The Simple Life
Texts: Michael Hogan, Nezahualcóyotl, Octavio Paz, Léonard Matton, Sara Teasdale
Orchestration: SATB chorus – org
Year composed: 2016
Commission: The Riverside Choir, for the 85th anniversary of The Riverside Church in the City of New York.
Premiere: April 29, 2018. The Riverside Church; New York, United States. The Riverside Choir; Christopher Creaghan, organ; Christopher Johnson, conductor.
The Simple Life, a set of five songs for choir and organ, was commissioned by The Riverside Choir to celebrate the 85th anniversary of The Riverside Church in the City of New York. I was a member of The Riverside Choir from 2012-2016. The friendships I made in the Riverside community inspired me to write this deeply personal work that reflects on the virtues that constantly resonate in The Riverside Church’s walls: justice, generosity, courage, faith, and love.
In order to honor the diverse backgrounds of The Riverside Church’s congregation, I decided to set poems in English, Nahuatl, Spanish, and French to music. Two new poems were written specifically for this work, Michael Hogan’s “A Tide in the Affairs of Men” and Léonard Matton’s “La Croyance.” The first song in The Simple Life is a setting of Hogan’s poem, which describes the life of a homeless person in New York City. Hogan uses the ocean as a metaphor for freedom, and juxtaposes it with the imprisoned lifestyle of the homeless. These people are captive to a system that excludes them from society and makes them struggle to obtain food and shelter. “A Tide in the Affairs of Men” encourages us to offer a helping hand to the homeless, so that they can find justice and freedom in their lives.
Nezahualcoyotl was a Mesoamerican poet and warrior who ruled the city of Texcoco, in the Valley of Mexico, during the pre-Columbian era. The second song is a setting of his poem “Ca Tlamati Noyollo” (“My Heart Understands It”). Written in the Nahuatl language, originally spoken by the Aztecs and still widely heard throughout Mexico, “Ca Tlamati Noyollo” invites us to cherish the simple joys in life, like contemplating a flower or hearing a beautiful melody.
The third song is a setting of Octavio Paz’s “La Vida Sencilla” (“The Simple Life”). Its central placement, duration (twice as long than any other song in the work), and dramatic arc make it the heart of this composition. “La Vida Sencilla,” whose English translation gives the title to the work, inspires us to live a generous, humble, and passionate life. The poem functions as a modern-day credo, where Paz reveals his fundamental beliefs about life and death. Near the end of the poem, he asserts that our pivotal mission in life is “to know how to break bread and share it.”
In order to compose the fourth song, I asked Léonard Matton, a Parisian poet, if he would write a poem about faith that I could set to music. Our collaboration turned into “La Croyance” (“My Faith”), a song that describes how anchoring one’s life in faith brings light in all its splendor.
The final song is a setting of Sara Teasdale’s “Barter,” the first poem in her Pulitzer Prize-winning collection titled Love Songs. In “Barter,” Teasdale challenges us to spend all we have for loveliness. She elaborates on how music, nature, and peace, are “beautiful and splendid things” the world has to offer. I truly believe that in order to live a simple and meaningful life, we must invest all our time and energy in surrounding ourselves with loveliness.
— Juan Pablo Contreras
April 29, 2018. The Riverside Church; New York, United States. The Riverside Choir; Christopher Creaghan, organ; Christopher Johnson, conductor.