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Sumptuous Planet: A Secular Mass

by The Crossing & David Shapiro

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dougz Stunning. Full of rich voice and meaning.
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    releases November 10, 2023

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Sumptuous Planet: A Secular Mass: Mercy – If There Is Mercy
Sumptuous Planet: A Secular Mass: Glory – Magnificent Structure
Sumptuous Planet: A Secular Mass: Earth – Sumptuous Planet
Sumptuous Planet: A Secular Mass: The Adoration – Staggering, Elegant, Beautiful Thing
Sumptuous Planet: A Secular Mass: Thankfulness
Sumptuous Planet: A Secular Mass: Taking Away the Sins of the World – Sin
Sumptuous Planet: A Secular Mass: Spirit – Mystic Jelly
Sumptuous Planet: A Secular Mass: Belief – The Truth
Sumptuous Planet: A Secular Mass: All Things Visible and Invisible – Tiny Things
Sumptuous Planet: A Secular Mass: Substance – Giant Megalopolis
Sumptuous Planet: A Secular Mass: Death – The Lucky Ones
Sumptuous Planet: A Secular Mass: Suffering
Sumptuous Planet: A Secular Mass: Resurrection – One Life
Sumptuous Planet: A Secular Mass: Holiness – One God Further
Sumptuous Planet: A Secular Mass: Osanna – And We Dance


Composer David Shapiro and The Crossing release Sumptuous Planet: A Secular Mass, a work that extols a science based stance on the universe and the nature of existence while using a musical form that is firmly rooted in the Christian Mass. In this way, Shapiro straddles an interesting line, acknowledging and participating in the awe and reverence that musical masses are designed to express, while diverging from the tradition of associating that awe with belief in a divine being.

Drawing on texts by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, physicist Richard Feynman, and 17th century Dutch microbiologist Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, Shapiro builds on the majesty of the venerated tradition of the musical mass, adapting it for contemporary ideas about science and nature.

The “Introit – Unsung” opens with ecstatic, towering harmonies setting a quote from Feynman: “Is no one inspired by the present picture of the universe?” Imitation between the female and male voice sections captures the awe at the workings of the natural world. “Mercy – If There Is Mercy” captures the dichotomy between kindness and cruelty, alternating between spaced and crunchy, close voicings, observing that Nature is in fact indifferent to moral distinctions.

Shapiro uses counterpoint to set “Glory – Magnificent Structure,” a paean to the awesome majesty of the construction of the natural world. The intricacy of the material evokes the same exhilaration one might experience while listening to the canonic masses, inspired as they were by a belief in a divine being. It is only by reading Shapiro’s chosen texts carefully that we register the shift in the underlying theology. The pitch clusters at the opening, subsequent polytonal harmonies, and accumulating accented entrances in “Earth – Sumptuous Planet” capture the potent power of time’s patient impact on the Earth.

“The Adoration – Staggering, Elegant, Beautiful Thing” opens with a lush, flowing setting of Latin text, translated as “Life started as nothing.” Shapiro then mixes fragments of English and Latin texts, layering “life started from nothing” in different voices before they come together in a unison proclamation, and word painting “staggering” with staggered fugal entrances. Shapiro’s decision to mix English quotes with Latin translations by Theodore Cheek further reinforces that the piece exists within the compositional lineage of the mass, as opposed to proposing an alternate form. “Thankfulness” glistens with closely spaced, sonorous voicings.

“Taking Away the Sins of the World – Sin” is the first of several movements that have extended texts. In contrast to previous movements where Shapiro expanded a relatively short amount of text through repetition, here the text itself drives the movement forward and allows for semantic development. Upon arriving at the words, “let us understand,” Shapiro turns to a tender, diatonic chord progression, returning to this material for “let us try to teach generosity.” “Spirit – Mystic Jelly” is ethereal and disembodied, with swells emerging and receding over a multi-layered texture before the background layers gradually grow in intensity and come to the fore.

“Belief – The Truth” introduces a polyphonic setting, with overlapping ostinati. “All Things Visible and Invisible – Tiny Things” celebrates the microscopic foundation of everything, opening with reverent, plainchant-like melismatic melodies which evolve into mellifluous descending scales over a long cantus firmus. “Substance – Giant Megalopolis” opens with an infectious 9/8 accumulating groove on wordless syllables, providing an infrastructure for swooping, angular lines. Shapiro puts a glowing halo on the concept of “Death,” setting Dawkins’ text of gratitude celebrating the improbability of our existence with luminous, soaring melodies and expansive harmonies. “Suffering” explores the other side of the coin; the incomparable pain experienced in the world expressed in Dawkins’ text receives a somber, discomfiting setting.

Shapiro allows himself a lighter, humorous moment with “Resurrection – One Life,” extorting the listener to live life to the fullest with a cleverly, syncopated setting. In the penultimate movement, “Holiness – One God Further,” Shapiro brings the piece back to its initial premise, the refutation of godlike figures. We hear a list of names of gods from the ancient world, sung sotto voce, none of whom, Dawkins observes, receive the faith of most modern societies. The final, exuberant movement, “Osanna – And We Dance,” exalts the inexhaustible energy of life and renewal (DNA), a force that we dance in celebration of despite its indifference to our fates. Shapiro’s music rocks back and forth in triple meter, a detailed fabric of interlocking energies and impulses that brings the work to a joyous conclusion.

Despite his subversive premise of positing an atheist perspective within the structure of a Christian mass, David Shapiro’s Sumptuous Planet largely traffics in the same aesthetic sentiments and emotions as its religious predecessors, albeit with an updated harmonic palette. Perhaps that was strategic, after all—the wonder atheists and believers feel at the majesty of the world and creation can be similar, they just spring from divergent explanations. Buoyed by a spirited, virtuosic performance by Donald Nally and The Crossing, Shapiro has constructed a musical world worthy of his subject, teeming with complexity, shaded with layers of nuance, and overflowing with joyous mystery.

– Dan Lippel


releases November 10, 2023

Sumptuous Planet was recorded January 2-6, 2023 at St. Peter’s Church in the Great Valley, Malvern, Pennsylvania. It premiered July 8, 2022 at The Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill during The Month of Moderns, The Crossing’s annual summer festival of new music. Movement 4 was composed for The Crossing’s Jeff Quartets, in memory of Jeffrey Dinsmore, and was premiered July 8, 2016.

Recording Producers: Paul Vazquez, Donald Nally, & Kevin Vondrak

Recording Engineer: Paul Vazquez
Assistant Recording Engineer: Codi Yhap
Editing, Mixing, & Mastering: Paul Vazquez

Photos (Bloom, Green World, New Life, Micro Beings) by Ben Simon Rehn, bensimonrehn.com

Design, layout & typography by Marc Wolf, marcjwolf.com

The Crossing photo by Clara Weishahn
Donald Nally photo by Becky Oehlers Photography




New Focus Recordings New York, New York

New Focus Recordings is an artist led collective label featuring releases in contemporary music of many stripes, as well as new approaches to older repertoire. The label was founded by guitarist Daniel Lippel (who is the current director), composer engineer Ryan Streber, and composer Peter Gilbert in 2003-4, and features releases from many of new music's most active performers and composers. ... more

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