Sing a New Song

For those in St. Paul, Minnesota this weekend, two opportunities to be curious about new songs:  Friday, April 13 at 7:30, pianist Sophia Vastek in concert, and Sunday, April 15, at 4:00 the Choir of St. John the Evangelist sings Evensong and a program titled Serenade to Music.  The first asks for donations to support the work of the Hallie Q. Brown Community Center.  The second celebrates the time that I have spent as Interim Music Director within this wonderful community of St. John the Evangelist, where we’ve sung quite a few new songs together.

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I had the chance to visit St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota this week, and spent some time in the gallery where pages of the Saint John’s Bible, along with descriptions of how this incredible work of art and act of faith came to be, are on display. It strikes me that, as the first illuminated, handwritten Bible to be commissioned by a Benedictine Monastery in over 500 years,  it is a kind of new song. Conceived in 1995 and completed in 2011, it is an incredible mix of old and new. Medieval materials of vellum, inks made from semi-precious stones, and the use of quill pens, are combined with contemporary artistic techniques and imagery that shows a modern appreciation for God’s work in the world, and an open-minded inclusion of other world religions. In it I see love – of God, of craft, of beauty – come through with every penstroke. There is a marriage of image and text that could guide us in  the Benedictine instruction to listen with the ears of our heart.

I am reminded of a piece that we will sing this Sunday by Scottish composer James Macmillan, Sing a New Song. In a brief interview, he talks about the human impetus to be curious and the urgency he hopes we sometimes feel to encounter something new. As a composer, he wonders how he can express his own creative instinct in music, and believes that our experiences of new music impel our curiosity about this world of ours. He too wants us to listen with the ears of our heart.

He put a new song in my mouth, so says Psalm 40.  We are commanded to sing a new song in Psalms 33, 96, 98 and 149.  A new song is offered to God in Psalm 144:9. Much like the illuminated St. John’s Bible, Macmillan’s A New Song takes the listener into a place that is at once ancient and new.

I found it interesting to see that the concept of “curiosity” is defined as an emotion and not as an instinct. We’re clearly born with the capacity to be curious, as every newborn demonstrates.  Instincts seem to be hard-wired, less flexible, more universal – fight or flight, protection of our young, perhaps even creativity is instinctual.  Emotions, on the other hand, have so many outside influences at work with our temperament.  Curiosity then, as an emotion, seems like something that can be developed or held in check. The curiosity of our childhoods is too often muted as we get older, but there are so many ways to be curious. Engineers wonder how things work, psychologists wonder how people think and interact, scholars wonder how ideas can be expressed.

Curiosity:  from Latin curiosus “careful, diligent” akin to cura, “care”

The etymology of curious shows the word’s relationship to an Anglican term for an assisting priest, a curate. Someone who “cares” for souls presumably.  If we take away curiosity in its negative forms – “morbid curiosity” and nosiness – we’re left with the idea of curiosity as a sign of caring and we might take that more to heart in our daily lives. Listen with the ears of your heart for new music.  Seek out new songs in other people and we will discover the gifts, joys and sorrows of the community around us.

Heartfelt thanks to the good people of St. John the Evangelist and their Rector for welcoming me so warmly these past three months!

Peace,
Sonya

Life-in-Community

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This blog represents my attempt to put thoughts together on various things that seem to connect – in my mind anyway. More often than not new ideas first involve reaching back to what was and I can only hope that the prehistoric San cave painting at the top of this page inspires all kinds of connections between old and new.

Feel free to pass this message along to anyone who might be interested. You can simply subscribe (look for the “Subscribe” button at the top of the post) to get a reminder of new posts, or you can register with a user name and password in order to comment. If a community conversation comes out of this, all the better. We have so much to share and so much for which we can be grateful.

 

 

 

Thumbing Your Nose

Easter fell on April Fools Day this year, and one of my musical colleagues handed out bulletins to the choir that had Christmas carols listed for the hymns. I’m guessing that chaos and consternation ensued! There were surely plenty of unfortunate jokes told as part of sermons all over the world as well, and so it doesn’t feel quite as unseemly as it might to suggest that we were celebrating Jesus thumbing his nose at death on Easter.

Thumbing his nose? Where on earth did that kooky expression originate? No one really knows, but possibly in 18th century Britain, and really, could it be anything except British? It’s a phrase which implies contempt, but with a good dose of humor, not anger. Someone who does the actual thumbing is expressing a measure of confidence, of resilience, of freedom. To do it literally is childish and disrespectful, I suppose, but metaphorically it can be empowering.

No composer thumbed his nose at authority more beautifully than Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, whether at the dominance of his father over his career and life decisions, or at the Archbishop of Salzburg who employed him and demanded simplicity and brevity above all from the young composer’s works for the church. Mozart did attempt to comply in the several Missa brevis settings he wrote for Salzburg Cathedral, but you can’t shake off the feeling that he chafed at these restrictions on his creativity.  The Missa brevis, K. 194 that will be sung at St. John’s this Sunday (accompanied by The Artaria Quartet) is short, it’s true, and he sets the long texts of the Gloria and Credo with great economy, simple textures, and spare instrumentation, as the Archbishop demanded, but the drama of opera is lurking just below the surface of those liturgical texts. It is like a barely-contained gremlin bumping against the walls of its sacred box.

When one person protests she is often called a troublemaker or crazy, or, very rarely, a prophet. In Mozart’s case, history calls his protests genius. When many people protest oppression, however, it becomes a movement. Personally, I’d like to avoid being labeled as crazy, and “genius” or “prophet” aren’t attributes I can claim, which leaves being part of a movement for me. The goal for any protest is justice, and that’s the only movement that really matters. What are the goals of justice, after all, except those of truth and love, often defined as the cause of freedom? Maybe Mozart’s music will plant a little seed of protest in your own heart against small-mindedness and the control of conformity.

Perhaps you will find the exuberance in Mozart’s sacred music inappropriate to the words of a usually somber Kyrie eleison or Agnus dei, but I hear an authentic expression of joy in these and all parts of the sung Eucharistic celebration – Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Benedictus, and Agnus Dei. Joy is as close to freedom as I can imagine. Thumb your nose at injustice then, because true joy cannot be born out of oppression.

Peace,
Sonya

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This blog represents my attempt to put thoughts together on various things that seem to connect – in my mind anyway. More often than not new ideas first involve reaching back to what was and I can only hope that the prehistoric San cave painting at the top of this page inspires all kinds of connections between old and new.

Feel free to pass this message along to anyone who might be interested. You can simply subscribe (look for the “Subscribe” button at the top of the post) to get a reminder of new posts, or you can register with a user name and password in order to comment. If a community conversation comes out of this, all the better. We have so much to share and so much for which we can be grateful.

 

 

Attendite

O vos ómnes qui transítis per víam, atténdite et vidéte:
Si est dólor símilis sícut dólor méus.
Atténdite, univérsi pópuli, et vidéte dolórem méum.
Si est dólor símilis sícut dólor méus.

Translation:
O all you who walk by on the road, pay attention and see:
if there be any sorrow like my sorrow.
Pay attention, all people, and look at my sorrow:
if there be any sorrow like my sorrow.

These words from the Book of Lamentations will be sung in many churches this Holy Week, and were set to music  in the 16th and 17th centuries by Tomas Luis de Victoria and Carlo Gesualdo, and in 1932 by the Catalan cellist Pablo Casals. I hear in those musical settings the bewilderment of someone who wonders how people can walk by without seeing the suffering of someone so near. The words and music urge us to pay attention to another’s pain. Attendite.

Attention must be paid.

There’s some irony in the fact that this line was written by Arthur Miller in his Death of a Salesman. Miller, apparently, didn’t pay a lot of attention to the suffering in his own family – treating one wife with vindictiveness and abandoning his son, who had been born with Downs Syndrome. But he did write it, and the play’s line arrests the listener. Pay attention to another’s suffering, Willy Loman’s wife insists.

I have been lucky enough to see, twice now, a compelling production of Stephen Sondheim’s 1990 show Assassins, staged by the fabulous Theater Latte Da in Minneapolis. Something of a flop when it first opened, Assassins couldn’t be more timely now, with its storyline about America’s fascination with guns and the cultural phenomenon of people seeking to gain attention by shooting people. It brings together all of those in American history who have attempted or succeeded in assassinating a President, and we see the delusions and confusion that lead them to their ill-conceived actions. We aren’t ever asked to have sympathy for them, but we do glimpse their primary motivation. From John Wilkes Booth to Squeaky Fromme to Lee Harvey Oswald, it seems always to be the same – a need to be important, to matter, a need for attention.

Attention must be paid.

John Wilkes Booth quotes this line directly to the audience near the end of the show. We are left to wonder… if a friend, or a father, or an employer, or a society had paid attention, could history have been different?

If you’re not outraged then you’re not paying attention

That was a popular bumper sticker some years ago. Right now, in 2018 America, when I pay attention to the big picture I am constantly outraged, and I have to admit that is as depressing and wearying as it is overwhelming. The words of Good Friday’s O vos omnes remind me, however, to pay attention to those right around me. Those that I might otherwise walk by.

Peace,
Sonya

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This blog represents my attempt to put thoughts together on various things that seem to connect – in my mind anyway. More often than not new ideas first involve reaching back to what was and I can only hope that the prehistoric San cave painting at the top of this page inspires all kinds of new connections between old and new.

Feel free to pass this message along to anyone who might be interested. You can simply subscribe (look for the “Subscribe” button at the top of the post) to get a reminder of new posts, or you can register with a user name and password in order to comment. If a community conversation comes out of this, all the better. We have so much to share and so much for which we can be grateful

 

The Pieta of Music

Samuel Barber’s iconic Adagio for Strings has been called by one author the “Pieta of Music.” It is music which has become our national anthem for mourning, music that expresses collective grief. In his 2010 book, The Saddest Music Ever Written, devoted solely to exploring Barber’s Adagio, author Thomas Larson goes on to say that the music captures for him the “sorrow and pity of tragic death: listening to it, we are Mother Mary come alive – holding the lifeless Christ on our laps, one arm bracing the slumped head, the other offering him to the ages.”   The author places this mission on the piece: “to plumb its listeners’ capacity for grief,” describing it as “music to accompany loss.” Compositionally, as liner notes for a recording by the Emerson String Quartet point out, the sense of “slowed-down time creates an impression of deep feeling that can scarcely be borne, like inexpressible grief.”

Adagio for Strings

And that is music’s role in our lives – to search out feelings in us which cannot be expressed in words alone.  Oscar Wilde wrote:  “music creates for one a past of which one has been ignorant and fills one with a sense of sorrows that have been hidden from one’s tears.” He suggested that music allows us to encounter things, and our emotional reactions to those things, that we didn’t even know about ourselves.

The first time I saw Michelangelo’s Pieta I was travelling alone, wandering through St. Peter’s in Rome, and quite unprepared when I turned a corner and came upon the grieving Mary. I burst into tears. Barber’s Adagio communicates pain as clearly as Michelangelo’s stone.

With the reading of the Passion narrative moved to the end of the Palm Sunday service, there is a thread created which pulls us towards the Holy Week services of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday, and connects us to those places of loss and pain that are not expressible in words. Pairing Barber’s music with the reading of the Passion, as we’ll do at St. John’s, will, I hope, help people hear the words in a new and deeper way, giving them access to feelings they have no words for. Perhaps hearing the narrative in a way which makes an Easter resurrection all the more possible.

Peace,
Sonya

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This blog represents my attempt to put thoughts together on various things that seem to connect – in my mind anyway. More often than not new ideas first involve reaching back to what was and I can only hope that the prehistoric San cave painting at the top of this page inspires all kinds of new connections between old and new.

Feel free to pass this message along to anyone who might be interested. You can simply subscribe (look for the “Subscribe” button at the top of the post) to get a reminder of new posts, or you can register with a user name and password in order to comment. If a community conversation comes out of this, all the better. We have so much to share and so much for which we can be grateful

Poets of the Cross

Many describe the Welsh poet and priest R.S. Thomas as a “poet of the cross,” and his poems often include the stark image of an empty cross – or an “untenanted” one, in his words.  His untenanted cross no longer bears death, however, but witnesses life.

There is nothing kind or warm about a cross.  Its power lies in its austerity, like the angular harshness of R.S. Thomas’ poetry, or the Four Motets for a Time of Penitence by Francis Poulenc. Both were reacting to the bleakness of their surrounding landscapes – one evoking the forbidding, lonely existence of Welsh farmers, and the other writing his motets soon after the death of his dearest friend and during the ugliness of European war in the late 1930’s. With an economy of texture and a sense of desperation, Poulenc (uncharacteristically so) and Thomas (inseparably so) cause us to confront those difficult places where the silent cross stands, untenanted and unflinching, waiting until we are ready to receive its strength.

To one kneeling down no word came,
Only the wind’s song, saddening the lips
Of the grave saints, rigid in glass;
Or the dry whisper of unseen wings,
Bats not angels, in the high roof.

Was he balked by silence? He kneeled long
And saw love in a dark crown
Of thorns blazing, and a winter tree
Golden with fruit of a man’s body.  – R.S. Thomas, In a Country Church

Timor et tremor by Francis Poulenc

Fear and trembling have come upon me and darkness has fallen
upon me. Have pity on me, Lord, have pity; because in thee my
soul trusts. Hear, O God, my prayer, because thou art my refuge
and my strong helper. Lord, I have called on thee, I will not
be confounded. (words from the Psalms)

The strange fruit in the poem’s final line is as unsettling as Poulenc’s music in this first of his Lenten motets. Both express passion – a word which we use so freely for our hobbies and loves, but which finds its roots in the Latin for suffering. I feel an emptiness in this music and in these words.  The kind of emptiness that is cleansing.  The kind of emptiness that invites rebirth.

Peace,
Sonya

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This blog represents my attempt to put thoughts together on various things that seem to connect – in my mind anyway. More often than not new ideas first involve reaching back to what was and I can only hope that the prehistoric San cave painting at the top of this page inspires all kinds of new connections between old and new.

Feel free to pass this message along to anyone who might be interested. You can simply subscribe (look for the “Subscribe” button at the top of the post) to get a reminder of new posts, or you can register with a user name and password in order to comment. If a community conversation comes out of this, all the better. We have so much to share and so much for which we can be grateful.

Undone by Donne

One of my favorite hymns to teach young choristers in years past has been Hymn 140 in The Hymnal 1982, and I urge you to take a few minutes to listen to this gorgeous recording. With its plaintive 17th century tune and text by John Donne it was seemingly far beyond their years, and yet somehow always seemed to reach them in that deeper place where children have vast stores of wisdom. It’s also fun to teach them about the play on words in the last line:

Wilt thou forgive that sin, where I begun,
Which is my sin, though it were done before?
Wilt thou forgive those sins through which I run,
And do run still, though still I do deplore?
When thou hast done, thou hast not done, for I have more.

Donne (1573-1631) had secretly married Ann More against her family’s wishes, causing his dismissal and years of poverty until he became employable again as an Anglican priest in 1615.  “When thou hast Donne, thou hast not Donne, for I have More”. A Hymn to God the Father by John Donne

Ann had died some years before Donne wrote this text, but despite its apparent gloom the text actually conveys a sense of assurance, most clearly in verse 3, while playing on their names once again:

that at my death thy Son shall shine as he shines now, and heretofore.
And having done that, thou hast done, I fear no more.

Donne is quoted as saying: “And, O the power of church-music! that harmony added to this Hymn has raised the affections of my heart, and quickened my graces of zeal and gratitude.”

Might we all, including our children, be so moved by music in the church.

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I’m not sure if the sign is still there, but several years ago when I made a quick visit to Milwaukee I came through airport security to see this:

Recombobulation Area

I don’t know about you, but I’m discombobulated on a regular basis, and the opportunity to pull myself back together after shedding various parts of my attire for airport security was very welcome. In fact, I bet we might all welcome the chance to recombobulate ourselves now and then. Maybe you already have such a place. A yoga class,  hiking, a cup of tea and a book. Could church be one of those places to recombobulate? It’s a place, after all, that asks you to temporarily step away from your normal life, where discombobulation is perhaps not an unusual state of being.  Church, at its best, is a place to sing together, confront difficult issues from moral and theological perspectives, and experience the beauty of God through all five senses. It is a place, ideally, where you are accepted and loved as you are, and given some tools to help you become better than you are now.

I often imagine what someone, completely new to church, might experience during a service. While singing a hymn with an archaic text such as Donne’s for Hymn 140,  I wonder what my unchurched visitor is thinking. Does it seem stuffy and off-putting?  A conversation in my head goes something like this:

“Why do you say thee and thou in church still?” she might ask?

“Because there is a power in being connected by language and thought to past generations of Anglicans/Episcopalians, and because we aren’t afraid to create an experience which takes us away from day to day life and helps us glimpse a more orderly world where ideas and emotions are beautifully and carefully expressed,” I might answer.

Wilt thou forgive that sin?  “I’m not really comfortable talking about sin. It’s such a harsh word, and makes me feel judged.”

“I get that. Words have power, but one of the things I particularly enjoy is looking under the surface for deeper meanings. There’s no basis, as far as I know, for my idea that “sin” is related to the word sine, which is Latin for “without,” but being without a moral compass is my working definition of sin.”

“But where’s the joy and exuberance that unleashes the power of the Holy Spirit in us?” she would then wonder.

And I could reply, “Well, it is Lent, and expressions of joy and exuberance become muted, so that we can then feel their full effects on Easter.  For Episcopalians, it’s almost always about balance.”

Maybe church in general, and Lent in particular, can be times to recombobulate, places to step away from “normal” and reconnect with those deep currents of thought and emotion that keep us…combobulated. I wish that was a real word.

Peace,
Sonya

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This blog represents my attempt to put thoughts together on various things that seem to connect – in my mind anyway. More often than not new ideas first involve reaching back to what was and I can only hope that the prehistoric San cave painting at the top of this page inspires all kinds of new connections between old and new.

Feel free to pass this message along to anyone who might be interested. You can simply subscribe (look for the “Subscribe” button at the top of the post) to get a reminder of new posts, or you can register with a user name and password in order to comment. If a community conversation comes out of this, all the better. We have so much to share and so much for which we can be grateful.