Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Seraphic-wise, bird-calls and the sublime...

I enjoy homework as an adult in ways I never did as a student. I truly opened to the wonderful worlds entered through the portals of "intellectual curiosity" as a grad student at Westminster Choir College. But it is as an Artistic Director of both a professional chamber chorus and a small opera company that I fully appreciate the joys of homework.

The Chorale is preparing for a program of English Cathedral Anthems (Feb 18-20; the program notes are in the post below). I am soon to begin rehearsing for Opera Roanoke's March production of Puccini's Madama Butterfly. The week in between those wonderful artistic adventures, I have a performance (as tenor soloist) of Beethoven's 9th Symphony with Symphonicity in Virginia Beach. I love it all.

Both Puccini's tragic masterpiece and the program of beautiful cathedral anthems find me returning to questions of the sublime, the transcendent and the visionary. And Beethoven's 9th is synonymous with the topic.

The Chorale concert opens with Gerald Finzi's (20th c.) "classic" setting of an excerpt from the (17th-c.) metaphysical poet Edward Taylor's "Sacramental Meditations." It contains such memorable images as the "seraphic-wise" praise of "heart-cramping notes" in music made "more to enravish" (than merely entertain or even inspire).

God is Gone up lives in the fantastic world of the celestial vision, from those described by the ancient Fathers (like the ladder in Jacob's dream, the proverbial "stairway to heaven") to the prophets, to Christ's transfiguration and ascension. And many other (parallel) examples from ancient histories, mythologies & religions.

One of the self-imposed homework assignments I most enjoy is associative leaping. Like a frog jumping from one lilly pad to another, either to cross a stream or catch a fly, I leap from one reference to the next when learning a piece or preparing a program. I let my memory and imagination travel (from wherever I start) in an attempt to enter the world of the poet, composer and work. It's a little like background research for a project, with the obsessive-compulsiveness of a romantic diving headlong into a new relationship. I have found it an indispensable activity for my spiritual and artistic health, and it is a stimulant to intellectual curiosity. I recommend the "associative leap" to everyone who has not already discovered its endlessly fascinating possibilities for enrichment and newness.

The Chorale's single favorite work on this Feb 18-20 program is the centerpiece, James MacMillan's stunning 10' anthem for choir and organ, Padre Pio's Prayer. It is a sincere, impassioned and penetratingly direct love song to God. Some of the singers have confessed they find it so affecting they can barely contain their emotions enough to get through the work. The prayer is from the recently beatified Saint, Padre Pio, whose shrine is the second most visited site in all of Christendom. It is said that over a thousand miracles have been claimed on behalf of this unlikely Saint, censured for a time by the Vatican over "the accompanying notoriety" of his receiving the stigmata in 1918 (at age 30).

MacMillan is a devout Roman Catholic whose musical style draws on a broad array of mystical traditions, from Tibetan chant, Balinese gamelan music, and the exotic orchestral bird-calls beloved of (fellow Catholic and mystic) Olivier Messiaen.

I start by listening to a variety of MacMillan's works (which I've been doing for 15 years, so some of the "background" work is continually/regularly in progress...) In addition to a number of small scale choral works (the Chorale has offered several of his motets to critical and audience acclaim), he has written a cello concerto for Rostropovich, a percussion concerto for Evelyn Glennie, several symphonies, operas and other large-scale works, like his 90-minute St John Passion. The recording of that work, written for the London Symphony and dedicated to Sir Colin Davis, features a preface from the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams.

In addition to being an observant commentator on contemporary sacred choral music, the Right Reverend Dr Williams challenges one of the dividing walls that exists between a secular audience and a sacred subject.

Whether the listener shares that faith or not, the gospel narrative of the Passion puts before us the question of how we conceive power, victory, truth, reality itself...For us to imagine this, even if only for the duration of this massive and challenging work, is for us to recognise that the world can-and must be-changed.

These self-determining homework assignments always involve the "challenging work" of connecting the various associative leaps. MacMillan's music is noted for the intensity of its emotional power and an "imaginative range" that assimilates a variety of styles, which the composer unifies. One of the effects of this telescoping (or compressing) of means is a concentration of impact. Like all art that has a powerful effect on us, from the sublimely beautiful to the sublimely terrifying, MacMillan's packs a punch. And as Dr Williams intimates above, sharing his & MacMillan's faith is not a prerequisite for entering this world and experiencing its transformative power.

I consulted two recent monographs by Umberto Eco (both now out in paperback) called History of Beauty and The Infinity of Lists. I knew the former would offer examples of the sublime, with excerpts from philosophy and poetry and painting (for the cultural leap frogs).

"...Sublime does not persuade the audience but transports them." So Eco quotes 1st century AD philosopher Pseudo-Longinus. Were that all Pseudo-types as trenchantly perceptive.

The 17th century writer E. Burnet could be writing about MacMillan's music, full of "great thoughts and passions." This "sublime" art "enriches" by its "nobility of phrase" which creates a "general effect of dignity and elevation."

And dignity can yield to the sheer force of passion. The sublime inspires powerful emotions, thus provoking a deep stirring of the soul from within. The visionary can be unsettling as it is euphoric and ecstatic, depending on the emotional state doing the stirring...

Looking at Eco's monographs and listening to MacMillan, I had a vision that one way of experiencing the sublime is to imagine being the subject of a romantic landscape painting. I owe this to Joseph Leo Koerner's insightful 'art history' book, Caspar David Friedrich: And the Subject of Landscape (Reaktion, 1990, 2009). Like Friedrich's outward-looking gazers, this subjective perspective enables the participant to experience the sublime through nature's power (in its various & intense manifestations, dependent upon both the setting and the receptivity of the subject). And if you can't picture (or Google) a Friedrich landscape, imagine yourself sitting atop a mountain peak or standing before the immensity of the sea. The maxim "beauty is in the eye of the beholder," is manifest through Friedrich's art. The idea that the subject, viewer, participant or audience member was an equal partner in the artistic exchange was as radical in the early 19th century as it is today. Friedrich's radical gaze.

It is not just a conscious engagement--a communion--with nature that heralds the experience of the sublime; it as another "both/and" of how experience is internalized, processed, and brought forth. This metaphysical (and psychological) gardening is a tilling of the soul that regenerates the landscapes of our life.

And as if from a living, dynamic musical landscape, MacMillan literally rivets our attention at the climax of his work. Following dimly-lit harmonies at "I fear the darkness and the danger," MacMillan churns out an organ passage fraught with pungent harmony that sounds like a soul in anxious torment. One of the most fervent and impassioned pleas I've ever encountered in choral music appears at "Let me see you..." It's like someone grabbing you and shaking you out of a fear-induced stupor into wide-eyed awareness. I have sometimes found MacMillan's devout Catholicism strangely unfamiliar to my protestant background (and universalist worldview). Never has the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist been more powerfully evoked for me than in MacMillan's visionary Padre Pio's Prayer. This is music that commands attention, is immediately appealing, and worthy of deeper consideration (and it's available on itunes).

The final third (the Golden Mean!) of this work is full of MacMillan's characteristic un-spinning of rich musical tapestry. Padre Pio's emotionally direct, sincere and sensually vivid desire ("Come to my soul, my nest of love") inspires in MacMillan music of expressive immediacy. The setting of "I love You and seek to / love You more and more" features a gorgeous chain of suspensions (a device that sounds like a sequentially-related series of expressive sighs or sobs). This device looks back to the early years of polyphonic choral music and the affective gestures of the Renaissance madrigal and Baroque motet.

This connection to the Renaissance recalls another strain of 19th century art, one associated with Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the Pre-Raphaelite aesthetic. These painters, according to Eco, created "atmospheres of mysticism" that were "laden with sensuality." Their renewed interest in the Renaissance is a trait that has recurred throughout history in various guises and places. The Renaissance itself is an attempt to connect the past to the present, to contain (and come to terms with) a dynamic tension of opposites in the same canvas or poem or song or discourse. As history circles and spirals and unfolds, each successive "period" must engage with the past, and inspire a new (re-presented) Renaissance of culture. We must continually re-connect and consciously foster continuity...

(Is there a difference between "homework" & "vocation" when one is "working in one's field?")

The "transcendent beauty" of the sublime inspires (or is experienced within) the "epiphanic vision." A slightly different shaped vessel for the same light, if you will.

As one enters this aesthetic (and metaphysical world) of the sublime and feels the emotional power of engaging with it, one is participating in a rich and varied tradition of millennia of meaningful human experience.

In posts below I have written of the mythological "Cosmic Dancer," who leaps between the worlds of the imagination and the "real;" between the spiritual and material worlds. The 12th century Sufi mystic Rumi (writing from present-day Afghanistan) conjured a vision (similar to Jacob's ladder) of beings coursing freely between earth and the heavens.

People are going back and forth across the doorsill
where the two worlds touch.
The door is round and open.
Don't go back to sleep.

Rumi could be referring to awakening, enlightenment and/or salvation; to the mythic/heroic adventure and/or the journey of the soul. Again, different names, but the same archetypal encounter. Jacob's Ladder, Christ's descent into hell and Rumi's "doorsill" are all examples of the "cosmic dancer" whose stories contain the clues we require to connect these worlds.

The experience of the sublime is rooted in the body. We experience meaning primarily through our senses. The mystical traditions also attempt to enlarge (and transform) our sense of the senses; dreams and visions are but two means towards that expansive view.

"Holy longing," among other associations, recalls Goethe's "selige Sehnsucht" and his Renaissance-like mission to connect the ancient Greco-Roman "classical" past to his "modern" present. Goethe was one of the great visionary poets of nature, and his verse mirrors the great landscape painters evocation of the natural sublime. Along with Friedrich Schiller (whose "Ode to Joy" inspired Beethoven's 9th, and the millions who have been transfixed by its power over the past couple hundred years...)

A modern-day mystic who connected his devout (and unorthodox) Catholic faith to nature (and used "exotic" eastern influences in the processes) was Olivier Messiaen. Where the "Old Masters" painted doves and birds as symbols of God's grace (or as literal companions to St Francis of Assisi), Messiaen orchestrated bird calls into his compositions. MacMillan continues that tradition, and his organ writing is full of visionary writing evocative of "exotic" bird calls [Sidebar: don't miss the fabulous organist, Brad Norris play this music with us Feb 18-20. As he coaxes magical sounds out of the "king of instruments," this visionary music might just take up residence in you as it has us: through the ears and into the head, heart and soul.]

Whether as Cosmic Dancer, Renaissance-man or bird-watcher, this communicating with the beyond, or the symbolic Other (or whatever-you-call-"it"), is an engagement with Beauty and the Sublime that is real as we allow it to be.

Padre Pio's Prayer is a communion motet, an impassioned plea for the literal presence of God. The unflinching emotional directness of Padre Pio's faith is a window into a Catholic mysticism rooted in the body and reaching for the beyond. Just as the elements of the Eucharist are believed to be "transubstantiated" into the literal body & blood of Christ, MacMillan's music infuses this prayer with an ardor worthy of the deepest love and the sincerest faith. That is another window into this world pulsing with life, but membership is not required to participate in our musico-poetic feast.

This is art that opens an emotional door, with wide-embracing generosity and genuine hospitality, into the sublime. As I wrote below, the crux of the poem that gives our season its title, Let all the World in Every Corner Sing, locates where that nexus is:

But above all the Heart
Must bear the longest part.

If you've borne with me this far, you deserve a joyous emoticon. Regardless, this program of sacred music is generous with beauty and ripe with opportunity to experience the "meaningful encounter," the "epiphanic vision," and the soul astir with the fire of life. It may make you cry, it ought to make you smile, and it will reward you, as only a gift can.

No comments: