Prophetiae Sibyllarum

Program notes

Jeff Dolven’s poems propose statistics as the modern analogue of prophecy. The contemporary Sibyl teaches that one in five Baltimore children will develop asthma, that one in sixteen hundred Chicago children is homeless—giving us the kind of ambiguous foreknowledge familiar from myth. Like the ancient Sibyls, Jeff’s are associated with a specific city; unlike their predecessors, these newfangled Sibyls articulate solid statistical facts. This mixture of scientific and prophetic language was meaningful to me both on an intellectual level and as the father of two small children. (I never realized how much anxiety is associated with parenting.) The end of the piece, which alternately includes and omits the words “barely,” gestures toward an acceptance of the painful possibilities inherent in life.

1. Sibylla Baltimoris

Unto us a child is born
One of twenty-eight
Of any hundred here
Whose breath comes too hard.
I read the news in leaves of glass
Fond fathers pull from rearview mirrors.

2. Sibylla Clevelandiae

Lo let a glass be raised
To greet the one in any eight
Whose blood will turn
From salt to sweet:
Spilt sugar spells this fate on the tabletops.

3. Sibylla Chicagonis

Behold the day is nigh:
The flight paths up above converge
Over one of sixteen hundred
To sleep in the street.
The windows shaking in their frames
Look to the life to come.

4. Sibylla Washingtonii

May a place be set
For one of ten by ten by two
Who will live behind a lock
Without a key.
So the vigilant sirens cry to me.
So may a place be kept.

5. Sibylla Philadelphiae (HIV)

Let the starry host proclaim:
This child is of the point oh one
Who will not pass
The clinic’s test.
The needle of the broadcast tower
Points to his door.

Carmina Chromatico quae audis modulata tenore, Haec sunt illa quibus nostrae olim arcana salutis, Bis senae intrepido cecinerunt ore Sibyllae

[These songs which you hear, sung with chromatic progressions, are those in which the 12 Sibyls once with confident voice sang the secrets of our salvation.]

6. Sibylla Camdenis

Hark how the choir of angels sings:
The child is born
Who will not stay:
The overpass shadows the oh point nine
Who lingers with us barely
Long enough to count.

Instrumentation: Five singers (A-T-T-Baritone-Bass)