The song cycle has been a nearly-dead form for a century. Off the top of my head, I can't think of any composers of the 20th or early 21st centuries who are well-known for song cycles. There are a few, no doubt, but they're certainly not household names, as earlier practitioners of the form were.
Hopefully that will change in the years ahead. One reason I'm hopeful is the recent release of Christopher Tin's first album, Calling All Dawns. Tin is a relatively young composer who has done most of his work to this point in film and video games. To date, his best known piece has been "Baba Yetu," a setting of a Swahili version of the Lord's Prayer, composed for videogame Civilization IV. I suspect, having spent some time listening to this CD, that his stature as a composer will be increasing significantly in the years ahead.
Calling All Dawns is a orchestral song cycle, with twelve songs broken into three parts: Day, Night, and Dawn. The lyrical content ranges from "Baba Yetu," which opens the CD, to a selection from the Bhagavad Gita and a modern French ballad. Tin sees the CD as a celebration of the "cycle of life," a representation of "the fluid, cyclical nature of the universe." The work proclaims that "regardless of race, culture and religious belief, we are all connected through our common human experience."
Tin and I obviously have some differences of philosophy, but one of the things I've found interesting in listening to the cycle is that I agree with him. Before you skin me for a heretic, hear me out. We are united by common human experience. Each one of us longs for meaning, transcendence, love, community, and purpose. There is not a culture in the world that has not sung of hope and of sorrow alike. We all share in the agonies and the joys of life, and we all ache for a world better than this one.
The friend who gave Calling All Dawns to Jaimie and me as a wedding gift noted that he thought Heaven might sound a lot like Tin's work here. I agree. Tin has done a generally masterful job of weaving an incredibly disparate set of source material into a coherent whole: always a challenge, and the more so when your sources include everything from a haiku to the Torah and back again.
Tin proclaims his message of unity in the midst of diversity by his musical choices. The album is a very consistent album (with one exception; see below). It's very purposefully tonal, and the vocal settings from song to song, while varied enough to maintain interest, are almost never different enough from each other to be jarring. The pacing of the album is excellent: the first five songs (Day) are upbeat and rhythmic, while the next three (Night) are slower and relaxed, with less emphasis on percussion and more on gentle lyricism, and the concluding four (Dawn) are once again energetically orchestrated.
His vocal writing is excellent throughout, and I'm most impressed by how he managed to convey traditional cultural sounds without going over the top or breaking consistency with the rest of the album. His orchestral writing was solid and occasionally stunning.
Tin's use of strings was superb. Spread across the Night section is some of the finest pure strings work I've enjoyed from a new composer in quite some time. He used the brasses relatively sparingly, and to good effect, effectively lending punch and emphasis where needed. One of Tin's best musical decisions, in my mind, was his consistency in rhythmic structure. He varies the instrumentation over the course of the CD, but maintains a recognizable "beat" whenever the percussion appears.
The one weakness of the entire work, in my opinion, is "Rassemblons-Nous," the conclusion of the first section. Tin chose to put in a more modern pop-sounding piece here, a male soloist ballad in French. "Rassemblons-Nous" is one of only three songs on the work with a male soloist, and the only one where the male is the primary vocalist. I wish that Tin had chosen to go with a stronger setting for that moment. That being said, I don't think the song noticeably detracts from the overall quality of the work, however jarring it was on the first listen-through.
I wrote in my reflections on "Baba Yetu" a year and a half ago that, "Sometimes—rarely—a piece of art surpasses that which it was created for." A year and a half later, I find myself saying much the same about Calling All Dawns. Tin's ode to humanity has within in it the sounds of Heaven, when every tribe and tongue will sing praise to God. It's also smashingly good music in its own right. "Baba Yetu" is a good piece of music, but it's excelled by a majority of the other pieces on the CD. Tin is good and getting better. I've deeply enjoyed Christopher Tin's work thus far, and I look forward to his next concert works. I highly and unreservedly recommend Calling All Dawns.