Why “Fire”?

“Why ‘fire’?” asked Margot Adler of NPR in an interview with conductor Kenneth G. Mills, co-composer of the masterwork The Fire Mass. The Fire Mass was composed by Christopher Dedrick and Kenneth Mills, with words from the Latin Ordinary of the Mass and Mills’s poetry.

“Conceived for a ten-to-twelve voice ensemble, it is tonal yet avant-garde sonority, harmony and rhythm. The first edition was drafted in the first half of 1985. Throughout the year and into 1986, in rehearsal with the Star-Scape Singers and at the keyboard, Dr. Mills sculpted, edited and refined the work, polishing its facets and lifting the entire musical concept off the page and into the inspired realm befitting such a text. Thus, it is to him that this work is dedicated” (Christopher W. Dedrick, co-composer).

Composing with Christopher Dedrick

Performed by the a cappella ensemble the Star-Scape Singers under the baton of Dr. Mills, The Fire Mass was premiered at Carnegie Hall in 1986 and performed in 1988 at Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto. The Star-Scape Singers sang The Fire Mass on their tour of the USSR and the Baltic States in 1988, and the recording in St. Nicholas Church in Tallinn, Estonia, was released by Sun-Scape Records in a double CD set.

Belgian critic Thierry Sterck of Courrier de l’Escaut wrote: “This meteor of fire remains as an indelible crater in the memory of our emotions. Plunging its roots into the everlasting traditions of the a cappella mass of the 15th century, it then climbs once again the course of history to finally drink from the most unbridled harmonic science. Nourished by the best of Wagner, the first Schoenberg and the last Charles Ives, and sown by the very great vintages of Mozart, Beethoven and Bruckner, The Fire Mass appears as a veritable masterwork coming to crown an often secular tradition. . . . The dominant characteristic of the composition consists of the magical sounds of every instant. These harmonies from another world, of an irresistible sensuality, turn like a giant kaleidoscope with explosive colours where the conglomerate of ten sounds resolve their multiple tensions on tranquil-sounding shores” (translation).

Watch and listen here.

Kenneth G. Mills: “Why ‘fire’? Because this time ‘fire’ refers to the energy that under the direction of a premise of Universality will hopefully appear as an energy that revitalizes the passivity that has descended upon the populace. . . . The fire points to the confrontational energy which, to a passive soul, is hope and a challenge – and, of course, an irritation! What would your washing be if you didn’t have an agitator?” (The Candy Maker’s Son: Memoirs of Kenneth G. Mills, p. 430). Hear the NPR interview with Dr. Mills.

Christopher Dedrick wove the poetry of Kenneth Mills with the Latin of the Mass, and the “Kyrie” includes this stirring poem:

 

What is Love? What is Truth Divine?

What is glory? What is mercy? What is peace of mind?

What is joy? What is sorrow? What is pain? What is peace?

The garment that is ripped when life does seem adrift.

 

Joy is the garment that beauty profound

Wears when seen, when heart to heart unbound

Is found bearing the manner of the Kingdom of the Light.

May you find what all these symbols mean when you cease

to think through terms to Light.

© Kenneth G. Mills

During this year’s Summer Festival of Light, Sound, and Peace: Celebrating Presence, presenters Ellen Mann and Terry Stevens (both former Star-Scape Singers) and Janet Butler (music teacher) held a workshop on the many facets of The Fire Mass. Participants at the festival watched video clips of Maestro Mills conducting the singers in concert to a visibly moved audience; intense rehearsals in which he led the singers to discover the intricacies of sound possibilities; and an interview with the conductor about this master work.

Such are a few of the gems in the foundation’s library database, which will have its official online opening on November 8, 2017.

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