The Joban Fugue, a multi-disciplinary performance based on the Book of Job, was initially developed in conjunction with a course on Job that I taught at Yale Divinity School [Click here for course syllabus] in the spring of 2007. The project owes much to the semester-long meditation of the subject and to the many ideas that were circulated throughout. Yale's World Performance Project facilitated the first workshop versions of the performance in November of 2007. It was presented as a fusion of silent film and a live performance of sacred music.
The film is comprised of several interlocking sections of distinctly different genres, styles and narrative approaches, but which, nonetheless, allow the viewer to recognize the book of Job through and through.

Part One begins as the book of Job does-with the Joban prose story. It is presented as a film of still images (illustrations of the story by a six year old) with an accompanying voice-over by a young girl.

For a long time it has been customary to refer to the prose story as a folktale. Such a designation, although instructive in some respects, is not entirely accurate. Still, what most people have in mind when they refer to the prose story in such a way are impressions about the style of the story. Theses features of style include the story's linguistic simplicity, the naïve and anthropomorphic representations of God, the extensive use of repetition, the non-digressive style, the setting of the story "long ago and far away," the exaggeration of character and plot, the round and symbolic numbers, the happy ending, and so forth. These features do have something in common with folktales.

Part of why I believe William Blake's illustrations on the Book of Job work so well is that his own style, a style that can be read as both accomplished and na´ve, engages beautifully with the folktale-like qualities of the story. What comes off as accomplished are his complex compositions and, of course, the intellectual marriage of his over all choice of forms to the content of the book. It is his draftsmanship that has the naïve quality that I'm referring to and it only enhances the works overall effect (it is remarkable to me how deeply interested I can become in the characters of an illustrated story that have little more that two dot eyes and a line for a mouth). With my belief in the power of Blake's "naïve" images, I decided to turn to a child for help. I commissioned a six-year-old girl, Calista Skouras, to make some drawings to illustrate the prose story. Both her mother and I read the story to her, talked with her about it and tried to answer her sometimes-perplexing questions. To paraphrase one of her questions: If in the story Job's daughters weren't killed—where did they go—why don't we hear from them again? It was a perfectly reasonable question and though I didn't have an answer, I suggested that perhaps, in our own way, we could somehow address it by way of Calista's participation—I suggested that she make the drawings in honor of Job's daughters. To carry that metaphor to completion, I asked a ten-year old girl, Marisol Lowing-Sharpe, to do a recorded reading of the story.

Part Two is comprised of a sequence of still photographs with a voice-over narration by an adult woman. The woman narrates from a short story that I started writing several years ago while I was an artist in residence at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine with an organization called the Interfaith Assembly on Homelessness and Housing. The focus of my work then was a collaborative project entitled, 14 Stations, based in the traditional Stations of the Cross. As part of the research for that work, I asked my collaborators, men and women who had recently been homeless, to write stories (their own or another's) that described, in concrete terms, the decent into homelessness and to try and link certain aspects of those stories to the themes contained within the Stations. Certain strong images that arose from these stories became the starting point for staged tableaux that would eventually be photographed and displayed on light-boxes as 14 Stations. Still, at that time, I started trying to weave some of those stories into a narrative that could eventually be used for a future project based on the book of Job.

The story is meant to provide a complement and a counterpoint to the prose tale. It describes one man's decent into darkness and the void and also his recovery. Though the events that bring on his demise are numerous and extreme, such as they are in the book of Job, they are nonetheless well within the bounds believability and even possibility. Throughout most of the narration, we see only landscapes. Only at the end, as the female narrator describes this man's friends coming to sit with him, do we ever see images of human beings. The appearance of these men signals a shift in the narrative strategy of the film, a shift not unlike the one enacted by the book of Job itself; we are no longer speaking about people as if they were butterflies under glass. The subjects now speak for themselves.

Part Three combines the film of still images and voice-over, but with a live musical component.

It opens with an image of a man in bed who we might assume to be the figure of Job surrounded by his three friends. The man playing Job is Gordon Silva. I met him during the semester course on Job. Each week, I would take the train from New York City to New Haven and then catch a cab to school. Gordon was one of several cab drivers that I would see with some frequency and one day he asked me what I was doing at Yale. I told him a little about the course and he followed with a long quotation from the Book of Job. Somewhat surprised, I asked him why he was so familiar with the text and he replied, "Well, I have many friends who tell me I'm living a Joban life." After a lengthy conversation at the front curb of the school, I came to understand the veracity of his friends' observation. For many months we stayed in touch, and began to discuss the possibility of working together on this film. In the fall of 07, he went into the hospital for the third time since I'd met him, this time it was to have his second leg removed—the result of Diabetes. Talking with him on the phone, he said, "I think we'd better get working—I'm not sure how much longer I have..." He organized the venture from his hospital room: Gained permission for us to work, rehearse, sound record and photograph. He also convinced three of his friends to come in and to play the roles of Job's friends: Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar. He got out of the hospital just in time to see the workshop performance at Yale where he was warmly applauded for his contribution. Gordon died several weeks later. He is sorely missed.

We hear the dialogues between Gordon and his friends over a sequence of still portraits that are suggestive of a conversation being held between them. Most of these dialogues are short improvisations on the wisdom dialogues of the actual book. After each short dialogue runs its course it is followed by a piece of live music—a setting of Job's speeches for four voices.

The music is not used as a soundtrack to the film. Rather, the film acts a kind of framing device or foil for the music—the most time-substantial part of the performance. The music for the workshop performances at Yale was drawn from a motet cycle by Olando di Lasso: Lectiones sacrae novem ex libris Hiob excerpta, (1592). The work sets the nine readings or lectiones—sections of Job's speeches that appear in the Office for the Dead (a liturgical form that would have been read prior to a Requiem Mass and burial). Apparently, Lasso was the first composer to set all nine of these readings as a unit. Some individual texts from the readings do appear among the work of Lasso's contemporaries, but there seems to be no other setting of the entire cycle. It was one of these settings of an individual text that keyed me into the discovery of Lasso's Motet Cycle—it showed up in Victoria's, Requiem. I was casually listening to this work, a recording by the Tallis Scholars, and took note of the opening lines: "Taedet animam meam vitae meae, dimittam adversum me eloquium meum, loquar in amaritudine animae meae..." (My soul is weary of my life, I will let go my speech against myself, I will speak in the bitterness of my soul). I sat up. It was only because of my immersion in the Book of Job that I would ever have noticed it, but there it was—Job 10: 1-7. I wondered what it was doing there. I decided to take a trip up to the Columbia University music library. I was a bit mystified why when typing "Book of Job" or "Job" into the Grove Dictionary of Music online, I got nothing. It seemed nearly impossible that text from this great work would not have been set to music, especially considering the plethora of work that does exist that uses the Lamentations of Jeremiah. It would take a few lucky strikes and some good advice from a musicologist friend before I narrowed the search to "Matins of the Dead" and not "Book of Job." In any event, Lasso's work finally appeared.

I got hold of the score and introduced it to several singers at the Yale School of Music who brought it to life for the performance. The four-voice setting allows it to be performed by standard mixed (S-A-T-B) groups, ranging in size from those with only one singer per part to large choruses (we used one singer per part). The Latin text used for the work corresponds almost completely to the Vulgate. English subtitles were incorporated into projected close-up portraits of Gordon. For me, it was as if the words on screen and the words being sung were of this man's own mind.

[Although the Lasso worked well for the workshop performance, it is my sincere wish to have Arvo Pärt write new music for the nine lectiones from the Office of the Dead. These words of Job are requiring of a certain directness and simplicity that Pärt seems so often to evoke. Recently, I read a quote by Pärt that reminded me of Job's own search for meaning, "Tintinnabulation is an area I sometimes wander into when I am searching for answers—in my life, my music, my work. In my dark hours, I have the certain feeling that everything outside this one thing has no meaning. The complex and many-faceted only confuses me, and I must search for unity. What is it, this one thing, and how do I find my way to it? Traces of this perfect thing appear in many guises—and everything that is unimportant falls away. Tintinnabulation is like this... The three notes of a triad are like bells. And that is why I call it tintinnabulation." I hope someday to hear the words of Job's struggle transmuted in such terms by Pärt.]

Part Four is the conclusion of Part two as narrated by the adult woman.

Part Five is the conclusion of Part One—the prose story as narrated by the young girl.

In closing, the general approach to this project has been to mirror the multi-generic nature of the Book of Job. The book itself is comprised by distinctly different genres: The prose story (which opens and closes the book) and the lengthy poetic dialogue or wisdom poem that is lodged between the two. Like oil and water, the prose story and the wisdom poem both engage and disengage from one another despite efforts to homogenize them (some have suggested that the book is best read as something akin to a musical fugue). Yet, while I am interested in the imaginative possibilities of mixing various genres and modes of speech and the rhetorical purposes for which they might be employed, my strongest motivation for crafting a "many-voiced" performance-project is the desire to experience the Book of Job as work for our own age. There is no culture, no tradition, no society—indeed, no person—that is not itself composed of multiple voices, dialogically situated. Such an approach to the Book of Job is the recognition of an evocative and productive correspondence between the structure of the book and the sensibilities of the present age. The act of focusing the story and the text through an assemblage of art-forms, styles, languages and cultures seems to suggest the inverse as well: That of viewing cultures as assemblages of texts, loosely and sometimes contradictorily united.

Finally, in a way not dissimilar from other projects that I have developed, this work is primarily intended to demonstrate how collaboration between faith and the arts can both significantly strengthen our communities and address deep longings in the human soul.


Joban Fugue Production:
David Michalek (Director/Photography)
Raul Vincent Enriquez (Sound Design)
Greta Byrum (Sound Editor and Voice-over Director)
Alisha Borth (Production Assistant)
Calliste Skouras (Illustrator)

Job and friends are:
Gordon Silva (Job)
Victor Merced (Bildad the Shuhite)
Dick Louis (Eliphaz the Temanite)
Ronald Clarke (Zophar the Namathite)

Annie Rosen (Alto)
Estelí Gomez (Soprano)
Casey Breves (Tenor)
Jason Steigerwalt (Bass)

Music performed by singers: Lectiones Sacrae Novem, Ex Libris Hiob
Excerptae (ca. 1582) Orlando di Lasso

Original Short Story
by David Michalek

Karen Chilton (Woman's Voice)
Marisol Lowing-Sharpe (Child's Voice)

Song at the end of the program:
"Hongthong Khanonglam" by Yung Phen Soed, from "Molam: Thai Country Groove From Isan," distributed by Sublime Frequencies