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.

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Curiosity

We’re born curious, as every newborn demonstrates with obvious joy at each new discovery. We seem to be hard-wired for curiosity, an indication of those instinctual needs that also include such things as the fight or flight response, protecting our young, and even the instinct to feel sympathy.

Yet curiosity is also defined as an emotion, and emotions react to so many outside influences in conjunction with our temperament.  There are lots of ways to be curious, and as an emotion, curiosity can be further developed or held in check. Engineers wonder how things work, psychologists wonder how people think and interact, scholars wonder how ideas can be best expressed… The word’s Latin roots, rather than emerging from words expressing a burning need to know something, are connected to curiosus, “careful, diligent” and akin to cura, “to care.” And those are certainly ways of being that can be cultivated and encouraged in ourselves and our children.

Scottish composer James MacMillan talks in this brief YouTube video about the human impetus to be curious and the urgency we feel to encounter something new. As a composer, he wonders how he can express his creative instinct in music, and hopes that we will have an experience of new music that feeds our emotional curiosity.

The Psalms again and again urge us to seek out a new song.  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.  And a new song is offered to God in Psalm 144:9.  MacMillan’s A New Song takes the listener into a place that is at once  as ancient as the psalms and as new as the sun’s first morning rays.

As an aside, 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.  Seeking out new songs in other people seems like a sure way to discover the gifts, joys, and sorrows of the community around us.

Goldberg Variations, 11 (Curiosity)

I can’t quite explain why a spirit of curiosity surfaced for me in this variation. My hands are once again entwined in ways better suited to a two manual harpsichord than a modern piano, so a spirit of cooperation is actually what is required!  When I feel the emotions of curiosity most fully, my mind is tumbling with a jumble of ideas that approach from several directions at once, and that probably comes fairly close to describing this music.

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 the next 32 weeks I will post one of the variations and write about the word I associated with the music. Sometimes a connection will seem obvious, but more often it will be 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 are to be made in my living room, playing the 9 foot Steinway that was gifted to me on January 5, 2016.