External Beauty

The value of external beauty?  Well, that’s a twist on the conventional wisdom which prizes inner beauty over the superficial kind. Yet, a member of the so-called “cloud of witnesses” within the Episcopal Church, Phillips Brooks, famously preached on “the sacramental value of external beauty,” and because he was commemorated on the liturgical calendar yesterday I decided to learn more.

Whether or not Phillips Brooks is a familiar name, you know his contribution to hymnody. What follows will read like a sixth grade book report, I’m afraid, but bear with me. Perhaps Brooks has something more to say to us today than an annual rendition of his O Little Town of Bethlehem would lead us to believe.

Briefly Bishop of Massachusetts until his death at 57 in 1893, Brooks is most clearly associated with Trinity Church, Boston, where he is immortalized with no less than five statues, including a particularly cophillips_brooks_by_augustus_saint-gaudens,_trinity_church,_bostonntroversial one by Augustus Saint-Gaudens (known to Washingtonians for his “Grief” statue in Rock Creek Cemetery). During his years of ministry Brooks was known for his opposition to slavery, preaching eloquently upon the death of Abraham Lincoln, and demonstrating a strong lifelong commitment to the cause of African-Americans, with anecdotal evidence of an underground ministry to Boston’s African-American population. He was credited by one biographer of Martin Luther King with having had a major impact on King’s oratory.

Brooks was clearly deeply affected by his travels to the Holy Land, his eyes and heart opened, and so many of his ideas still have resonance in these times:

  1. He inspired the architects and artists who built Trinity Church, Boston to create what one writer called “an American Hagia Sophia”, with a free-standing altar and no choir stalls to detract from the central altar (these things were changed not long after his death), and originally without a pulpit. The purity of the Early Church, real or imagined, was his ideal.
  2. His travels informed not only his architectural ideas, but also his liturgical ones.  He championed congregational singing, together with “thrilling music” and “thrilling incense”.  He believed that worship was more than prayer and praise, and also included preaching, architecture and music. His Puritanical roots were not long behind him and these were radical ideas in 19th century New England.  His first sermon at Trinity was on “the sacramental value of external beauty,” suggesting that God would rather tempt us with beauty than hold us in bondage with fear.
  3. His thinking carried a sense of ecumenism that was emerging in late 19th century America. He was open to the teachings of Catholics, Jews and Muslims, once pointing to similarities between Unitarians and Islam, and writing, “I should dishonor God if I did not believe that Islam has done good”.
  4. His was a voice of reason in the discord between science and religion, saying that “Faith would not suffer, but gain, by every discovery of truth from every science”.  He believed that the “nature of a continually active, formative force is in line with Christianity.”
  5. He was a strong proponent of congregational involvement in liturgy, not to “deny the priesthood of the clergy, but to assert the priesthood of all.”

Dozens of quotes from his writings are easily found at BrainyQuote.com and they are inspirational, words truly to live by. Some of my favorites were:

“Skepticism offers no satisfactory substitute for what it disbelieves.”

Be patient and understanding. Life is too short to be vengeful or malicious.

Christianity helps us face the music, even when we don’t like the tune.

No man or woman can be strong, gentle, pure, and good without the world being better for it, and without someone being helped and comforted by the very existence of that goodness.

More than 100 years after Brooks’ death, with nothing except written words to remind us of his thoughts, someone like me spent hours reading and thinking about a 19th century preacher, and found wisdom in his words. The external beauty he desired in his surroundings was a clear path to the inner beauty our world actually needs. For me, it’s not such a big stretch to Marie Kondo preaching in our current cultural climate about the value of decluttering, teaching the world that to tidy your space is to transform your life.

Peace,

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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.

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Communion

Today’s posting is by guest blogger Sophia Vastek.  She is a pianist, based in New York City, who just happens to be my daughter.  I think you will enjoy her insights into a composer whom you have likely not given much serious thought to before.

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“The first question I ask myself when something doesn’t seem to be beautiful is why do I think it’s not beautiful. And very shortly you discover that there is no reason.”

This quote is by American composer John Cage, from a book of his writings (linked below) that sits permanently on my nightstand.  I started learning about John Cage several years ago, but I became increasingly drawn to him soon after my father had died.  I realized I was asking, and struggling with, many of the same kinds of questions that Cage did back in the middle of the last century. Why do I make music?  What purpose does it serve ultimately?  At a time when my own musicality felt like an empty shell, John Cage was an important part of the inspiration that kept me going.  

Whether you have some knowledge of John Cage or not, you’ve most likely come across references to him.  In particular, his “silent” piece, 4’33”– in which a pianist sits silently at the piano for 4 minutes and 33 seconds – has echoes in all reaches of our popular culture.  If you didn’t notice before, you will now!  It’s a trope that gets parodied and used again and again.  It’s also a profound work of art, and profoundly misunderstood, much like the man who created it.

“Everything we do is Music.”

Imagine this scene: An audience has gathered just south of Woodstock, New York on August 29, 1954 at Maverick Concert Hall, a barn-like, open air venue.  David Tudor, a soon-to-be well-known pianist of his day, is about to perform an exciting program of music by current, leading composers.  John Cage’s 4’33” is on the program (listed incorrectly as a work of 4 movements).  When it comes time, Tudor sits down at the piano, closes the piano lid, and takes out a stopwatch. After 30 seconds he stops the stopwatch and opens the lid, then closes the lid and restarts it.  2 minutes and 23 seconds later he stops it again.  Then restarts. And after the final minute and 40 seconds, the original three movements of 4’33’’ were given their first performance. During this “silent” stretch of time, the leaves were rustling, audience members grew restless, some started whispering and talking to each other, some walked out.  

It started to rain lightly.  

This is one of those moments in cultural history… the reverberations are still being felt.  John Cage lost friends and colleagues following that concert.  In fact, more than 60 years later, one can still find conversations, and arguments, being had about what this piece means and what in the world John Cage was trying to say.

Like all brilliant pieces of art, there are infinite ways to think about and experience 4’33’’.  Truly.  But contrary to what may have initially popped into your head, it was not a publicity stunt.  The more one learns about John Cage the more impossible that idea seems.  He had come up with the idea for a silent piece years before the actual premiere, but it had taken him that time to muster the courage to present it for fear of not being taken seriously as a composer.

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John Cage and his memorable smile

On a side note, it’s important to know that John Cage didn’t pull the length of 4’33’’ from thin air.  He arrived at the 3 movements – totalling 4 minutes and 33 seconds – by piecing together a series of smaller lengths of time.  Those smaller increments were arrived at by chance operations – a method he developed through the I Ching (an ancient Chinese text, also known as the Book of Changes).

An important theme throughout John Cage’s life was that silence doesn’t exist. This idea stemmed from a profound experience he had in an anechoic chamber (a room in which all sound is completely absorbed, leaving it “silent”), in which he was initially confounded that he was hearing sounds!  – only to realize it was his heart beating and blood pumping.  That day of the concert in 1954, the outdoor scene at Maverick Concert Hall became the music.  The rustling of people’s bodies in their seats became the music.  The rain became the music.  The murmuring became the music.  

When we stop to think about it, what actually is music?  When you start defining it, you quickly realize that the parameters you’re using are, in a sense, expendable.  Of course, we could argue for days about this.  But in my mind, what truly defines music, and indeed all art, is communion – a shared moment. A moment that sheds light on some small piece of humanity, which, ultimately, is people gathering in shared beauty.  And before you argue that 4’33’’ isn’t beautiful, or that a piano with a bunch of screws stuck in between its strings isn’t beautiful (Cage was a pioneer of the prepared piano), consider the first quote at the top of this post.  When you believe in beauty, you see it, even in unexpected places.

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The radiant love of Merce Cunningham and John Cage

As a shared singular moment, the beauty of music isn’t found just in those fleeting sounds, but in each and every experience that leads up to the performance of those sounds, in both the creator and the listener.  As a young man, John Cage had deeply questioned his art, sexuality, and whole being.  He was married to a woman for ten years, and by all accounts it was a fairly happy and friendly relationship.  But ultimately it wasn’t who he was, and when he met dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham, that became abundantly clear.  After divorcing his wife, Cage and Cunningham spent the rest of their lives together in a wonderfully happy, romantic and creative partnership. 4’33’’ is a shared moment of inward realizations, of our need to express the inexpressible.  And it is the culmination of Cage’s entire life until that moment. Each and every performance of 4’33’’ is an invitation to quiet our minds and truly listen, both inwardly to ourselves and outwardly to the world.  And what could be more beautiful than that?

In my mind, John Cage essentially gave us the truest definition of art through a piece that’s a blank canvas.  Isn’t that remarkable?

Through Cage’s deeply-felt spirituality and exploration of zen Buddhism he realized that when we truly listen, we arrive at something profound.  I urge you to take a moment today and listen quietly – maybe even for 4 minutes and 33 seconds – and see what you discover.  There is an infinite amount of beauty around you, as well as within you, yet to be discovered.

“Our business in living is to become fluent with the life we are living, and art can help this.”

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I just finished an incredible 3 days recording my first solo album with Grammy-winning engineer and producer Adam Abeshouse.  On the album are 3 gorgeous John Cage pieces, along with raga-based works by Michael Harrison with tabla and tambura, and a fabulous work by Donnacha Dennehy!  If you’d like to stay in touch and find out when it’s being released, fill out the form on my contact page. I send out email updates very infrequently, so it will certainly not be a strain on your inbox!  

http://www.sophiavastek.com/contact/   

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One of the pieces that will be included on my recording:

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I can’t recommend this book enough.  It’s a slow journey, but there is so much wisdom and heart within its pages.  This is the one I keep on my nightstand and which I find myself returning to again and again.

http://www.amazon.com/Silence-Lectures-Writings-Anniversary-Edition/dp/0819571768

This book is also an amazing and beautiful read, and a perspective on John Cage that hadn’t been fully explored in book form prior.  Highly recommended! http://www.amazon.com/Where-Heart-Beats-Buddhism-Artists/dp/0143123475/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1460754312&sr=1-1&keywords=where+the+heart+beats