The view from composer Brian Current’s workspace is, well, limited. “I’ve got the laundry right next to me, so it’s really glamorous,” he says of his current working conditions, on the line from his Toronto basement. And yet these tight quarters have just produced an extraordinarily expansive work of choral music, The River of Light, which will be premiered by the Vancouver Bach Choir this Friday, as part of the Vancouver Opera Festival.
Current’s seven-part oratorio is both sonically and conceptually ambitious. Not only does it call for the combined forces of the Bach Choir, the Vancouver Opera Orchestra, the Sarabande Chamber Choir, and a children’s chorus, it draws on texts that derive from six different religious traditions, as well as the secular poetry of Christian Bök. And for its composer, it represents both his own search for his place in the cosmos and his belief, in this time of rampant divisiveness, that all spiritual traditions are essentially one.
“Because I don’t really have a religious background, I’ve been trying to create a kind of spirituality on my own through music,” Current explains. “And so, in a way, I’m borrowing little bits of religious traditions from my friends—these writers in different communities who have more of a base, who kind of grew up in a more centred religious environment.”
Of late, Current’s own sense of spirituality in music has been expressed in compositions that use “very high partials, very high overtones” to create a shimmering sense of wonder. “It’s coming across as some kind of picture of heaven,” he says, “as a place that’s infinitely bright and infinitely dense.”
That’s in line with all of the spiritual traditions The River of Light touches on—including Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, Chinese, and Indigenous beliefs—although the parallels first occurred to Current when he was dipping into one of the core texts of Christian mysticism.
“I’m not someone who sits around reading Dante—I wish I was—but I came across a passage in the Divine Comedy that’s about when the traveller goes to the very centre of heaven and sees what he describes as ‘light in the form of a river, radiant as gold’,” he explains. “That really described the music that I’d been hearing and envisioning.…And it turned out that all of us, we have this fascination with transfiguration into light, no matter where we come from or who we pray to. This is what unites us, so in a way we’re all part of the river of light.
“So that’s part of it, too,” he continues. “I believe that music can bring people together. You get to a point in your life where you don’t want to do your art to kind of impress others, to get grants and win prizes and things like that; you’d rather use it for something good. You’re trying to make an impact and bring people together—and I think that’s what the big oratorios of the past did. So if Canada is going to have a big oratorio, which I think it should—we’re a country that is able to produce large works like this—then it should resemble the demographics of our cities, and bring different traditions together through something that is common to them all.”
The Vancouver Bach Choir and Vancouver Opera Festival present The River of Light at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on Friday (May 3).