Lewis Spratlan: Retelling a Mayan Memoir

In advance of Lewis Spratlan’s new ARCHITECT project with Jenny Kallick and John Downey, we’d like to share this past article on Spratlan’s In Memoriam, originally published in June 2009.
By Jeff LeRoy
Edited by Sean Joncas
Dust had settled on the Maya’s story, as sediment obscured many an ancient stone mask. Eleven centuries later, Lewis Spratlan puts pen to paper like ax to rock, and dedicates a career’s worth of expertise towards its unearthing.
Spratlan is a celebrated composer, conductor, and former professor at Amherst College. Though publicly he’s best recognized for his 2000 Pulitzer Prize win for the opera “Life is a Dream (Act II concert version)”, he admits his greatest dedication for 36 years has been his students. The Massachusetts-based composer’s works have been performed worldwide including London, Brussels, Milan and Moscow, not to mention numerous engagements across America. He has received awards and grants from the Guggenheim and Rockefeller Foundations, the National Endowment for the Arts, and many others.
“In Memoriam” is Spratlan’s most “political piece” and may very well be his grandest. Scored for large orchestra, double chorus, and five soloists, the work captures images of the Spanish Conquest through Mayan eyes. Thus, much of the story lays in context of prophecy and prayer. Presented through Mayan Prophecy text, the poetry of Pablo Neruda and Cesar Vallejo, and the thunderous and dense sounds of an intricate orchestration, Spratlan’s vision of Mayan strength, bloodshed, and endurance seems rightfully told.

Click “Read more” for the interview…

Q: What led to such a dramatic dedication?
“The Corliss Lamont Fund for World Peace at Amherst College was dedicated to artistic representations of world peace. It was, by coincidence, the 500th anniversary of the Columbian conquest of the West. I decided to make a statement from the under-represented point of view of the conquered – specifically the Mayans, whose genocide and subsequent enslavement was lost in all the anniversary fanfare.”
Q: Does this serve as your requiem for the Maya?
“It is surely that, even though descendants of the Mayans continue to live today in parts of Mexico and Central America. At the least it’s a requiem for their highly developed and sophisticated culture, but it’s also a celebration of their tenacity and survival strength as a people.”
Q: Would you elaborate on the contribution of Neruda’s poetry?
“I came across a trove of his politically trenchant and expansive works, many of which eerily continued the themes of the Mayan texts. Without being explicit about it, Neruda had clearly contemplated the outwash of the Columbian conquest, and its immediate and long-range implications. I was particularly taken by his notion of the hero-poet as both champion of the people and chronicler of their struggles, and by his sense that their brilliance could survive and flourish despite constant threat.”
Q: Can you cite specific musical inspiration?
“Formally, the great oratorios of Bach, with their narrative mixture of solos, ensembles, and choruses.  Embedded here too are traces of the chorus from Greek Antiquity. A more modern counter-model might be the orchestral song cycle, such as Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde or Strauss’s Four Last Songs. Also, the works of Ligeti, Berg, Dallapiccola, and Harbison.”
The album also features Streaming, a free form piano quartet that studies the inner workings of the awakening human mind. Such complex an inspiration seems right at home for Spratlan; allowing twentieth century liberations and beautiful motives to co-mingle in an enjoyable, ever-evolving experience.
Q: Describe the musical techniques used to make the streaming mind tangible?
“I tried to grab onto that moment when ideas, images, and impulses bump into one another in a disorderly and interruptive way, and to translate this mess into sound. The piece is full of interruptions and displacements, so that making sense of it requires letting go and allowing strands to connect in a largely unconscious way.”
Q: Would you touch upon the Pulitzer Prize experience?
“Winning the Pulitzer was the major watershed in my career. Here’s a funny thing, though. My winning opera [Life is a Dream] has yet to be staged. It was written for the New Haven Opera Theater, which ceased operations just as I was completing the third act.
Lewis Spratlan’s “In Memoriam” released on April 28, 2009 on Navona Records. For more info visit www.lewisspratlan.com.

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