ORIGIN OF THE PROJECT
In 2012 Sacred Music at Notre Dame received a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to develop sacred music dramas, conceived broadly as opportunities to reflect on important issues in culture and society through a dynamic interaction of the humanities and the arts. Sacred music dramas have appeared in many guises throughout history, and include Greek tragedies, medieval plays as well as oratorios and operas. Sacred dramas can now be construed as any collective exercise by which a community can engage in the performance of an action that illuminates values and leads to new insights.
Under the artistic direction of Professor Carmen-Helena Téllez of Sacred Music at Notre Dame, the Interdisciplinary Sacred Music Dramas may be inspired by a preexisting masterpiece from any artistic discipline, a new commission, or by current issues, but they will be characterized by innovative integration of the arts and the humanities, immersive settings or interactivity with the audience.
The first of these projects was a weekend-long festival with an immersive and interactive installation, titled “I Was Born for This”. Its concept was triggered by the extraordinary masterpiece of silent cinema The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) by film director C.T. Dreyer, the oratorio Voices of Light (1993-94) by Richard Einhorn, and the article The Cinematic Maid by Daniel Hobbins, Associate Professor of Medieval History at Notre Dame. In his article, Professor Hobbins analyzes the enduring figure of Joan of Arc, and how film directors have used four pressure points to reveal their opinions of the meaning of her life and legacy. His approach to the analysis of many films about Joan of Arc sympathized with Professor Téllez’s working model for the Mellon interdisciplinary sacred music dramas, in that context of perception may affect meaning, and art can provide new contexts for the understanding of both history and society. Discussion about the film, the oratorio and the article led to the conceptualization of an installation artwork as an experience of meditation on the impact of Joan of Arc in the world, and of her role as a model for women who have changed history. Further discussions with Professor of Film Studies Don Crafton led to some important decisions by the guest artists in the project about the precise focus of the installation on images and messages derived from the last few scenes of Dreyer’s film.
NESTING ONE WORK OF ART INTO ANOTHER
The Mellon Interdisciplinary Sacred Drama I was born for this develops out of one significant and specific phenomenon affecting both history and art, namely the life and death of Joan of Arc. It generated historical waves and artistic resonances carried forward from her trial at the beginning of the 15th century to the present day. In almost 600 years, Jehanne d’Arc has been a folk heroin, a cultural icon, a saint of the Catholic Church and even a fashion trend. The artists were asked to reflect on how an ostensibly disenfranchised individual (a peasant and a woman) could change the course of history. Furthermore, besides her appearance in countless artistic and modern media images, her figure has been adopted as a banner and inspiration by the most disparate persons and groups, from Napoleon, through Mark Twain, the suffragettes, and the French arch-conservative Jean-Marie Le Pen. Women who have broken through barriers in areas reserved for men are often called “the Joan of Arc of this and that,” including the physicist Marie Curie. It could be said that Joan of Arc has become an archetype.
The artists and scholars involved in this project decided to explore this phenomenon of historic resonance and the acquisition of polyvalent meanings, not through lectures or panel discussions, but rather through an experiential exercise, first, creating a new work of art in response to the impact of her life and other pre-existent works of art, and then by allowing the audience to react immediately and leave behind a gesture of their personal insights. C.T. Dreyer’s film The Passion of Joan of Arc and Einhorn’s Voices of Light provided both triggers and tools for the creation of our interdisciplinary sacred music drama, by showing how an initial event can lead to an artistic recreation, and how one art piece can generate another. With each iteration through the arts, a historical event may gain a meaning that speaks to the audience of the time. With each layer of meaning, the historical impact of a living person morphs and changes to affect the culture in unexpected ways.
The historical transcriptions of the trial of Joan of Arc constituted the central material for the script in Dreyer’s film. The script, however, did not develop as a literal reproduction of the trial texts. On the contrary, as Daniel Hobbins argues in his paper, Dreyer absorbs, edits and reorganizes the documents, occasionally inserting quotes from other circumstances in Joan’s life. The script and the resulting film project a specific opinion on the subject of Joan’s impact in history. Dreyer does not soften the images of the aggression exerted on Joan, nor Joan’s fear. Most importantly, her death at the stake is presented with extraordinary directness. In fact, according to Daniel Hobbins, the manner in which a director presents Joan’s death on film is one of the “pressure points” by which all films about Joan of Arc must be analyzed. In Hobbins’ opinion, Dreyer is arguing that Joan’s sacrifice has a political impact, and it stands at the root of the people of France’s previously unmanifested will to expel the English from the land. Indeed, as soon as Joan dies, a lengthy mob scene ensues, suggesting the beginning of France’s liberation. Furthermore, Dreyer establishes clear parallelisms between the death of Joan of Arc at the stake and the death of Jesus Christ on the cross.This is manifested overtly in his choice of title —The Passion of Joan of Arc— and in his direction of the extraordinary actress Renée Falconetti to affect a soulful and harrowing countenance (even though historical records suggest that Joan had a fiery temper). Subtle images of the cross emerge in shadows and window grills throughout the film.
Almost 70 years later, the film inspired American composer Richard Einhorn to create his oratorio for solo voices, chorus and orchestra Voices of Light. The composer has spoken at length about how he was overwhelmed by the film, and of how his reaction became not to write a blow-by-blow soundtrack, but rather, to go through an experience of reflection that involved the selection of contemporary poetry praising Joan of Arc plus prophetic texts by other extraordinary women, and finally, writing the oratorio with a very personal evocation of late medieval music. Even though it is frequently performed during projections of the film, Einhorn’s Voices of Light stands parallel and independent from Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc. There is no click track to keep the music conductor firmly tied to events on screen. At the same time, many admirers of the film state that Einhorn’s music allows them to stay connected to its deeper meaning in spite of the harshness of the trial images. At the same time, the experiences of the film without music or with some other music, and of the oratorio by itself have proven to be sharply different. In other words, the resonance between film and music create another layer of meaning, a form of conceptual blending, by which Dreyer’s equation between Christ and Joan of Arc is fully asserted in the atmosphere created by Einhorn’s choral sound.
A THIRD RESONANCE: THE INSTALLATION I WAS BORN FOR THIS AS A COLLECTIVE ARTISTIC EXERCISE AT NOTRE DAME.
These nested resonances between film and oratorio find now a third echo in the art installation by guest artists sculptor Gwendolyn Terry, composer Christopher Preissing, and video artist Charlie Simokaitis, with support from ceramist Jay Strommen, and conceptual curation by Notre Dame faculty scholars Daniel Hobbins and Don Crafton. They embraced and metabolized elements of The Passion of Joan of Arc and a music cell in Voices of Light, by abstracting some of its most powerful images and ideas and placing them in an immersive space, where the audience can spend a moment of reflection, before and/or after viewing the film with the oratorio. The art installation was named “I Was Born for This,” emulating words that Joan of Arc uttered when first entering battle (and which Dreyer inserted anachronistically in the trial in his film). The expression was chosen by artistic director Carmen-Helena Téllez as a form of DNA that could unify the ideas of all the artists in the final structure. Joan is reported to have said this sentence in response to a woman’s question about her military mission, but the words also serve to focus on the idea that a person can be loyal to an inner sense of purpose, and therefore manifest the will of God, destiny, or the thrust of a society at a particular time in history. It can be a mantra for staying in contact with a sense of self or a vocation in the midst of opposition. The words can be embraced by anyone who believes in a life goal–especially by women and those who feel they may not be capable.
The creative artists met to discuss directions with Daniel Hobbins, Don Crafton and Carmen-Helena Téllez. Among the complex matrix of images, ideas and sounds contained in the life of Joan of Arc, the film by Dreyer and the oratorio by Einhorn, the artists found their most fruitful trigger in the final scenes of the film. At this time, just before she is about to die, Joan looks up to a flock of birds standing on a roof. They begin to get restless and suddenly, as she looks at them, they take flight. For both Daniel Hobbins and Don Crafton, this was one of the most powerful images in the film. Artist Gwendolyn Terry, in particular, felt that the birds were an allegory for her impending liberation from earth. For Carmen-Helena Téllez the flying birds were a symbol of Joan’s projection forward into future history. The projection into the future provided also an anchor for the diverse and often polarized adoptions of the image of Joan of Arc in history. Given that the artists fell the power of the scene, they all agreed to develop the installation using this scene as a departure. The figure of the stake and of murmuration of birds became the initiating elements for the allegorical installation I was born for this. Video artist Charlie Simokaitis extracted and manipulated a seconds-long video clip of this moment in the film to insert a new powerful image into the installation. The birds virtually flew into our specially designed installation space at the Philbin theater.
As part of the pedagogical model of the Mellon Interdisciplinary Sacred Music Drama, Notre Dame students joined the faculty, visiting master artists and young guest artists, to become members of the artistic community co-creating and performing the project. The students in the conducting and voice classes in the graduate program of Sacred Music participated first in a recording of several segments of the trial and of letters related to Joan of Arc, in French, English and Latin. The recordings were the material used for the composition of a soundscape created by composer and sound artist Chris Preissing. As it enveloped the installation, the sound cloud represented the echoes of history on the one side and Joan’s inner voices on the other. Students also took half of the solo roles of the oratorio, alongside guest young artists from outside Notre Dame. Students also assisted in the mounting of the installation and developed the lighting design. Theology and Film History classes participated early in the discussion of Joan of Arc and included the visit to the festival as part of their required activities.
The recommended participation of the audience consisted of viewing the installation before and after attending performances of the oratorio with the film. A card was offered to each and every person coming to visit it. The card included suggestions about how to view the installation. Everyone was invited to write on the stake if there was ever a goal that would respond to the phrase “I was born for this.” After this, everyone took one of the tokens of memory at the foot of the stake.
Artistic Director Carmen-Helena Téllez and all the co-creating artists intend that in future presentations of the installation, the messages on the stake will continue to grow, as well as the circles of feathers surrounding it. Each iteration will generate a new ring around the stake, like the ripples of impact surrounding the unique figure of Joan of Arc. Future exhibitions of the installation as resonant but parallel and independent artwork will be announced in this page.