The story of the Tower of Babel is one rife with intrigue and innuendo to the fatality of the human condition, and allows for several interpretations; is God the vindictive villain of the tale, desiring total control over His creations out of selfishness, or was He acting out of necessity for His people, so that their power would not grow too great for their mortal selves? Is it a story that should inspire the various peoples of the world to try to come together again in the same way as in the story?
Perhaps the story is intended to exhibit the true nature of the human condition; to show that humans can never unite under one banner and nor should they even try to. Uniting all peoples under a common belief system sounds pleasant and empowering, but consider the relations of this idea to the concept of race politics. One common belief system would need to be created and agreed upon by all peoples in order to unify, but the only approach to make this happen would be through forcefulness, either assimilating or destroying cultures entirely in order to homogenize religion, beliefs, and culture. A culture created through destruction and malice would not be a harmonious one.
It sounds pessimistic to say that people can never live together in a harmonious society, and to a certain extent I think that the religious story is meant to sound exactly like that. However, religion never seems to count on the strength and boundless joy prevalent in the uncertain ephemerality of human life. No, we cannot predict the future, and maybe everything we do is predetermined in that we all meet the same final end. Yet, perhaps that is the very joy in living. Could one feel happiness without sadness? Can one truly experience love without having felt loss? The greatest joys that can be had in this life derive directly from the chaotically fleeting ephemerality of human life.
The title “Everything is foreseen; yet free will is given” is a quote from Rabbi Akiva (3:15) in the Jewish book on ethical teachings, the Pirkei Avot, and on first glance it may seem like a paradoxical axiom. How can free will be granted when everything is foreseen? It is precisely this paradox that interests me, for we cannot truly know if events are foreseen, but we do know that the actions we take in life affect the path of our lives in their own subtle ways; we know this through experience. Therefore, we seem to operate within a structure that, though it leads us towards an ultimate end that may or may not be determined for us, we nevertheless appear to make our own decisions in our journey to reach that end.
The piece begins with the instruments playing in total unison. As time passes, the harmony of the piece fractures and disintegrates as various electronic effects affect and disrupt the instruments in various ways. The intensity of the electronic effects is determined by a formula of structured randomness, and this structure leads, or rather forces, each instrument to an ultimately destructive end, into a section composed exclusively of non-musical noise. I posit that the sort of aural imperfection that is associated with “noise” as compared to tonal harmony should be embraced as a representation of human mortality rather than rejected as being impure or unattractive. Just as we should embrace cultural difference and reject the falsehood of trying to merge all peoples under one banner, we should celebrate the chaos of the human condition by rejecting constructs imposed on us by higher powers, such as a life that is structured for us. Yes, we may all be destined to reach a final, destructive end, but it is this end that makes the journey to get there so enjoyable. Perhaps the higher powers inhibiting our ability to live harmoniously will be surprised by how much we enjoy the laborious journey to reach our bitter, and yet gloriously chaotic, end.
I would like to say a huge thank-you to Daniel Jamieson, who provided invaluable advice and guidance as the New Voices mentoring composer, and Chelsea McBride, the Manager of Education and Outreach for Spectrum Music, who gave extremely sound advice in helping my crazy ideas come to fruition. This has been a truly amazing process to work with Spectrum Music and I’m honoured to have had the opportunity to compose for them!