Richard Einhorn by ​Stuart Cohn

BOMB 57 Fall 1996
Issue 57 057  Fall 1996
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Richard Einhorn. Photo courtesy of the Daily Hampshire Gazette.

Richard Einhorn’s Voices of Light is not the missing soundtrack to Carl Dreyer’s 1928 silent film, The Passion of Joan of Arc. Instead, it’s a response, an interpretation, an homage to one of the most intense films ever made and a psychological profile of its many-faceted subject, the warrior/saint who, at the age of 16, heard inner voices commanding her to reunite France and free it from the invading English.

The 70-minute work for voices and orchestra collects texts by female medieval mystics, including composer and philosopher Hildegard von Bingen and the early feminist writer Christine de Pizan, and intersperses them with Biblical passages and excerpts from letters Joan dictated while she was imprisoned in 1431 before being burned at the stake for heresy. One of those supreme historical figures who has become all-things-to-all-people, Joan is assigned four voices in the piece—not one; her role is sung by the medieval vocal superstars Anonymous 4.

Voices of Light, which is performed accompanying the restored original version of the Dreyer film, has a big, dramatic vocal sound filled with the sort of stark, highly-arched harmonies that make 15th century music so haunting. Its composer grew up in suburban New Jersey, and his early musical influences included Zappa, Cage and the Velvet Underground, which formed the prototype for the music he has gone on to create—rigorous and serious, firmly avant garde, but with the immediacy and rhythmic pulse of rock n’ roll. Einhorn has composed for film, theater, dance and the concert stage, and is also a prolific record producer, mostly for Sony Classical, which has released Voices of Light.

We spoke over the phone—he’s a friendly and articulate guy—about music, religion, feminism, and, of course, the great Joan of Arc.

Stuart Cohn There are a number of things to talk about… the collaborative nature of the process, how you were inspired by an existing film that accompanies the music. And there’s also the feminist point of view.

Richard Einhorn Very few people have asked me about the feminist aspect, although it’s clear to me that if you have a heroine like Joan of Arc, and if you have texts like the ones I selected, there may be something feminist going on. I really wanted to do a theater piece about religion long before I saw the film, because I felt the subject was an extremely important one, and nobody was addressing it in any kind of interesting way. Most of the world is very religious, far more religious than you or I could possibly imagine. And a lot of the social and cultural problems that occur, occur because of a clash between a religious and a secular culture. Nobody in our culture, in the secular culture, was addressing this. So I began to do a lot of reading, and I’ve always been attracted to feminist ideas, so when I saw The Passion of Joan of Arc for the first time I realized that I had found a subject in which I could address religious issues and do so within the context of a feminist piece. It’s rare that those two come together.

SC Women haven’t been much included in the history of classical music, just as the female medieval mystics are not the first ones you hear about.

RE Exactly. It was Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. John of The Cross, St. Francis, they are the ones that came to mind. Until the rediscovery of Hildegard von Bingen, who now, of course, is recognized as one of the great figures of Western culture, women were not the ones you would think of. And yet there are many beautiful writings, poems, songs, mystical essays, and autobiographies by women. There were some extremely interesting and sometimes extremely peculiar people. To read these texts was exciting, and to bring them to the attention of the larger public was one of the main purposes of the piece. Obviously, the Dreyer film is a great masterpiece, and yet very few people have seen it. I wanted more people to see the film. And when I started to find these texts, they clearly were things I wanted to bring together. I was reading Hildegard before she became very popular. It’s exciting that she’s suddenly being rediscovered. She’s a wonderful writer, a very erotic writer actually, and that was another thing that interested me, the connection between religious ecstasy and eroticism.

SC Throughout history, there’s all this oppression and suppression of women’s voices. Do you identify with that, or are you threatened by the rage that comes out of that?

RE I don’t think that identify is exactly right, and I certainly don’t feel threatened by any kind of rage that anybody would have about preferential treatment of a gender. In regards to the treatment of women, it’s pretty outrageous what went on, and what is going on. But what I feel is that Joan of Arc’s lessons, and the lessons of this material, are universal. And it’s true that at least up until now, women in classical music have played a lesser role than they should have. I feel that it’s very important to try and reach out beyond one’s own group and to make those connections. I don’t see any reason why I need to restrict myself to subjects of my own gender or my own particular ethnic background, or culture. Likewise, I don’t feel in any way insulted if somebody from another ethnic background or a woman does something, say, about Douglas MacArthur. What I certainly did was fall in love with Joan of Arc, like everybody else who learns even the tiniest bit about her. She’s such a great hero, and she has so many different facets, and she’s so incredibly attractive as a person and as this symbol, that you want to find out more about her. You end up becoming obsessed with her, I certainly did.

SC So, as you were composing, how much were you inspired by the texts? Had some of the texts already been set back in the 15th century or even earlier?

RE A lot of the Hildegard had been set by Hildegard herself, she was a very fine composer. The text certainly determined a lot. I had the rhythms of the text, the images, the poetry… The kind of word setting that I was doing—and I wanted to set as many as I could—wasn’t overly florid or ornamental. I basically wanted a very straightforward, simple setting. I decided on Old French, Italian, and Latin, because I didn’t want the words to be immediately understood so much as the feeling. Then the listener has to go back and pin down the meaning. I was really sad when it was over. It was a really wonderful time working. I loved it.

SC Did your sense of faith change during the project?

RE Totally. I came in with one set of beliefs and walked out of it with a very different idea of what a spiritual experience is and what a religious experience is. I feel very different as a result of the project. I’m sure that I did it as a means to self-discovery as well, to understand my own personal beliefs and my own religious faith. But I’m certainly not trying to convince anybody of anything, and I’m certainly not proselytizing—except for one thing: I think Joan of Arc, Carl Dreyer’s film, and these texts are things that all of us would enjoy knowing more about. To be surrounded with such wonderful, almost eternal stuff, was transforming. To get up every day and to work with texts that are almost 600 years old, and to work with one of the great movies of all time, and to try and do something that was closely felt by that… it was really hard to go back to a day-to-day, workaday world. I still don’t want to.

SC So do you believe in God now? Did you before?

RE I’m not sure I feel comfortable talking about my religious beliefs in public, but let’s just put it this way, there are two major aspects to religion: One is your own belief and your own personal perception of God, which I think everybody has, including atheists; and then there’s a cultural and political aspect to religion, how you celebrate your own beliefs with other people. This cultural aspect is very complicated and confusing. I don’t believe that it is useful to have the kind of strict, ultimate concept which so many fundamentalist movements of today seem to have. Actually, Joan of Arc’s story speaks directly to that, because Joan had a direct pipeline to her angels and to God. She bypassed the Church, and to bypass the Church and to refuse to recognize the Church’s authority, and to insist that you could in fact speak directly to the angels, was heresy. Joan of Arc was literally one of the few people, and certainly the first major person in the West, to challenge the moral and religious authority of the Church, which was, of course, all male. For those of us who believe that a personal experience of God and a personal religious experience is far more important than a cultural or political one, then Joan of Arc is the first person we can really look up to.

SC Can you describe the three major points of her story that move you the most?

RE There are so many things. Whenever you think that you have a feel about who she is, or what she is, she breaks the mold. Joan was an illiterate, peasant girl. She had no education and could neither read nor write. And yet, when she was 16 she convinced the uncrowned king of France to give her an army so she could go and lift the siege of Orleans. She reversed the course of history, she drove the English out of France. And she was more than just simply a general, because she was hearing voices, voices of angels. Today of course, if you heard the voices of angels you would be locked up as a paranoid schizophrenic. So, was she mentally ill? Well, if she was, then how do you explain the fact that she was so coherent when she gave her answers at the trial? (Because we do have the trial transcripts.) And if she was so coherent, how could she possibly have been hearing all these voices? She’s also sexually ambiguous—she was a virgin, and definitely a woman, but she dressed as a man. A lot of people have used this as a way of calling attention to her sexuality. My personal feelings is that Joan was so obsessed with her mission that she didn’t think about men or women in any way other than as a means to help her liberate France. But a lot of people feel differently. Joan’s religion, again, is so breathtaking in the way that it breaks any kind of tradition. She’s a Catholic saint, but she was also burned as a heretic. There are witches who worship Joan of Arc as one of their own. And of course here in the United States she’s a feminist icon; but in France she’s a right-wing symbol of French nationalism. In fact, in Vietnam I understand that when the Americans went into the Vietcong hideaways, they found statues of the Buddha, of Jesus, and of Joan of Arc.

SC Really?

RE Yes. She epitomizes all of these contradictory elements. She’s the patron saint of artists, “be-true-to-your-inner-voice” stuff which is, frankly, the least interesting aspect of Joan of Arc; but she is also a patron saint for generals and the military. So you can’t pin her down. That kind of refusal to be pinned down, that refusal to take a stereotype as your life, that’s really an awe-inspiring thing. If you feel that you are XYZ, Joan proves that you don’t necessarily have to act like an XYZ, that you can act any way you want.

SC She does have a great look in the film, the actress, Renée Falconetti, is really beautiful. But, back to this all-things-to-all-people, multiple layers of her image and personality, you have four different voices singing Joan’s words in the piece. Did you use the Anonymous 4 voices to make her more archetypal? How do you use vocal harmony to create a single persona?

RE Except for Joan, there aren’t any particular characters in my piece. The words flow between the men and the women, the chorus and the soloists. I wasn’t thinking about characterization except for Joan. I wanted her to have a very special, defining sound. We know a great deal about her life, but we have no idea what she looked like. Absolutely no idea. So if we don’t know what she looked like, then we certainly don’t know what she sounded like. I decided on neither a soprano nor an alto, but both. I had a very simple harmonic language for the entire piece, but for Joan I simplified the language down to almost nothing. And these two voices, these two separate parts, soprano and alto, which are sung by Anonymous 4, two each on a part, this particular sound is only heard when Joan of Arc’s words are being sung. The idea was to try to evoke her as a very special human being, one who defies any convention.

SC Have you done that before in your other works?

RE Frankly, I’ve never written for voice before. But since writing Voices of Light I’ve written quite a bit for voice. I’m now working on an entirely new piece of theater, a kind of comic opera about Sigmund Freud, which will be quite a tour de force.

SC What is that about? Will it also involve other media?

RE Yes, definitely. The Freud opera is called Freud and Dora: A Case of Hysteria. It has a couch, many cigars, a hysterical patient, Sigmund Freud, a giant nose, and a chorus called “The Reservoir of Libido.” It will tell the true story of this strange encounter that Freud had with one of his patients on New Year’s Eve, 1900, which is when the opera is set. While that is going on, we will have all sorts of films, videos, slides, and varied stage business to illustrate the story in a free-associative, dream like way. It will be an evening-long piece. There will be six characters plus “The Reservoir of Libido.” but most of the piece will focus on Freud and Dora. Freud’s had it coming for nearly a hundred years now. Interestingly enough, it’s another piece about women, and the Dora case is a very famous case for feminists. It’s a very strange piece. It will be Joan of Arc’s evil twin.

SC And you’re doing another piece on Simone Weil, who’s a 20th century saint. How do you compare her to Joan of Arc?

RE Well. I haven’t really figured out the structure of that piece yet, but for a long time I’ve wanted to do something with her writing and her life. She started off as a brilliant philosophy student, who instead of becoming a teacher went to work making rivets in a factory. She did that for a couple of years, and then she joined the Spanish Civil War as a freedom fighter, but she was so physically inept that they banned her from the battlefront. Then she slowly moved from political, left-wing activism to a kind of Catholic mysticism, although she was Jewish. Finally she was thrown out of France during the Vichy occupation, and in solidarity to the Resistance movement she starved herself to death. Simone is an amazing, beautiful writer, and her life is almost our only contemporary example of what a saint’s life could possibly be like. If Ghandi is the male saint of the century, then Simone is definitely the female saint of the century. She’s an incredible character. She makes Joan of Arc look normal.

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From Richard Einhorn’s Voices of Light: René Falconetti as Joan of Arc in Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, 1927.

SC I think we should talk about performing Voices of Light. What were the special difficulties of performing this piece, because you do have an existing film. Is the piece always performed with the film?

RE So far it has been, but I think there is at least one performance next year where we’ll just do it as an oratorio. The music is very easy to play, so the main problem of the performance is getting that number of people together. There’s usually no less than 60, and often more than a hundred performers. Each movement of Voices of Light lasts about the length of a given sequence in the Dreyer film, but within the sequence there are hardly any moments which I was Mickey-mousing or trying to emphasize. I was more interested in the feeling of the film and Joan of Arc’s life than I was in trying to remotely do anything like a film score. Since the music is so simple it requires a lot of concentration from the players, they really have to make it sound shaped. Otherwise it just sounds perfunctory.

SC Did you watch the film many times when you were composing? Or did you write about it from memory and all the research you’d done?

RE I did and still do have videotape copies of the film. I was watching it when I was composing, but I was not watching it for anything other than to remind me of what the film looked like and what the scenes were. After I decided to do the piece—and it took many, many years until I was finally able to convince somebody to produce it—the first thing I did was to come up with a structure. I decided that the music’s structure would be based upon the structure of Dreyer’s film. There are approximately 15 sequences in the film; so I knew I had a piece of music that was going to have 15 movements. I realized that Dreyer’s film was organized around the Passion story of Christ. That’s what The Passion of Joan of Arc is: it means not only the passion, the enthusiasm, the ecstasy of Joan of Arc, but also the Passion story, the suffering of Joan of Arc, the way Christ suffered. I realized then that one could organize the texts according to these different stages of the story. That enabled me to say, “Oh, well, when I’m in the torture movement I’ll use these gruesome texts; when I’m in the Pater Noster movement I’ll use texts based on the Pater Noster and based on Joan’s childhood religious beliefs.” It was extremely easy to organize the piece, and then it was just a matter of sitting and writing it.

SC Why was it so difficult to get a presenter?

RE I’d been trying for six years to convince somebody to do it, and finally, the Northampton Arts Council in Massachusetts agreed. Our premiere was in February 1994, and we were very upset because there was a blizzard that week and it was still snowing the day of the performance! We thought nobody would come. But as it happened, the performance totally sold out and all the canceled tickets and reservations were sold again. We had a huge hit. We got great reviews and a great response from the audience. And almost immediately, word of mouth spread and performances were set up in upstate New York, and then in Los Angeles, and then at the Brooklyn Academy’s Next Wave festival. It was around that time I was talking to a friend of mine from Sony, and I was telling him about this piece, and he said, “Why don’t you send in a tape, you never can tell…” I said, “Nah,” and I never bothered to send in anything. Finally, he kept on insisting, so I sent some reviews, and rather than send a tape I offered to set up a demonstration of how the music sounds and how the whole thing looks live. So I set up the demo, and Peter Gelb, the president of Sony Classical, saw five minutes of it and said. “We have to record this.” That was that.

SC So if I might change the subject a little, how do you account nowadays for the flowering of early music and its influence on all sorts of contemporary composition? For instance, a piece by Arvo Pärt, pieces by Gorecki, pieces by Philip Glass. In the work of so many contemporary composers now, you hear either the pacing or the harmonies or the simplicity that you hear in early music.

RE Well, not all early music is simple.

SC Yeah, I know, it’s a huge generalization, but…

RE Basically, when I was a little kid, around 15 or 16, I was listening to rock n’ roll and to Varése and to Stravinsky, and Schoenberg, and characters like that. And when I hit college and was able to really get my hands on a bunch of early music discs, I was absolutely floored. I heard the music of Perotin, and was just blown away. It had that same kind of emotional and rhythmical directness that I’ve always associated with rock music. And yet it was this strange, bizarre sound that I had never heard. So it was a combination of the extremely unusual and the extremely accessible and familiar. Since then, I’ve done a lot of study and listened to a lot of music before Bach, and I find it endlessly interesting. Not all my music has that sense of sounding like it’s in that tradition, but certainly a lot of my vocal music does. My instrumental music, like Maxwell’s Demon, and The Silence, and other pieces that I’ve written take their cue from modern rock n’ roll. They don’t sound anything like Voices of Light. You wouldn’t believe it was the same composer. I think that one thing that many contemporary composers feel, and I certainly feel, is that the kind of narrative structures of 19th century music are just not that interesting. Richard Strauss’ music has never made any sense whatsoever to me. Beethoven is barely listenable. I mean, a lot of it is amazing, but a lot of it just doesn’t make any sense to me. Music. I think, is ill-served by a dramatic story. Music tells another kind of story—a story based on emotional, not narrative, logic. Early music kicks into that, as does a lot of music from other cultures. And the music that a lot of us are writing now kicks into that as well.

SC You’re talking about the whole sonata form and…

RE Yeah. That kind of opposition that music is about the resolution of conflicts. As a musician I don’t understand how I would have my music do that, that’s not what I want my music to do. Then the extension of that into doing Till Eulenspeigel or Em Heldenleben just doesn’t make any sense, harmonically or texturally. It sounds very unpleasant to me. Likewise, a lot of Mahler’s music means very, very little to me. Stravinsky, on the other hand, who had other fish to fry, his music is literally like immediate recognition. The same thing with Varése and the other characters. Likewise with rock n’ roll. Chuck Berry hits you over the head immediately.

SC Well, if you don’t want music to resolve conflicts, what do you want it to do?

RE Not very much. (laughter) Not very much at all. Music is basically something that I don’t understand why we have it, what it’s about, what it’s for, what it’s supposed to do. It’s used for a lot of things: for sacred rituals, to hype soda pop, to calm patients down before the dentist drill comes into their mouth, it’s also used as torture. They used it against David Koresh, remember them blasting loud music into the compound? Music has had a lot of uses. As far as I can tell, it’s just something that’s fundamental and basic. What is the use of a Bach violin concerto? There isn’t a use for it. It’s just enthralling, it’s wonderful.

SC Do you feel music is the closest art form to the divine? Are your religious feelings then inspired by music, or somehow made to make sense by music?

RE I forget who said that all art forms aspire to the spirituality or the transcendence of music. I think that’s true. When you think of the music that you couldn’t possibly get through the day without having somewhere in the back of your head, then yeah, I think that it certainly is a divine experience. Certainly a transcendent experience. It’s an emotional experience, but the emotions of good music are really hard to define, because they’re not sad, they’re not happy… it’s a very strange kind of emotional experience. It’s one of the reasons why, with film music for instance, where the emotion is so spot on, it just doesn’t work and sounds tacky when you listen to it without the film. Most music that I love has a real emotional ambiguity.

SC It certainly makes me feel more alive, for lack of a better word, and almost like floating. There’s a certain sadness to any really moving piece of music, but it’s a sadness that connects me to my whole life.

RE But it’s amazing how quick it is and how hard it is to define. I can remember being at a concert of Gamelan music, sitting there, and first one of those xylophones played pianissimo, and then the entire ensemble kicked in incredibly loud. I was just reduced to a puddle of tears. There’s no way to put into words all the feelings and emotions that go into one moment when the sound just overloads your brain and goes into so many different places. I think that basically, for a composer, at least for me, my primary emotional experience and my primary way of communicating is through sound. It’s so much easier for me to simply write a piece of music that to try and describe it. That’s why I never taught music. I find it so hard to describe music in a way that’s meaningful. It’s just emotionally overwhelming, the best of it.

SC I want to ask you about Meredith Monk. You’ve worked with her in the past, and there’s a huge variety of female voices in her work as well. Has that affected you?

RE Meredith’s a genius, really a genius. I don’t think that I’m influenced by her vocal styles, certainly not in Voices of Light, but I love her music and I lover what she does with voices. She uses “non-musicians” for the most part, who have a very, very simple, non-vibrato kind of style If anything, that’s certainly an influence on my own taste, although I probably felt that way before I worked with her.

SC Do you feel female composers, like Meredith Monk, have gotten their due recognition?

RE Meredith is now recognized, but there are dozens of women composers who are really fantastic, but who, for a variety of reasons, are not as well known as they should be.

SC There’s a quote in the material accompanying the CD that says something about, “The tradition of suffering as a means of spiritual ecstasy.” How do you relate to that?

RE I don’t relate to it at all. I find it an extremely bizarre idea. And yet it’s something that permeates Western culture: “No pain, no gain.” There is this tradition in the West, that unless you deface your body, debase your mind, or in some way or another suffer the tortures of the damned, that you can’t possibly achieve a sense of ecstasy or true knowledge. I find it a very bizarre and peculiar idea. And of course the female mystics, if you read their writings, their masochism is very clear and the erotic component of it is very clear. But I don’t think that art is about suffering, it shouldn’t be about suffering, mine isn’t. It’s not about happy-go-luckiness either. There may be two sides of the coin. But I’m working with a different currency.

SC You’ve travelled a lot and have witnessed religion and its importance. Was there something that really touched you, and that may have come out in this work?

RE I went to a convent in Vermont to meet with a French priest from the abbey of Solesme. They invited me to attend Mass, which I did—twice actually—and it was the first time I heard Gregorian chants performed not by an early music group and not on record, but live by a group of clearly untrained, some of them unmusical, people. The simplicity of it and the beauty, and the spiritual warmth was literally overwhelming. Again, I was just crying at how beautiful it sounded, and how right it seemed for that space and for the service. It was a very, very thrilling moment. Another experience was Salman Rushdie being put under a sentence of death for writing what was presumably a blasphemous novel. From our secular cultural point of view, this is bizarre. And yet, one has to remember that we are a minority, and that the majority of the world takes blasphemy very seriously. Probably most people don’t support the death sentence against Salman Rushdie, but they would be disgusted and appalled by many of the day-to-day sightings of religious beliefs and religious rituals that we take for granted. Realizing that we were a minority made me want to discover what the majority believed in. To understand that and to try and understand why those people believe what they do was very important. I think the statistic is something like 69 percent of all Americans believe in angels, and 65 percent don’t believe that the Big Bang theory is a reasonable explanation for the creation of the universe.

SC People are searching for some kind of a structure and something they can identify with that explains and makes them feel that there’s a unity about the world. That’s the appeal of a lot of belief, I think, and especially a lot of fundamentalism.

RE The appeal of fundamentalism is partly that, but I think a lot of fundamentalism in the United States is based on class and is a screen for economic resentment. It’s the lower-middle-class’ revolt against what they consider to be the prestige, the power, and the freedom of the middle and the upper-middle-class. The symbols of religion get taken as a way of hiding and justifying the resentment. Then those of us who want to get in touch with our religious beliefs have to constantly apologize: “Yeah, I believe in God, yes, but don’t think I’m a religious nut…” an unhealthy situation, a really unhealthy situation. But when it comes to pieces of music, the important thing is not what I feel, but more that I create a space where people can come to terms with their own feelings.

David Del Tredici by J. D. Dolan
​David Del Tredici 01
Benedict Mason by George Steel
Mason01B Body

“My dream was a synchronized sound of present, absent, and distant musicians choreographed across the audience via the elaborate placement and movements of the performers in the whole building.”

Joel Thome by Suzanne McElfresh
Joel Thome 01

From twelve-tone compositions to conducting improvisations, Joel Thome discusses what it was like to record music with Frank Zappa.

Looking Back on 2017: Music
Looking Back 2017 Music

Featuring selections by Jem Cohen, Keith Connolly, Britton Powell, Alan Courtis, Byron Westbrook, and more.

Originally published in

BOMB 57, Fall 1996

Featuring interviews with Jasper Johns, Tobias Wolff, Laurie Simmons, Sapphire, Scott Elliott, Brenda Blethyn, Craig Lucas, Suzannah Lessard & Honor Moore, Peter Dreher, and Richard Einhorn.

Read the issue
Issue 57 057  Fall 1996