Earth Caoine (Cry) is a wail of loss for the planet, written for Richard Stoltzman in 1995-6 and recorded in Warsaw, Poland for MMC Recordings in 1996.
…Keith Lay’s unapologetically emotional Earth Caoine (1995), an extended cathartic wail of a piece essentially grieving for the environmental concerns of the planet.
Meaning in the Music of Earth Caoine
Earth Caoine (Cry) is a tone poem. It is consists of a single movement and tells a story: this, of great loss. A “caoine,” pronounced KEEN, is an Irish funeral crying song synonymous with wailing and is led by the solo clarinet. The stages we experience when faced with the death of loved ones share universal characteristics. Though this was composed to portray the loss of whole ecosystems across the Earth, it can also serve as a personal grieving music for any loss.
The emotional arc of Earth Caoine (Earth Cry) roughly moves along the same arc as Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’ Five Stages of Grief. I feel it is important to note here that those stages are not meant to be linear, and are different for every person.
The solo clarinet begins with a quiet, pure tone on an extremely high A: quietly, alone. It is high pitched, as if sneaking out from the back of a child’s constricted throat: mouth clenched, body tight, hardly breathing. From the same altitude, the 1st violins slowly arpeggiate in downward 6ths to weave a healing bed to catch that falling cry, hold it in an embrace. Two more violin, two viola, and two cello sections join in turn and contribute their voices to the bed: each a third slower and a 5th lower. High above them, the solo clarinet cries out four, long, shuddering keens, each starting a little lower in pitch to ultimately land below the staff to rest, echoed by two flutes, like guardian angels.
The strings restate their luxurious, polytonal weave, fully manifested, while the soloist rests. Low winds slowly wake and suggest a new line, a rising one, calming, balancing, countering, questioning. But the clarinet rises in response to painfully and forcefully climb back to its cathartic height: There can be no denial. Death.
Four more keens pour from the soloist: louder, faster, and deeper, this time with the other woodwinds, chimes, and harp. The orchestra – community watches and listens as the clarinet begins to talk. Close friends, two solo violins, take over the keening. Everyone has the collective’s permission to speak their current and past griefs and regrets.
The soloist speaks of memories and relations, babbling like a brook while the orchestra listens, patiently. Finally, death arrives, and the clarinet soloist pronounces the moment, alone.
Witnessing dying is strange, portrayed by the glissandi in the muted trombones and mallets. The orchestra collectively responds to the clarinet’s many falling lines, seeking balance with rising ones. Beginning on a low trill, climbing, questioning lines ask “why” and “how” are answered “rest” with the motifs of the falling 6th which wove the opening bed in “Falling” and “Dying”..
The clarinet listens, and the question gains force, “why?”. The rising line intensifies in the orchestra who joins the clarinet seeking understanding: “why did this happen?”
The keen turns angry. The orchestra transforms the polytonal bed into layers of forceful hemiola. Above a sea of cacophony, the solo clarinetist furiously yells. Again on high A, six screams gliss and scoop – never leaving the high tessitura, propel the whole orchestra into a crashing, fortissississimo climax.
That heat and earthquake of rage burn away the anger, leaving only sorrow. A flute solo recalls the healing, resting motif. Then the english horn. The brass section and bassoons lead the next steps into healing. The brass and timpani inspire strength and faith in life and love, and the soloist speaks of the loss, plainly, moving up into their first upward glissando.
The clarinet carries the faith forward, and the orchestra follows. The pizzicati move upward and the brass continues their transforming magic with the winds. The music gains momentum, full of creativity and drive. All the while, the soloist speaks, joy infuses the line, dancing faster.
A shift takes place. The solo clarinet and violins carry the original, rising melody above a glittering, complex ostinato in the flutes and bright mallets. All forces move upward, pushing higher and higher. They reach a high, final phrase with a long, upward glissando.
The soloist repeats the last, high glissandi A#-B-C gestures, supported by an ethereal cluster of solo strings. The clarinet soloist ends the work hanging on a pure, intense, double C, like liquid silver light shining through dark, grey cloud.
The other first-rate piece on “Reflections” is Keith Lay’s tone poem “Earth Caoine.” A “Caoine,” we’re told, is a “piercing wail over a corpse” and Stoltzman’s agonizing glissandi make it quite beautiful and effective.
Stoltzman’s virtuoso glissando technique is so advanced that he makes the listener actually not notice how intricate it is to perform this piece, not to mention that the work’s depth also makes the listener figuratively forget to breathe during the entire 8 minutes and 58 seconds.
“I thought the work was quite something,” Stoltzman said. “It is succinct and uses the clarinet in a very provocative way. I think it’s appropriate to the way the clarinet can sound. It’s got this wailing … ”
— an affectively diverse symphonic arch projecting many aspects of mourning, including the inevitable feelings of irretrievable loss, abandonment, anger, and, in its closing bars, solace and healing. The piece is metaphorical, at once a realization of a universal catharsis that comes from the grieving process, and Lay’s personal keening over the worldwide environmental losses promulgated by our current socio-economic systems.