Enthusiasm

Addressing the French Academy of Sciences in 1882, Louis Pasteur quoted an unnamed philosopher who had written: “I have thought for a long time that the person who has only clear and precise ideas must assuredly be a fool. For the most precious notions harbored by human intelligence are deeply behind-the-scene and in semi-daylight, and it is around these confused ideas, whose interrelations escape us, that the clear ideas gravitate, extending, developing, and germinating themselves.”

Pasteur then continued: “If we were cut off from this background, the exact sciences would lose the greatness which they draw from the secret rapport they hold with those infinite truths whose existence we can only suspect.”

A secret rapport between infinite truth and exact science…that sounds like the perfect religion to me. Writing in 2002 about his process for composing hymns, Richard Wayne Dirksen further quoted Pasteur:

The Greeks understood the hidden power of things infinite.  They bequeathed to us one of the most beautiful words in our language – the word “enthusiasm” – en theos – a God within.  The grandeur of human actions is measured by the inspiration from which they spring.  Happy is [the one] who bears a god within and who obeys it.  The ideals of art, of science, are lighted by reflections from the infinite.

Knowing that the word enthusiasm has its roots in the Greek for God, theos, completely changes the meaning for me. It was a word which had vaguely reminded me of Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland determined to put on a show against all odds. Enthusiasm seemed to require multiple exclamation points!! My obvious joy in music-making for the church has often been described as enthusiastic, and I will now wear the mantle of enthusiasm with some pride. I see that it is a word which describes a divinely inspired joy. Exclamation points optional.

Dirksen continued: “My succinct perspective is this: when people sing together, that enthusiasm within each engenders a community-wide awareness of those reflections from the infinite. The sharing of a God within through making music puts us in unison touch with the infinite God, and intensifies our knowledge of and enthusiasm for [God]. Collectively, do we therefore embody and live our theology.”

Accessing the hidden power of things infinite by singing hymns…I believe in that. Great hymn writers, like Dirksen, know that a great hymn begins with the text. The words guide the tune’s creation and give the hymn its character. Writing online for National Public Radio, critic Juan Vidal examined his own surprising encounter with traditional hymnody as a young man:

It would do us good to revisit some of the poetry of a time so different than our own. These old texts merit our attention; for me they carry the same resonance as Shakespeare. Not only are they rich in history, they also draw us to appreciate the wonder of words. Instead of viewing the vocabulary as archaic, I’ve come to see hymns as the language of prayer, and as a way of connecting with those that have come before me.

Could anything be more important right now than connecting with others? Connecting with people next to us and those who came before? When we sing a great hymn – one with evocative imagery and bold ideas, one with a tune that moves us and perhaps surprises us too – we probably aren’t aware that we may be surrounded in that moment by people who look different from us, or belong to a different political party, or believe in things which we find uncomfortable. During a time of shared singing we are given an opportunity to simply expose our enthusiasm as a place where our best selves can germinate.  Happy new year.(!)

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.

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Wonder and Song

Expectations – that is the first audible word on this bit from a video made at the World Science Festival in 2009, which I’ve shared with readers several times in the past.  It’s a video which continues to amaze me. As you’ll see,  the brain manages our expectations in all kinds of surprising ways:

Bobby McFerrin-World Science Festival

Clearly Bobby McFerrin is a gifted teacher, a supremely talented musician, and a creative thinker on all fronts.  The pentatonic scale that he is teaching to this audience (of scientists presumably, rather than musicians) is a universal building block for folk music around the world.  The music we would likely consider most comfortable to sing is often based on a pentatonic scale – that is, a series of intervals equivalent to the five black notes on the piano.  For instance, you could play Amazing grace, how sweet the sound or Sometimes I feel like a motherless child almost entirely on only the piano’s black keys.

I would never have guessed that McFerrin could so easily manage expectations and lead the audience members to unknowingly sing a pentatonic melody.  To see the brain process a musical concept like this right in front of my eyes was fascinating and I am awed by the continuing revelations through scientific study of how wonderfully we are made.  So wonderfully, in fact, that our brains seem to be hard-wired for music, thanks be to God!

This all came to mind this past Sunday when someone commented on an anthem setting sung that morning of the hymn What wondrous love is this, out of that marvelous early American resource of religious song, The Sacred Harp. We talked about the strength of that tune, and the rootedness of music which emerges from any folk tradition, and I was reminded of McFerrin’s dance through the pentatonic scale.

If you play the piano even a little, you can begin the tune on A-flat and play the whole of What wondrous love on the black notes (with one exception…your ear will tell you what to do). The sound is not exactly minor, but it’s certainly not a major key either. The tune expresses the expansive, open quality we often associate with American music, with its plain rhythms and its call to be harmonized with open fifths which refuse to anchor the listener in either sadness or happiness, but simply in strength. The text incorporates three simple expressions of faith – wonder, song and the timelessness of God’s love.

What wondrous love is this, O my soul!
What wondrous love is this that caused the Lord of bliss
to lay aside his crown for my soul.
 
To God and to the Lamb, I will sing.
To God and to the Lamb who is the great I AM,
while millions join the theme I will sing.
 
And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing on.
And when from death I’m free I’ll sing and joyful be,
and through eternity I’ll sing on.

Expectations, at heart, are simply strong beliefs, and in that spirit my expectations include a willingness to live into the belief that God has lovingly designed us for wonder and song.

Peace,
Sonya

Playfulness

Goldberg Variations, 27 (Playfulness)

Buoyancy is the word that first came to mind for this variation, but that’s not a word I could easily use in the context of these posts. Though the music itself made me feel buoyant as I played it, that’s hardly a personal quality to develop. “Buoyant” is a term usually associated with science and Archimedes, as swimming, jumping on a trampoline, or seeing astronauts in space reminds us.

Even scientifically then, buoyancy implies a lightness of being and a sense of playfulness. The word’s second meaning now comes into better focus – that quality of buoyancy which describes someone as cheerful and optimistic.

Musically, Variation 27 is a game of Follow the Leader.  Bach composed it as a canon at the ninth, one note more than an octave, which almost has one part saying, “follow me,” and the other responding, “I can go even higher than you!” It’s all in good fun, having temporarily escaped from the serious bass line’s weight.

When we are playful, we are lighter.  We’ve let go of routine and effort and a need to win.  If we have to win, we aren’t really being playful, are we? Moments of playfulness keep us from taking ourselves, or anything else, too seriously. We are briefly unmoored from responsibility, importance, from a need to control. We risk making a fool of ourselves, of course, but in taking a risk like that we might just find ourselves floating away from those people and problems that threaten to drown us.

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 given to me on January 5, 2016.