Passionate Moderation

My husband and I met the Queen of England in 2008. That alone is a wonderful thing, but the story of how it happened is actually my favorite part of the whole experience. We were at the Lambeth Conference on a summer day, one that was quite hot, even for Americans.  We had been invited to afternoon tea at Buckingham Palace, along with a few thousand other people.  The Queen has a lovely back yard, really more of a park, but the sultry weather had caused everyone to gather on the sidelines under the shade of trees and tea tents, lined up on the right and left of an enormous, sunny expanse of lawn. We decided to take a stroll, and went straight up the middle of this open area, far from any others.  A man in a morning suit appeared, really it seemed out of nowhere, and asked if we wanted to meet the Queen. That was an easy question to answer, and we had our brief brush with royalty.

The point of my story is that we were walking in the middle, alone in that expanse of lawn, with the thousands of other guests far away on either side. I think that made us an easy target for the man in the morning suit on his mission of rounding up a few commoners for the Queen’s reception line. In this case, the middle ground served us well!

I really value the via media, that middle way that builds consensus and sees both sides, even if it can seem like a namby-pamby approach to life. We’re often told to follow our passions – to feel strongly about those things we believe to be true – or false. Yet, in this world of winners and losers, black and white, right and wrong, good and bad…all that clear division of thought cries out for a via media else we forget how to talk to each other at all.

And so, I am choosing to cultivate a passion for moderation. Now, if everyone did that things would get boring pretty fast, but there’s probably no danger of a huge growth in passionate moderation anytime soon. I do believe that we really need people who bring their zeal to both conservative and liberal thinking, though that doesn’t include extremists who distort the truth and abandon motivations of love. Unfortunately, the extremes on either side are sort of like those people standing on either side of the Queen’s lawn – they just might be missing something to be found in the middle.

With all of the attention lately paid to the Episcopal Church’s Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, I found it particularly interesting that a May 26th Washington Post article ended an article about Bishop Curry with this line:  I think the story these days is not the rise of the religious left, but the religious middle. If Bishop Curry is any guide, it’s possible for that middle ground to be full of passion’s energy.

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.

 

More Resilience

As for most of you, it’s been a remarkably busy time for me too, so I updated a post from last summer in part as a time-saving measure, but also because the word “resilience” keeps coming up for me in various ways.  As a reminder? An aspiration? What’s clear is that resiliency is a place where failure means something.

Did you know that the word “resilience” has the same roots as “sally,” as in “sally forth?”  To leap forward, to burst out, or to simply set forth, one foot at a time.

These are stormy days and the quality of resilience is one that I find more desirable than ever. And I do mean literally stormy – hard rains and harsh winds that cause trees to bend and plants to bow down under the weight of the rain. But, of course, I also speak metaphorically.

Carya

I am again collaborating with friends to put together a Carya Ensemble event – this time a tour in France for 8 voices and harp –  and I think resiliency is an idea that will always be attached, for me anyway, to my Carya projects. To remind some of you, or illuminate for others: Carya is a botanical genus which includes hickory and pecan trees, and resiliency is a particular characteristic of this grouping of plant life. To be resilient implies, as it does for trees, a flexibility to adapt to our environment and the ability of our wounds to heal in ways that build on the strength of scar tissue.

Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” provided a vehicle for me to think about the many personal qualities, including resilience, which contribute to building a happy life.  

Goldberg Variations, 28 (Resilience)

The trills in this variation are relentless, providing an inner energy that fuels sparks of detached eighth notes. Pianist and blogger Jeremy Denk, in his NPR musings on The Goldberg Variations, uses words like “zany” and “manic” to describe this music, and conjures up the image of Mickey Mouse’s endless supply of brooms in Fantasia’s “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” section. Chaos ensues, but Mickey survives, resilient as always.

I don’t recommend manic behavior as a survival technique, but there’s something to the idea that, as with those trills, we should just keep moving – physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Getting unstuck from unhealthy behaviors, shutting down conversations, grudges, toxic “friends,” or dulling places in our lives all seem like good first steps on the path towards resilience.

Throughout your life there were times when you knew you couldn’t go on. And yet you did, one step at a time.

Peace,
Sonya


I’ve lived with Bach’s Goldberg Variations for a long time now. More than half my lifetime in fact. I would pull them out periodically, feeling that I was revisiting an old friend, but a friend who always has something new to share. I began thinking about Bach and mindfulness last year in a way that meant something to me. Each variation became linked in my mind with a word and that word became something like the “intention” that yoga students are sometimes asked to set for their practice. A word to mediate on and to help draw more from within. For 32 weeks in 2017 I posted one of the variations and wrote about the word I associated with the music. Sometimes a connection was obvious, but more often was unexplainable. It became apparent as I worked on this project that I thought about things which I wanted to cultivate in myself, ways of being in the world that were positive. All of the recordings were made in my living room, playing the 9 foot Steinway that was given to me on January 5, 2016.

 

 

Follow Me

“Just follow me,” I said to a choir who would be singing for Evensong at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Minneapolis this past winter.  We were visitors, and I had asked how the choir should process in, so I confidently set off into the nave and up the side aisle as instructed. Halfway back I noted that it was strangely silent behind me.  I glanced quickly over my shoulder and worst fears were realized. The choir had shot straight into the crossing and were already up in the choir stalls. I made an abrupt – yet dignified – turn and joined them, testily whispering as I passed the sopranos that I hoped the choir would follow me better in singing than in processing. The Cathedral’s Dean made his lonely way up the center aisle to begin the service and the choir sang beautifully, so my story has a happy ending, but I would have preferred not to so ably demonstrate the idea that you cannot lead if no one is following.

Errant choirs notwithstanding, within the church we are supposed to think of ourselves as followers.  A noble goal, of course, when we’re talking about following the teachings of Jesus.  In various parts of our lives we’re sometimes called to be a leader though.  Certainly as a parent, in our work places, as part of a community organization, or in a crisis, there are times, no matter how introverted, humble, or inept we think we are, when we will be called to lead.

The mechanics, psychology and effects of leadership are very interesting to me, and considering that part of my work is leading various groups to do something – it isn’t surprising that an article titled “What Do Conductors Do?” would catch my eye. If you’ve never sung or played an instrument under a conductor it would be easy to wonder what’s actually going on up there. All that arm waving, sometimes to the point of histrionics – what does it all mean? What effect does that gesturing really have on the music itself? The article’s author studied the work of esteemed conductor Bernard Haitink in a master class setting, and saw up close just how much effect a great conductor does have on the music.

What Do Conductors Do?

The observation made in the article which was closest to my heart was not about the intellect that a conductor brings to the work – though there’s no denying that a thorough understanding of the music and its history are very important when guiding tens or hundreds of people towards an understanding of what you’re trying to do with a piece of music. For me, it was the role of “dance”, for lack of a better word, involved in conducting. How much can you show with your body language?  Too much talk gets in the way of the “deeply primitive and instinctual” way that a great conductor – or leader of any kind – has in herding a group of people to “breathe, move and feel as one.  It’s a gift:  you’ve either got it or you haven’t,” so states the article’s author.

I’m finally getting to a book that a friend gave me for Christmas, Maestros and Their Music: The Art and Alchemy of Conducting by John Mauceri. Lots of great anecdotes and insights into the personalities and styles of famous conductors. I highly recommend it if you’re at all interested in understanding more about what might be going on up there on stage. In the opening chapter, a brief history of the role of conductors reminds us that it was only as music became more complicated in the mid-19th century, with larger ensembles and more freedom of phrasing and tempo, that orchestral and choral conductors became obligatory. (There’s a big difference between orchestral and choral conductors, by the way, but that’s a subject for another day.)  Before then, simple cues came from someone within the performing ensemble.

Just for fun, in this centenary year celebrating Leonard Bernstein, here is a clip demonstrating a rather unusual conducting technique – something you could only get away with if you are Leonard Bernstein conducting the Vienna Philharmonic: L.B. “conducting”

Words matter, and I should probably have used a few more in explaining to a choir how to walk into a Cathedral for Evensong… but moving people into new and meaningful directions requires something more than words. Courage of conviction perhaps? Clarity of vision? Walking the walk? I don’t know, but I find the questions and search for answers continually fascinating.

Peace,
Sonya

More?  Here is one of my favorite TED talks: Lead like the great conductors

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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.

Wakener of the Songbirds

A group of singers I’m working with is preparing a program to sing on tour in France this summer, and one of the presenters of a concert series at a cathedral in southern France saw our program and expressed some concern about it not being entirely “religious.”  We hadn’t intended to put together a program of sacred music, but in fact we had done exactly that…just not music that drew exclusively from Christian texts.

The music in question is Gustav Holst’s Choral Hymns from the Rig-Veda. My group is learning the four movements of Part III of this early 20th century work: Hymn to the Dawn, Hymn to the Waters, Hymn to Vena, and Hymn of the Travellers. It’s not surprising that Holst was so deeply interested in Indian culture.  He was composing, after all, during the central years of the British Raj, and not so many years after Swami Vivekananda had been warmly received in the West with his teachings on Hinduism and interfaith connections, as well introducing Westerners to the practice of yoga.

The name Rig Veda  comes from the Sanskrit words for “praise” and “knowledge.”  I like that.  It seems to me that the goal for any religious tradition should include those two aspects of human needs – the need to acknowledge something larger than ourselves and our desire to try to understand those things which can’t always be explained by science.

Rig Veda, Part III – Gustav Holst

Based on sacred Hindu texts and translated from the original Sanskrit by the British composer himself, Holst drew inspiration from Indian classical music for much of the music he wrote in the first years of the 20th century.  An interest in astrology continued throughout his life and played some role in his most famous work, The Planets. Hinduism’s sacred texts in the Rig Veda  include more than 1,000 poems, composed between 1500 and 1000 B.C. and Holst sets 14 of these for mixed chorus, men’s chorus, orchestra, and in Part III, for women’s voices with harp.

Universal themes abound. In Hymn to the Waters the words speak of the cleansing waters flowing from the firmament, healing all in earth.  In Hymn to Vena we sing of a newborn infant who appears on the summit of creation, proclaiming the glory of our common Father, a healing light rejoicing in radiant splendor. Much like the “O Antiphons” of the medieval Christian church, various names are used here for God: Ensign of the Eternal, Mighty One, Wonder-worker, and my favorite, Wakener of the Songbirds. 

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.

 

Redefinitions

How many of you have said with some certainty, when you’ve heard rap music, “that’s not music!”? The Pulitzer Prize committee recently thought otherwise when it awarded rapper Kendrick Lamar its award for music. Maybe you had the same thought when you first learned about John Cage’s 4’33. Or maybe you’ve been to an exhibit at, say, London’s Tate Modern, and wondered “how can that be art?”Tate Modern, rocks Who heard about Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize for Literature last year and said, “HUH?”?

We’re all entitled to our opinions, of course, but don’t these examples give you at least a moment’s pause in weighing the actual worth of your opinions? Doesn’t the idea that your mind might be just a few sizes too small ricochet around your brain when you see that something you don’t value has been honored or appreciated in ways you don’t understand? You don’t wonder if maybe you just might be wrong?  That maybe you need to stay open to new definitions of art and music?

I’ve been thinking a lot about what a new definition for church might be, and some of my ideas would cause a lot of you to say “HUH?” As I think about redefining church for myself, I’m really only clear so far about what it shouldn’t be. It shouldn’t be boring, nor a place where drama and intellectual curiosity are feared as too showy or esoteric. For me, it can’t be a place of complacency, where people lie about others or to themselves, or a place where good enough and lackluster are equivalent. There is more than enough mediocrity and hypocrisy in our lives already.  There are plenty of forms of entertainment in our lives too, without needing our spirituality to also be entertaining.

I’m starting to see some of the ways that we might redefine church, including those things that people have long described as their experiences of what is sacred outside of church – nature, service to those in need, neighborliness, artistic expression. I don’t think I’m saying anything revelatory when I suggest that traditional church often fails and needs to be reimagined, even as it attempts to honor the very human needs for community and ritual.

No answers, just questions right now. I recently experienced church in a way that colored outside the lines. It was a concert of music and spoken word that illuminated some of those who have, historically, been side-lined in the creation of art – women and African-Americans. I know people on that Friday night were hearing and thinking about things that they hadn’t before, and I suspect their hearts were opened to a more loving way of seeing the world. That feels like church to me.

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.

 

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.

image25-2

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.