Classical composer Christopher Corbell understands if you're not into opera. If anything, it's not your fault.
"These opera companies, they just chug away at these 150-year-old operas year after year," he says. "At some point, we have to start telling our own stories."
With his project Cult of Orpheus, that's exactly what Corbell intends to do. This week, Cult of Orpheus is releasing its first album, a collection of vocal works called Sacred Works I: The Emerald Tablet. The songs range from intricate harmonies over flutes and strings to spacious movements with only an acoustic guitar and a resonant baritone. The lofty, hymnlike vocals and fluttering strings sound as if they could have been lifted from the court of some long-gone monarch. But like everything released by Cult of Orpheus, they're all original compositions with lyrics lifted from Bohemian poems, Sufi poems, Buddhist verse and pagan texts.
Since Corbell created the moniker Cult of Orpheus in 2013, he's dedicated himself to writing new works in the tradition of early opera and vocal classical music. He's best known for his opera Viva's Holiday, about Portland stripper, writer and classically trained singer Viva Las Vegas. But this year—the first in which he's working with a fixed roster of singers—he's going to launch a series of operas written to be played in dive bars, and plans to release a Viva's Holiday album around Christmas.
But Sacred Works is intended as an introduction to Cult of Orpheus. "The Sacred Works album is kind of a coming out, like, 'Hey, this is really beautiful vocal composition,'" says Corbell.
The album covers a lot of ground both spiritually and musically. The first half of the album, based on works from a medieval alchemy text, is full of bright, angelic harmonies set over a baroque string quartet. On the second half of the album, there are sparse, resonant songs with only a piano and a single vocalist. There are playful, sirenlike vocals, edenic flutes and harps, and lyrics from Sufi poems and Buddhist verses.
"My own sense of spirituality is very eclectic," says Corbell. "I tend to like stuff that doesn't impose orthodoxy."
It's a compelling combination—non-Western religious texts written into a very Western, typically Christian tradition. To some extent, it's just an accident that arose from Corbell's musical and spiritual interests. But it's also tied to the intent behind Cult of Orpheus.
"The message of these classic hymns and masses and stuff is so often that human nature is broken, the world is broken and evil, and the only release we're going to have is after death," says Corbell. "It's just really miserable stuff, and I feel like there's so much other spiritual tradition in the world."
But when Corbell talks about Cult of Orpheus, he sounds more like he's trying to inspire a social revolution than nirvana.
"Classical music is privilege," he says. "It is music you get groomed for very early with very structured and supportive parents who are usually at least upper or middle class. There's always exceptions, people who just come out of nowhere and do amazing things, but it's kind of tokenism to say that means it's equal."
Like any genre, there will always be people who connect to classical music and people who don't. But according to Corbell, what divides those two groups isn't always a matter of taste. "For me, at least, there was something structural about the way academic music and that terrible phrase 'serious music' was seized on by composers in the 20th century," he says. "Like, this was the true music of the intelligent people and everything else was popular rubbish."
Corbell got into classical music when he taught himself classical guitar in high school. When he began performing in competitions, he felt alienated. "They would be like, 'Who have you studied with?' And I'd be like, 'I've never studied with anyone,'" he says. "It's kind of like if you hang out with rich kids who've traveled everywhere and they're talking about all the places they've traveled to, you start to feel like, 'I'm no good because I've never been to Bali,' or whatever."
In the '80s, Corbell briefly studied music theory at Belmont University but quickly found it disregarded his interest in lyrical, unabashedly pretty music. "It was all basically avant-garde training school," he says. "There's a lot of early atonal music I really enjoy listening to. But it became this cultural juggernaut that, by the time I was in school, it was just kind of assumed, 'Oh, you can't be a serious musician and use major and minor chords.'"
It can be difficult to find an emotional access point within the classical canon simply because most of the music is centuries old. But if you don't have a music degree, contemporary classical music can be just as difficult to connect with. Often, it's created by and for academics who are less interested in listenability than with mathlike construction and creating something that's never been done before.
Sacred Works fills that void of alienation. Full of delicate instrumentation and divine harmonies, the album is fervently beautiful. The sublimely pretty constructions of baroque, chamber and high-classical music are imbued with modern sensibilities and an optimistic, populist world view.
Corbell isn't advocating that his methods become the new monopoly on classical composition, or that everyone needs to become a fan of the genre. "Whatever key unlocks your joy and your search for meaning, that should work for you," he says.
Cult of Orpheus isn't trying to create a better form of classical composition, it's trying to prove that there are other forms. Still, Corbell stands firmly against the genre's esoteric culture and lack of pluralism.
"That sort of institutional privilege has to be broken down," he says. "Inevitably, it will, because there are more of us than them."
SEE IT: Cult of Orpheus' album release show is at Tabor Space, 5441 SE Belmont St., cultoforpheus.org. 7:30 pm Saturday, June 23. $5-$10.