Invocations is an extended exploration of songs without words, confident, tuneful and dramatic but not confined to simple song forms. There is a yearning emotional heart in each of the three movements of the large-scale piece Invocations, from which the album draws its title. In the composer’s words, each movement is based on “a stanza from an inscribed personal prayer.” The words are secret, but the power is clear. Each movement — “Exhaust,” “Fish, Father, Phoenix” and “Sunday Stills the Willow” — are dedicated to Bono’s father, and the music of “Fish, Father, Phoenix” is intertwined with fragmented recordings of his father’s voice, musing on the cycle of birth, life and death, and one’s place on the planet and in the universe.
Musical and emotional intensity build through the first two movements of Invocations, driven along by the rondo structure of “Exhaust,” the vigorous rhythms and the fascinating, energetic, dream-like state of the second movement (Bono’s incisive writing and drive are apparent in the reprise of this music, sans audio track, that concludes the disc). The piece finds acceptance, repose and even transcendence in the concluding “Sunday Stills the Willow,” a luminous instrumental hymn. It’s simple music, but not simplistic, with rich, shimmering orchestration and a consoling beauty.
“The Missing,” for string quartet, is a recent (2010) work. Bono combines a mournful theme and allusions to the music of Haydn, Beethoven, George Crumb and Gloria Coates with judicious and skilled use of extended string techniques. The music has a carefully balanced form and explores the sensations of loss, confusion and clarity, the ability to endure, reflect and face the future. There is a feeling listening to it that is like that of listening to Shostakovich: something profoundly powerful and emotional that must be said, with no words adequate enough to say it. Instead there is music.
Bono’s personal experiences — his memories of his father, his prayers — are private but human. But they are indeed human, just like the personal experiences and private memories we all have. By putting his emotional and musical ideas into the hands of instruments, rather than mere words, along with solid, energetic structures, Bono has made pieces that are like songs in that they touch our bodies and hearts directly, but that make the deeper connection to experiences that are not only common and shared but unique for each person.