Pilgrimage (1997)

Robert Morris

Program Notes

When we discussed the possibility of a commission to celebrate the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra's 75th anniversary, Maestro Robert Bernhardt suggested that I might write a piece on the theme of religious tolerance to function as an overture to a concert including Bach's Magnificat and Bloch's Sacred Service. He thought it would be wonderful for my piece to suggest a relationship to Islam, so as to represent three of the major religions of our day. To prepare for composition, I consulted with professor Emil Homerin of the University of Rochester, an expert in many aspects of Islam, especially Sufi mysticism. Homerin showed me his translation of a massive Sufi poem of Ibn Al Fârid (d. 1235). The poem is called al-Tâ'îyah al-kubra which translates literally as "Greater Poem Rhyming in 'T'" (or as Homerin calls it, "Poem of the Sufi Way (an ode in 'T' Major)"). While my initial plans to use sections of the poem as the basis for my piece eventually fell by the wayside, the character of this immense and immensely inspiring text had a deep influence on my piece.

I chose the title "Pilgrimage" for two reasons. First, a pilgrimage to Mecca is one of the "Five Pillars" of Islamic faith. Second, pilgrimage is a vital form of ritual in almost all religions. Whether one searches for the Grail, union with God, enlightenment, or the Self, pilgrimage asks one to travel to a holy place through the world as it is, both as an act of faith and a commitment to peacefully overcoming adversity and doubt in the search for truth. And so, pilgrimage became the unifying idea for the form and content of my piece.

Pilgrimage begins with a strong E-flat in the full orchestra. This sustained tone may be taken to stand for the pilgrim's goal as well as the commitment to finding and achieving it. The E-flat also functions as a point of repose surrounded by the diversity of gesture and orchestral color. As the piece moves on, the E-flat often "gets lost" in the ongoing flux of rhythm, color, and harmony, sometimes appearing in new registers of the orchestra, sometimes being substituted by other notes. These states suggest the obstacles and difficulties of the spiritual path.