It’s a legitimate question: what’s a nice atheist boy from South Central Pennsylvania doing setting snippets of text (in the original French) by the 17th century mathematician and—more importantly, historically speaking—Christian apologist, Blaise Pascal? I set one of Pascal’s Pensées in 2011; I was between composing two larger works and wanted to clear the air with something brief, and I remembered this haunting text from a drawing by Odilon Redon: “le silence éternel de ces espaces infinis m’effraie” (“the eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me”). I set it for six-part mixed a cappella chorus, and it lay unperformed until January 2017 when Variant 6 premiered it in Philadelphia. We all decided that it needed company, so I went back to Pascal, the source of that Redon quotation.
I didn’t know anything about Pascal’s Pensées before reading the complete work in 2017, searching for companions to my brief setting. Much of it does consist of Pascal’s “proofs” for why Christianity is “better” than Judaism and Islam (he seems blissfully unconcerned with any non-Western traditions). Pascal’s famous “wager” is pretty typical of what one finds there: it’s impossible to prove that Christianity isn’t true, so one might as well embrace it rather than risk eternal damnation (one’s no worse off, after all, if it isn’t true). There’s a fair helping of circular reasoning throughout the Pensées, as well, perhaps nowhere more succinctly stated than “il faut se tenir en silence…et ne s’entretenir que de Dieu qu’on sait être la vérité, et ainsi on se le persuade à soi-même” (“we must keep silence…and only talk to ourselves about God, whom we know to be true, and thus convince ourselves that s/he is”).
I don’t agree with Pascal’s conclusions and I don’t share his faith, but I didn’t want to argue with him or poke fun at someone who, now 355-years dead, isn’t in a position to defend himself. I was much more interested in finding common ground with him, and the texts I’ve chosen speak to timeless experiences and thoughts common to all humankind: “la nature agit par progrès…Itus et reditus, elle passe et revient” (“nature acts progressively…to and fro, it comes and goes”), for example, and the madness of our (human) race, the persistent bother of flies.
The final text I set is explicitly spiritual. Pascal kept it with him at all times, sewn into his clothing. It commemorates the moment at which he experienced a kind of profound religious ecstasy—something akin, I am guessing, to being “born again”: for two hours, on the evening of Monday, 23 November, 1654, he was overcome by the sense of “certitude, certitude, sentiment, joie, paix” (“certainty, certainty, feeling, joy, peace”), and lived out his remaining years in the aspiration of that special moment. I set this text without irony, but rather with respect and gratitude for this man who here reminds us to seek out the magical and meaningful in our daily lives, whatever our beliefs, inclinations, or desires.
When I set “le silence éternel” back in 2011, I was infatuated with symmetrical pitch constructions, and that piece was composed entirely out of a symmetrical synthetic “scale” that stretches from the basso’s low D to the soprano’s high C. Specifically, starting from that low D, it leaps up a tritone to A-flat, then B-natural, then C, then E-flat, then proceeding by mixed half- and whole- steps up to the B in the middle of the treble staff. Coming down from the soprano’s high C, the mirror obtains: down a tritone to F-sharp, then D-sharp, then D-natural, then that middle-of-the-treble-staff B, then down by mixed half- and whole-steps to the E-flat in the middle of the bass staff. I decided that I would use this same “scale,” and only those pitches in those octaves, for these five new settings in 2017. This was an interesting compositional challenge for me but it also corresponds to Pascal’s general reasoning in the Pensées: essentially, I allowed myself complete freedom of thought and invention within a highly—and, it must be acknowledged, arbitrarily—restricted world.
I don’t speak French, so my friend François-Xavier Hotier recorded himself reciting these texts for me; my goal was to set Pascal as a contemporary native French speaker would recite him, without affectation, and his rendering was an excellent guide. I thank him for that, and I thank the wonderful singers of Variant 6—Jessica, Rebecca, Elisa, Steve, Jimmy, and Dan—for the opportunity to finally give “le silence éternel” a proper set of companions amongst these Six Pensées de Pascal, and for bringing the lot to life.