“Terce: A Practical Breviary” Reimagines Religious Texts as a Celebration of Divine Femininity

Tucked away in Brooklyn, hidden behind an unassuming church facade, a community choir filled The Space at Irondale on Jan. 19 with a singing, stomping, and swirling performance of Terce: A Practical Breviary, presented by PROTOTYPE 2024. Large enough to fit three rows of 360° audience members and a wraparound balcony, the enormous space was still full to the brim with exuberant, fearless energy.

Terce is not what you might expect from a piece of music-theater based on a religious service. A breviary is a Christian liturgical book usually used at the canonical hours: seven daily and one nightly fixed prayer service times. “Terce” is the third service, taking place in the midmorning, and traditionally addresses the Holy Spirit.

In her program notes, event creator and composer Heather Christian writes, “In the original language of some of the texts for this mass (Greek and Hebrew), the Holy Spirit is addressed with a female pronoun. This is a hot button issue among theologians, I don’t imagine I have to explain why. Through this lens, Divine Femininity is something we all have, regardless of gender… We are celebrating those parts of ourselves today.”

Heather Christian in Terce: A Practical Breviary at PROTOTYPE 2024 -- Photo by Maria Baranova

Heather Christian in Terce: A Practical Breviary at PROTOTYPE 2024 — Photo by Maria Baranova

Christian and director Keenan Tyler Oliphant’s reimagining of the Terce service is indeed a wild choral song-cycle celebration. Performed almost 20 times over the course of the festival at various times of the day, the hour-long work venerates our relationship to the Earth and the sacred mothers alive in each of us.

Inspired by three female mystics — Hildegard von Bingen, Julian of Norwich, and Robin Wall Kimmerer — Terce draws spiritual source material from a vast array of resources. Prayer services, recorded mystical visions, poetry, and medieval organum influence the ritual, as well as Appalachian folk music, shape note singing, and African American spiritual and Gospel musical traditions, all of which were vehicles for American religious revivals and survivals.

The audience had several minutes to settle into the chilly space and enjoy copious amounts of free coffee before the event began. The thirty singers walked into the space carrying a variety of chairs, arranging them in a fourth, inner circle facing a collection of instruments and other objects (including a Rhodes piano, saxophone, drum kit, bells, and a large pile of dirt). They were costumed by Brenda Abbandandolo in unique DIY blue denim jumpsuits, skirts, and overcoats with occasional tulle or fringe.

PROTOTYPE 2024 presents Terce: A Practical Breviary -- Photo by Maria Baranova

PROTOTYPE 2024 presents Terce: A Practical Breviary — Photo by Maria Baranova

The choristers traded seats, regrouped, or simply boogied as they moved through each five-to-seven-minute movement accompanied by piano, electric guitar, upright bass, and sometimes dry, rattling eucalyptus branches. Christian’s show notes encouraged the audience to move, groove, whoop, or holler as so inclined; people did just that.

With music direction by Mona Seyed-Bolorforosh and Jacklyn Riha, the choristers sang, chanted, or almost rapped by memory, from the opening “Oratio” movement to the closing alleluia, cued by Christian’s own rich and stylistically flexible voice. In one particularly poignant and musically haunting refrain, the group sang as a canon:

a wound of contrition
a wound of compassion
a wound of the earnest longing for someone

Throughout the ritual, occasional solo vocal lines were woven into the choral texture as banners unfurled and a percussive birdcage of jangling keys lowered down. But it was mainly Nick Vaughan and Jake Margolin’s environmental design that created a nest-like atmosphere with the incorporation of extant scaffolding and an elaborate system of pulleys rigged across the huge space to retrieve instruments. Among the instruments fabricated by Terry Dame, there were long poles with rattling bells and cymbals, and single large boots fastened to a walking stick and slammed on the floor.

PROTOTYPE 2024 presents Terce: A Practical Breviary -- Photo by Maria Baranova

PROTOTYPE 2024 presents Terce: A Practical Breviary — Photo by Maria Baranova

But the work remained cohesive because it is threaded by mystical poetry: two large screens displayed handwritten lyrics for each movement, manually changed at a projector. Each page included colorful, whimsical illustrations or simple earthen drawings by Alice Leora Briggs, Koomah, and Lovie Olivia; one movement also featured a real-time sketch “animation.” These libretto projections were both artistic and necessary, making the group singing intelligible as the sound scattered throughout the space.

And the movement! Ecstasy, joy, stomping, kneeling, twirling: the air whirled with reckless abandon and embodied feminine energy in all its glorious and occasionally enraged cycles. Through the choreography, Masha Tsimring’s light design, and some serious neo-soul grooves, the piece moved from celebration to simple joys to reflections based on the mystics’ poetry.

Much attention has been paid to Hildegard von Bingen in recent years as the first named woman composer in Western music history. But she was also a religious and political contender, corresponding with influential male leaders of the day, who eventually gave in to her demands to run religious communities as she saw fit. Her cloister may not have featured whirling dance and stomping boot percussion, but Terce: A Practical Breviary resurrects something of the creative energy that can be found when Divine Femininity is expressed without fear.


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