LCCE + Volti perform Gregory Spears – The Tower and the Garden

The Tower and the Garden is a deep meditation on themes of humanity and the environment, composed by Gregory Spears for voices and string quartet, with texts by Thomas Merton, Denise Levertov, and Keith Garebian. It was commissioned by a consortium of four vocal ensembles: Volti, Cantori New York, The Crossing, and Notre Dame Vocale, with funding provided by The Ann Stookey Fund for New Music. This video is of the West Coast premiere performance by Volti and the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, November 19, 2018.

The Tower and the Garden is a setting of three poems for choir and string quartet. The texts juxtapose the dangers of technological hubris (the tower) and the need for a place of refuge (the garden) in a world threatened by war and ecological disaster. Each text suggests ways in which Catholic thought and imagery might challenge the status quo.

The first text, poem 80 from the collection “Cables to the Ace,” was written by Trappist monk and social activist Thomas Merton. It is an eschatological meditation on the garden of Gethsemane, where Christ’s disciples slept on the eve of his crucifixion. Merton compares their slumber to society’s indifference to the destruction of our natural world by potentially dangerous new technologies and war.

The second text was written by poet and Catholic activist Denise Levertov. It is a meditation on the Tower of Babel and the tendency for technology in the information and nuclear age to serve only its own growth and to potentially destroy our lives in the bargain.

The third poem, written by Keith Garebian, is an homage to queer filmmaker Derek Jarman and his cottage garden at Dungeness on the English coast. Situated precariously between a towering nuclear power plant and the sea, the garden was Jarman’s austere refuge during the final months of his struggle with AIDS. While an atheist and highly critical of the church, Derek Jarman was intrigued by the role religious and hagiographic narratives could play in his filmic indictments of Thatcher-era Britain. This is most notable in his film The Garden, which was shot on location in Dungeness.


All texts are under copyright, all rights reserved, used with permission.

I. / IV.
“80” from Cables to the Ace or Familiar Liturgies of Misunderstanding by Thomas Merton (1968). Used with permission.

Slowly slowly
Comes Christ through the garden
Speaking to the sacred trees
Their branches bear his light
Without harm
Slowly slowly
Comes Christ through the ruins
Seeking the lost disciple
A timid one
Too literate
To believe words
So he hides
Slowly slowly
Christ rises on the cornfields
It is only the harvest moon
The disciple
Turns over in his sleep
And murmurs:
“My regret!”
The disciple will awaken
When he knows history
But slowly slowly
The Lord of History
Weeps into the fire.

“In the Land of Shinar” from Evening Train by Denise Levertov (1992). Used with permission.

Each day the shadow swings
round from west to east till night overtakes it,
half the slow circle. Each year
the tower grows taller, spiralling
out of its monstrous root-circumference, ramps and
mounting tier by lessening tier the way a searching
bird of prey wheels and mounts the sky, driven
by hungers unsated by blood and bones.
And the shadow lengthens, our homes nearby are
half the day, and the bricklayers, stonecutters,
carpenters bivouac
high in the scaffolded arcades, further and further
above the ground,
weary from longer and longer comings and goings.
At times
a worksong twirls down the autumn leaf of a
phrase, but mostly
we catch
only the harsher sounds of their labor itself, and
that seems only
an echo now of the bustle and clamor there was
long ago
when the fields were cleared, the hole was dug, the
foundations laid
with boasting and fanfares, the work begun.
The tower, great circular honeycomb, rises and
rises and still
the heavens
arch above and evade it, while the great shadow
more and more of the land, our lives
dark with the fear a day will blaze, or a full-moon
night defining
with icy brilliance the dense shade, when all the
weight of this wood and brick and stone and metal
and massive
weight of dream and weight of will
will collapse, crumble, thunder and fall,
fall upon us, the dwellers in shadow.

“Dungeness Documentary” from Blue: The Derek Jarman Poems by Keith Garebian (2008). All rights reserved by the author. Used with permission.

Timbers black with pitch
shiver on the shingle.
Gulls wheel,
squabble over the fishermen’s catch,
quicksilver of the sea.
The tide invades
the arid strand,
home to larks and tough grasses,
cormorants skim the waves.
A cottage with two prospects
(the old lighthouse
and nuclear plant)
both lit by sights and sighs.
Barbed wire around your garden
cannot keep melancholy at bay.

Spread the love

P.O. Box 15576
San Francisco CA 94115