Poetry by Patrick Milian sung by soprano, Arwen Myers and mezzo-soprano, Laura Beckel Thoreson, and the musicians of Northwest Art Song. This beautiful work won third place in the 2021 American Prize for vocal chamber music.
Patrick Milian: In reading the Book of Ruth, I found myself fascinated by the ways these women carve out space in a culture that doesn’t really have room for their relationship. The story seems to be about more than just queer romance, but how queer love disrupts and expands larger social systems. Their love is a radical gesture because it’s both sexually deviant and societally dangerous. This seemed most apparent in the fact that Ruth takes to gleaning in order to sustain her and Naomi. They live off what’s wasted, what’s left behind, what’s forgotten and ignored. Like gay people have for centuries, they find a small but safe and hidden position within a patriarchal system that views them as a threat. That’s why calling this piece “The Gleaners” made sense to me. They can’t be gleaners forever, and that’s why Naomi pressures Ruth into marrying Boaz. In traditional interpretations, Boaz is viewed as a really good guy. There’s nothing wrong with Boaz per se, but he signals the dissolution of the relationship that Naomi and Ruth have cultivated despite laws of ownership and matrimony that refuse to recognize a queer relationship. That disruption was where I wanted the drama and conflict of the song cycle to come from. The first movement is the most straightforward in terms of sticking to the Book of Ruth. All the men die, Naomi is sad, Ruth stays with her anyway: standard stuff. The second movement is the “love duet” where the Naomi/Ruth relationship is figured a bit more erotically. The third movement is the most dramatic in that it’s where the tension comes from: Naomi wants Ruth to marry, to ascribe to Bethlehem’s laws, and Ruth isn’t buying it. The fourth movement signals a separation between the two women as they’re no longer singing to one another but issuing grievances to God. By the end, what was precious and beautiful has been caught up in and then cut off from a world that isn’t built to deal with queerness. Ruth and Naomi want the same thing (that’s why the prayers are symmetrical) but don’t know how to continue loving one another if no one else recognizes their love as anything but deviant.
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