One of the better-known works by Swiss artist Paul Klee is Angelus Novus, a 1920 monoprint that was once owned by essayist Walter Benjamin. Klee’s angel is a bird-like figure facing the viewer, eyes open and slightly cast down, hand-like wings thrown up and mouth open. In a much-remarked upon paragraph in his Theses on the Philosophy of History Benjamin, on the basis of a more or less fanciful interpretation, identified Klee’s angel as the Angel of History, facing away from the future and toward the past in order to bear witness to what Benjamin characterized as the “one single catastrophe” of history.
Klee’s picture and Benjamin’s interpretation provide the background for composer John Aylward’s Angelus, a ten-movement cycle of vocal chamber music performed by soprano Nina Guo and the Ecce Ensemble, for which Aylward is artistic director. Aylward saw Angelus Novus during a trip to Europe with his mother, who had fled the continent during World War II and was returning there for the first time since then; the composer describes the music that experience inspired as a “treatise on the human experience” as reflected through a series of texts selected from the philosophy, depth psychology and poetry of “various cultural histories” of different eras. Aylward’s choices do embrace a multiplicity of ways of addressing and assimilating experiences of both extreme and more ordinary circumstances from perspectives ranging from the tragic to the transcendental.
Fittingly, one of the texts Aylward chose to set to music is drawn from Benjamin’s meditations on Klee’s image, which he used for the cycle’s second movement. Aylward serves Benjamin’s text well; with both the writing and orchestration the composer conveys the tragic power and seeming inevitability of the human capacity for destruction. Guo speaks, chants, and sings the words against a confusion of strings and winds in a swirling whirlwind of sound; one can readily imagine the sight of a disordered scattering of ruins.
At the other end of the experiential spectrum is Truth, the eighth movement. The source texts here are Plato’s Phaedrus, a dialogue on beauty and the good, and the Catholic Church’s Angelus devotion, a message of hope commemorating the annunciation and incarnation. The section opens with a flourish of pitched percussion and then settles into a sonority dominated by the interactions of violin and cello on the one hand, with flute, clarinet, and oboe on the other. Aylward’s setting of the Angelus text to the cadences of the missa cantata is especially evocative.
The composer himself provides one of the two texts for the seventh movement, titled Anima. (The other text is Thomas Mann’s Freud and the Future.) Anima is primarily a duet between Guo and flutist Emi Ferguson. Both voices contrast with and complement each other while sharing the same range; both also draw on extended techniques, Guo exploring extremes of dynamics and glissandi, and Ferguson using tongue trills and plosive breathing. The cycle’s final movement is The Distance, whose slowly rising and falling lines are score in lower ranges. Guo speaks and sings the movement’s text, taken from the poem A Distance from the Sea by Weldon Kees.
It’s a real pleasure to hear these and the other texts—by Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Jung, D.H. Lawrence, Adrienne Rich—set to music of a matching depth and complexity. The Ecce Ensemble plays with an appropriately calibrated range of feeling, while Guo delivers her demanding parts with the strength of commitment suited to the words.