“Be known to us in the music we make”

Ted Mercer leads a song at the California Sacred Harp Convention.

I am the chaplain this weekend for the 30th Annual All-California Sacred Harp Convention, where over a hundred singers have gathered from a dozen states (along with a few enthusiasts from Europe) to sing about 190 shape note songs over the course of two days. It’s an intense immersion in a uniquely American repertoire––loud, raw, and deeply expressive. You can read about it in my post, A Musical Tsunami.

While the song texts mostly reflect images and themes from 18th and 19th century Christianity, a shape note gathering is not a community of religious consensus. Non-Christian people of faith and no faith are in the mix, and there is no discussion of verbal meanings. It’s all about the singing. And yet, there is a sense of “church” about these gatherings. We tap into a power beyond the self, form bonds of communion with one another, and are transported by a shared experience that can verge on the ecstatic.

By long tradition, each day of a singing convention opens and closes with prayer, composed or selected at the discretion of the chaplain. The following prayers are mostly my own. While seeking to honor and express the sacred dimension of a shape note singing, I tried to be inclusive, avoiding explicit sectarian language. But you may notice some Anglican phrasing––and theology––seeping through.

Saturday (Jan. 20)

Opening prayer

O divine Beloved, Maker of all things and Lover of souls, we are gathered here by your grace to sing the life that conquers death, the joy that dries all tears, the peace that passes understanding, the love that resists every evil.

Be known to us in the music we make and the songs we share.
To spend one day with Thee on earth exceeds a thousand days of mirth.

We are truly thankful for the generations of composers and singers who have entrusted us with the Sacred Harp, and we pray that our singing in this place will gladden the whole company of heaven with an awesome and holy sound.

Draw us together with the cords of friendship.
Let no one be a stranger here.
Lift up our hearts and make us one.

Now sanctify this hollow and hallowed square, that it may be for us not just a refuge from the storms of the world, but a tangible experience of our truest humanity, reflecting your glory in the harmonious beauty of our shared communion.

We ask this in your holy Name. Amen.

 

Grace for the mid-day meal

Blessed are you, O God, giver of breath and bread,
from whom all blessings flow.
We give you thanks for the abundance of this hour,
for the food and drink prepared from your bounty by human labor
and spread before us by generous hands.
Give us such an awareness of the sacredness of every feast,
that the sharing of this meal may manifest the connections between us,
and deepen our gratitude for life.
Blessed be your Name forever. Amen.

 

Closing prayer (by Brian Wren*)

May the Sending One sing in us,
may the Seeking One walk with us,
may the Greeting One stand by us,
in our gladness and in our grieving.

May the Gifted One relieve us,
may the Given One retrieve us,
may the Giving One receive us,
in our falling and our restoring.

May the Binding One unite us,
may the One Beloved invite us,
may the Loving One delight us,
in bliss both human and divine.

Now let us go forth in peace,
rejoicing in the power of the Spirit. Amen.

* Brian Wren is an Anglican hymn writer in the UK.
The “in bliss” line is my own, while the final lines are
a eucharistic dismissal from the Book of Common Prayer.

 

Sunday (Jan. 21)

Opening prayer

Grace of melody be upon us
Grace of harmony be upon us
Grace of shapes be upon us
This day and evermore.

Grace of lyric be upon us
Grace of meter be upon us
Grace of fugues be upon us
This day and evermore.

Grace of praise be upon us
Grace of union be upon us
Grace of joy be upon us
This day and evermore. Amen.

 

Grace at the mid-day meal*

Holy God, giver of breath and bread,
it is with gratitude and joy that we receive the gift of this meal.
Into ourselves we take these changing forms of matter and light
through which we shall be changed:
other bodies becoming our bodies,
other lives becoming our life.

That there is but one body,
one life shared by all,
we vow to remember.

Now bless this food to our use, and us to your service,
and make us ever mindful of the needs and rights of others.
Let all the people say: Amen.

* Adapted from various sources. The first line is from Gerard Manley Hopkins, the last lines are at traditional grace, and the middle part I learned from a priest at a campfire on a kayaking retreat for clergy. I don’t know the source.

 

Closing prayer

Holy and gracious God, you are a mystery beyond all telling,
yet have we not heard your voice sounding in our midst this day?
You are beyond all seeing,
yet did we not glimpse your glory in the faces of one another?
You are beyond all knowing,
yet has not each of us heard a word spoken today––
a word of love or consolation,
a word of encouragement or mercy?

It has been such a blessing to join our voices with one another,
in union with the countless singers who have gone before us.
Our hearts are full, and we are deeply grateful.
Now send us forth in peace, guide us safely home,
and help us to carry the grace of these precious hours
into the rest of our lives,
that the world may resound
with the melody of compassion
and the harmony of justice,
and your blessing be known
through every land by every tongue.

Glory to you for ever and ever. Amen.

Related post: A Musical Tsunami

It Ain’t Me, Babe: Dylan Wins the Nobel Prize

One of my prized 45s is this obscure single, released Dec. 21, 1965.

One of my prized 45s is this obscure single, released Dec. 21, 1965.

Well, I try my best
To be just like I am
But everybody wants you
To be just like them
They say sing while you slave and I just get bored
I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more.[i]

All these people that you mention, yes, I know them, they’re quite lame
I had to rearrange their faces and give them all another name
Right now, I can’t read too good, don’t send me no more letters no
Not unless you mail them from Desolation Row [ii]

Little red wagon, little red bike
I ain’t no monkey but I know what I like [iii]

Whenever the Nobel Prize for literature is announced, the American response is often “Who?” In our cultural insularity, few of us know their work or even their names. Not this year. Everybody’s heard of Dylan, and many can recite his lyrics.

The surprise in 2016 stems from the bursting of old academic wineskins. What constitutes literature, anyway? Some of the literary establishment are unhappy that a songwriter tainted with lower-brow genres of popular culture (and currently performing in Las Vegas!) should steal the laurels from more “serious” candidates such as Syrian poet Adonis or Kenyan novelist Ngugi Wa Thiong’o. It’s “a joke,” fumed one French writer. A Scottish novelist dismissed the Nobel committee as “gibbering hippies.” [iv]

But if the linguistic arts trace their origins to the sung poetry of shared rituals, and Homer, the father of western literature, was a blind singer-songwriter who never put pen to paper, then Dylan can justly claim an ancient lineage, and stretching the definition of literature to include his work seems more restoration than innovation.

While Dylan’s jumping the queue ahead of American writers like Philip Roth, Joyce Carol Oates, and Don DeLillo might seem inappropriate to some, it is at least defensible. Oates herself calls the award “an inspired and original choice. His haunting music and lyrics have always seemed, in the best sense, ‘literary.’” [v]

Dylan has certainly had his down periods of uneven albums and terrible concerts. I myself have endured one too many evenings of mumbled words, mangled melodies, and an almost contemptuous stage presence. But to sustain such an influential and ever-evolving body of work over half a century, bridging the cultural divide between high and low, making the play of language a lever to move the world, is an astonishing achievement. His poetic and musical gifts have so often given voice to the collective longing of our “subterranean homesick blues.” They have also taken us inward, to the places of the heart where “we sit here stranded, though we’re all doing our best to deny it.” [vi]

As Bruce Springsteen has written, “Bob pointed true north and served as a beacon to assist you in making your way through the new wilderness America had become. He planted a flag, wrote the songs, sang the words that were essential to the times, to the emotional and spiritual survival of so many young Americans . . .” [vii]

Dylan was the soundtrack for my own coming of age. During my first year of college in 1963, a classmate thrust Dylan’s first album into my hands. “You’ve got to hear this,” he said. As soon as that growling, barbaric yawp started blasting out of the speakers, I was spellbound. Like so many others, I took up the guitar just so I could play his songs. “Blowin’ in the Wind” (from his second album), was my first attempt (key of D with its easy chords). By my senior year, dozens of Dylan songs were in my repertoire. I even learned the ten-minute “Desolation Row” by heart, once performing it on Rome’s Spanish Steps, by the house where Keats died, during a post-graduate summer of hitchhiking Europe with my guitar.

In Berkeley on March 28, 1965, I caught one of Dylan’s final all-acoustic concerts, just before the release of Bringing It All Back Home, the first album in his unmatched trilogy (Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde would follow). Ken Kesey and Allen Ginsberg were sitting up front. Hippies and Hell’s Angels mixed with students and professors. The hall was charged with anticipation. From “Gates of Eden” to “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” it was an amazing night.

It was the first time I ever heard “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Top 40 radio, or even Dylan’s previous work, had not really prepared me for the trippy ride “upon that magic swirling ship.” Behind its dazzling succession of vivid images, I recognized something primal and urgent, the call to leave everything and to follow, to look everywhere for the “windy beach, far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow.”

As a poetic equivalent of the kingdom of God, the windy beach where the Spirit blows, the space of supreme aliveness, is too little found, and never possessed. And yet, now and then, I have danced beneath its diamond sky with one hand waving free, and hope to do so again as grace permits.

I was also in the crowd on September 3 of that same year, when Dylan played the Hollywood Bowl, backed by The Hawks (later The Band) along with Al Kooper on organ. There all the songs from Highway 61 Revisited were performed in public for only the second time (after a New York concert the previous week). Since the album had yet to hit the stores, it was my indelible first communion with the image world of Dylan’s surrealism. “There’s something happening here, but you don’t know what it is.”[viii]  Indeed.

The encore was “Like a Rolling Stone,” the one song we already knew from the radio. Before beginning, Dylan searched among his harmonicas in vain, then spoke into the microphone, “Anyone got a C harmonica?” As I remember it, 17,000 harmonicas came flying onto the stage, and soon we were all shouting with one voice, “HOW DOES IT FEEEEEEEL?”

When, in 1966, I crossed the country to study at the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, my guitar and my Dylan records came with me. In a school play, I sang an adapted version of “With God On Our Side” to parody the horrific biblical conquest narratives. I wrote an article on the prophetic theology of Dylan’s lyrics in the seminary journal. And I incorporated fragments of his haunting religious poetry from John Wesley Harding into a multimedia senior sermon (you can hear the audio collage here).

In later years, Dylan’s preeminence in my life’s soundtrack receded, although his masterpiece of anguish and longing, Time Out of Mind, managed perfectly to coincide with my own midlife dark night of the soul. Lines like “It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there” may not have been balm in Gilead, but they kept me company until the dawn.

These days I occasionally sing old favorites like “Ramona,” “She Belongs To Me,” “Chimes of Freedom” and “Buckets of Rain.” And I never tire of leading friends and retreat groups in heartfelt renderings of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” and “I Shall Be Released.”

Everyone’s got their Dylan stories, but at their core is a mysterious absence. Dylan’s identity has always been veiled by a succession of fictions, evasions, conversions and withdrawals. He has given interviews full of absurd biographical narratives.[ix] Even before he was famous, he invented personae to protect himself from the prying projections of others. From fixtures and forces and friends your sorrow does stem, that hype you and type you, making you feel you gotta be just like them. [x]

Does it matter whether we ever know the real Dylan, or find him a relatable personality? Or are the songs enough? Is their mysterious power to speak to us and for us enough?

“It’s like a ghost writing a song like that,” Dylan said about “Like a Rolling Stone” 40 years after recording his greatest hit. “It gives you the song and then it goes away. It goes away.”[xi] The ghost, the geist, the spirit blows where it will. The artist prepares to receive it, and learns how to give it away.

Another Nobel Laureate, poet Czeslaw Milosz, concurs, insisting that the artist’s vocation is to be “a secretary of the invisible.” Deliver the message entrusted to your keeping, then get the hell out of the way. It ain’t me, babe. This has been the essential kenosis of both art and spirit since the beginning.

Take Caedmon, for example. An illiterate herdsman in seventh-century Britain, he was suddenly commanded in a dream to sing the story of creation. Without learning or training, he began to sing words unknown to him, gifts from the same ghost who visited Dylan. Thus was English poetry born.

Denise Levertov imagines Caedmon’s in-spiriting in a poem of her own. He is huddling for warmth at night with the beasts of the barn, when suddenly the air is filled with “feathers of flame, sparks upflying.” The cows remain oblivious and calm, not seeing what the poet sees as “that hand of fire / touched my lips and scorched my tongue / and pulled my voice / into the ring of the dance.” [xii]

 

[i] Bob Dylan, “Maggie’s Farm” (Bringing It All Back Home)

[ii] Bob Dylan, “Desolation Row” (Highway 61 Revisited)

[iii] Bob Dylan, “Buckets of Rain” (Blood on the Tracks)

[iv] “Writers divided on whether Dylan deserves Nobel prize”: https://www.yahoo.com/news/writers-divided-whether-dylan-deserves-nobel-prize-180943929.html

[v] ibid.

[vi] Bob Dylan, “Visions of Johanna” (Blonde on Blonde)

[vii] Bruce Springsteen autobiography, Born To Run, q. on Springsteen’s website: http://brucespringsteen.net/news/2016/bruce-springsteen-on-bob-dylan

[viii] Bob Dylan, “Ballad of a Thin Man” (Highway 61 Revisited)

[ix] To delve into the strange world of Dylan interviews: http://www.vulture.com/2007/10/the_ten_most_incomprehensible.html

[x] Bob Dylan, “Ramona” (Another Side of Bob Dylan)

[xi] Robert Hilburn, “Rock’s Enigmatic Poet Opens a Long-Private Door,” Los Angeles Times, April 4, 2004

[xii] Denise Levertov, “Caedmon”, q. in Edward Hirsch, Poet’s Choice (New York: Harcourt, Inc., 2006), 15

A Night at the Troubadour: Discovering David Ackles (and Elton John)

David Ackles singing at the author's ordination, Sept. 17, 1970 (Photo by Marilyn Robertson)

David Ackles singing at the author’s ordination, Sept. 17, 1970 (Photo by Marilyn Robertson)

I have no explanation as to why the David Ackles albums spoke to me so intensely, but it was with those records that I probably spent the most time when I was about sixteen, listening in a darkened room, trying to imagine how everything had come to exist.” (Elvis Costello, Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink)

 They suffer least who suffer what they choose. (David Ackles, “American Gothic”)

The Troubadour, an intimate club in West Hollywood, has seen some pretty special nights over the years. Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Randy Newman, Prince, Tom Petty, Pearl Jam and so many others have performed on its stage. Neil Young and James Taylor each made their solo debut there. The Byrds sang “Mr. Tambourine Man” for the first time in public. Tom Waits was discovered during amateur night. Springsteen, Dylan and Led Zeppelin dropped by after hours for legendary jams. Miles Davis and Van Morrison recorded there.[i]

When Elton John made his smashing American debut at the Troubadour on August 25, 1970, he was not yet widely known. He was originally booked as the opening act for David Ackles, a Los Angeles musical artist greatly admired by Elton John and his lyricist Bernie Taupin. But John’s record company pulled some strings to get the bill reversed. In conjunction with the release of his first album, John would become the headline act.

He would admit later to some embarrassment at being promoted above Ackles on the billing, since Ackles was one of his heroes, “one of the best that America has to offer.” Elvis Costello was also a fan, “It’s a mystery to me why his wonderful songs are not better known,” he has said.[ii] When Costello interviewed John on his Sundance cable series, Spectacle, they both voiced generous tributes to Ackles’ genius and influence, and closed the show with a duet of his great song of loss and longing, “Down River.” [iii]

Ackles put out four memorable albums between 1968 and 1973. His masterpiece, American Gothic (1972), generated critical raves. “The Sergeant Pepper of Folk,” gushed a noted British critic, astonished at its thematic brilliance, structural complexity and musical originality. Rolling Stone called it “moving” and “eloquent.” A retrospective appraisal in 2005 acclaimed it “a largely unrecognized work of genius, one of the most unfashionable and uncompromising American albums ever. . . Crafted layer upon layer, it reveals itself more as a dramatic work than a conventional rock or pop release, drawing on modern American classical composers such as Charles Ives and Aaron Copland as well as gospel, rock, blues, and soul. Imagine an art-folk album that bridges Woody Guthrie’s passionate storytelling and Kurt Weill’s orchestrations.” [iv]

Rolling Stone said at the time that American Gothic “deserves a wide audience,” but when sales proved weak, his recording company, Elektra, lost interest. Ackles made one more album on the Columbia label, but his music seemed too hard to categorize in an industry driven by identifiable genres. Was it folk, pop, classical, musical theater, or what? His originality didn’t fit the system. A ten-minute elegy to a lost past (“Montana Song”) was not going to get much radio time. And you couldn’t dance to it. But however neglected, the heartbreaking beauty of Ackles’ imagery still blooms like wildflowers on a deserted prairie:

The fallen barn, the broken plow,
the hoofprint-hardened clay;
where is the farmer, now,
who built his dream this way ?
Who felled the tree and cut the bough
and made the land obey,
who taught his sons as he knew how,
but could not make them stay.[v]

Disappointed by the lack of tangible support for his work, Ackles abandoned his recording career, but not his joie de vivre. “I’m not bitter about a thing that’s happened to me,” he told an interviewer in 1998. “I would hate for people to think I’m over here getting all twisted up about what happened 20 years ago. All that feels like another life, lived by someone else.” [vi]

Although he could write an achingly beautiful love song like “Love’s Enough,” he was at heart a storyteller, weaving poetic and sometimes tragic narratives of American dreamers and strivers, who “joined the circus, worked the fields,” but “never saved a dime.” And even when they had to “learn to dance to someone else’s song,” they managed to endure:

But I hold on to my dreams, anyway.
I never let them die.
They keep me going through the bad times,
while I dream
of the good times coming by.[vii]

Bernie Taupin, who produced American Gothic, summed up Ackles’ intensity and conviction in a 2008 remembrance: “Man! If you didn’t believe every word this guy was singing, you were dead inside.”[viii]

I first met David Ackles in early 1970, when I was working at Canterbury House in Ann Arbor, Michigan, an Episcopal campus ministry and coffeehouse known as one of the premiere folk music venues in the country. I was just out of seminary, working with two priests as an intern during the year of my “transitional diaconate,” the prelude to priestly ordination. While I was in residence, Canterbury House featured Neil Young, Doc Watson, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, and David Ackles.

David was one of Canterbury’s most popular performers, loved not only for his music but also for his manifest warmth and wry humor. He was a lifelong Christian, deeply spiritual and theologically astute, an authentic and generous man. And though some of his songs revealed a profound empathy with the suffering of displaced souls, there was an essential core in him—a comedic faith in resurrection—which survived the harrowing descent of the artist into the nether regions of the human condition.

By summer of 1970, I was back home in Los Angeles, awaiting my ordination to the priesthood in September. When I saw that David was playing at the Troubadour, I knew I had to be there. Meanwhile, the radio was starting to preview a few unreleased songs by the other guy on the bill, and he sounded quite good as well. Word got around, excitement grew, and on August 25 the house was packed. We shared a table with Odetta, the “queen of American folk music.” [ix]

Before the show, I went backstage to ask David if he would consider singing at my ordination, and he graciously consented. While we were talking, Elton John entered the dressing room, wearing denim overalls with a cartoon duck patch on the front, to tell David how much he admired his work and how honored he was to share the stage with him.

And the concert? It’s been nearly fifty years now. Details grow hazy; I can’t recite the set lists anymore. But I can still feel the electricity of that Hollywood night, the passion of the performers, the visceral connection they made with their audience.

Stacy Sullivan, a jazz singer who once worked with David, is currently performing, in small New York clubs, “A Night at the Troubadour: Presenting Elton John and David Ackles.” While showing the brilliance of two stars aligning, her re-imagining of that night suggests the strangeness of fate: one singer became an international superstar, the other remained largely undiscovered.

The New York Times has called Sullivan’s tribute a “tour de force” which “interweaves more than a dozen Ackles songs with several of Mr. John’s hits, radically deconstructed, into a dual portrait in which their opposite sensibilities (Mr. John’s gregarious showmanship, and Mr. Ackles’ dignified introspection) eventually merge.” [x] Lucky Easterners can still see her at Manhattan’s Metropolitan Room on September 10 and October 8. I can only pray that she will do a West Coast reprise. I promise to come.

A few weeks after the Troubadour show, David sang two songs for my ordination at All Saints, Beverly Hills, where the opening hymn was “Let It Be” and large projected images filled the wall behind the altar. Those were the days! During communion, David sang “Be My Friend.” At the Dismissal, he led the congregation in “Family Band,” which he said was autobiographical, since he grew up in a musical family of church-going Presbyterians. I still play that song on my guitar every ordination anniversary:

I remember the songs we sang Sunday evening . . .
when my dad played the bass, mom played the drums,
I played the piano,
and Jesus sang the song.

David got lung cancer in the late nineties. When he went into remission, he and his wonderful wife Janice rented a Pasadena mansion, filled it with musicians, and threw a grand party for their friends, to celebrate the gifts of life and love. Then, in 1999, David departed this world, far too soon. He is dearly missed. But that gathering in Pasadena remains a joyous foretaste of the blessedness which awaits us all.

And I will cherish the faith in the songs we knew then,
till we all sing together, till we all sing together,
till we sing them together again.

 

 

 

[i] For a more extensive historical list: http://www.troubadour.com/history

[ii] Reuters obituary in March, 1999, cited in Kenny MacDonald interview: http://www.terrascope.co.uk/MyBackPages/David%20Ackles.htm

[iii] YouTube has a version of their duet: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sXvlCjrlHCQ and their conversation about David is at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qbt1Cee7Usw

[iv] George Durbalau, 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, 2005. Along with other review quotes, found at http://www.superseventies.com/spacklesdavid.html

[v] David Ackles, “Montana Song,” on American Gothic. Some of David’s songs can be heard on YouTube, and his albums can be found online as well.

[vi] Kenny MacDonald interview

[vii] “Another Friday Night,” American Gothic

[viii] Bernie Taupin’s blog, Dec. 3, 2008

[ix] Attributed to Martin Luther King, Jr.: http://entertainment.time.com/2011/10/24/the-all-time-100-songs/slide/take-this-hammer-odetta/

[x] New York Times, July 16, 2016: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/16/arts/music/stacy-sullivan-david-ackles-review.html?_r=1

 

Requiems and rainbows

An era was over and a new Europe was being born. This much was obvious. But with the passing of the old order many longstanding assumptions would be called into question. What had once seemed permanent and somehow inevitable would take on a more transient air. . . Europe’s future would look very different—and so would its past. . . Whatever shape Europe was to take in the years to come, the familiar, tidy story of what had gone before had changed forever.

— Tony Judt[i]

In the introduction to his magisterial Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, Judt was writing of Europe’s rise from the ashes of World War II as a continent of some 46 countries sought to overcome a long legacy of division and conflict. His book was published in 2005, and Judt himself died in 2010, but his words could have been written after the Brexit vote. Europe remains a very untidy story, unsettled and full of questions.

When the European Union was hammering out its constitution a dozen years ago, there was considerable discussion about the status of Europe’s Christian heritage in a secular and pluralistic age. Of course, a return to a “Christendom” was neither possible nor desirable, but Scottish theologian David Jasper suggests that the noblest aims of the European Union could trace their roots to the (often neglected) Christian understanding of self-giving love rather than authoritarian power as the divine principle at the heart of reality.

A political life governed by love rather than naked power, he argues, would be “voluntary, willed, and deliberate, a working through of our diversities in totally conscious acts of friendship pursued in love and charity with our neighbors.”[ii] It would build bridges instead of walls.

It remains to be seen which kind of story will prevail, not only in Europe and the UK, but in the United States as well, where many “longstanding assumptions” about social harmony and progress have been cast into doubt by the disturbing resurgence of nativism, bigotry and racism.

image

I took this photo on the Seattle-Bainbridge ferry on June 24. The Brexit vote had been announced the night before, on “Midsummer Night,” when, in olden times, mischievous spirits were said to be abroad, and bonfires were lit on British hilltops to aid the sun in its long decline toward winter.

I am not qualified to judge how much mischief and decline can be attributed to the Brexit vote, but the uncertainties of which Judt had written were much on my mind when I happened to see this rainbow, a biblical sign of promise. I snapped the photo on the fly without really composing it, but then I began to see things in it..

The woman seems representative of America as a land of immigrants. She contemplates her own image, like Venus with her mirror. Who am I? How did I get here? She is framing herself against the rainbow. She herself is part of the American rainbow. Is she surprised by what her screen is showing her? Does she register delight at existing in a world of rainbows? Will she turn to see the rainbow itself and not its image only?

We can’t see the face of the young man in the hoodie. He is a mysterious blank, the stranger from God knows where, a veiled presence destabilizing the scene with some unspoken question. His head is turned toward the rainbow, but his hands remain in his pockets. They are not extended in wonder or blessing. His thoughts and feelings are opaque to us. He is shut within the monastery of his dark clothing. Does he see promise in the sky? Is he sad, lonely, aloof, indifferent? Is he experiencing prayerful or poetic rapture?

We could compose a multitude of narratives about these two voyagers, but the only thing we know for sure is that they sail together on the same ark, and though the horizon seems dark, the shadows are illumined with the biblical sign of promise. This boat’s bound for glory, even if rough seas lie ahead.

Last night, at the Oregon Bach Festival, I heard the world premiere of A European Requiem, by Scottish composer James MacMillan. It is an astonishing work of complex sonorities, dramatic colors, and exquisite textures. Although it was composed before Brexit, its title and theme feel particularly resonant now. Do we live in a time of requiem or rebirth?

I was particularly struck by the work’s sublimity, that unnerving blend of fear and wonder generated in the presence of transcendent, overpowering mysteries. MacMillan seemed to suggest that the passage into whatever lies beyond our old familiar life is not altogether smooth and blissful. Hammering percussion and dissonant brass were anything but “rest eternal.” First the soul must be buffeted and broken open as the abyss of nonbeing widening before it. Only then can it hear the consoling chorus welcoming it into paradise.

But while MacMillan’s music allowed us to hear rapturous echoes from the “other side,” it did not take us across the divide. Instead, it concluded with the solemn sounds of the death bed. High, raspy strings whispered the last few breaths of mortal life. And after that, only the slow heartbeat of a bass drum, fading into silence.

Had the Requiem’s heavenly elements been merely a beautiful illusion, destined to vanish with every mortal thing? Or can we put our trust in something beyond the processes of dissolution and ending? Whether we are considering the fate of the world or the fate of the soul, it’s the question on which all else depends.

 

+

 

On a lighter note, you can find my new photo essay on the spirituality of summer here.

 

[i] Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 (New York: The Penguin Press, 2005), 1-2

[ii] David Jasper, The Sacred Community: Art, Sacrament, and the People of God (Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2012), 127

Unsilent Night: An Advent Revelation

Sun in black sky

Last Saturday after dark, about 60 people gathered at a Seattle’s On the Boards theater to begin a neighborhood walk called “Unsilent Night.” Created in 1992 by New York composer Phil Kline, it is a “luminous soundscape” enacted for 45 minutes on a single night in December. This year, 37 American and Canadian cities joined in.

Participants downloaded one of 4 separate but complementary music tracks of ambient minimalism on their phones, and carried portable speakers as they walked the streets together in a collective mobile sound sculpture. NPR has described Unsilent Night this way: “chiming and chants bounce off walls and windows, transforming the coldest urban area with the warmth of musical fellowship.”

And so we began, moving block by block, a mesmerizing river of sound flowing slowly along the sidewalks of the city. An initial shimmering of bright cascading notes eventually evolved into the low rumble of droning chords, succeeded by percussive xylophone patterns, as if Steve Reich were composing for gamelan. Those metallic notes later gave way to more drones and electronic chords, which became the ground for choral fragments: Gregorian chants, wordless repetitions of ‘ah’ pitched at varied intervals, and melismatic Alleluias. Despite this discernible evolution of musical shifts and changes, the cumulative effect felt unhurried and relaxed.

The Queen Anne neighborhood is a lively mix of small shops, restaurants, and theaters, plus a cinema and basketball arena. A diverse assortment of people was already out looking for the heart of Saturday night, so there were many witnesses to our sonic procession. But surprisingly few showed much reaction. Some stared blankly, as if this unexpected phenomenon eluded their emotional register. They simply didn’t know what to make of it. Others looked away, perhaps wishing us into invisibility. Such a thing should not be happening in their world, so they pretended it wasn’t. Still others wore earbuds, disabling any receptivity to a reality beyond their own self-enclosure.

Yet some indeed had ears to hear, responding with smiles or looks of wonder. Car windows rolled down to let in the sound. The Latino doorman of a boutique hotel grinned ear to ear as we passed. A homeless woman in a wheelchair gave us a knowing smile, as if we were a welcome sign of sad times ending.

Like the best liturgy, it created community out of strangers through a shared action, and forged our collectivity into both sign and instrument of mystery and wonder. It was a perfect rite for Advent, contesting the old order while announcing an “impossible possible” drawing near. For the 45 minutes of the sound sculpture, sidewalks designed for functionality (keep moving to your next purchase, or go home!) became spaces for play. The ugliness of traffic noise was challenged by sweeter sounds. Strangers were invited to smile at one another, forgetting their solitudes for a few precious moments. And the birth of something deeply poetic usurped the accustomed prose of urban life.

As Twylene Moyer has written concerning participatory public art, it invites us “to re-evaluate what we mean by quality of life, to reassess what we think we know, and to reconsider how we choose to live with ourselves and each other.”[i] Why shouldn’t we feel fully at home in our public spaces, experiencing them as places of human affection and delight, inclusiveness and solidarity, joy and wonder? Why can’t we?

Theologian Langdon Gilkey makes an even more sweeping claim for such a re-visioning process. Art, he says, “makes us see in new and different ways, below the surface and beyond the obvious. Art opens up the truth hidden and within the ordinary; it provides a new entrance into reality and pushes us through that entrance. It leads us to what is really there and really going on. Far from subjective, it pierces the opaque subjectivity, the not seeing, of conventional life, of conventional viewing, and discloses reality.”[ii]

Seeing “the truth hidden and within the ordinary,” piercing the “not seeing of conventional life” with the inbreaking of deeper reality – these comprise the essence of Christianity’s annual Advent project. Not everyone welcomes this kind of seeing, and many reject its very possibility. But for at least some of us who experienced the wonder of Unsilent Night, a richer account of the universe, making room for the transcendent, felt more persuasive than the alternatives.

As I walked in this procession of glorious sound, an Advent hymn came to mind:

Hark! a thrilling voice is sounding.
“Christ is nigh,” it seems to say.

Not everyone would put the name of Christ to what we did and the sound we made together, but that doesn’t alter the content of the experience.

If God is more of a situation than an object, then the community, relationality, mystery, beauty, wonder, delight, and communion produced by the event seemed apt expressions of divinity taking “place,” or “being here now.” You didn’t have to name it to live it.

Toward the end of our walk we were led into a bit of open space set back from the street, where the music was not so compromised by traffic noise. And there our little speakers, one by one, began to ring with a peal of sonorous bell tones, until we were all immersed in such a joyous tintinnabulation that I could imagine myself in heaven. Every face I saw around me glowed with amazement. If the Incarnation were a sound, this would be it, suddenly sanctifying a scrubby vacant lot in Queen Anne.

As the bells faded, we processed one more block, back to our starting point, where we stood in what felt like a prayer circle while the final portion of the composition slowly faded into silence. Some closed their eyes, and everyone seemed rapt and attentive, in a state of peace and gratitude.

Once the music ended, the spell was quickly broken. We went our separate ways, strangers once more, but perhaps “no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation.”[iii] For a moment we had known something better, and would not forget.

 

 

 

 

[i] Twylene Moyer, Artists Reclaim the Commons: New Works/New Territories/New Publics (Ed. Glenn Harper and Twylene Moyer, Hamilton, NJ: isc Press, 2013), 8

 

[ii] Langdon Gilkey, from an address given at the Art Institute of Chicago, published as “Can Art Fill the Vacuum?” in Art, Creativity and the Sacred: An Anthology in Religion and Art, ed. Diane Apostolos-Cappadona (New York: Crossroad, 1984), 189-90

[iii] The phrase is from T. S. Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi,” expressing the incompatibility of what the Magi had experienced in Bethlehem with the unredeemed world to which they returned.

Simple gifts

Shakers dance

Who will bow and bend like a willow
Who will turn and twist and reel
In the gale of simple freedom …

– Shaker spiritual

John Ciardi said that the poet is known by the valor of his refusals. So too the saint. But the austerity of self-limitation is not what we might have expected from the Wooster Group, the edgy New York City troupe long known for its Dionysian blends of experimental theater and multimedia technologies. Their latest production, however, not only reincarnates the music of the Shakers, it does so with a minimalist restraint worthy of that nearly extinct American sect.

Early Shaker Spirituals: A Record Album Interpretation presents all 20 songs from side A of a 1976 LP recorded at the dwindling Shaker community in Sabbathday Lake, Maine. After the liner notes for each song are read aloud, four women in plain 19th century dress sing along with the actual spinning record as it is transmitted to them through wireless receivers. The voice of Suzzy Roche is especially haunting, lean and lonesome and saturated with pastness like a faded tintype. While we listen to these contemporary reproductions of long departed voices, we sometimes hear the faint traces of the original recorded sound leaking into the room from the women’s earpieces. As the New York Times has written: “The aural effect is subtle and eerie, suggesting a kind of phantasmal possession of the present by the past or, if you prefer, the eternal.”[i]

Sitting quietly, passive and still, replicating out loud what they are hearing in their ear, the singers seem to be channeling something not of their own making, a transcendent voice entering the present world by first passing through their own souls and bodies. It feels like the spiritual ventriloquism of biblical prophecy. What shall I sing? Sing this. How fitting for a repertoire which the Shakers often attributed to the gifts of unseen spirits or divine inspiration.

The contrast of the singers’ personal inexpressiveness with such passionate, ecstatic and sometimes eschatological song texts (“with leaping and with dancing / we’ll hail the jubilee”) only strengthens the sense of otherness. What they sing does not come from them, but through them. It is not a spontaneous construct whipped up by emotional display. Such unassertive transparency achieves a strange oracular force. We hear a message from beyond.

Even when the singers rise from their chairs to approximate the original Shaker dances, it is not an exaltation of the self, but a yielding to the higher rhythms of divine choreography. As they reel, turn and twist to “shake out all the starch and stiffening,” they do not express. They surrender.

When I saw this compelling performance the other night in Los Angeles’ Redcat Theater, I was transported – whether to the past, or to the eternal, who can say? But I came away touched by a larger world than my ordinary domain. Voices distant in time had spoken to me. And is this not analogous to the eucharistic liturgy? We listen to ancient voices as if they were here and now, and speak their words from our own lips. Transparent presiders at the altar reproduce actions first performed in Jerusalem 2000 years ago. If we manage to keep our ego out of the way in the liturgy, the eternal Word, like that 1976 Shaker recording, may be heard and received in the fresh particularity of the now.

Some of the Wooster Group might take issue with my theological interpretation. Frances McDormand, the ensemble’s best-known actress, has resisted the religious dimensions of the Shaker tradition, preferring to stress the communal qualities of their musical environment. “It’s not religiously based,” she said in an interview. “It’s more poetic. There are parables to it, but it’s not about Jesus so it’s a little bit easier to take.”[ii]

Such indifference to Christian theology and practice is the common currency of secular modernity, the default position posing a perpetual challenge to those who would speak of faith. Many people think of Jesus and Christianity as something over and done, at least for them.

And yet, here is a cutting edge theater troupe performing religious songs without irony or ridicule, in a creative simulacrum of the otherness of the music’s reputedly transcendent source. While I won’t presume to baptize the Wooster Group, or attribute overt belief where it is explicitly denied, I still wonder whether there might yet be something larger at work in the world than any of us are able either to understand or admit. Whatever the Wooster Group actually thinks about what they are doing, and whatever ideas I might have about it, the “simple gifts” of love and delight go on being given and being received. Whether the mechanism of that exchange can be adequately described or named is perhaps the least important part of the whole thing. Experience trumps the language we put to it. In the end, you don’t need to possess the perfect map before you can dwell in “the valley of love and delight.” You’re already there. Its song is already whispering in your ear.

[i] Ben Brantley, The New York Times, May 29, 2014

[ii] James Kim interview with Frances McDormand, KPPC radio, Jan. 21, 2015

 

A musical tsunami

A musical tsunami. The heavy metal of the 19th century. That’s how some have tried to convey the volcanic eruption of sound known as shape note singing. It’s already loud as you walk from your car toward the meeting room where over a hundred singers are gathered for an all-day singing. When you open the door to come inside, it blasts and sears you like heat from a forge.

Shape note singing, like jazz, is a uniquely American form. It began in New England churches of the late 18th century, but soon proved too raucous and untamed for that staid ecclesiastical environment, and had to migrate to the free-form churches of the South. When more fashionably modern gospel music began to displace it in the early 20thth century, shape note’s habitat shrank to scattered pockets of entrenched tradition, until it was “rediscovered” in the mid-20th century folk music revival. While there are still southern singers whose shape note heritage goes back many generations, there are many more who have entered this musical fold on their own, not only in the United States and Canada, but in the UK, Germany and Poland as well. Shape note singing has a way of grabbing hold of you and never letting go.

People gather weekly or monthly to sing for a couple of hours in small groups all over the United States, but the annual regional conventions – Saturday and Sunday all-day singings of a hundred or more from many states, singing about 95 songs per day – are the molten core of the tradition. These marathons of massed voices take everything you’ve got. By late Sunday afternoon, your voice is gone but your heart is full.

The musical notation uses (usually four) different shapes for the notes – triangle, rectangle, diamond, and the familiar oval. Representing the solfège syllables (fa-sol-la-mi), they provide a guide to the intervals between the notes, making sight-reading easier for untrained singers. Since the shapes are sung once prior to the actual words, the first time through a tune makes a strange syllabic murmur, like an incantation in a forgotten tongue.

The singing style is raw, nasal, straight-tone (no vibrato), full-throttle all the way. “If you can hear the person next to you, you’re not singing loud enough,” they like to say. Each voice-part sits together on one side of the “hollow square,” facing inward toward the leader (anyone who wishes takes a turn in the center, picking the next song and beating time for all to follow). There are slow songs, fast songs, and fugueing tunes with staggered entrances. And whether you are racing through an exhilarating major key or dragging out a slow, mournful minor key song about death and dying, you feel great when you’re done. There’s always something deeper at work than either text or tune in the performance of this strange and wonderful music.

Singers consist of Christians and non-Christians, theological progressives and traditionalists, seekers and unbelievers. No one, including me, embraces all the lyrics, some of which come out of a 19th century Protestant mindset and language not in fashion today. But theology is never discussed at a singing, and no one suggests changing the lyrics. That would be poor manners toward those who created the tradition. Shape note singing is not about doctrine but about relationships – with those who have gone before us, with the music they have given us, and with each other.

So a shape note gathering is not a community of shared faith. There is no creed or sustained reflection on the meaning of what we sing together. But when singers are asked about their experience, they usually invoke words like power, spirit, joy, catharsis, community, love, even transformation. So while there is no theology, ecclesiology or missiology in shape note singings, they are, is some ways, not so unlike what we hope for from church. As the (not shape note) hymn says:

How often, making music, we have found
a new dimension in the world of sound,
as worship moved us to a more profound “Alleluia!”

In my own Episcopal tradition, congregational singing is often tepid, even anemic. There are any number of reasons for this. We are products of our American culture, where communal singing is a lost art. We still have some English church heritage in our blood, so expressiveness and emotion are often repressed in worship. We lead hymns with loud pipe organs that won’t let us hear our own voices. And our hymnal melodies are written in the soprano line, which means that men either don’t even try to sing those high notes or else pitch them an octave lower, making their voices inaudible (in shape note, the melody is in the tenor). My father, an Episcopal priest and an enthusiastic man, could not bear weak singing. He was never afraid to stop a hymn in the middle to exhort people to sing louder. He would have loved shape note singing!

How I wish our church liturgies could always embody the spirit, power and energy of a shape note convention. Every liturgist and church musician needs to go to an all-day singing and then think very hard about the contrasts of what they experience in the hollow square with whatever happens back in their own worship gatherings.

At last weekend’s All-California Shape Note Convention, I was the chaplain at the Saturday session, responsible for the prayers at the beginning and end of the day. This was my opening prayer:

Come, Holy Spirit, breath of life eternal,
and occupy this hollow square,
that in these precious hours together
we may be united in holy sound and tuneful praise,
our souls and bodies resounding
with all that is deep and rich within us.
Draw us together with the bonds of affection;
let no one be a stranger here.
And send us a blessing today,
lift up our voices today,
make us your Sacred Harp today.
We pray this in your holy Name. Amen.