Written in the Dust (1999)
Written in the Dust was inspired by an address given at the First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis in November, 1998 by the Rev. Kendyl Gibbons. Gibbons’s address focused on the biblical story from the Gospel of John about the woman caught in adultery, whose punishment was to be stoned for her sin. Jesus silenced the crowd with the words “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her,” and he dismissed the woman, saying, “Go and sin no more.” One aspect of the story is particularly intriguing: when Jesus was questioned by the Pharisees, the gospel says that he bent down twice and wrote upon the ground; it doesn’t say what he wrote. Scholars disagree. Was he drawing a picture? Writing the sins of the Pharisees? Stalling for time? Some say that Jesus was illiterate, so he couldn’t have been writing anything at all. In any case, the ambiguity provides fertile ground, so to speak, for a piece of music.
I. Jesus, the Woman and the Pharisees
A descending series of chords gradually opens from a unison A to wider intervals, symbolizing the Divine Presence. A lyrical theme in the clarinet suggests the woman’s fragility. Gradually the crowd calls for stoning (descending fourths), and a violent pedal cadenza leads to the main theme, an irregular, malevolent dance, which is lightened occasionally by a taunting, slightly Latin theme in the reeds. The culmination rains judgment in the form of stones and trumpets.
II. The Writing in the Dust
After a meditative introduction, the woman’s theme returns, followed by a cadenza—a kind of improvisational “writing”—for the top player over sustained notes in the second player. A majestic statement of the theme follows, and the movement ends in quiet conversation.
III. “Go and Sin No More”
After a blessing and an enigmatic response, a simple, lyrical theme suggests Jesus’s words. The idea is treated fugally, and each player plays a complete statement of the theme in augmentation. The coda reveals the Divine Presence, triumphantly expanding over a vast pedal point on E.