Interview to Richard Einhorn, composer of Voices of Light/ The passion of Joan of Arc

Richard Einhorn

Richard Einhorn (1952) is one of the great composers of contemporary classical music. He studied with teachers such as Jack Beeson, Vladimir Ussachevsky or Mario Davidovsky. He has composed operas, ballets, and even soundtracks for horror films. Today he premieres Voices of Light / The passion of Joan of Arc, an opera/oratorio that accompanies the masterpiece by Danish filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer (1928), as the opening of the (S8) 9th Mostra Internacional de Cinema Periférico of A Coruña,  the film festival devoted to avant-garde cinema that runs until June 3. The film and the composition deal with the judicial process of the French heroine in which visions, fantasies and reflections are interwoven from different sources, above all from mystical female medieval texts. This overwhelming score is directed by Fernando Briones and is performed by the Gaos Choir and Orchestra.


When was your first experience watching The Passion of Joan of Arc, by C.T. Dreyer, and what moved you to compose an oeuvre about such a great historical and mythical figure as Joan of Arc?
For a long time, I had wanted to a large piece about a religious subject. Not a religious piece, but a piece about the subject of religion.  As I worked on my ideas, I was thinking about doing some kind of a multimedia piece but really hadn’t found a subject. I really hadn’t thought about working a film. But by accident, I saw The Passion of Joan of Arc while researching a completely different project in the film archive of New York’s Museum of Modern Art. I was completely blown away by the film and by Joan’s amazing story. I literally dropped everything I was doing and started to plan the piece that eventually became Voices of Light. Joan’s story had everything I was looking for. She was clearly very religious, very devout, but her story was not easily reducible to our current cliche-ridden discourse regarding religion. She was a saint and a heretic, a war leader and a mystic. It was the multiple ways that people imagined Joan and created their own image of Joan that drew me to her. I was deeply moved by her incredible bravery, her piety, and her boldness.


Was your purpose to re-enact the music from the era, this is, to construct a composition in the same fashion of Medieval music? 
I did not use any specific musical techniques of Medieval music. I deliberately tried to compose music that floats outside of time. If you heard it on the radio, you might think it sounds like Medieval music, but if you listen a little closer, it obviously isn’t. I wanted listeners to ask, “When it was written??” and I wanted the music to be as hard to pin down as Joan of Arc was herself!!


‘Voices of Light’ is mostly a vocal composition. Why did you choose this particular compositional approach?
I learned very early as a composer to follow the inner logic of any project that I work on, and anyone who knows Joan’s story knows that Joan heard voices. Therefore, I knew immediately I was going to write a vocal composition.


Could you tell us more about the female medieval mystics you use as sources for the words in ‘Voices of Light’? Who were they and why did you choose them for your opera/oratorio?
The texts came from many, many sources, all from Joan of Arc’s time or before. They include Hildegard von Bingen, one of the greatest figures of the Middle Ages and a writer, in my opinion, on the level of Dante. Other sources included Na Prous Boneta, a woman burned as a heretic 100 years before Joan; St. Perpetua, an ancient Catholic saint who mystically changed gender; Christine de Pizan, who may have actually seen Joan of Arc; Angela of Foligno, Margaret Porete, and many others. I also included some amazing letters dictated by Joan of Arc herself to her scribes. The letters typically serve as interludes within the larger musical structure and are sung with a special sound, accompanied by three solo strings and flutes. I chose all the texts because I thought they were beautiful and also because they referred to various themes in Joan’s life: her battle, her voices, and her death by fire.

Could you tell us more about the compositional process? Did you manage to travel around Joan of Arc topography, i.e., Orleans, Normandy, and so on, in order to find inspiration?
Yes! I did a lot of research, read thousands of pages of biographies and mystical texts. I spoke with over a dozen priests, monks, nuns, and scholars and attended as many Latin masses as I could. Then, just before officially starting to compose, I went to France, to Orleans where she won her most famous battle and to Rouen where she was imprisoned, tried, and died at the stake. In Domremy, I found her church still standing. Because I wanted to bring Joan’s actual experience as much as possible into the piece, I took along a portable recorder and recorded the sound of her church bells. I created samples from them and they ring out at several important moments in the music and the film.


What were the main difficulties of performing your opera/oratorio?
Technically, the music is quite simple to play but I put a lot of thought into every single note, rhythm and chord. So the piece requires very, very sensitive musicians who can breathe a dozen feelings into a single sustained sound. The piece is not flashy, with a lot of fast notes, but it does require quite a bit of skill to play. The music is only partly synchronized with the film, but the conductor really needs to know both the movie very well and the music.


Being performed in more than 100 theatres and venues around the world since its premiere 20 years ago, what does it mean to you to premiere ‘Voices of Light’ in A Coruña (one of the most mystic lands of Spain)?
What a magical, mysterious place Coruña is! Joan herself sang songs and danced around a Fairy Tree in the forest behind her house, so her own tradition, like the traditions in your land, have deep pagan as well as Christian roots. I am deeply honored and thrilled that Voices of Light is being performed in a Coruña and hope it is only the first of many performances around Spain!


In which sense ‘Voices of Light’ echoes in the XXIth Century, now feminism has emerged again so powerfully?
Without a doubt, Joan is a great feminist hero. She is also a great saint, a brave warrior, a devoted companion, and one of the most amazing people who ever lived. But the ways in which we perceive Voices of Light and the Passion of Joan of Arc appear to change dramatically depending upon the times. When I was writing it, there was a worldwide increase in political and religious fundamentalism and so that is what many people saw in the work. Today, the feminist themes in Voices of Light seem obvious: one brave woman triumphing over dozens of men. And of course, the abuse Joan suffered speaks loudly over the centuries to our present #MeToo moment. But next year, people could very well see that Voices of Light is mostly a story about deep, personal religious devotion. That’s why I so loved working on this project. When I was writing Voices of Light, I was consciously aware of all these themes but I really wasn’t interested in picking just one. Instead, I wanted to tell Joan’s story with as much love and care as I could. I also wanted to honor Dreyer’s incredible cinematic artistry which remains the finest artistic portrayal of Joan I’m aware of — and one of the greatest films ever made.