“Prime: A Practical Breviary” opens with a bird call.
Heather Christian wrote this work of audio theater as a reinterpretation of the daily prayers that some in religious life take every morning. But that opening sound of nature is the first idea that this isn’t centered in any one particular faith. It’s not pinned to a particular place. Rather than abide to a location or a mindset or a belief system, the listener is invited to begin this musical meditation by imagining their own chosen venue.
“In lieu of a stage, you’re activating whatever atmosphere the listener is in,” Christian told IndieWire. “If you’re in the city, the birds in the yard become a relief or if you’re in the country, it’s like, ‘This is the day. Now I’m just gonna hyperbolize it just a little bit.'”
That immersion into the world of “Prime” extends through to the first song of the piece, where the morning rituals and the beginning of the day start to blossom into lyrics. “First of all, open the door” becomes a kind of deep breath of sunrise.
Working in a centuries-long musical tradition of adapting a Mass to a specific style or purpose, Christian had been brewing the idea of an even larger series of connected works. When Playwrights Horizons artistic director Adam Greenfield asked if she was interested in contributing to the theater group’s new podcast series “Soundstage,” Christian said she “wrote back immediately.”
Appropriately, “Prime” is the first episode of both “Soundstage” — a collection that also boasts original works from Qui Nguyen, Lucas Hnath, and Kirsten Childs — and Christian’s intended Mass series, which she lovingly refers to at one point as a kind of “octopus.” “Prime” does draw on biblical Psalms and traditional religious ceremonies and practices. The overall intent is to dig deeper into the ideas of belief and what can tie various faiths together as part of a comprehensive whole.
“The intent is trying to mine this like thousand-year-old form for what ever kind of ur-truth is at the base of it, without all the fucking dogma. I just feel like it’s so easy to get turned off by some of the good ideas that a lot of our religions have,” Christian said. “In later Masses, I’m dealing with texts from indigenous cosmologies and indigenous religious practices, and I’m dealing with Sufism, and I’m dealing with pieces from the Quran. And I’m dealing with pieces from the Haggadah and Kabbalah. I’m really trying to make a unified statement about what all of these things have to say about what the hell we’re doing here, and how to be how to do that a little bit better.”
That spirit of cooperation and collaboration was born out in the process of making “Prime.” It’s not impossible that someone could create a piece of audio theater like this by themselves, especially for someone like Christian who, as an artist, has composed film scores, recorded albums with Heather Christian and the Arbornauts, and written a number of other theatrical works that premiered in physical venues.
But this episode ended up as a distinct product of collaboration. Christian left certain parts of the process open by design so that key contributors to the ensemble could bring their own flavor to the final version. In addition to playing drums and bass, Chris Cubeta and Gary Atturio engineered and mixed the recording. Them working in those dual roles ended up being right in line with how Christian likes to write music.
“My first instrument is choir. None of my demos have anything other than very complete vocal arrangements, a piano arrangement, and like a feeling. I really like to work alongside musicians who are writing their own parts and to steer that room rather than write parts and give it to somebody on a piece of paper,” Christian said. “There’s no fun in me just arranging everything if it’s just something that’s coming exclusively out of my head. Sometimes you need to come into conflict or in conversation with with another person’s musicality. That’s how I get myself loosened up.”
Most of “Prime” is made up of those different musical movements, evolving from songs with simple accompaniment to a full-fledged chorus by the end. But at key points throughout the piece, that music gives way to Christian’s spoken word performances. They’re moments of centering, moments of rallying, and in one of the episode’s most powerful stretches, moments of despair.
It’s reflecting some of the particulars of the Mass tradition, but it’s also a point for storytelling calibration and balance.
“I made a lot of the stuff that’s usually spoken in the Mass musical. So in each of these dramaturgical beats, I felt like there needed to be a moment of silence or a moment of reality. The first spoken piece of text is there because I felt that at that moment, music was too theatrical,” Christian said. “And when you get to the to the end, it’s more that the air has been sucked out of the room and what are you left with when you hit the wall of all of the reasons why you can’t appreciate the magnitude of the miracle of breathing on this planet. You can’t approach it because life is freaking hard and distracting. And that stops magic. So the music stops there.”
The movements in the piece definitely have a narrative shape and flow to them, as Christian is matched by a vocal quartet and then the choir. Still, there aren’t traditional characters. It’s the kind of piece that invites you to participate, even if it doesn’t assign you a specific name or a persona to follow.
“I really wanted it to be some place between the first and second person, to feel like whoever was listening to it was listening to their own voice. I wanted to steal what was useful from a guided meditation, but not do one,” Christian said. “In any given moment, there are certain things about the human condition that are just universal. Maybe not at the same time, but across a long enough timeline.”
The result is something that’s particularly prayer-like. The emotions “Prime” churns up certainly come from the ideas of obstacles and resilience in the words being sung and spoken. There’s just as much power in how they’re delivered as what they might be on paper.
“I feel like we’ve gotten locked into this tradition that background vocals are background vocals and lead vocals are lead vocals and there’s none of this glorious goo that is in the chaos of fugue vocal. You can’t catch everything. It doesn’t just present itself to you on a platter. You kind of have to chase it. And that, to me, is an exhilarating thing when I’m listening to Beethoven and thinking, ‘Oh my God, what am I missing?'” Christian said. “The only thing that you really have to do is just add words. They can function on an onomatopoeic level of just how the word sounds. Words are incredible fabric that I think are really underused in our industry as accompanying instruments rather than lead ones.”
With interweaving voices offering harmonies that overlap and shuffle throughout some of these songs, “Prime” is especially satisfying because there’s a certain invisible motion to it. Just as that bird becomes a prism for where you’re at and where you’re from, these songs also have a kind of invisible choreography, of the motion and movement you ascribe to them.
“I was very aware of motion. I called it the ‘vehicularity’ of trying to figure out what pace we were going at all points. Are we in a wagon now? Are we in a plane? Are we on a bicycle? Where are we? How are we getting there? I really felt like we had to lean into screwing with the speed and screwing with the EKG,” Christian said. “Comparing it to a record, you can cherry-pick the songs that you want and you can form your own patchwork quilt narrative. But this is 40 minutes of trying to hold your consecutive attention. So it’s got to be a wild ride.”
Of course, it’s almost impossible to talk about this work without addressing the timing of its premiere. Debuting in late March, “Prime” entered a world made up of people with a renewed focus on getting through each passing day. The step-by-step motivational undercurrent that manifests in the pieces’ final words seemed so relevant to the unfolding crisis that some of Christian’s friends assumed she’d written the last song in a matter of weeks. It’s an ending that almost didn’t happen.
“The last song that I wrote for this, I tried a really intellectual closing of, ‘Let’s tie up all these loose ends, make it tidy.’ And that didn’t make me feel anything,” Christian said.
Instead, Christian reached for a different musical idea that emanated from something more personal. She sent it to Greenfield, assuming she might have to rework it. But as the unofficial closing statement of “Prime,” it might just be the most enduring sentiment of the whole piece.
“There’s a sliding scale of what we think despair is or what we think elation is. We’re very adaptable as humans. So I feel like at some point, everything is going to hold true for somebody in that Mass if I’ve given you enough specific landing pads and I’ve stayed out of the way of narrative just a little bit,” Christian said. “The last piece, I thought, ‘I’m just gonna make this what I need to hear and hope that it’s applicable.’ The Recessional as an idea makes sense to me as like, ‘Here’s something that you can walk out into the world with now.’ That feels like that’s the offering.”
For more of the best podcast episodes of 2020, check out our full mid-year list (with “Prime” in the top spot) here.