How Do You Know (2014)

SATB with idiophonic percussion
Text is a traditional Arabic proverb
Duration: 3:30

The number 40 is used in many ancient manuscripts in the Jewish, Christian, Islamic, and other Middle Eastern traditions to represent the idea of a large, unknowable number (for example, the biblical rain of 40 days and 40 nights, the story of “Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves,” etc.). It is, on the other hand, not so large as to be entirely incomprehensible. After all, 40 days is just a little longer than a lunar month, a duration any culture can relate to.

This dichotomy of the infinite and the relatable duration in one proverb is the seed for setting this simple text and embracing a similar contrast present in many choirs. As versatile performers, choristers are called on to perform any number of musical styles (maybe even 40) in any given performance, and while there are certainly those who cleave to one style or another exclusively, even those singers may harbor fondness for something completely different.

The final idea that weaves through this simple text is the notion of knowing a people or a culture through living among them 40 days. Is the proverb saying that it takes an enormous amount of time or just over a month? Is it possible to really know a people in either scenario? All of these questions arise and are embodied in the music of soaring lines, quirky dance rhythms in melodies and in simple percussion patterns on the choristers’ metal water bottes, and a bit of tricky voice crossing and dissonance signifying that life is full of dichotomies of the known and unknown.