The music of the Eastern Orthodox Churches, Byzantine chant, has been of great interest and importance to me, especially in recent years. Through this beautiful medium, texts may be expressed in a powerful way. Byzantine chant has become part of my musical language, and is of substantial influence in this musical setting, despite the fact that it is not directly quoted. Chant influence is most obvious in sections that feature a monophonic texture (single melodic line) sometimes supported by the isokratema (drone). The piece also features modal and tetrachordal pitch material, ornamentation akin to that used in Byzantine music, and rhythm which is guided by the accentuation of the words. The text is a prominent feature of the work.

Behold, the Virgin shall be with child and bear a Son,
and they shall call His name Emmanuel ,
which is translated, 'God is with us.'

The angels revealed the name 'Jesus' and 'Emmanuel' to both Mary, the mother of God, and Joseph: 'Jesus' because He is the Saviour, and 'Emmanuel', which translates to 'God (is) with us'. In this composition, the names 'Jesus' and 'Emmanuel' are the climactic focal points: the choir builds up to each of these names, coming together in rhythmic unison.

Who is this Child, this Son who is given? Numerous other titles were also ascribed to Him, including 'Angel of great counsel', 'Wonderful Counsellor', 'Mighty God', 'Ruler', 'Prince of Peace', 'Father of the age to come' and 'Son of the Highest'. 'Christ' (Christos) was a significant title given to Him, Christos meaning 'the anointed one': He is the one anointed by God to be the Messiah, and Saviour. I decided to include descriptive references and titles given to Him; such references point to the significance behind His name, and enrich our understanding of who the Lord is, and who is with us.

He is God Most High, and the Creator
The King of all Kings, The King of all the ages,
He is the Light of Lights, The Radiance of the Father.
For unto us a child is born
He is the Christ
And they shall call His name Emmanuel (God is with us)

Musically, chant-like melodies, sometimes sung in heterophonic octave unison, are successively introduced and layered over the syncopated harp and flute lines, and supported by the cello, resulting in a rich polyphonic soundscape. All voices and instruments perpetually ascend towards the phrases 'Light of Lights', and the climactic fulfilment of His name. Throughout the work, the concept of God being 'with us' is symbolically illustrated through the recurrence of the phrase '(For) God is with us', often sung by the baritone, and later exclaimed by all singers; and the eventual juxtaposition of both the phrases 'God is with us' and the name 'Emmanuel', until 'Emmanuel' is pronounced by the tutti choir at the climax.

God is with us. Understand you nations, and submit
For God is with us.

God: the incomprehensible, incarnate in the form of a new-born child, loving, merciful and ever-present, is with us. Submitting oneself to God entails taking steps towards being in His likeness. The mood of this musical section and of much of the composition may be best described as 'sweet sorrow'. The instrumental introduction, reinstated in modified form as a preamble to this postlude, contrasts the warmth of a major arpeggio with the more solemn adjacent minor second interval. Voices emerge successively, in descent, pleading and in mourning, culminating in brightness and joy.


*Translations by Archmandrite Ephrem Lash, Holy Transfiguration Monastery, Mother Mary and Bishop Kallistos Ware, and the New King James Version were consulted and/or drawn upon in the assemblage of text for my composition Emmanuel, and the italicised text in this article.

Event details

Christina Abdul-Karim studied composition with Gordon Kerry, Anna Pimakhova and John Peterson. Her compositions include vocal, chamber and solo instrumental music, electroacoustic and electronic music, orchestral and chamber arrangements, and music for short films. Her music has been performed in numerous concerts and broadcast internationally on Greek National Radio. After graduating in 2005 from UNSW, she commenced her PhD in Music as a University Postgraduate Award scholarship recipient, researching the influence of Byzantine chant in 20th-century music. She presented her research at the 2007 ASBMH First International Conference in Byzantine Music and Hymnology, Athens.



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