Rev. James Park Morton of the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York, saw green in a big way shortly after his appointment as dean in 1972. He plunged himself into the idea that the Earth is an organism and needs to be treated with love and compassion.
Events quickly unfolded over the next decade that led directly to this week’s performances of the Earth Mass in Nova Scotia. The link to Halifax is Paul Halley, organist and music director at St. John during Dean Morton’s tenure at the New York cathedral.
Halley will play the piano and the organ in the performances, which will be directed from the drum set by his son, drummer-percussionist Nick Halley, director of the choirs of King’s College Chapel, both the adult chorus and the Capella Regalis men’s and boy’s choirs.
"I’ve participated in performances of the mass but never directed it before," Nick Halley said this week, as he took a break from rehearsals in Halifax. "I couldn’t count how many times, different settings, different choirs, I’ve participated in, but it’s really fun to teach it to my own choirs."
The phrase "planetization of the esoteric" was one of the stated goals of the Lindisfarne Association, a pioneering North American group of thinkers, scientists, artists, writers, Buddhist monks, Christian priests, actors and movie stars who established the spiritual roots of Lindisfarne in the 1970s.
Dean Morton put it this way in a 1990 interview by Alan AtKisson, published in A Quarterly of Humane Sustainable Culture, called In Context.
"I was trying to do some restructuring with the given seasons of the church. Lent, for example, is very much about penitence and suffering. I would say, ‘Let’s talk about the suffering of the Earth, the passion of water. Let’s talk about Jesus in Earth, God incarnate in the flesh of Earth, the flesh of water, the flesh of the elements of creation and how that creation is suffering, the passion of creation.’ "
The Gaia or Earth Mass came from the meeting of Paul Halley and American saxophonist Paul Winter in the ’70s.
"He got weary of bop jazz with the high hat in his right ear. He started the Paul Winter Consort to incorporate rhythmic elements of the jazz he was used to, but also symphonic instruments: cello, English horn, oboe, French horn, also flute, and Renaissance instruments such as the lute and even a theorbo (a large lute).
"It became quite successful, a whole new genre which people had never heard of, called New Age, but really it was World Music. Jim (Morton) challenged the Consort to come up with a setting of the mass that would be pertinent, given the tenor of the times, for us today. The church and ecology are not an unnatural mix."
This week’s performances will include Halifax saxophonist Dani Oore, who will improvise along with Halley on the Ubi Caritas, a hybrid of Gregorian and West African chant.
"Essentially that’s how Paul Winter and I met," Halley said. "I invited him over and we improvised together in the cathedral."
The Earth Mass has something in common with open source websites in that each performance can be localized by the artists presenting the work.
In New Zealand, it incorporated traditional Maori haka singing. In Nova Scotia it will incorporate a section on fishing.
Gospel singer Theresa Thomason will be the featured singer in Nova Scotia, as she has been in performances all over the world practically from the beginning.
"When I first met Paul it was years ago with a gentleman called Paul Winter and he was playing all his music and it was nothing I had ever sung before because I was usually doing gospel or jazz or adult contemporary, lots of studio work," she said just after arriving in Halifax Wednesday.
"And it intrigued me because it used the scriptures but he put his own spin on it and then he added the chorus — really original music."
The mass is structured around the traditional sections of the Latin mass — the Kyrie, Sanctus, Benedictus and the Agnus Dei — and incorporates a section, originally composed and improvised by Halley and Winter, on the beatitudes.
"The style is not really jazzy," Paul Halley said. "The Sanctus is based on a Brazilian samba, the Kyrie has a kind of Cuban clave, the Agnus very much classically rooted, the beatitudes very much gospel. World Music, heavy on percussion, would be my overall description of the piece."
"You could really interject a lot of music into this piece," Thomason said. "We’ve done it Africa style, we’ve done it Irish style, and we’ve done it with the Maori Indians in New Zealand — each culture injected their own little spin on it. Davy Spillane played (Irish) bagpipes so soulfully it was like pulling tears out of your eyes, it was just so gorgeous.
"You can go in so many directions — African singers, chanting, dancing — with this piece; it never gets stale because you can just take it somewhere, and if there’s a local musician or someone they want to highlight, there is space enough in the program for them to put their spin on it."
Ensemble performers include Jon Suters (guitars), Richard Baughman and Henk Fisher (percussion), Dani Oore (saxophones), Matt Brewer (bass), Hamish Gordon (oboe), Colin Matthews (cello) and John Scott (organ).
WHAT: A contemporary mass in celebration of the Earth with the King’s Chorus and Capella Regalis
DIRECTED BY: Nick Halley, with guest artists Paul Halley and Dani Oore and special guest artist gospel singer Theresa Thomason
WHEN: Today, 7:30 p.m., St. John’s Anglican Church, Lunenburg
Saturday: 2 p.m., First Baptist Church, Halifax