An eclogue

eclogue

noun ec·logue \ ˈek-ˌlȯg , -ˌläg \
a short poem, especially a pastoral dialogue.

See —
Finally plowed fields,
Bluffs and copses of leafless trees —
Windswept streams feeding chilly lakes
The sun, dear friend of the North,
Casts long and shadowed tendrils across the brittle grass,
The grainery is full and hay bales are stacked high.

See —
Jackets, coats, and hats find their way out of closets,
Children excitedly try boots from last year —
As the oven brims forth a joyful heat
Gently floating up to kiss frosted window panes.
And, Oh! the bouquet of sweet bread in the air.

See —
The lingering, yet bitterly expectant breath,
This, the concluding harvest —
The long moment of quiet rest
Allowing a tender offering of thanksgiving.

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This time of year is special if you sit still — if you take the time to watch and see.  It is a precious few weeks of ‘between-ness’, this climax of autumn.  Contemporary society has unfortunately cartooned the experience by what we now call Thanksgiving, which is relegated to an hour or two of over-eating with football games blaring on the television in the background.  It is difficult to get a real handle of this season, but for me, Gerald Finzi’s Op. 10 “Eclogue” (shown in the video above) has been a way to emotionally walk towards a knowing of what is important about these quiet days.  Perhaps as much as any composer throughout history, Finzi can uniquely corner and capture this feeling powerfully.  Please listen.

It’s easy to get distracted these days from the simple, the plain, the good, the warmhearted, the wholesome, and the kind.  Yes, these things are growing increasingly rare, but I remain convinced it is possible to become a trader in them.  To seek them out with patience, to wait and listen, and then to act upon them for others…. Merely being nostalgic doesn’t quite contain what I am speaking to here, and certainly not being maudlin.  It is so much more, yet paradoxically it remains simple and basic.

It is the smell of dirt and hay and pumpkins and sugar beets, rosy cheeks and noses, the crack of trees and crunch of grass and leaves, baking breads and pies, mittens and hats, hot cider, the gathering of friends and family, just to name a few tender things (though there is a myriad).  It is this Shaker line:

‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gained,
To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come ’round right.

I think it is a shame most people may read this today and think: “how silly,” “how naive”, or “how quaint.”  Perhaps this image hasn’t been helped by Joseph Brackett’s tune (and I myself am not really a fan of it either), but in reading Elder Joseph’s lyric penned so long ago in Maine, it is a painful affront to our lives right now, is it not?  So much striving… Simplicity seems to be only found in the Self Help section of the local Barnes and Noble.

Oh, to listen instead of needing to be heard.
Oh, to be kind instead of putting ourselves above anyone.
Oh, to be okay being simple, though the world wants complexity.
Oh, to to be vulnerable of heart, bowing and bending without shame.

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Lord on High,
Please help us be still,
Please help us remember with joy in our hearts,
Please help us Give Thanks for Good things.
Please help us to Love others.

Please help me.

 

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A Parental Ode

Those who are familiar with my compositions, or have heard me speak on poetry, know that I have a kinship the old poet Thomas Hood.  Sometimes reading a poet feels like reading lines from a dear friend, and that’s the case with me and Tom.  Though long deceased, his poetic style and imagery has quite easily sailed through time unto today.  Whilst reacquainting myself with his works recently, I ran across this wonderful, and surprising, poem that struck a chord for me.  It is a delightful work and captures a very unique part of the human experience.

     A Parental Ode to My Son, Aged Three Years and Five Months

THOU happy, happy elf!
(But stop,—first let me kiss away that tear)—
Thou tiny image of myself!
(My love, he ’s poking peas into his ear!)
Thou merry, laughing sprite!
With spirits feather-light,
Untouched by sorrow, and unsoiled by sin—
(Good heavens! the child is swallowing a pin!)

Thou little tricksy Puck!
With antic toys so funnily bestuck,
Light as the singing bird that wings the air—
(The door! the door! he ’ll tumble down the stair!)
Thou darling of thy sire!
(Why, Jane, he ’ll set his pinafore a-fire!)
Thou imp of mirth and joy!
In Love’s dear chain so strong and bright a link,
Thou idol of thy parents—(Drat the boy!
There goes my ink!)

Thou cherub—but of earth;
Fit playfellow for Fays, by moonlight pale,
In harmless sport and mirth,
(That dog will bite him if he pulls its tail!)
Thou human humming-bee extracting honey
From ev’ry blossom in the world that blows,
Singing in Youth’s Elysium ever sunny,
(Another tumble!—that ’s his precious nose!)
Thy father’s pride and hope!
(He ’ll break the mirror with that skipping-rope!)
With pure heart newly stamped from Nature’s mint—
(Where did he learn that squint?)

Thou young domestic dove!
(He ’ll have that jug off, with another shove!)
Dear nurseling of the hymeneal nest!
(Are those torn clothes his best!)
Little epitome of man!
(He ’ll climb upon the table, that ’s his plan!)
Touched with the beauteous tints of dawning life—
(He ’s got a knife!)

Thou enviable being!
No storms, no clouds, in thy blue sky foreseeing,
Play on, play on,
My elfin John!
Toss the light ball—bestride the stick—
(I knew so many cakes would make him sick!)
With fancies buoyant as the thistle down,
Prompting the face grotesque, and antic brisk,
With many a lamb-like frisk,
(He ’s got the scissors, snipping at your gown!)

Thou pretty opening rose!
(Go to your mother, child, and wipe your nose!)
Balmy, and breathing music like the South,
(He really brings my heart into my mouth!)
Fresh as the morn, and brilliant as its star,—
(I wish that window had an iron bar!)
Bold as the hawk, yet gentle as the dove,—
(I tell you what, my love,
I cannot write, unless he ’s sent above!)

— Thomas Hood (1799-1845)

There is at once a joyful and funny, but also maddening and terrifying reality at play in these lines that those who have parented a 3 year old will immediately recognize.  Having now a 3 1/2 year old “imp of mirth and joy” of my own (not to mention a 10 month old!), I can commiserate with this poem intimately, to say the least.

I have often shared this face of my dear friend Tom, who sees their “human humming-bee” bouncing off the walls or throwing the world’s largest tantrum:

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The no-nonsense Thomas Hood, after a long, hard day of writing poetry.

…But I have much more (as I’m sure Tom did as well) felt drawn to the joy detailed so elegantly in the lines penned.  He saw his son for who he was and loved him dearly.  I have found it difficult being a good parent, and difficulty even understanding what “good” parenting is.  By the looks of it from Tom, it always has been and always will be hard.

My dear Leif, “thou tiny image of myself,” now 3 1/2 yrs. old, you are treasured.

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Leif, poignantly capturing the true nature of his age.

Oraison | קֹ֫דֶשׁ

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And I saw another mighty angel come down from heaven, clothed with a cloud: and a rainbow was upon his head, and his face was as it were the sun, and his feet as pillars of fire … and he set his right foot upon the sea, and his left foot on the earth …. And the angel which I saw stand upon the sea and upon the earth lifted up his hand to heaven, and sware by him that liveth for ever and ever … that there should be time no longer: But in the days of the voice of the seventh angel, when he shall begin to sound, the mystery of God should be finished …
— Rev 10:1–2, 5–7

This was the text that inspired Olivier Messiaen’s transcendent Quatuor pour la fin du temps (Quartet for the End of Time).  It is also truncated in his preface to the score with this haunting phrase: “In homage to the angel of the apocalypse, who raises his hand to heaven by saying: ‘There will be no more Time.'”  It is a powerful text, given that Messiaen composed this piece in late 1940 whilst held in Stalag VIII-A, a prisoner of war camp, by the Germans of the second World War.  Though there is much to say about this mystical 8 movement work, its creation, instrumentation, or initial performance on a rainy day in 1941, I am consistently drawn to one movement: Louange à l’Éternité de Jésus 

An overarching and obvious aspect of this piece is stated quite nicely by Messiaen’s initial tempo marking in the score:  “Infiniment lent, extatique” (Infinitely slow, ecstatic).  He deals with concepts and preconceptions of time wonderfully in this piece in a variety of ways with his manipulation, contraction, and expansion of musical time.  Dealing with time in this manner seems to be apropos to the Revelation text, the peculiar ‘there should be time no longer’ and an entrance into something that either doesn’t include time, or transcends it in some way.

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Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992)

Messiaen describes the movement this way in his preface:

Jesus is considered here as the Word. A broad phrase, “infinitely slow”, on the cello, magnifies with love and reverence the eternity of the Word, powerful and gentle, “whose time never runs out”. The melody stretches majestically into a kind of gentle, regal distance. “In the beginning was the Word, and Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

I want to focus here on the words “regal distance,” which is a fascinating way of speaking to what I personally get from the score.  In my opinion, it is one of the best instances in music that successfully portrays the concept of קֹ֫דֶשׁ, (Hebrew: qodesh).  In Greek, it is ἅγιος (hagios).  In English, it is holy.

I feel quite certain that most modern people do not understand the concept of (qodesh) holiness, or if they do, feel a little uncomfortable with the idea.  Of the variety of possible translated meanings, (according to the NAS Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible with Hebrew-Aramaic and Greek Dictionaries) qodesh can mean apartness, consecrated, dedicated, hallowed, sacred, sacrificial, holy, and my personal favorite: sanctuary.  Of the variety of possible translated meanings, hagios can mean set apart, sacred, holy, or my personal favorite: sanctuary.  These ideas circle around what holiness actually is: an ‘otherness’ or ‘separateness’ or ‘sacredness.’  It is a placement or condition of being and is a very antithetical idea to our current society (or perhaps any society).  It is most easily and temporally seen as a concept or condition of personal moral character, but there seems to be a larger, more cosmic (immeasurable, limitless, infinite) aspect to it as well.

This concept is seen, or felt, here in this movement fairly explicitly.  There is an aspect of holiness that is achieved by the eradication of Time, is there not?  Part of the nature of God (Jesus), is that He is timeless or transcends time (“whose time never runs out”).  He “Is,” or differently stated, He is eternally now.  That is a holy concept.  It is absolute, and absolutely pure.  And particularly in Christianity, He ‘is’ sanctuary (holy).  When one enters into the New Covenant established by Jesus Christ, it could be thought that one enters into eternity.  The pairing of holiness and timelessness can also be seen in 1 Peter 1:13-25.

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For Messiaen, the end of time also meant an escape from history, a leap into an invisible paradise. Hence the hypnotically simple E-major chords in the two “Louanges.” The postwar avant-garde composers who studied with Messiaen—Boulez, Stockhausen, Xenakis—wanted to eradicate all traces of the old world, but their teacher was not afraid to look back. In fact, Messiaen based the “Louanges” on two of his prewar compositions—“Oraison,” from a piece titled “Fête des belles eaux,” for six Ondes Martenot, one of the first electronic instruments; and “Diptyque,” a 1930 piece for organ. The scholar Nigel Simeone tells us that “Fête” was written for the Paris Exposition of 1937, one of whose attractions was a “festival of sound, water, and light.” Women in white flowing dresses played the Ondes in conjunction with spectacular fireworks and fountain displays. The opening phrase of the first “Louange” originally accompanied a colossal jet of water.

It is disconcerting to associate the Quartet with Moulin Rouge-style production values. But Messiaen always took joy in skating between the mundane and the sublime.

— “Revelations: Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time” by Alex Ross; The New Yorker (March 22, 2004)

As stated by Ross above, Messiaen transcribed Louange à l’Éternité de Jésus from his 1937 work Oraison.  Oraison is a commune in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence in southeastern France, which at the time of Messiaen’s composition had a population of around 1750.  Given the nature and goals of The Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne (The International Exhibition of Arts and Techniques in Modern Life) in May 1937, Messiaen’s selection of the ondes Martenot (invented by Maurice Martenot in 1928) would have been an excellent choice.

But why, while in Stalag VIII-A 3 years later, would he look back to this particular work and repurpose it for his Quatuor pour la fin du temps, especially the Louange à l’Éternité de Jésus?  I think if you listen to Oraison played on the original instrument, you may have suspicions:

When I hear this played on original instrumentation, I get an even deeper, almost visceral, connection to the concepts described above, “קֹ֫דֶשׁ,” “ἅγιος,” …holiness.  It is the nature, strangeness, and mystical sonic profile of the ondes Martinot that does it I suspect.  It is even more affective than the 1941 transcription, in my opinion.  (The violoncelle sound is more earthbound than the otherworldly ondes Martinot). The build and gravitational tension building at 5′ and subsequent denoument and release into space at 5’30” to the end (or 6’30” – 7’30” in the Yo-Yo Ma recording) creates a powerful εἰκών of the “gentle, regal distance” of God (Jesus).  It is the image of the cosmic King and the holy sanctuary, the Λόγος — the Word of God.

On January 15, 1941, The Louange à l’Éternité de Jésus was first heard on deteriorating instruments by 400 prisoners and guards at Stalag VIII-A.  It was raining.  Messiaen was said to have recalled “Never was I listened to with such rapt attention and comprehension.”  They perhaps saw what could be described as “hope” in imagining the apocalyptic angel declaring Time be no more.  There will be justice and there is an infinite Being who will provide it.

It was a perfect time in history to hear such a thing, as it remains now.

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That blessed light that yet to us is dark.

In 2010, I was asked to compose a piece for Troy University (Troy, Alabama) by someone I had never met named Diane Orlofsky.  She was wonderfully kind and was very particular about the text she would like set for her choir.  The piece ended up being a mystical acapella setting with excerpts taken from St. Augustine of Hippo’s (354-386) 10th book of Confessions.  I enjoyed writing it and was granted the honor of joining them near the conclusion of their rehearsal process.  It wasn’t particularly easy, but Diane and her choir were doing a marvelous job bringing it to life.  Beyond our musical time together though, I was struck by something more in the atmosphere of the room and in Diane’s spirit — something that is hard to define, but deeply moving and powerful.

It is interesting to note that at the time, while living in Seattle, I was in a rather challenging period of life.  One morning I popped into Capital Hill’s Elliot Bay Bookstore, as I did often during my time there, and happened upon Wendell Berry’s 2005 collection of poetry entitled Given.  One particular poem struck me in a way that nearly no poem had before.  It spoke into my darkness at the time.  The miraculous truth of the words were as searing as the lighted sun it describes:

We travelers, walking to the sun, can’t see
Ahead, but looking back the very light
That blinded us shows us the way we came,
Along which blessings now appear, risen
As if from sightlessness to sight, and we,
By blessing brightly lit, keep going toward
That blessed light that yet to us is dark.
— Wendell Berry, from Given

What transcendent truth this is to know that walking toward the Light will most assuredly blind you and you must rely on faith alone to guide your steps!  What further and deeper truth it is that only when looking back will you see the blessings (lit by the very light you are walking towards) that have girded your heart and the joys that have sustained your spirit during pain, tribulation, or peace.  It is the unfortunate nature of man to find it difficult to simply be present or to “see” what should be seen, presently.  We are, in many cases, blind.  But Berry suggests here, that in reflection (looking back), one can see blessing and gain some courage to turn once again to the blinding Light that we can’t understand or fully know and press forward… ever forward.

These words were still brewing deep in my mind when I boarded the plane to Alabama that year.  While I was there, I remember sharing not only what I was currently going through in my life but also this poem with Diane during our time together.  It struck her in a similar way: like a bell, clear and bright on a distant hill.  And like a bell ringing, there was something that rang about those few days (and the students that were there I think could attest).   These times cannot be fabricated or chanced, only walked into and enjoyed.  There became an ‘agreement,’ by those present, upon many things: the richness of faith, meaning, sacrifice and service, excellence, and deep joy.  It was a profoundly encouraging time for me… and I hope for them as well.

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2016.

I received communication from Diane that she would like to collaborate on a new work for Troy’s Concert Chorale in honor of the 10th year, to be premiered in April of 2017.  I felt very honored and joyful to be asked.  My mind went immediately back to that Berry poem from 7 years ago.  What strange fulfillment it would be to compose a piece that, in looking back, would be the “the very light that blinded us shows us the way we came, along which blessings now appear, risen as if from sightlessness to sight…”  That became what I wanted for Diane, her students, and the alumni that sung with her at Troy over the last decade.

I chose not to pursue the Berry text as my textual foundation, so finding a perfect lyric for this moment was as challenging as it always is.  I found two or three that touched the ideas of reflection and looking back, but I struggled and strained.  One poem eventually leaped off the page to the forefront: Ridgely Torrence’s “Evensong.”  What I didn’t see, at the beginning, was how layered, rich and unfathomably deep this poem was.  Composing music to it helped me to eventually see.

Sometimes poems absolutely burn like a torch.

Beauty calls and gives no warning,
Shadows rise and wander on the day.
In the twilight, in the quiet evening,
We shall rise and smile and go away.
Over the flaming leaves
Freezes the sky.
It is the season grieves,
Not you, not I.
All our spring-times, all our summers,
We have kept the longing warm within.
Now we leave the after-comers
To attain the dreams we did not win.
O we have wakened, Sweet, and had our birth,
And that’s the end of earth;
And we have toiled and smiled and kept the light,
And that’s the end of night.
— Ridgely Torrence

After agreement from Diane on this text, I went forth to write a meaningful mixed acapella work.  Not too long into the process, she approached me with an interesting and enriching development: that this piece be composed not only for choir, but also for violoncello to be played by her excellent colleague Katerina Juraskova.  If I was apprehensive about it at first, it was not long before I knew that the addition of the cello would elevate this piece and poem to a more emotionally ‘charged’ place.  It would, fundamentally, become the tone-setter and dance partner to the choral instrument, sometimes pulling, sometimes gliding along while holding the hand of a transporting choir.

“Evensong,” when all is said and done, is true reflection.  It is seeing the past, as if rising from sightlessness to sight.  This is something I know quite well and realized long ago that when reflecting like that yes you see blessings, but you also see or remember many painful things.  We all refer to this simply as ‘life.’  I personally think that this ‘life’ is beautiful.  This beauty contains ugliness (pain, turmoil, tragedy, injustice).  It must, actually, because we are human.  …because we are broken.  I don’t find that this presence of “ugliness” necessarily eradicates beauty in the same fashion that light eradicates darkness, for example.  I find it to broaden the idea of beauty — strengthens it, making it more complex (and probably more trustworthy).  I tried to encapsulate a bit of that prismatic concept in the “beauty calling” opening cello line and initial text the choir sings.

Pages from Evensong - Full ScoreThe second half of Torrence’s poem is just unbelievable in what is nearly conversion language.  “O we have wakened, Sweet, and had our birth, And that’s the end of earth;” is stunning to say the least and pregnant with meaning.  There is a “big T-Truth” here to be seen, to be found — to be encountered.  In some ways the profundity of it is such that I dare not begin to speak to it, because I will ruin it’s crystalline beauty somehow.  It is followed immediately by “And we have toiled and smiled and kept the light, And that’s the end of night,” which is a remarkable hope-filled conclusion, no less filled with a knowing of this Truth mingled with the human condition.

Ultimately, I wanted this piece to honor what Diane and her singers have accomplished and experienced these last ten years.  I have seen first-hand the effect that a choral conductor can have on their singers when they, year after year, love them deeply.  It is life-altering, life-deepening, life-enriching.  It becomes legacy.  Ironically (in a similar fashion to the Berry poem), it is difficult to see this alteration, deepening, and enriching while in the moment.  Only when looking back upon the time will you see fully (or even partially) the love bestowed, grace granted, or labor done.  Those who love deeply ones in their care have indeed toiled and smiled and kept the light.  Through all spring-times and all summers, they have kept the longing deep within and what one will hope is that very light blaze forth like a fire into the darkness of our time, into the darkness of the hearts around us, even our own.

Pages from Evensong - Full Score-2

How does one speak to ten years?  How many faces seen, how many voices heard, how many hearts beating?  Ten years of joy, pain, laughter, smiles, disaster, and triumph.  Ten years of relationships, some but a breath, some rich and lasting.  Ten years of memories, some held on to by thread, some seared deep or scarred.

Ten years of singing.

Beauty continues to call us all without warning.  …And Troy University, with Diane Orlofsky will —
By blessing brightly lit, keep going toward
That blessed light that yet to us is dark.

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the Morning of Eternity …Remembering Anna.

I remember getting woken abruptly by my parents at my Crookston home one night in February 1997.  Our landline had rung later than normal and it was for me.  Not a good sign.

I don’t remember who was on the other side of that call but I remember vividly the breathless feeling I felt when I heard that my 17 year old friend Brock Olson had died in a car accident that day.  I hadn’t even turned 18 myself yet, and it was the sort of ‘punch in the gut’ thing that is hard to describe unless you’ve experienced it …being broadsided by death while still young.  I hung up the phone and all there was an emptiness of thought.  Shock had struck like lightning.  Those first few minutes were actually the easiest minutes of the next few weeks and months in many ways.

You see, Brock was a friend to many, many people.  He was popular.  He was kind.  He was good at sports.  He was talented.  He was funny, and laughed a lot.  He was loved. He was loved by me.

I remember walking into school the next morning, after getting no sleep at all, to see the grief and mourning play out on countless faces.  Everyone had either found out or was finding out.  Ninth-graders that probably only caught glimpses of him in the halls were gathering and crying out.  Most people his age that knew him well weren’t there at all.  I remember having to attend a meeting of the administration and some teachers with a friend as student representatives, and to also see their twisted faces of grief and uncertainty was very difficult.

Death is soul-shaking.

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As fate would have it, also in 1997, a girl was born named Anna to Hung Bui and Rachel Nguyen in Everett, Washington.  She grew up in the area into a beautiful, talented young lady who, like Brock, was loved by many.  She ended up attending Kamiak High School and graduated in 2015.  She developed a passion for singing there as a member of Nancy Duck-Jefferson’s wonderful choir program.  She was voted ‘Most Talented’ by her class and became a role model to younger students coming up in grades behind her.

She was loved.

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Anna Bui

On July 30, 2016, people that knew Anna experienced the devastating trauma that shakes the soul.  People that knew two boys named Jordan Ebner and Jake Long felt this trauma also.  These three died at the hands of a broken boy named Allen Ivanov, who walked into a Chennault Beach neighborhood house and shot them and also nearly killed a boy named Will Kramer as well.  Shock struck like lightning that night to a degree that is difficult to grasp or for anyone to really come to grips with.

The most poignant quote I came across about the aftermath of the incident was this by David Alcorta, “There are no words that can bring healing to this family right now.”  Truth be told, I can only begin to understand the full nature of that comment.  I have merely a taste of the situation, …only a small taste.  When I was 17, how could I possibly know fully what Marshall and Vicki Olson (or Brock’s sister Michelle) had to go through in reconciling their tragedy.  How could I possibly understand what Hung and Rachel (or Anna’s siblings) recently went through psychologically and spiritually to reconcile their tragedy?  I can’t.

And yet…

I received an email from Nancy last August stating, in part: “…Her name is Anna Bui.  You were her favorite composer. The Kamiak Choirs have loved performing your pieces and we would very much like for you to write a piece in honor of Anna.”  Very humbling to me (and deeply saddening).  I immediately knew what these folks may be feeling.  They were shattered.  I knew that I had to say yes, yet I also knew that what I was about to attempt was to be very difficult, if I was to attempt such a thing in truth.

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Mourning friends of the victims.

I found out through articles that Anna “had so much energy and a light about her that could just brighten up a room. If she was in the building, you could hear her laughter.”  “She cared so much about her friends and was so full of love. She had a huge heart.”  “She was the kindest and happiest soul.”  “She always had a smile on her face and a joke at the ready.”  Anna sounds like she was a wonderful human being doesn’t she?  How does one capture the nature of remembering one like her correctly with a choir piece?

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Mukilteo community grieving during the vigil honoring Bui, Long, and Ebner.

The text became (as usual), the most important part in how we do that.  Together, we ended up selecting Christina Rossetti’s powerful and transcendent poem, “Rest.”

O Earth, lie heavily upon her eyes;
Seal her sweet eyes weary of watching, Earth;
Lie close around her; leave no room for mirth
With its harsh laughter, nor for sound of sighs.
She hath no questions, she hath no replies,
Hushed in and curtained with a blessed dearth
Of all that irked her from the hour of birth;
With stillness that is almost Paradise.
Darkness more clear than noon-day holdeth her,
Silence more musical than any song;
Even her very heart has ceased to stir:
Until the morning of Eternity
Her rest shall not begin nor end, but be;
And when she wakes she will not think it long.

I don’t, traditionally, like setting texts that are often used by other contemporary composers or ones from the past, and this poem was nearly immortally set to music by one of my favorites: Ralph Vaughan Williams.  So a major initial challenge for me was to eliminate the sounds of that wonderful piece from my mind and also to establish that I would not compare anything I ended up writing to it (which is difficult, because his setting is remarkable).  The good news was that, in my view, his setting wasn’t quite ‘right’ for this situation, so I wasn’t overly seduced by it.  You may hear it performed by Tenebrae and Nigel Short here if you would like:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W2LV6qsdP_o 

My task became thus: attempt to somehow encapsulate, in a musical context, the ideas of pain, utter emptiness, passion, anger, confusion, memory, concepts of eternity and in this case (because of the text) … hope.  Needless to say, I struggled a lot to do that in a way that made sense to me, with the gravitas required.  But we had decided to have it be scored for mixed choir and piano, and the piano became (as in many of my scores) the scene-setting agent that balances the choir as an equal partner.  It also often becomes the director of drama and narrative.  I’ve always believed the piano is truly wonderful at capturing essences of emptiness and time, and I tried to use it that way in this piece.  I ended up doing so in 3 different ways, which are laid out immediately in the first 16 measures.  They insert themselves into the drama at different times throughout the rest of the piece, the second one (m6-11) painfully so, at times.

1-15 of Morning of Eternity

I also wanted to play around with general concepts of tonality in regards to being a little uncertain as to where ‘home’ is.  And when we get to our ‘home’ or tonic, will it be major or minor?  So we get bounced around a bit in our progressions with some surprises, which I thought was necessary in describing the path of grief, which has a confusing sense of not being grounded any more, as if knocked off balance.  …and things we thought were ‘home’ no longer feel quite the same.  The shifting I employed throughout also speaks to our individual notions of Eternity.  After we breathe our last, the morning of eternity for some, such as myself, is filled with Light, while for others it is questioned or filled with emptiness, even dread.

As in nearly all my pieces, this contains much melody, almost folk melody.  Lyricism, pacing, and narrative drama seem to be recognizable aspects of most of my choral works and it is found here also.  The ultimate goal is to work texture, ambience, melody, and cinema together to make the text three-dimensional to the listener.  Can we build something the audience, singers, and conductor ‘experience’ or ‘walk through’ the poem in some fashion rather than listen to some words dressed in beautiful garments of sound?

7-15 of Morning of EternityIt became a very powerful tool for me to constantly remind myself that this was a real person.  Anna was real — she breathed, she laughed, she loved, and she sang.  Jordan and Jake were real people.  Allen is a real (and broken) human being.  (We all are broken, are we not?)  Sometimes when composing, there is an ambiguity to the process, or ideology to speak to, not necessarily a beautiful, talented, and loved human being one is attempting to memorialize.  Her realness kept me insistent in continuing toward weight, gravity, and my original purpose and intent to drive into the pain, rather than speaking sideways about it.

The text itself was a true rudder for me in the process.  Lines such as “Darkness more clear than noon-day holdeth her, Silence more musical than any song;” are just remarkable if you spend more than one minute just glossing over it.  The more we think about these juxtapositions and paradoxes the more I think we glimpse truths about reality beyond our mortal coil.  There is a certain and distinct strangeness to it all, and it calls clearly and continually to me.

Nancy and her students at Kamiak in Washington are now walking down a complex road to remember, to heal, to grow in grace, hope, and love with this text.  As earth continues to lie more and more heavily upon Anna’s eyes, how can I express that I wish them joy?  How can I express that I wish them deep meaning and understanding of this we call life? …that I long for Anna’s family to somehow feel joy and peace and hope?  …to walk through grief fiercely grateful for the gift of knowing her even for a moment of time, for a year, for a decade, or for just a breath… — such is the relevance and importance of every human life.  For we all are, in the end (and beginning), created in the image of a King.

And so I remember Anna.

Until the morning of Eternity, Her rest will not begin nor end, but be…  And when she wakes, she will not think it long.

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Consequence of Humility

Who are you, in truth?  Who am I…in truth?  It is a question that requires more than a passing fanciful thought, does it not?  The words “in truth” are also desperately important, and seem to be growing more important daily as we continue to seek new ways of building image, new ways of fertilizing jealousy, new ways of deception, new ‘-isms,’ and new ways of developing “grass is greener over there” mentalities. I won’t lament this nonsense here, but will seek instead for something old fashioned…. something that seems to be thrown off and a bit forgotten in our age of self-worth hyper-realities and echo-chambers.  I seek humility.

Our dictionary defines ‘humility’ this way

(h)yo͞oˈmilədē/
noun
  1. a modest or low view of one’s own importance; humbleness.

I find this definition to be quite limiting and maybe even a little askew from the truth.  It is indeed common across cultures and religions to think of humility as debasing oneself or, as Wikipedia states in its overview, “Outside of a religious context, humility is defined as the self-restraint from excessive vanity…”.  This debasement, or self-effacement seems to be the most common conception of the term.  There is a truth in that yes, yet there are those who wonder of a different and richer definition that may create a more accurate vision of what ‘humility’ actually is.  To start, I think C.S. Lewis gets closer in his description of a humble man in Mere Christianity:

C S LewisDo not imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call “humble” nowadays: he will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody. Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him. If you do dislike him it will be because you feel a little envious of anyone who seems to enjoy life so easily. He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all.
Mere Chrisitanity; C.S. Lewis

Worth hearing again. “He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all.”

Even closer might be Rabbi Jonathon Sacks’ notion in Greatness is Humility that “humility is an appreciation of oneself, one’s talents, skills, and virtues. It is not meekness or self-deprecating thought, but the effacing of oneself to something higher. Humility is not to think lowly of oneself, but to appreciate the self one has received.”

It means honoring others and regarding them as important, no less important than you are. It does not mean holding yourself low; it means holding other people high. It means roughly what Ben Zoma meant when he said, “Who is honored? One who honors others.”
– Greatness is Humility; Rabbi Jonathon Sacks

And finally, though I’m not necessarily a fan, Immanuel Kant states that humility is “that meta-attitude that constitutes the moral agent’s proper perspective on himself as a dependent and corrupt but capable and dignified rational agent”  If I could, in all my foolishness, modify the great Kant, I would change it to this: humility is that meta-attitude that constitutes the moral agent’s proper perspective on himself as a dependent and corrupt but incapable and decidedly irrational agent. 

So, I suppose I believe that a better general definition of humility may be something like this:

noun
  1. a right or accurate view of one’s own importance; humbleness.

I’ve decided to leave “humbleness” in my definition because all people, when thinking correctly and soberly about themselves, would most assuredly be humble.  But this is the problem isn’t it?  We seem to be in an age where people are thinking less and less correctly or soberly about any situation — not least of which when thinking about one’s self.  We are consumed with image and the troubling idea of “self-worth.”  We are constantly bored.  We are jealous and envious of others.  We prop up houses of cards that fall in the lightest breeze.  We are notorious complainers, vicious to others.  How could that kind of people know intimately what humility is?  How could we have an accurate, right view of one’s self, or our own importance?  Søren Kierkegaard once wrote,”a person who chooses his own identity is ‘a king without a country’ and his subjects live in conditions where rebellion is legitimate at every moment.”

There is another aspect to humility (other than ignorance of it) that is equally concerning, and that is false humility.  I myself have lived somewhat ignorant of true humility to some extent much of my life, but with chagrin, I confess I know false humility deeply.  Though I may not have descended to the level that Lewis describes: “…a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody,” I do know I have been in conversations where instead of saying a simple “thank you,” I have said “oh, no, no no…it was nothing… it was not my best work… I wasn’t that good… etc,” but in my heart I was grinning with a sickly pride, saying, “oh yes, tell me more.  Describe in detail what you thought was great. Gush please.”  Ouch.  …painful, and alarmingly common for me over the years.  I was all too often creating an image unto myself, manipulating myself and others, and masking a gross pride.  I wonder if this sounds familiar to anyone else.

Ignorance and falseness are far removed from real humility.  The truth is that humility is very difficult, if not impossible for a human, don’t you see?.  It means that you see yourself (and your work) accurately in the natural and supernatural world.  That is dreadfully difficult for many people….well, maybe everyone.  We want to be seen.  We want to be remembered.  We want to be looked to.  We want to be loved.  We want to be lauded.  We endlessly promote, endlessly photoshop our pictures, endlessly worry about outcomes, endlessly get angry when things don’t turn out our way, and consistently get jealous of others’ successes.

I believe it is worth searching intensely for true humility and to get sober about one’s self.  The consequence of such action may be worth the effort.  I believe the consequence of humility… true humility, is: freedom.

Oh, I see the immediate response of the brain as plain as day because I have had the responses myself.  “If I go for real humility I am going to miss out!”  “I will miss out on potential praise from others.”  “I will miss out on opportunities.”  “I will not be allowed to be angry at being wronged by another.”  “I will not be loved the way I think I should.” “I will miss out on the great prizes of life if I don’t just act humble for a show, but am actually humble!”  Well, yes, you may.  But you will be free. Free from what?

You will begin to be free from jealousy. You will be utterly free to not worry about how you are perceived by others.  You will begin to be free of anger at others’ successes or failures.  You will be free to sacrifice your desires for others.  You will be free to begin to claim a proper perspective of yourself.  You may be less tossed to-and-fro by troubles.  You will be free to actually enjoy life more, and not have to convince yourself, fake it, or buy it.

You will begin to be free to think less of yourself.  Wouldn’t that be wonderful?  Aren’t you tired of thinking about yourself constantly?

________________

This type of thinking flies in the face of what society and culture is teaching, I know that.  “Self-love” is the doctrine of the day (and false humility falls under the heading “self-love” also, lets be honest about that).  Even if this doctrine of self isn’t necessarily preached from a mountaintop, I see it on every street corner and in most people’s eyes.  Sometimes I feel it quite strongly, the pull away from humility and towards service of me, myself, and I.  Humility requires letting go, and that is one of the very things humans never want to do.  Oh, we must be the captains of our own fates, mustn’t we?  With this understood, in my very heart I believe that a transformative and life-giving humility requires a supernatural force to assist its generation and flourishing.  Kierkegaard stated the formula to essentially achieve a correct view of self and eradication of despair, thus triggering true humility: when “the self is grounded transparently in the power that established it.” I trust you understand what he is suggesting here — if not, answers can be found in either his book The Sickness unto Death or more plainly seen throughout the New Testament.

There is no doubt a mountain of other things to be said on this subject (and I am certain I have failed in some of my generalizations and descriptions above), yet as a moderate conclusion to the matter here, I have learned that I cannot trust my own heart and what it desires.  I have been disappointed in the results too many times.  I have looked back on my actions, either accidental, well-meant, or foolish, and have seen them to be wavering, many times self-seeking, and at best the results are short-lived.  But what joy! I am tasting a true humility more and more these days because I am grounding myself transparently to the power that established me.  I am letting go through a power not my own and building a correct and right view of my worth as a human being on a cornerstone that will never be moved.  I am sacrificing more for others.  I am able to let go and be happy for other people and finding myself worrying less about how I am perceived.  I am tasting, like drops of water in an immense desert, freedom and joy.  I wish this for you, (and me), dearly.

Be ye humble in truth.

Unearthing EWB: Sweeter Still

As we daily approach Christmas and lift the daily flaps on our Julekalenders, here is a few words on a little holiday piece that has had a very interesting life, filled with change, adaptations, and anomalies: Sweeter Still.

COMPOSITIONAL CONTEXT

I was asked a long time ago (2004), one Minnesota summer, to compose a piece for the wedding of a college acquaintance, Marcus Aulie.  I was honored to have been asked.  It was to be sung by a gaggle of his friends who were recent members of The Bemidji Choir, from Bemidji State University.  This choir at that time was quite good, with members who went on to sing with prestigious professional choirs, so I felt like I could write whatever I would like.  I knew that it would receive at most 2 rehearsals though, with most of the singers rehearsing at home, so I didn’t want to overdo it.  I thought I would settle on something simple, but pleasing.  I had only been composing for a few years at this point as well, so I’m glad I didn’t try for something more.

I will say this plainly – it is difficult to find a meaningful poem to set for a wedding.  (At least for me, maybe other choral composers would say differently).  There are scriptural texts that speak of love, general love poems, but nothing I saw truly represented what I wanted to use for this opportunity.  I chose rather to break my now golden(ish) rule: write my own text.  I never recommend this to anyone who asks.  Perhaps only someone like Stephen Sondheim has proven that it could work for him with excellence.  In my youthful way (I knew no other), this I did: I wrote a fairly simple piece with my own simple lyrics that would honor my friend at his wedding.

It was a year or two later, when talking with Gunilla Luboff at Walton Music, that this piece took its first turn.  It was still fairly early on my composing career in 2006 and I treasured my relationship with Dr. Jo-Michael Scheibe.  I often relied upon him and his series with Walton.  If I remember correctly, I was talking with Gunilla about getting more than one piece on the docket for 2007 (a common thing I sought for in those days), and she asked if I had anything for the holiday season, and I had to say no.  (I was transitioning to writing only commissions and hadn’t yet been asked to compose a holiday piece).  After the phone call I sat at my desk looking at my material and decided that this piece was maneuverable and had a melody that could suit the holiday season.  So I changed the words… again, heresy.  Absolute heresy, looking back upon it now.

https://www.giamusic.com/search_details.cfm?title_id=25124

It was published in 2007 as a “Holiday Carol” in the Jo-Michael Scheibe series with Walton Music.  In the end, it will have been only heard once in its true context with the text it was meant for.  Only those present that summer day in 2004 will have heard or sung the original.  There is a tinge of sadness about that, in that the importance and elevation of text is something I contend for quite seriously.

ELEMENTS OF STYLE
(…E.W.Barnum not E.B.White)

pages-from-sweeter-still-2nd-version

Page from original manuscript, after word changes. (Notation errors included!)

This piece has is a very simple idea: memorable melody, simple homophonic choral accompaniment with slight deviation, and a traditional ABAB(coda) structure.  Sometimes simplicity works.

The lights shine brightly all over the town,
as Christmas bells toll for miles around,
the wind blowing gently, snow falling softly,
the stars brightly shining for you and for me.

And Sweet is the sound of a carol sung by a choir,
and sweet is the warmth of the soft glow from a fire;
but sweeter still, is the joy when I see
the family round the Christmas tree.

Silently children dream, hearts full of love,
until they hear footsteps from up above.
They rush down the stairs hoping to see
the bright smile of Santa before he disappears.

And Sweet is the sound of a carol sung by a choir,
and sweet is the warmth of the soft glow from a fire;
but sweeter still, is the joy when I see
the family round the Christmas tree.
— EWB

It was never meant to be difficult to sing or difficult to understand.  It was never meant to challenge taste.  It was never meant to excite or thrill.  It was always meant just to warm hearts and make people smile in its simplicity and texture.  It was meant to allow people to ‘feel’ the season.

I do not want to overstate something or make this piece more grandiose than it is, but I can mention a few things.
– If I would have known that it was meant to be a holiday piece, I may have composed it in F, not in G.  (I say this, because for some reason, not only is F blue to me, it also speaks of the Christmas season…not sure how to explain that).
– I would have written different lyrics today than I did when I was 27.  I do not completely regret the lyrics, but I think Chanticleer’s Joe Jennings was right to manipulate them slightly for their CD (and secretly, I like the changes he later made to the lyrics much better than the ones I initially wrote, especially when he changed ‘Santa’ to ‘St. Nick’ and ‘see’ to ‘spy’).
– Though it adds to the saccharine nature of the piece, I kind of wish I would have thought of the key change that Chanticleer later added as well.

BETWEEN THE NOTES – MEANING

Sweeter Still walks a fine line between Christmas nonsense and true holiday nostalgia.  Dismissing the part about the children hoping to discover Santa delivering their presents, this piece does speak to a very real feeling that one gets during the darkest time of the year.  When the lights are on the Christmas tree after the sun sets with a hot chocolate in your hand… When the fire pops and crackles… When the laughter dies down… When you start to stare and your mind wanders to memories and smiles and joys and thankfulness… Well, then you really can start to know what this piece is embracing.

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– Viggo Johansen (1891)

What is most interesting to me about this piece is how it speaks about itself.  “Sweet is the sound of a carol sung by a choir” is exactly what one is doing when you sing it.  Yet it acknowledges how it (itself) profoundly dims in comparison to the joy, reverence, and greater sweetness of a gathered family at home.  Yes, there will inevitably be a mess, oddness, and conflict…and laughter…it is family after all.  But it shines much brighter than the fire or the songs we sing.  It is a basic and whole idea.  And what tragedy that some know this feeling of family and will not be able to experience it this winter or in winters to come.  A great hope is that this grief will melt into the joy of memory and stinging nostalgia so many of us know and bear.  Perhaps the people with this experience know most of all how sweeter still is the joy of seeing the family around the Christmas tree.

FURTHER DEVELOPMENT

Sweeter Still has experienced much change and growth through the years, starting immediately after its publication.  I received one of the more interesting calls of my choral career soon after the piece was published from Joseph Jennings, the emeritus Artistic Director of San Fransisco’s Chanticleer.  After some laughs and small talk, he said that they wanted to add Sweeter Still to their new holiday album Let It Snow, but in doing so they would change some words, add a piano accompaniment, and add a key change….well now…how could I say no?…Of course I didn’t say no.  There was a frantic call to Walton, followed by the acceptance of a “Chanticleer” version, and then a long wait until the CD was released.  When I finally got to hear it, I understood what he meant all along and what the men of Chanticleer brought to the moment.  Oh, to hear my friends in the group sing this simple song!  Though the CD was not necessarily met with overall critical success, I was humbled and supremely grateful to be included.  I dearly thank you Joe.

In the years following, many have performed the published version, but others have made slight alterations or additions here and there depending upon their needs…with harp, with piano, with orchestra…  I will highlight here what Dr. Jo-Michael Scheibe has done in that he has brought it with him from Miami to USC and continues to perform it year after year at their Winter Gala — yet it has evolved, changed, and has grown into something wonderful.  The link below is a most recent adaptation with a new orchestration by Kenneth Regan:

https://www.dropbox.com/s/2htvfae69yaj9d1/Sweeter%20Still.mp4?dl=0

And finally, a 2014 performance by USC Thornton choirs conducted by Dr. Jo-Michale Scheibe.

I wish a Merry Yuletide to all, and I hope you get a taste of what this piece speaks of.

Tracks of Never-Ending Light

There is a moment few will know.

Long after the last strain,
After the final breath,
After the final chord,
After the bows,
After the last applause,
After the curtain,
After the hugs and well-wishes,
After the smiles,
After the piano is covered,
After the farewells,
After the flick of the darkening lights,
There is a moment few will know.

It is a moment shared with no one,
When the conductor sits in silence,
Looking far away,
And thoughts fall like a quiet snow,
Stinging cheeks and hands.

If only I… If only they…

Imagine if…

I missed…  They missed…

I wish…

I loved…

And the smiles come.  The regrets.  The wonders.

Thoughts flow forth in heavy flakes.
Oh, these gentle souls under my care —
Were they nourished?
Did they grow like flowers in the sun?
Did they climb this mountain and see what I see, high above?
Did they give everything they had?
Did they hear?
Did they sacrifice?

Did they sing?

For I know I love them, these who have trusted me.
Yet what a dear tragedy I missed a special look from one
Or a smile from another…
I would that I could turn time back to make sure I really saw them,
To make sure I treasured them in the way they deserve —
All of them.
So they would know I loved them, these who have trusted me.
So they would know I saw that they tried.
So they would know I saw that they tried…

Oh, I wish…

There is a moment few will know,
When the conductor sits in silence.
When the music is done,
And thoughts whip about like snowflakes on a windy night,
As if they move on tracks of never-ending light.

 

Removing the Blindfold

Though I don’t necessarily agree with everything G.K. Chesterton ever said, I recently ran across this poignant quote that was posted on his curated Twitter feed:

I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought, and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.

I have seen many people recently investing a great deal of time in doing a variety of things that I can only believe and describe as self-sabotage. (I say recently, but it may be safe to say only my perception of it has increased).  What are just a few of these things:

  • Complaining (about anything, particularly about “1st world” problems).
  • Feeling the world or members of the world have wronged us in some way.
  • Falling prey to traps that we ourselves have laid in our own minds.
  • Assuming we are owed something because we are unnaturally entitled.
  • Jealousy
  • Being arrogant.
  • Entering into silly sadnesses that come from things like a favorite team losing a game.
  • etc.

I’m sure you get the idea here, though the list could be quite long.  This is by no means a condemnation of any particular person …except perhaps myself.  There also is not an assumption here that true, life-changing and devastating events do not happen to people. What I am pronouncing is that I have succumbed to all the dismal things just listed and more… too many times to count.  Have you as well?  In quieter and more honest times, I begin to understand my many errors and I see what surrendering to these things does to me.  What does it really do?  Why do I call these things self-sabotage?

With each unfortunate and ungrateful act, I put a blindfold over my eyes.

0114_blindfold-800x480I am convinced the concept of seeing and sight is an important one and the metaphor here is quite simple.  A blindfold causes one not to see.  All of the listed issues above are ideas that cause one’s sight to stop at the self or to be bent back inward towards the self.  How far or how much can one see when this is the case?  About as far as a blindfold will allow.  It is painful to imagine how much I’ve missed because of my complaining, my arrogant behavior, my entitlements, or my self-aggrandizements.  I know for sure I have missed little joys, beauties, kindnesses from others, sacrifices, and smiles from others.

Even more importantly, I also know I have missed opportunities.  Opportunities have come along life’s way to give instead of expect, to open instead of close, to bow instead of glare, to stop instead of walk away, to be quiet and listen instead of talk, and to smile instead of frown.  I missed opportunities to see what is real.  Though I find it increasingly difficult to maintain a relationship with true reality, I know that taking the time to remove my blindfold would have helped me to do so more frequently.

Often I find myself advising my students to get in a proverbial helicopter and to imagine flying high above when faced with particular day-to-day difficulties.  This idea is very similar to removing one’s blindfold.  What happens the higher you go?  You can ‘see’ farther.  This ‘seeing’ leads one’s mind to a quiet (though slightly still-cloudy) understanding of reality.  I find, in at least a small way, this flows in the same stream as Chesterton’s quote above.  He posits that giving thanks is the ‘highest’ form of thought.  What happens in the heights — what happens when flying high above?  Wisdom, understanding, sight, peace …..and thankfulness.  I think our blindfold is removed up there.

Thanksgiving in America recently gave us a cursory opportunity to apply once a year lip-service to something that is intensely difficult to do: give thanks.  I do not mean this as hyperbole.  A true giving of thanks in your heart is hard (and is seemingly getting harder for the youth of contemporary society).  It requires us stop doing what we are really good at: thinking of ourselves.  It requires us to stop complaining and to lay down entitlement.  It requires us to stop being arrogant ‘look-at-me’ people.  I know this is hard – from experience.

It requires us to take off our blindfolds to see.

3

And perhaps if we do, we will be blinded by the bright and glorious light of thankfulness.  Maybe we will experience gratitude, which is happiness doubled by wonder.  Maybe we will find real Truth and real Grace.

Children of Cloud and Frost

This year in Trondheim,  Tove Ramlo-Ystad and the unmistakably excellent women’s vocal ensemble Cantus are celebrating their 30th year of singing.  With recent international tours, a 2016 Grammy-nominated album (Spes), as well as an upcoming album with Decca, they are fulfilling their role as one of the very best choirs in the world.  It is here in a cold Trondheim, at the cozy Dromedar Kaffebar, that I write to you.

cantus-koret

My friendship with Tove and Cantus has developed very much recently and resulted in a collaborative opportunity this fall.  As with most situations like this, the proper poem to use appeared out of the mist and I think it turned out to be perfect for these fair children of the frosty north.

Stand here by my side and turn, I pray,
On the lake below thy gentle eyes;
The clouds hang over it, heavy and gray,
and dark and silent the water lies;
And out of that frozen mist the snow
In wavering flakes begins to flow;
Flake after flake
They sink in the dark and silent lake.

See how in a living swarm they come
From the chambers beyond the misty veil;
Some hover awhile in the air, and some
Rush prone from the sky like summer hail.
All, dropping swiftly or settling slow,
Meet and are still in the depths below;
Flake after flake
Dissolved in the dark and silent lake.

Here delicate snow-stars, out of the cloud,
Come floating downward in airy play,
Like spangles dropped from the glistening crowd
That whiten by night the milky-way;
There broader and burlier masses fall;
The sullen water buries them all —
Flake after flake
All drowned in the dark and silent lake.

And some, as on tender wings they glide
From their chilly birth-cloud, dim and gray,
Are joined in their fall, and, side by side,
Come clinging along their unsteady way;
As friend with friend, or husband with wife,
Makes hand in hand the passage of life;
Each mated flake
Soon sinks in the dark and silent like.

Lo! while we are gazing, in swifter haste
Stream down the snows, till the air is white,
As, myriads by myriads madly chased,
They fling themselves from their shadowy height.
The fair, frail creatures of middle sky,
What speed they make, with their grave so nigh;
Flake after flake,
To lie in the dark and silent lake!

I see in thy gentle eyes a tear;
They turn to me in sorrowful thought;
Thou thinkest of friends, the good and dear,
Who were for a time and now are not;
Like these fair children of cloud and frost,
That glisten for a moment and then are lost,
Flake after flake —
All lost in the dark and silent lake.

Yet look again, for the clouds divide;
A gleam of blue on the water lies;
And far away, on the mountain-side,
A sunbeam falls from the opening skies.
But the hurrying host that flew between
The cloud and the water, no more is seen;
Flake after flake,
At rest in the dark and silent lake.

— William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878)

brooklyn_museum_-_william_cullen_bryant_-_wyatt_eaton_-_overallThe words penned here fit in quite well with Bryant’s natural and spiritual milieu, most vividly seen in his landmark poem “Thanatopsis.”  His poetry is permeated with melancholy, tenderness, and a love of wilderness and nature.  The deep nostalgia that almost drips from the words as you read them to some critics has come across as sappy, yet to others appear as very wise and filled with meaning and heart.  Mary Mapes Dodge wrote in Schoolroom Poets, “You will admire more and more, as you grow older, the noble poems of this great and good man.”

In “The Snow Shower,” like his other poetry, he looks closely at an aspect of nature — in this case, the falling snow.  It is nearly impossible, I think, not to get entranced by the image he portrays, which really is like the entrancing character of looking at falling snow.  Can you picture it?  Do you remember that moment, when staring into the falling snow, where your mind and heart slowed and you felt a deeper…something?  Time slows and a panoply of memories race as the ‘fair, frail creatures of middle sky’ ‘come floating downward in airy play, like spangles dropped from the glistening crowd.’ I know this feeling well, and the result is captured excellently by Edgar Allen Poe, who said about Bryant’s poetry, “The impression left is one of a pleasurable sadness.”  Exactly.

One truly is moved when Bryant transitions to the last two stanzas.  In only two stanzas he takes a great sadness and points to something that can only be described as ‘hope.’  We understand why he took time to say things such as:

“…From their chilly birth-cloud, dim and gray,
Are joined in their fall, and, side by side,
Come clinging along their unsteady way;
As friend with friend, or husband with wife,
Makes hand in hand the passage of life;
Each mated flake…”

These snow flakes, when your eye looks beyond the transportive snow and focuses on the ‘other’ that is beyond, become people and memories.  There is both a great joy in this thought and great sadness.  “Thou thinkest of friends, the good and dear, Who were for a time and now are not; Like these fair children of cloud and frost, That glisten for a moment and then are lost…” Regret… Love… Joy… Pain… Faith… Sorrow… Birth… Family… etc. all encompassed by a white dot flying and floating across the sky.

Yet.

Yet look again and what do you see?  It is very distant but it is there…. a sunbeam falls on the mountainside.  How beautiful!  How enrapturing that ray of light against the dark!  Oh what hope and joy the clouds divided to share with us (even if for only a moment) the light that is ever present that we currently cannot see.  It is there.  Night will assuredly soon be over.  Nox praecessit.

This is Life.

Cantus has had a very trying time as of late.  Their conductor of 30 years, Tove Ramlo-Ystad, lost her husband Tor Ystad this summer.  He was a very beloved man, and it was an absolutely devastating loss to all who knew him, and still has a palpable effect on their tender hearts — yet Cantus banded together and supported their conductor and her family with care, sympathy, and deep love.

When asked to compose a piece this year, I wanted to speak into this tragic pain with my piece in some way, and this poem became a deep and poignant way.  Tor became a ‘delicate, snow-star,’ one we behold and marvel, and in such haste it is gone – gone too soon.  I dearly wanted this piece to be the light on the mountainside, not just for my dear friend Tove and her family, but also for these strong women of Cantus.

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I was 7 years old when Cantus sang their first notes together.  What a marvel to imagine that little boy in Minnesota and the great joy he would feel when he finally would meet those fair children of cloud and frost.  For that is what the beautiful singers of Cantus are to me.

Happy 30th Birthday,

Eric