Composer Paul Brantley on the Sacred and the Subversive

“I’ve long been drawn to…’gnostic’ texts–-those rejected, supposedly heretical texts from long before Christianity became an organized religion.” (Photo by Greg Kessler)

Paul Brantley is a man who moves between worlds. A multifaceted musician, he has performed as a cellist with Trey Anastasio, recorded for Béla Fleck and James Morrison, toured with Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, gigged with Chester Thompson, produced for and co-composed with Royel “Futureman” Wooten (the Flecktones), conducted for David Binney, and arranged for Ethel, Todd Rundgren, and Christian Scott. He shifts easily between jazz, classical, experimental music, and pop, and over the years he has worked with everyone from Leonard Bernstein, Vince Gill, the Atlanta Symphony, Betsy Jolas, Dave Gregory of XTC, Alan Harris, Emanuel Hurwitz, John Jorgenson, Kenneth Kiesler, David Loeb, Claire Lynch, and Ned Rorem.

Brantley’s own compositions also respond to a multitude of influences. He has a gift for synthesizing musical styles and creating new, original sounds. He has recorded solo cello for Sony/Columbia, Rounder, Warner Bros., Polydor, and Compass.

When you meet Brantley in person, he is unhurried and thoughtful in conversation. An energetic performer, he is calm and attentive in his personal interactions. The texts he has chosen to set to music reveal his diversity of tastes, but also his interest in philosophical and spiritual matters: Rilke, Apollinaire, Beaumont and Fletcher, Rumi, Wallace Stevens, Cocteau, e.e. cummings, Gerard Manley Hopkins, James Joyce, Biblical “wisdom” texts, among others. “There is, behind all of these poets and works,” Brantley says, “a tradition deeper than those of time and place we normally associate–one that has to do with an essentially archetypal response to living and creating.”

Like most contemporary composers, Brantley stays busy meeting commission deadlines, conducting, teaching at the Manhattan School of Music in New York, where he lives, traveling and attending performances and festivals, making recordings, performing, and composing new work at residencies like The Banff Centre in Canada.

When I heard that he had written a piece called the Gnostic Cantata, I was eager to learn more. Brantley is also a composer in residence at the Monadnock Music Festival in New Hampshire this summer. Another new composition by Brantley will have its premiere at the festival in Peterborough, New Hampshire next week.

“That nearly all organized religions are in a deep state of crisis, most people would agree. Christianity, in all its myriad forms, is only the most conspicuous.” (Courtesy Photo)

Paul, you’ve just finished a piece called the Gnostic Cantata. You’ve worked in a diverse range of styles and musical genres in the past. What compelled you to write a cantata?

Yes, the Gnostic Cantata was just premiered in New York City back in March. It is a “pocket cantata” for just three performers. Jesse Mills was the extraordinary violinist, I was the cellist, and Rachel Calloway was the wonderful mezzo-soprano. My desire to compose this piece is somewhat mysterious to me.

I do know that the idea of composing some kind of cantata–a vocal and instrumental sequence with some kind of “spiritual” narrative–has always been very compelling. All of Bach’s nearly 300 cantatas are masterpieces–but they are also workaday pieces that he turned out on a weekly basis–workaweek. At the same time, and this is just my opinion, they are also all deeply theologically subversive. And so the opportunity to creatively encounter these so-called “gnostic” texts, that are already spiritually subversive, was very appealing.

Bach “theologically subversive”? Can you elaborate?

Well, my experience is that any poetic and musical setting of even “orthodox” materials is potentially a radical shift of perspective if the composition moves beyond mere expression or even “interpretation” of the texts, and rather follows its own internal form as an autonomous work of art. So this resultant work of art–the texts PLUS the music–adds up to a “sum-thing” that by its very nature transforms (and shoots beyond) the original. Or maybe goes deeper.

People of all faiths and no faiths are still drawn to the B Minor Mass not “in spite of” these texts, but rather because of Bach’s almost alchemical transformation of the Catholic Mass–something that was pretty radically beyond his own purview as a sincere and practicing Lutheran! But as an artist it was completely within his purview for his art–on its own terms–to open up the routine of the Mass and bring the audience to perhaps an even deeper “communion.”

All of this is true, on a much smaller scale, with his cantatas. So the appeal to me is to somehow find my way into that tradition–to feel part of that continuum–by discovering and expressing something that I feel is of contemporary relevance. That nearly all organized religions are in a deep state of crisis, most people would agree. Christianity, in all its myriad forms, is only the most conspicuous. While at the same time the phenomenon of Jesus, as a spiritual teacher beyond institutional Christianity, has been radically opened up in two significant ways. One, from a universalizing “archetypal” perspective (Jung), and two, from a deeper historical perspective thanks to these so-called gnostic texts.

Pages from Carl Jung’s “Red Book” provided by Brantley

Can you talk more about what the word “gnostic” means to you within the context of this piece, particularly as it relates to the five texts you have chosen? Is there a central idea or theme that ties these texts and movements together?


I’ve long been drawn to these “gnostic” texts–those rejected, supposedly heretical texts from long before Christianity became an organized religion–and to the traditions that persisted or sprang up after the fact. So this is really “gnosticism” with a lower-case “g”–a kind of catch-all for a great variety of alternative traditions and philosophies within the Judaic, Islamic, Thomastic. and actual Gnostic (with a capital G) traditions.

For me there is a tremendous range of quality in all these texts from both a literary and spiritual point of view. So naturally, my selection seeks to remedy this by choosing a single focus across these various cultures where they all meet “syncretically,” you might say. And this focus is the very Buddhist-like relationship to the “Kingdom of God”–a kind of cultivation-through-participation.

I’d like to discuss the third movement further, which is based on the Gospel of Thomas. As someone who grew up with the King James Version of the Bible, I was struck by the excerpt you chose from Thomas: The Kingdom of God is spread out upon the earth, but you do not yet see it….If those who lead you say, “Look, it’s in the sky,” then the birds of the sky precede you. If they say, “It’s in the sea,” then the fish precede you. Rather, the Kingdom of God is within you and without you. When you make the two one; when you make the inside out and the outside in; when you make above below; when you make the male and the female a single one, you will enter the Kingdom of God.


This is a pretty radical concept in the Christian tradition. When you read this passage, you can understand why the early church chose to disregard this text when they were creating the official canon. These lines don’t sit comfortably beside the other gospels and sound more Eastern in origin. What was your own response to this text when you first read it and how did you begin to translate these impressions into music? Was there a particular entry point that got you started when you began composing?

Yeah, I knew from the beginning that these Zen-like aphorisms from the Gospel of Thomas would form the heart of the Cantata, that it would be the central third of five movements. And so I even gave this movement the title “Thomas Cantata.” It is a piece, a world, in and of itself. It also made another nice alliterative/assonant title!

At first though, I found it basically impossible to creatively “touch” these words. And then for some reason I remembered a setting I had made of the Anglican Credo to which I spontaneously began singing these Thomas aphorisms. They fit almost perfectly, both expressively and musically, so I had very little re-composing to do. This was especially appealing in that this kind of “parody”– recycling old music –was something Bach regularly practiced in his own cantatas.


It was strange because when I had originally composed the Credo, I had this incredibly joyful experience, although (in all due respect) I don’t at this point believe a word of that text, except in an archetypal, mythical sense. I also appreciate the incredibly beautiful language. But these koan-like sayings in the Thomas Gospel, that at once posit, and then transcend, pairs of opposites, I completely groove with. This parallels the syntax of my music. In these re-writings, you sometimes have the sense that the older music was somehow destined for that final “parody” form, which is exactly how it felt with this third movement. So I guess you could say it’s either providence or creative metabolism.

Click here to listen to the 3rd movement of Paul Brantley’s “Gnostic Cantata”


You have a new piece premiering at the Monadnock Music Festival in New Hampshire, on August 4th and 5th. Can you tell us more about it?

“Tombeaux” is a work for soprano and chamber ensemble that is a part of Monadnock Music’s celebration of Emily Dickinson this season. Laura Gilbert, one of the festival’s artistic directors, asked me if I had set any of Dickinson’s poems, which I had not, but I had in fact just read “Split the Lark,” which I thought would be wonderful to set. This poem is, among other things, about unabashed sexuality. I had just made a setting of some masque lines from “The Tempest,” which are all about repressed and potential sexuality, and so I thought the two would make a good pair. Also, Shakespeare was Dickinson’s greatest literary love and influence, and so this created for me a sense of continuum, which I very much feel between their languages.

Laura liked the idea and invited me to go ahead. I was already aware that the Shakespeare song, which I had composed at The MacDowell Colony, was musically something of a tombeau–a stylistic homage to another composer. As I began setting the Dickinson poem, I felt the inclination to yet another composer begin to surface. These kinds of “correspondences” are always a good form of encouragement. To one degree or another, my music is more often than not a response to some other piece of music or composer, so it felt good to completely give myself over to this tendency (although I still prefer to keep these composers secret.)

I can tell that you’re not about to reveal the sources of your inspiration here, but perhaps listeners can make some educated guesses at your concerts next week. Since we’re talking about the work of other composers, can you tell me some of the artists who are in heavy rotation on your own i-Pod this summer?

Well, among other things, the new (and old) Radiohead, Rokia Traoré, a fantastic Malian musician, lots of Stravinsky’s great and under-rated vocal and chamber music, the three B’s of course (Beatles, Beach Boys, and Bacharach), Rameau opera overtures, Wayne Shorter’s HighlifeOen Sujet–a brilliant band from Montreal. I’m trying to warm up to the new Paul Simon, but instead have been listening again to Rhythm of the Saints and Surprise–two favorites of mine.


To find out more about Paul Brantley and his work, you can visit his website. Brantley will be in New Hampshire next week for the premiere of his new work “Tombeaux,” which is part of the Monadnock Music Festival. There are two opportunities to see the piece performed. The first concert is at 7:30 p.m. on August 4th at the All Saint’s Church in Peterborough, and the second at 7:30 p.m. on August 5th at the Sullivan United Congregational Church. Both concerts are free. Works by Mozart, Beethoven, and Schnittke are also on the program. Visit the Monadnock Music website for more information about these performances and the remaining festival concerts, which run through August 14th.

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By | 2016-11-11T21:55:51+00:00 07.30.11|Sounds|Comments Off on Composer Paul Brantley on the Sacred and the Subversive

About the Author:

I’ve spent almost 20 years helping thousands of successful artists of all disciplines and working to make the arts more accessible. (One friend likes to call me “the arts enabler.”) From 1999-2012 I worked at The MacDowell Colony, the nation’s oldest artist colony, but I've also done time at an arts magazine, a library, an art museum, and a raptor rehabilitation center. In May of 2012 I left MacDowell to pursue writing, speaking, curating, and creative projects full-time. In 2015 I was named a “Top 100 Artist, Innovator, Creative” by Origin magazine. I've appeared as an arts and culture commentator on New Hampshire Public Radio, and in 2017 I was the recipient of the Wampler Art Professorship at James Madison University. I am the founder of the Gwarlingo Salon series, which connects artists like DJ Spooky with rural audiences in the Monadnock region. In 2017 my collaborator Corwin Levi and I will publish our first book, Mirror Mirrored, which combines Grimms’ fairy tales with vintage illustration remixes and the work of contemporary artists like Kiki Smith, Carrie Mae Weems, and Amy Cutler. I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, but have called New Hampshire home since 1999. My studio is located in the historic, mill village of Harrisville. I miss fried okra, the early southern spring, and restaurants that stay open past 9:00 p.m., but rural life agrees with me. In New Hampshire I can see the stars, go kayaking or snowshoeing, watch bald eagles fish in the lake, and focus on my creative work in silence. I no longer have to worry about traffic jams; deer, wild turkeys, and frost heaves are the primary road hazards here. Although I live in the country, I’m fortunate enough to be part of a vibrant arts community that extends beyond this small New England village. The quiet days are punctuated by regular travel and frequent visits to museums, theaters, readings, arts events, lectures, and open studios around the country. (You can read my full CV here.) Thanks for visiting Gwarlingo. I hope you'll be in touch.