New Devotion in Amsterdam

In an age where it seems that you can be virtually transported to more or less any concert hall in the world via the internet at a mouse-click’s distance, it might seem that few musical locations still possess any mystique these days. But there are (thankfully) still some magical places where entering through the door is enough to provoke a racing of the pulse. It was to one of these – the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam – that I had the privilege of making a day-pilgrimage last Saturday for the latest instalment in our unfolding Psalms Project. The occasion was a concert by the English chamber choir Polyphony under Stephen Layton featuring the first performance of a new unaccompanied setting of Psalm 67 by the highly-talented young Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenvalds, to my mind one of the hottest properties in the world of contemporary sacred music.[1] Also on the programme was the première of a second setting of Psalm 67 by the Pole Paweł Łukaszewski (b. 1968) as well as works by Arvo Pärt (Bogoroditse Djévo, Magnificat) and Benjamin Britten (Ad Maioram Dei Gloriam, Hymn to St Cecilia).

Concertgebouw-Hans-Peter-HarmsenAmsterdam Concertgebouw (photo: Hans-Peter Harmsen)

The concert, intriguingly entitled ‘New Devotion’ (Nieuwe devotie), was part of the Dutch Radio’s highly innovative ‘ZaterdagMatinee’ series, held at 2.15 on Saturday afternoons. This somewhat unusual timing had been making me somewhat nervous all week. I was hoping against hope that the not-always-reliable Thalys hi-speed train from Paris that morning wouldn’t play a trick on me similar to the mechanical breakdown and four-hour delay that I experienced on my previous Dutch excursion for SDG a year ago to hear the première of Einojuhani Rautavaara’s recent a cappella Mass in Utrecht. Back then I had only missed the Dutch Radio Choir’s final rehearsal, but this time a comparable delay would have meant missing the event altogether! So I was highly relieved when I reached Amsterdam Centraal in time to take the tram across the Venice of the North to the Concertgebouw, arriving just as the morning rehearsal was finishing. The Concertgebouw surely remains a truly mythical hall (I suppose that only the Wiener Musikverein has an equivalent cachet in Europe) both in terms of acoustic and tradition, so it was a very special moment when I had the chance to greet Stephen Layton and the two composers of the day in the empty auditorium, surrounded only by the great names of the past embossed in big gold letters (‘BRUCKNER – MAHLER – FRANCK’ …) on panels below the balcony seats. As the context for the first performance of one of our Psalms Project pieces, we could hardly have asked for any better stamp of approval given that one of our objectives with the Project is to demonstrate that new compositions being written explicitly for use in Christian worship are not some second-rate ‘Church music’ which can only survive in a parallel universe where religious sincerity is accepted as a substitute for artistic excellence.  The occurrence of a Psalms Project première at a venue such as the Concertgebouw is, on the contrary, evidence this is some of the best new music around which needs no special pleading, even in an apparently ‘secular’ context. Within the constraints of a compressed seven-minute framework, Ešenvalds’ Psalm 67 came over as a powerfully communicative yet subtle piece, its harmonic and melodic gestures consistently well thought-out, with moments both of hushed intimacy and great strength.

Esenvalds-right-w-LukaszewskiEriks Esenvalds (right) with Pawel Lukaszewski

To see the hall packed to capacity for a daytime concert of 20th/21st century sacred unaccompanied choral works was pretty surprising, especially as the tickets weren’t exactly cheap (around $40). The audience moreover gave Polyphony a standing ovation at the end of the type they would normally give a Mahler symphony conducted by Riccardo Chailly or Mariss Jansons (Ešenvalds recalled having sung Mahler 8 under the latter in the Concertgebouw some years ago as a member of the Latvian State Choir). It does however have to be said that Polyphony is no ordinary choir, as you can judge for yourself by listening to the whole concert as streamed by Dutch Radio here. Having myself been a fellow music student alongside Stephen Layton at King’s College, Cambridge in the late 1980s, I was present at the some of Polyphony’s very first concerts 25 years ago, so it was interesting for me to reflect on the way in which they have since developed into one of the world’s truly great choral ensembles. In particular, Polyphony has done impressive service to the cause of sacred music through their many acclaimed recordings of well- and lesser-known composers (including both Ešenvalds and Łukaszewski).  As the Amsterdam concert demonstrated, their technical level is outstanding, combining great attention to details of rhythmic precision, diction and balance between voices with a richness of sound capable of filling the 1400 seat hall with only 27 singers.  Their dynamic range in particular was quite exceptional and cannot be conveyed by a radio recording made via close miking and dynamic compression technology. The audience reaction was however not merely – indeed not even primarily – an acknowledgement of superlative choral technique; I had the distinct sense that what was being appreciated was the emotional depth of the performance and, at least to some extent,  the profound and explicitly Christian spirituality expressed through the programme. Exactly the kind of spirituality that Holland – until the 1950s one of the most devout countries in Western Europe – seems to have tried to erase from its own collective memory.

It has to be remembered that the Concertgebouw is located in a city whose centre now has very few functioning places of worship. It is difficult to exaggerate the extent to which Amsterdam has violently and ostentatiously rejected its own rich Christian (and Jewish) tradition; as I have noted elsewhere on this blog, this is where ‘Paradiso’ is the name which was mockingly given to a deconsecrated church turned into a rock venue plastered with occult posters. Or, as I discovered on my way to the train station afterwards to take the Thalys back to Paris, where the sign ‘Church’ may well indicate a porn bar rather than a house of prayer. In this ultra-secular Dutch context, my impression was very much that the concert was in some ways a ‘para-liturgical’ event, the re-surfacing in a concert hall of a latent spirituality that may well for historical reasons be technically severed from formal religious institutions but is no less real for all that.

Dutch-Radio-interview-Esenvalds-300x225Hans Haffmans interviews Eriks Esenvalds and Pawel Lukaszewski

Just as thought-provoking as the concert were fascinating pre-concert radio interviews in English (followed by Dutch translation) with first Stephen Layton and then Ešenvalds/Łukaszewski, It was all pretty lively stuff as the interview was conducted in a corner of the Concertgebouw café where we were all sitting (if you listen hard you can probably hear me munching sandwiches and slurping coffee in the background …)

Accessing this isn’t as easy as listening to the recording of the concert, but for anyone interested in digging a little below the surface and undeterred by the Dutch-only interface, I highly recommend doing the following:

1. Click on http://ntrzaterdagmatinee.radio4.nl/uitzending/194155/NTR%20ZaterdagMatinee.html
2. Click on the play button on the audio player marked ‘Uitzending van Zaterdag 10 November’ and wait for the large file to load
3. Drag the cursor across to 12:55 on the slider (under the ‘I’ of ‘UITZENDING’) which is where the interview starts

Layton, Ešenvalds and Łukaszewski all make thought-provoking comments which are I think highly pertinent to the question of the historical and social rôle of New Sacred Music in a contemporary European context (but one which I would venture is not without a North American application at a time when the ‘spiritual but not religious’ constituency is growing all the time). I would also term it ‘gently subversive’ to the extent that all three, from their Anglican, Baptist and Catholic perspectives respectively, speak directly and without apology about belief in God. This, as one Dutch Radio representative commented to me, is a real taboo in the Netherlands, even going as far as to remark that he could hear the Divine Humour’ at work as we were listening. There was certainly a peculiar irony in hearing the Polish and Latvian composers, both of whom grew up in countries where the Church was subject to very real persecution, speaking out about their faith into a climate which is just as steeped in atheistmaterialism (of the consumer rather than the Marxist dialectical variety) as the former Eastern Bloc [2]. An additional point of interest here is the East-West aspect of the conversation, as Stephen Layton points out when discussing the inclusion on the programme of works by Benjamin Britten, seeing Arvo Pärt’s decision to write his famous Cantus in memory of the British composer on his death in 1976 as somehow prophetic of the events of the next two decades and the reunification of a continent which had seemed irremediably divided at the time of the Cold War.

Returning by train to the French capital that evening, I found myself wondering what to do with the term ‘New Devotion’ when applied to music, and struggling to put feelings into words. Perhaps nothing more should be read into it than a convenient descriptor for marketing purposes. Yet, as I listened again to the concert, I had the impression that whoever applied the phrase Nieuwe devotie to it was indeed attempting to denote something that merits a little conceptual exploration (and which has in the past been described – not necessarily positively – as  ‘holy’ or ‘spiritual minimalism’).

So … assuming for argument’s sake that ‘New Musical Devotion’ of the Christian variety exists, and at the risk of gross simplification, let me take a stab at outlining what might be seen as some of its salient features. And here I am not only referring to the ‘Holy Minimalists’ Pärt, Górecki, Tavener (to whom we can add Valentin Silvestrov), but also younger composers such as Ešenvalds, Łukaszewski, Roxanna Panufnik, Galina Grigorjeva (Estonia/Ukraine), Rihards Dubra (Latvia), Vladimir Godar (Slovakia) or Dobrinka Tabakova (Bulgaria).[2]

i) Even when expressing itself in a concert setting, the New Devotion conceives music as an act of worship whose focus is not the self-expression of the artist but the contemplation of a transcendent reality. It therefore has as basis outside itself.

ii) Its primary focus is liturgical/doxological – any didactic component is secondary; I may be generalizing here, but New Musical Devotion prefers to ‘pray with’ rather than to ‘preach at’.

iii) New Musical Devotion seeks simplicity and sees music as being in a continuum with silence.

iv) New Devotion is unafraid of beauty, despite the ideological taboos placed on consonance by the post-1945 avant-garde. It shows no interest in proving its credentials with the New Music establishment; it does not attempt to argue with the critics who see it as sentimental or intellectually vapid, but quietly goes its own way without waiting for ‘official sanction’ from musical institutions. Although not ‘anti-intellectual’, New Musical Devotion appeals strongly to the heart and to audiences who may feel alienated by other forms of contemporary music.

v) Geographically, New Musical Devotion seems from the outset to have had its main poles in the British Isles and the former Eastern Bloc, with considerable cross-fertilization between the two (facilitated in many cases by the championing of Central/European composers by British performers whose training is strongly linked to the Anglican liturgical tradition).

vi) Although there are considerable commonalities of musical idiom and subject-matter linking the composers in question, the New Devotion – unlike, say, the ‘Second Viennese’ or ‘Darmstadt’ Schools – has not arisen because of the work of any teacher, institution or adherence to an artistic ‘manifesto’; the artists concerned have largely developed independently from one another and their similarities only observed a posteriori.

vii) New Musical Devotion is ‘new’ to the extent that it has emerged after a major historical rupture which it does not attempt to deny (the years of Communist rule in Eastern Europe, the collapse of the institutional Church in the West). The musical acknowledgement of this rupture can be seen in a desire to write music with tonal references while refusing to reinstate functional tonality – the product of a limited historical and geographical context – as a system. Instead, New Devotion’s use of tonal sonorities occurs within a broader modal framework antedating tonality per se and open to other musical idioms outside the Western post-Renaissance tradition (an obvious example being the Hilliard Ensemble/Jan Garbarek Officium Novum project).

viii) Following on from this, New Musical Devotion makes considerable retrieval of pre-modern musical and textual sources in order to generate a post-modern idiom (in theological terms, this can be termed ‘ressourcement‘, a ‘return to the sources’).

ix) Although its individual practitioners are rooted in their own confessional traditions, New Musical Devotion is an ecumenical phenomenon involving Eastern Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant composers; it moreover sees no contradiction in appealing to traditional Christian spiritual practices while also being actively involved in inter-faith dialogue (Pärt’s Adam’s Lament , Tavener Beautiful Names, R. Panufnik Abraham). While maintaining Christian distinctiveness, the New Devotional Music honours others’ religious traditions.  It exhibits an especially strong convergence with the New Jewish-American Music of Steve Reich, Aaron Kernis, David Lang and others.

x) As a matter of observation, New Musical Devotion, while primarily focused on the worship of the Trinity, also appears to  be significantly Marian on two levels (Protestants please bear with me on this one before hitting the ‘exit’ button, as the phenomenon in question is not exclusively Catholic!).

The first level is thematic, as borne out not only by the considerable number of Ave Marias (Silvestrov, Łukaszewski, R. Panufnik …), but by many other ‘New Devotional’ compositions written over the last 40 years in which Jesus’s Mother features prominently: Górecki Ad Matrem (1971), Symphony n.3 (1976), O Domina nostra (1982/1990), Totus Tuus (1987), Tavener The Protecting Veil (1989), Sollemnitas in Conceptione Immaculata Beatae Mariae Virginis (2006), Pärt Stabat Mater (1985), Magnificat (1989), Bogoroditse Djevo (1990), Salve Regina (2001/2), Most Holy Mother of God (2003), Ešenvalds Passion and Resurrection (2005), Vladimir Godar Mater (2006), Rihards Dubra Hail, Queen of Heaven (2008) …

The second, deeper level is more a question of general orientation – the New Devotion can be described as ‘Marian’ to the extent that its fundamental attitude is contemplative, regarding music as a gift to be received with gratitude rather than the product of the artist’s ego. This is of course only my personal interpretation, but there is a sense in which the composers of  New Devotional Music are linked in their refusal to impose artistic will on the musical material, to impress or to seek novelty for its own sake. Here there is an attitude of relinquishment which Christian tradition has seen as taking its human cue from Mary’s response to the Annunciation in Luke 1:38, foreshadowing the life of obedience and self-emptying of her Son in words that surely ought to resonate with all Christians across denominational boundaries:

Behold, I am the servantof the Lord; let it be to me according to your word. (ESV)

Perhaps the most moving moment of Polyphony’s triumphant concert at the Concertgebouw came when, to everyone’s surprise, conductor Stephen Layton himself sang the opening baritone solo to Ēriks Ešenvalds’ Psalm 67. With his back to the audience, quietly and without any sense of show, just as an Anglican priest might chant during an Evensong service of the sort for which the piece was written. Both musically and gesturally the moment seemed to me to capture the meditative essence of the ‘New Musical Devotion’ at its best – a ‘letting go’, a freedom from the desire to prove anything to anyone.

______________

NOTES

[1] Plans are well in hand for a first US performance of Ēriks Ešenvalds’ Psalm 67 in 2013. Watch http://www.sdgmusic.org for further details.

[2] Proposition 20 : THE NEW EVANGELIZATION AND THE WAY OF BEAUTY
In the New Evangelization, there should be a particular attention paid to the way of beauty: Christ, the “Good Shepherd” (cf. Jn 10:11) is the Truth in person, the beautiful revelation in sign, pouring himself out without measure. It is important to give testimony to the young who follow Jesus, not only of his goodness and truth, but also of the fullness of his beauty. As Augustine affirmed, “it is not possible to love what is not beautiful” (Confessions, Bk IV, 13.20). Beauty attracts us to love, through which God reveals to us his face in which we believe. In this light artists feel themselves both spoken to and privileged communicators of the New Evangelization.

In the formation of seminarians, education in beauty should not be neglected nor education in the sacred arts as we are reminded in the teaching of the Second Vatican Council (cf. Sacrosanctum concilium, 129). Beauty should always be a special dimension of the new evangelization.
It is necessary that the Church be vigilant in caring for and promoting the quality of the art that is permitted in the sacred spaces reserved for liturgical celebrations, guarding both its beauty and the truthfulness of its expression.It is important for the New Evangelization that the Church be present in all fields of art, so as to support with her spiritual and pastoral presence the artists in their search for creativity and to foster a living and true spiritual experience of salvation that becomes present in their work.

http://www.vatican.va/news_services/press/sinodo/documents/bollettino_25_xiii-ordinaria-2012/02_inglese/b33_02.html

[3] Much of what follows can also be applied to others major contemporary composers of sacred music such as Gubaidulina, Penderecki or MacMillan, although their relationship to European Modernism is complex and merits separate treatment.

Bruckner 9 – to finish or not to finish?

Inasmuch as musicology is capable of generating major events, last month definitely saw one of the most significant of recent years – the publication by Musikproduktion Höflich (Munich) of the ‘Conclusive Revised Edition’ [CRE] of the reconstructed Finale to Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony , the product of nearly 30 years of painstaking research by scholars Nicola Samale, John A. Phillips, Benjamin-Gunnar Cohrs and Giuseppe Mazzuca. The CRE is dedicated to Sir Simon Rattle, who performed the Ninth in its four-movement version with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in the Berlin Philharmonie and Carnegie Hall in February 2012, with a live recording subsequently being released on EMI Classics in May. Its fascinating introduction, including an extensive prefatory essay by Benjamin Gunnar-Cohrs and several pages of score, can be downloaded here.

Rattle-Bruckner-9-coverMusical history is of course tantalizingly littered with ‘unfinished’ works which might be said to constitute something of a genre in themselves. Bach’s Kunst der Fuge, Mozart’s Requiem, Mahler’s 10th or Scriabin’s Mysterium have all become the stuff of legend, exercises in advanced metaphysics inviting endless speculation as to the reasons for their incompleteness and more general meditations on the question of human mortality and its relationship to Eternity. In the case of overtly religious works there is additionally something deeply haunting about the idea – whether well-founded or not in individual cases – of composers who have peered round some metaphysical corner, obtaining a visionary glimpse of the beyond which they are only partially able – or allowed – to ‘bring back’ to the rest of us. It is almost as if they have encountered an ‘apophatic’ frontier where human discourse, whether verbal or musical, is doomed to fail, as in the final line of Schoenberg’s unfinished Moses und Aron, “Oh Wort, du Wort, das mir fehlt”. There is a sense in which the higher the spiritual aspirations of the work, the less it can be finished, for the reason that its subject-matter is the Infinite.

In few pieces is this more palpable than Bruckner’s Ninth, dedicated expressly as it is to ‘dear God’ (“dem lieben Gott”). On reaching the shocking and shattering dissonance of the final climax to the third movement (followed by a long silence, rather than a resolution), the listener has the impression that we have indeed reached a point beyond which it is impossible to go. There is undoubtedly a singular poignancy in the fact that the composer did not live to complete the work, suggesting instead that his Te Deum be used as its fourth movement, a solution which has never been felt to be fully satisfactory given the abrupt change of key (C major) and the lack of common thematic material between the two pieces.

However, as pointed out by Cohrs (whose findings I am summarizing in most of what follows), the idea that the Ninth Symphony should be considered as a three-movement work ending with the Adagio as the composer’s ‘Farewell to Life’, beyond which lie only a few rough jottings of mediocre quality notated by an increasingly senile Bruckner, essentially flies in the face of the facts. It was Ferdinand Löwe, who directed the first performance of the Ninth in 1903, who effectively put into circulation the idea that the Bruckner’s poor health in his final years meant that all the composer had left were incoherent sketches for the Finale. A startlingly different picture has emerged through the research of the Samale-Phillips-Mazzuca-Cohrs musicological quartet , and of other scholars starting with Alfred Orel, who produced admittedly flawed and incomplete transcriptions of many of the Finale’s manuscripts in the 1930s.  Bruckner had already spent a year working on the Finale before the onset of mental degenerescence in his last months, and had effectively generated a complete sketch of the movement that John A. Phillips (whose work on the Finale formed a doctoral dissertation at the University of Adelaide (2002)) has termed an ’emergent autograph score’.[1] Indeed, there might well be no discussion whatever as to the existence of an essentially complete four-movement Ninth had the room in which Bruckner died not been raided shortly after his death before the executors of his estate could protect his manuscript, leading to the loss of critical bifolios from the material for the work’s Finale.

Although Bruckner’s work on the Symphony, which had begun in 1887, was effectively halted by his pneumonia of July 1896, the ’emergent autograph’ at the time of his death on October 11 that year seems to have contained no fewer than 600 bars of music. The opening Exposition (over 200 bars) had been completed in full score, with the contributing scholars able to identify all but 96 bars of the CRE’s total of 653 from the remaining extant bifolios and continuity drafts. Of these 96 bars – passages whose duration could be accurately identified on the basis of the general architecture of Bruckner’s sketches[2] – 83 could be filled by repetition/transposition of material from elsewhere, leaving a mere 13 to be written speculatively on the basis of an intimate acquaintance with Brucknerian style. It is this almost total freedom from the recourse to free composition which makes the CRE a document to be viewed with extreme seriousness in terms of its proximity to Bruckner’s intentions and style. To drive his point home, Cohrs makes a telling comparison between the scholarly reconstruction of the Finale of the Ninth with Franz Xaver Süssmayr’s completion of Mozart‘s Requiem (for which W.A.M. only left 83 bars of full score), a version still virtually universally performed. Whereas Süssmayr contributed 189 out of the Requiem’s 866 bars (22%) and orchestrated 783 of them, there is a mere 3% of extraneous material in the 2012 reconstruction of the Finale to Bruckner’s Ninth. It is certainly possible, indeed likely, that Bruckner composed music for the movement on the missing manuscript pages which is not included in the CRE, but the edition contains remarkably little that has no proven link with the composer.

Simon Rattle is certainly not the first conductor to have taken up the challenge of bringing the Finale of the Ninth to life. Shortly after Ricordi published Samale’s and Mazzuca’s first attempt at a proper scholarly reconstruction in 1985, it was recorded by Eliahu Inbal and Gennadi Rozhdestvensky, with a subsequent performing version from 1992, created with additional scholarship from Phillips and Cohrs, receiving some 40 performances by 17 orchestras. A major boost to the cause of the revisionists came in 1999-2002 when Nikolaus Harnoncourt performed and recorded  the ‘Documentation of the Finale Fragment’, first with the Wiener Symphoniker, then the Wiener Philharmoniker (CD on RCA/BMG Classics). In 2003 Samale and Cohrs began a further revision, premièred by the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Daniel Harding in Nov 2007.

Harnoncourt-Bruckner-9-300x300Given that this persistent advocacy over a quarter of a century has not yet won over the broader musical public to the notion of Bruckner’s Ninth as a viable four-movement symphony, the obvious question is whether the idea will gain ever widespread approval. This is not a purely musical issue, as Cohrs makes plain in what is perhaps the most interesting part (at east for non-musicologists) of his essay. Given the demonstrable quantity of authentically Brucknerian material in the Finale – of which the tumultuous, driving Exposition alone is sufficient to alter our view of the symphony fundamentally – it would seem that critical resistance to it has an emotional rather than a rational basis. What would appear to be at stake is the view that there is an untouchable and immutable Canon of Western Music, within which Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony has Three Movements. This, Cohrs argues along with others involved in performing the reconstructed Finale such as conductor Robert Bachmann (whom he quotes in extenso), is philosophically incoherent. Firstly, none of the Ninth’s movements can be considered ‘finished’ in the strict sense given that Bruckner was not unable to complete his habitual final compositional phase which he termed Nuancieren (the adjusting of tempi, dynamics, articulation marks and other details). This argument may not be persuasive to those who see a difference in kind, not just degree, between the Finale and the movements preceeding it. More weighty is Cohrs’ second contention, that it is overwhelmingly clear that Bruckner intended four movements, and that his considerable work on the Finale was for public purposes (some of its completed bifolios are marked ‘ready’ (fertig)) – hence his somewhat desperate insistence on performing the Te Deum in the absence of the symphonic Finale, rather than suggesting that the three completed movements could be taken as a faithful reflection of his entire compositional project.

Alongside those who may object on principle to the completion of the work, there are also those whose reticence towards a four-movement Bruckner Ninth is grounded in a perceived difference in artistic quality between the Finale and the rest of the work. Here the publication of the Conclusive Revised Version may just constitute a breakthrough in comparison to previous reconstructions. Its outstanding achievement, and the one which may ultimately give more credibility to the work of the revisionists, is that thanks to intense research on the Coda they have at last been able to provide the Finale with the convincing apotheosis for which it would seem to cry out theologically, and whose absence in all revisions until now had effectively been the Achilles heel of the whole musicological project. In an interesting exchange several years ago between Cohrs and Riccardo Chailly, who then viewed the material for the Finale as only offering ‘a kind of sketchy, scholastic, almost rhetoric piece’ unworthy of comparison with the remainder of the symphony, Cohrs had argued, less than convincingly, that it is our expectations (and perhaps their theological underpinnings) which are at fault in such evaluations:

I understand if people feel disappointed that Bruckner did not compose a solemn, Super-Te-Deum-like ’crowning cathedral’, but just the opposite: a toccata-like, musical expression of death with all the anger and radicalism of age he was able to achieve, almost minimalistic and ascetic in its style. However: Would we argue so much about the musical quality if it would be not ’THE Finale of Bruckner’s Ninth’, but, say, a ’Toccata infernale’, composed by a Franz Liszt shortly before his death?[3]

This picture of a ‘modernist’ composer anxious to deconstruct religious certainty might be convincing in the case of late Mahler, but sounds suspiciously like special pleading in the case of Bruckner, given that he was prepared to conclude his symphony with the expression of rock-like faith that is the Te Deum.  That Cohrs seems not to have been fully persuaded by his own argument is borne out by the fact that, subsequent to his riposte to Chailly,  he and the other contributing scholars felt that their Coda (which inevitably determines the overall trajectory not only of the Finale but the symphony as a whole) was unsatisfactory. Here forensic musicology found itself confronted by a peculiar challenge; on one hand, any peroration would inevitably have to be constructed using a modicum of conjecture, as there is no final double bar in any of the extant material. On the other hand, both the sketches and credible secondary sources give extensive clues as to how Bruckner might have proceeded. Of the latter, the most important are the memoirs of Bruckner’s doctor Richard Heller, to whom the composer more than once played the conclusion of the Finale on the piano, speaking of his wish to round off the symphony with ‘a song of praise to the dear Lord’ by re-introducing the ‘Allelujah of the second movement'[4]. This is problematic, as it is hard to identify such a passage in the Ninth Symphony’s largely macabre Scherzo; however, the editors of the Conclusive Revised Edition found an ingenious and in my view credible solution by turning to the Third movement, on the grounds that there is no evidence prior to the last months of Bruckner’s life to suggest that the placing of the Scherzo before the Adagio was definitive . Furthermore, his pupil Joseph Schalk, in making the piano reduction (completed by Löwe after Schalk’s death in 1900) from a manuscript source that may no longer be extant or may subsequently have been altered, explicitly placed the work’s Adagio second.

Bruckner-monument-Ansfelden-225x300

Monument to Anton Bruckner, Ansfelden (photo: Dergreg)

If it is accepted that Heller may have been referring to a Halleluja in the Adagio as the basis for the Coda of the Finale, then the most likely candidate for this passage, Cohrs argues, would appear to be a rising trumpet motif in bar 5 which also appears in the composers Te Deum and in the orchestral upthrust introducing the opening Halleluja in his Psalm 150. It is this which appears (transposed) above the final tonic pedalpoint of the CRE 2012 Finale (d-D-F#-A-d-e-f#) to great effect. Whether Bruckner would himself have adopted this solution is of course impossible to determine, as the CRE outworking remains a hypothesis rather than a strict logical deduction, but the result in the Rattle/Berlin Phil. recording is aurally thrilling as well as being both stylistically appropriate and motivically coherent.

Whether this is sufficient to overcome the obvious objection to the element of guesswork in the reconstructed Finale, however exhaustive the musicological forensics involved, is ultimately a matter of one’s philosophical convictions. If it is deemed that only music which can be declared definitively ‘finished’ can do justice to a Great Composer, then naturally any such reconstruction will be ruled out of court at the outset, regardless of any amount of philological argumentation. On the other hand, it can be contended that Bruckner’s manuscripts for the Finale of the Ninth are so substantial that completing the extant torso is actually an obligation, in that it constitutes the only way in which the music that Bruckner did finish can be heard sequentially as part of a coherent whole. The alternative, an ‘as is’ presentation of the fragments in a workshop context, may have musicological purity on its side, but offers the listener no inkling of how Bruckner’s overall design might have unfolded in time. It is this architecture which emerges in stunning clarity from the Rattle/Berlin Phil. recording of the 2012 revision, surely vindicating Hans Ferdinand Redlich’s judgement in 1949 that ‘every single bar is carried forward by the overwhelming momentum of an imagination nothing short of Michelangelesque. The astonishing originality of the architectural plan deserves special praise in its own right.'[5]

Where supporters of the reconstruction of Bruckner’s Finale essentially differ from its detractors is in their view of the value of ‘work in progress’. Here Cohrs quotes some highly pertinent questions raised by Robert Bachmann, who takes the view that all music, by the very fact that it requires translation into sound, is constantly in gestation because the world is not static but in a state of dynamic flux:

What then is perfected in Bruckner’s Ninth? We have the task every time anew at least to make this work sound, and to master it on the ground of performing practice, not even to mention the spiritual ability to let Bruckner’s music appear as an emanation of the divine presence. […] Even the finished work per se, where the composer says with a double barline ‘This is the work as I have considered it to be’, is only the beginning. There starts the search within the work. What shall constitute it, and where is its deeper truth? And so there is no ‘Vollendung’ [completion]. It would be impossible to achieve. In the best case, we are always close to achieving it, but next time failure may be even closer again. If there is any myth at all, it would be the ‘Myth of the Perfected’ and not that of the ‘Unperfected’. The world is permanently in a state of gestation, and we don’t know where it comes from and where it goes to. We are ‘in a flow’ ourselves all the time; our life, the whole world is part of an incredible energetic dynamic. The music reminds us constantly that this inextinguishable force is there. It is the miracle of music-making that we can evoke this experience again and again. The concept of ‘Vollendung’ has no room here.[6]

Bachmann’s point about the ‘Myth of the Perfected’ is surely well-taken. To it I would only add that his reference to Bruckner’s music as ‘an emanation of the divine presence’ itself implies the impossibility of its completion; whatever the state of the musicology, Bruckner’s Ninth will always be ‘unfinished’ to the extent that it evokes a Transcendent Infinite that can never be grasped fully this side of Eternity. To the extent that the grandeur of Bruckner’s composition derives from its search for the ever-receding horizon of the Absolute, the Grail-hunting musicologists attempting to reconstruct his final work are not ultimately in such a different predicament from the composer himself; their quest for Truth and Beauty is ultimately the same as his. The project of completing Bruckner’s Ninth has something of what that other great Catholic composer Olivier Messiaen memorably termed  ‘the charm of impossibilities’ – a charm which surely lends this most mysterious of works its unending fascination.

However, despite the apparent finality of the words ‘Conclusive Revised Edition’ that suggest that musicological research has nowreached its limits, the intriguing possibility does remain that there could be a further twist in this extraordinary tale to the extent that Bruckner’s Ninth has to be considered ‘lost’ as much as ‘unfinished’. It cannot be ruled out that the missing bifolios of the manuscript may still re-surface (in 1999 Nikolaus Harnoncourt made a public appeal for Viennese collectors to scour their archives). An 1895 sketch page appeared as recently as 2003, and Cohrs’ introduction to the 2012 edition furthermore contains a surprisingly direct and pointed statement: ‘serious rumours about an Austrian autograph collector remain, who is said to own several of the hitherto unknown score bifolios, but selfishly keeps them under lock and key'[7]

To which I can only say that if the individual concerned happens to be reading these lines, the SOLI DEO GLORIA office – and a host of Brucknerians around the world – is waiting for your call.

Bruckner-silhouette-150x150

Sir Simon Rattle’s introduction to his 2012 EMI recording of Bruckner’s Ninth can be viewed at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aWYC7MBa78M

An extensive essay by Aart van der Wal (2006), including a useful summary of the history of research into the Finale of the Ninth, an interview with Benjamin-Gunnar Cohrs and images of Bruckner’s manuscript, can be read online at http://www.opusklassiek.nl/componisten/bruckner_symphony_9_finale.htm . Van der Wal’s essay also includes an interesting comparative evaluation of the Samale-Phillips-Cohrs-Mazzuca project with the rival endeavor of American musicologist William Carragan, who produced a completion of the Ninth between 1979 and 1983, premièred by Moshe Atzmon in Carnegie Hall in 1984 and subsequently recorded by the Oslo Philharmonic under Yoav Talmi (Chandos CD 7051-2).

______________

NOTES

[1] There are two prime pieces of evidence for this: the renumbering of the manuscript bifolios dated June 14, 1896 (which according to Bruckner’s compositional practice would probably have occurred after the draft completion) and a report by Franz Bayer in the Steyrer Zeitung on May 10, 1896 referring to the Finale as ‘wohl vollständig skizziert’ (‘probably fully sketched’). See Benjamin-Gunnar Cohrs, The Conclusive Revised Edition 2012 – an Introduction (Munich: Musikproduktion Höflich, 2012), 6.

[2] It should be pointed out that in this respect a knowledge of Bruckner’s working methods is critical for an understanding of the scholarly procedure followed in the reconstructive work. Bruckner habitually worked out the proportions of his music (structural divisions down to the level of individual phrase-lengths) before notating any details.

[3] http://www.classicalsource.com/db_control/db_cd_review.php?id=799

[4] Quoted Cohrs, The Conclusive Revised Edition 2012, 41.

[5] Ibid., 9.

[6] Ibid., 7-8.

[7] Ibid., 13-14.

Guardians of beauty (2) – Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev

Hilarion-Alfeyev-200x300

Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk

Our last post took us to Rome and the part played by composer and SDG advisory board member in the launch of the ‘Year of Faith’ celebrated on October 11th in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council and the Synod on the New Evangelisation.  If James MacMillan is arguably the best-known Catholic musician in the English-speaking world, it may come as a surprise to learn that he is not the only composer of sacred music to be playing an active role in the proceedings in Rome at the moment. One of the most striking features of the Synod is its ecumenical focus; I have already commented on the typically thought-provoking speech offered to the Synod by Archbishop Rowan Williams last week. This week it was the turn of the Eastern Orthodox Church, with an address being given by the Moscow Patriarchate’s head of the department for External Church Relations (read: ‘foreign minister’), Metropolitan Hilarion [Alfeyev] of Volokolamsk. Who at the age of 46 is not only one of the youngest churchmen involved in top-level ecumenical dialogue, but is also a prolific composer.

I would like to emphasize that we are not merely talking about ‘occasional’ works here, even if, given his heavy ecclesial responsibilities, much of Metropolitan Hilarion’s writing apparently happens in airport lounges during his displomatic trips. His catalogue contains a number of major compositions which are gaining increasing international exposure, including a two-hour St Matthew Passion (recorded by Vladimir Fedosseyev), a 75-minute Christmas Oratorio (premièred at the National Shrine in Washington DC) as well as a Divine Liturgy and All-Night Vigil. All these were written in recent years; having received his early training at the Moscow Gnesin School and Conservatory while still contemplating a musical career, Hilarion Alfeyev subsequently abandoned composition when he took monastic vows at the age of 20, only returning to composition in 2006.[1]  Next month the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra will give the first performance of his latest choral symphony, Song of Ascent .

Metropolitan Hilarion is also a highly articulate and at times provocative speaker about music and its relation to faith, as you can judge by reading the text of a stimulating lecture he gave at the Catholic University of America in 2011. Although his own work is steeped in his own Orthodox liturgical tradition, pride of place in his musical thinking nonetheless goes to J.S. Bach not only as a compositional ‘colossus’ but also as the ultimate ecumenical composer:

Bach is a universal Christian phenomenon. His music transcends confessional boundaries; it is ecumenical in the original sense of the word, for it belongs to the world as a whole and to each citizen separately. We may call Bach an ‘orthodox’ composer in the original, literal sense of the Greek word ortho-doxos for throughout his life he learnt how to glorify God rightly. Invariably he adorned his musical manuscripts with the words Soli Deo Gloria (‘Glory to the One God’) or Jesu, juva (‘Help, O Jesus’). These expressions were for him not merely verbal formulae but a confession of faith that ran through all of his compositions. For Bach, music was worship of God. He was truly ‘catholic,’ again in the original understanding of the Greek word katholikos, meaning ‘universal,’ or ‘all-embracing,’ for he perceived the Church as a universal organism, as a common doxology directed towards God. Furthermore, he believed his music to be but a single voice in the cosmic choir that praises God’s glory. And of course, throughout his life Bach remained a true son of his native Lutheran Church. Albeit, as Albert Schweitzer noted, Bach’s true religion was not even orthodox Lutheranism but mysticism. His music is deeply mystical because it is based on an experience of prayer and ministry to God which transcends confessional boundaries and is the heritage of all humanity.

As is perhaps to be expected given his own philosophical and theological training in a tradition known for its trenchant critique of many aspects of Western society, Metropolitan Hilarion’s narrative of art-music after Bach is somewhat negative. Despite his love of the Germanic symphonic repertoire and the achievements of Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann and Brahms, he like many Eastern Orthodox views the development of Western culture in terms of increasing individualism and secularization, leading to the evacuation of the sacred in the twentieth century[2]:

During the epochs of Impressionism and the Avant-garde, interest in anything to do with religion seems to have faded altogether. Avant-garde composers renounced the final elements that linked music to faith – the elements of harmony and of beauty as fundamental for musical creativity. Cacophony and disharmony became the constructive fabric with which musical works were built.

With John Cage’s 4:33 we reach the dénouement of this narrative:

The appearance of this work in 1952 bore witness to the fact that the musical Avant-garde had completely exhausted itself – as if it had nothing more to say. Cage’s silence has little in common with the spiritual silence that burgeons from the depths of religious experience: his was simply a soundlessness which testified to the complete spiritual collapse of the musical Avant-garde.

One may of course agree or disagree with this interpretation of the significance of John Cage. The fact that his influence can be detected in ‘spiritual minimalist’ works such as the large-scale Organ and Silence of Tom Johnson (1939 – ) or Valentin Silvestrov’s Hymn 2001 suggests that there may be more common ground between Cage and ‘spiritual silence’ than one might at first suspect. However, Metropolitan Hilarion’s reading of history is certainly not wanting for clarity. Intriguingly, the major exception to his predominantly jaundiced take on modern music is a composer who wrote no overtly ‘sacred music’ whatsoever:

It is my personal view that, in the history of twentieth-century music, there is only one composer who, in terms of talent and depth of inspired searching, comes close to Bach, and that is Shostakovich.

Bach’s music is dedicated to God and permeated by an ecclesiastical spirit. Shostakovich, on the other hand, lived at a different time and in a country where God and the Church were never spoken about openly. Yet at the same time all of his creative work reveals him to have been a believer. While he did not write church music and apparently did not attend Church services, his music nonetheless confirms that he felt deeply the disastrous nature of human existence without God and that he experienced profoundly the tragedy of modern society – a godless society – which had renounced its roots. This yearning for the Absolute, this longing for God, this thirst for truth prevails in all of his works – in his symphonies, quartets, preludes and fugues.

Shostakovich was someone who could not be broken by repression or condemnation by the powers that be. He always served the Truth. I believe that, like Dostoevsky, he was a great spiritual and moral example, whose voice, like that of a prophet, cried out in the wilderness. This voice, however, evoked and continues to evoke a response in the hearts of millions of people.

This retrospective ‘baptism’ of Shostakovich is certainly a bold move on Metropolitan Hilarion’s part, given that his statement that ‘all of his creative work reveals him to have been a believer’ is the last thing that most readers would say on reading the composer’s statements (albeit allowing for a little ‘editorial help’ from Solomon Volkov) in Testimony. However, it is undeniably striking that Shostakovich has haunted many composers of explicitly Christian works – myself included -, of whom Alfred Schnittke, Sofia Gubaidulina and James MacMillan are perhaps the most obvious examples. Indeed, it might not be going too far to say that they have related to a certain intuited spiritual potential in Shostakovich’s music in much the same way as Messiaen related to Debussy’s Pelléas, or Bruckner and Franck to Wagner.

Hilarion-Alfeyev-Passion-150x150

On the subject of contemporary music, Hilarion Alfeyev- who himself writes in an unashamedly tonal/modal idiom, but in a manner which should not simply be dismissed as derivative – is nothing if not outspoken. As one might predict, he feels an affinity with the work of Arvo Pärt, John Taverner and Henryk Górecki (echoes of whose Symphony n.3 can be heard in Hilarion’s St Matthew Passion). Less expected, however, is his advocacy of Karl Jenkins’ Requiem as a ‘real masterpiece of contemporary music’,[3] or his enthusiasm for Andrew Lloyd Webber:

There are compositions in popular music imbued with high spiritual content and are written skillfully (for instance, the famous rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar). No doubt, this composition is not in keeping with church criteria, but the author did not purport to present the canonical image of Christ. He achieved his objective outstandingly well by telling the story of Christ’s Passion in a language understandable to the youth and through the medium of contemporary music. I appreciate this music more emphatically than I do the works of many avant-garde composers, since the latter sometimes eschew melody, harmony, and inner content.

Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk is clearly a man of strong musical as well as theological convictions. Somewhat reminiscent in his directness of the great Russian Orthodox theologian Georges Florovsky (1893-1979), a prime contributor to the work of the World Council of Churches in its early years, his constructive engagement with ecumenism cannot be taken as implying any kind of easy-going relativism. Archbishop Hilarion rather operates from the premise that genuine dialogue also needs to make space for robust exchange (or even confrontation) if it is to be meaningful.[4] His views on theology and aesthetics may not be to all tastes, but one thing seems certain – given that he is still only in his mid-40s, this is a name of which we are likely to hear much more in the future, both as a churchman and composer. Watch this space.

______________

Pdf scores of some of Metropolitan Hilarion’s works can be downloaded at http://hilarion.ru/en/works/scores . An interview in which he talks about his recent meeting with Pope Benedict XVI can be heard on-line at http://www.news.va/en/news/metropolitan-hilarion-on-evangelisation-and-reconc

For video of a Russian TV broadcast of his St Matthew Passion, see http://blip.tv/jesuit/la-passion-selon-saint-matthieu-par-mgr-hilarion-alfeyev-2405257

NOTES

[1] http://english.ruvr.ru/2009/05/14/258997.html

[2] Metropolitan Hilarion’s musical historiography is not dissimilar to those of his composition teacher, the cult figure Vladimir Martynov (1946-), as can be seen from an interview with one of Martynov’s chief advocates in the West, conductor Vladimir Jurowski (who brought Martynov’s controversially polystilistic Dante opera Vita Nuova to London in 2009): http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2009/feb/13/vladimir-martynov

[3] http://www.crisismagazine.com/2012/an-interview-with-metropolitan-hilarion-alfeyev

[4] While this approach to Church diplomacy on the part of the Moscow Patriarchate may seem abrasive to some, it cannot be denied that it has yielded genuine fruit on terrain where the avoidance of painful historical issues is impossible, most notably in the form of a recent joint declaration by the Moscow Patriarch and the President of Polish Catholic Bishops which has been hailed as a breakthrough document in terms of reconciliation between the two nations. An English translation of this declaration can be found at http://chiesa.espresso.repubblica.it/articolo/1350310?eng=y

Guardians of beauty – James MacMillan in Rome

Vatican-II-opening-300x199

Opening of Vatican II, October 11, 1962 (photo: Peter Geymayer)

One for the dispatch box – our thoughts today are with regular SDG collaborator and advisory board member James MacMillan, currently in Rome for a very special assignment. At today’s Mass in St Peter’s Square launching the Year of Faith, ‘a pilgrimage in the deserts of today’s world'[1], the Scottish composer received from Pope Benedict XVI a copy on behalf of the world’s artists of a message given by Pope Paul VI on December 8, 1965. Proclaimed during the concluding ceremonies of the Second Vatican Council (whose proceedings opened fifty years ago today), Paul VI’s message contains a passage directly addressed to the artistic community on the role of art in the contemporary world which surely offers as much food for thought in 2012 as in 1965:

To Artists:

We now address you, artists, who are taken up with beauty and work for it: poets and literary men, painters, sculptors, architects, musicians, men devoted to the theater and the cinema. To all of you, the Church of the council declares to you through our voice: if you are friends of genuine art, you are our friends.

The Church has long since joined in alliance with you. You have built and adorned her temples, celebrated her dogmas, enriched her liturgy You have aided her in translating her  divine message in the language of forms and figures, making the invisible world palpable. Today, as yesterday, the Church needs you and turns to you. She tells you through our voice: Do not allow an alliance as fruitful as this to be broken. Do not refuse to put your talents at the service of divine truth. Do not close your mind to the breath of the  Holy Spirit.

This world in which we live needs beauty in order not to sink into despair. It is beauty, like truth, which brings joy to the heart of man and is that precious fruit which resists the wear and tear of time, which unites generations and makes them share things in admiration. And all of this is through your hands. May these hands be pure and disinterested. Remember that you are the guardians of beauty in the world. May that suffice to free you from tastes which are passing and have no genuine value, to free you from the search after strange or unbecoming expressions. Be always and everywhere worthy of your ideals and you will be worthy of the Church which, by our voice, addresses to you today her message of friendship, salvation, grace and benediction.

Paul VI, December 8, 1965

For more about James MacMillan’s participation in the ceremony, which was also attended by Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams (the composer’s theological consultant for his work Parthenogenesis (2000), a collaboration facilitated by another SDG advisory board member, Jeremy Begbie) and Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I, see

http://www.scmo.org/articles/james-macmillan-honoured-in-papal-ceremony.html

http://www.catholicherald.co.uk/news/2012/10/11/benedict-xvi-and-council-fathers-to-open-year-of-faith/

[1] ‘This, then, is how we can picture the Year of Faith: a pilgrimage in the deserts of today’s world, taking with us only what is necessary: neither staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money, nor two tunics – as the Lord said to those he was sending out on mission (cf. Lk 9:3), but the Gospel and the faith of the Church’ Excerpt from Pope Benedict XVI’s homily, which can be read in full at

http://www.catholicherald.co.uk/news/2012/10/11/full-text-of-popes-homily-opening-year-of-faith/

Silvestrov at 75

It may be an event which has largely passed under the Contemporary Music radar, but today is the 75th birthday of the great Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov, whose work has been featured in a number of articles on this blog. Silvestrov may not be as well-known a name as other composers of his generation from the former Soviet Union such as Sofia Gubaidulina (1931-) and Arvo Pärt (1935-), but he is the author of a huge and unique body of music, including works such as the Fifth Symphony (1980-82), the cycle of 24 Silent Songs (1974-77), the violin symphony Dedication (1990-91) or Requiem for Larissa (1997-99) which can be said to have become cult classics.

File:Valentinsilvestrov.JPG

Silvestrov’s dream-like and sometimes frighteningly intimate, private world may not be to all tastes. Certainly listeners who are searching for easy gratification or facile effect will find little here. To those of us, however, who have fallen under its spell there are few composers active today whose music is as consistently mesmeric or emotionally rich. Not merely on account of the notes, which often have a studied anonymity to them, especially on the many occasions on which Silvestrov deliberately restricts himself to a pre-1900 harmonic vocabulary, but also and even perhaps primarily because of what lies between the notes. That which eludes rationalizing analysis, which can only be sensed intuitively. Silvestrov is arguably unparalleled in his attention to the mysterious, indefinable boundary between sound and silence, to minute fluctuations in mood and pulse whose painstaking notation makes his scores far denser than one might suspect on a first hearing. Although he playfully describes his series of limpid Bagatelles as ‘pet animals’ in comparison to the ‘tigers’ of his larger, more philosophical works, to perform even the simplest piano piece of Silvestrov with the requested attention to detail – subtle shading of tone, almost imperceptible shifts in tempo, pedalling as a quasi-autonomous musical parameter – can at times feel like an impossibly demanding task. One that has something of the feel of a metaphysical exercise (Silvestrov’s output for piano includes works with overtly sacred titles such as Sanctus, Benedictus or Hymn 2001 as well as the haunting, quasi-Mozartian The Messenger which doubles as the Agnus Dei of the Requiem). A contemplative attitude is a pre-requisite on the part of the player, who finds herself not so much performing a ‘piece of music’ as meditating on the nature of Music in a supra-personal sense; the composer regards himself not as a creator bringing something into being but rather as the channel through which a pre-existing universal Music flows. Each new work merely continues where other composers of the past (Schubert, Schumann, Wagner, Tchaikovsky …) have left off,  offering one more expression of ‘the song of the world about itself’.[1]

In recent years, Silvestrov’s catalogue has been unexpectedly expanded by a remarkable series of choral works on liturgical texts written for the Kiev Chamber Choir under their director Mykola Hobdych. A first group of these were released by ECM in 2009 on the critically acclaimed CD Sacred Choral Works , including the unearthly Litany and a Diptych which can also be found on a Latvian Radio Choir recording for the GB label of Gavin Bryars, who described it is ‘the most beautiful music I had ever heard’ when he came across the piece without knowing the identity of its author in 2003. In conjunction with Silvestrov’s 75th birthday year, ECM will next month be releasing a second album of Silvestrov’s works for choir dating from 2006-2008 which may not become 2012 ‘s best-selling release but will certainly be on my wishlist.

 ________________________________________________

Although the ECM New Series recordings of Valentin Silvestrov’s music (together with Gidon Kremer’s compelling performance of Dedication with the Munich Philharmonic on TELDEC) probably constitute the best introduction to his catalogue, there is also a fair amount of stimulating live concert footage available on the internet. Silvestrov’s inimitable quasi-improvisatory piano playing can for example be heard at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3gdgEFTvFzE , while he can be seen rehearsing his recent String Quartet n.3 with the Kronos Quartet at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-16758798 . His contribution to Schott Music’s multi-composer ‘Petrushka Project’ can be heard online at http://www.petrushka-project.com/works/composers/show,20856.html For serious devotees, a dense but richly rewarding book of interviews  ‘To Wait for Music’ (in Russian), accompanied by a DVD-ROM with most of Silvestrov’s works and unique home-recorded piano sketches can be ordered from the Ukrainian publishers Duh i Litera http://duh-i-litera.com

[1] https://www.eamdc.com/news/Valentin-Silvestrov-Turns-75/

Graham Jackson 1967-2012

A sad post this time, I’m afraid. Today sees the funeral in Trinity College, Cambridge of my immensely talented friend and colleague Graham Jackson, who died last week after a long battle with cancer at the age of only 45, only weeks after conducting his farewell concert with the Niederrheinische Sinfoniker, the German orchestra based in Krefeld and Mönchengladbach with whom he had spent nearly decade as their highly successful musical director.

You can find an English obituary on Norman Lebrecht’s blog at http://www.artsjournal.com/slippeddisc/2012/07/british-conductor-45-dies-after-long-illness.html : however, it only tells a fraction of Graham’s story. When I first met him as a fellow undergraduate in Cambridge he already had the reputation of being able to master more or less anything to which he cared to turn his hand – a bassoonist in the British National Youth Orchestra, highly accomplished organist and scholar (arriving at Trinity College to read mathematics before becoming a First Class music graduate), anyone who knew him will surely agree that Graham was endowed with musical and intellectual gifts of which most people can only dream.

Graham-Jackson-Krefeld-cropped-300x224

Graham Jackson rehearsing ‘Darum trauert das Land’, Krefeld, May 2009

Subsequently moving into the world of professional opera, Graham had made his mark internationally as a conductor by the time I caught up with him a few years ago, when he commissioned my piece Darum trauert das Land (‘Therefore the land mourns’) based on the poetry of Georg Trakl (1887-1914) for a series of performances with the Niederrheinische Sinfoniker. Graham was an unflaggingly devoted advocate of New Music, and he tackled my score with irreproachable commitment, professionalism and meticulous attention to detail. At the same time, while he certainly directed the orchestra with impeccable clarity, this was no neutral ‘contemporary music conducting’ of the sort that is all too frequently encountered within the New Music scene; equally at home in Mendelssohn or Brahms, Graham’s approach was marked by a warm but unaffected human lyricism privileging substance over effect, as much as by his formidable analytical skills and tireless energy.

During my highly enjoyable time working with him and the Niederrheinische Sinfoniker, it was evident that he was regarded with great esteem and affection not only for his artistic achievements but also for the way in which he and his family were a genuine presence within the local community. It was clear that, unlike many conductors of his generation, Graham was no mere figurehead primarily using his post as a career springboard for prestigious guest engagements elsewhere. Instead, everyone I encountered testified to his deep and sustained commitment to his work and fellow musicians. Talented young conductors are not so uncommon, but those who couple outstanding ability with Graham’s level of transparent integrity definitely are. Our thoughts go out to his wife Adrienne and their four children at this exceptionally trying time for them.

_____________________

I also owe a second work in my catalogue to Graham, the organ piece Pelikan der Wüste (‘Pelican of the Wilderness’) commissioned by his  friend Reinhold Richter for the 25th anniversary of the organ in St Helena’s Church, Mönchengladbach-Rheindalen; the first performance in September 2009, which Graham attended, was to be our last meeting. Pelikan der Wüste takes its title from a haunting image taken from Psalm 102:6, a text which couples the profound expression of human affliction with the promise of ultimate comfort and restoration :

My days are like the evening shadow; I wither away like grass. But you, O Lord, sit enthroned for ever; your renown endures through all generations. You will arise and have compassion on Zion, for it is time to show favour to her; the appointed time has come. […] For the Lord will be rebuild Zion and appear in his glory. He will respond to the prayer of the destitute; he will not despise their plea. (Psalm 102:11-13, 16-17)

Science and near-death experience: a gathering storm? (ii) – Life Review

Cochin-Hospital-300x225

Cochin Hospital, Paris (photo: Lepetitlord)

(Thoughts for Rachel Held Evans, Tony Jones and Tim Challies)

 Again, an embarrassingly long time has passed since the last instalment of this particular thread on near-death experiences, at the end of which we left NDEr Howard Storm languishing in the ‘sewer of the universe’ following his (shambolic) hospitalization at the Cochin hospital in Paris with a ruptured duodenum in 1985.

This is not of course to say that the subject has gone away in the meantime. In particular, there have been at least three heated discussions of the topic in the theo-blogosphere (focussing on Baptist pastor Don Piper’s best-selling 90 minutes in Heaven) hosted by Tim Challies at http://www.challies.com/articles/heaven-tourism, Rachel Held Evans http://rachelheldevans.com/afterlife-memoirs , and Tony Jones at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/tonyjones/2012/06/22/don-piper-did-not-go-to-heaven/#comments .

The many readers’ reactions on these pages are perhaps just as if not more interesting than the original articles of the three bloggers in question. Not least because of the participation of a fair number of near-death experiencers for whom the various objections raised by the sceptics (largely on theological grounds) do not square with the self-authenticating nature of what is evidently experientially compelling for them. A common and frustrating feature of the comments (with a few notable exceptions) is however the generally poor level of logical analysis, frequent recourse to a priori arguments and above all a lack of sober engagement with the substantial body of scientific research on the subject, much of which is readily available to the general public via the internet. I will return to all this at the end of the current article, but let’s begin with a very brief summary of the next stage in Howard Storm’s gripping narrative in My Descent into Death.

Howard-Storm-French-cover-215x300

The story so far: Storm, having been left untreated on a hospital trolley for 10 hours in a life-threatening condition, has had an unexpected out-of-body experience,  during which he has been duped into following a group of people dressed as hospital orderlies who lead him outside our normal realm of space-time and turn on him like a lynch mob. He has been able to repel his assailants by reciting something vaguely resembling a prayer, but now finds himself in total existential isolation, ‘left alone to become a creature of the dark’. Storm (who despite his professed atheism had been brought up attending a Congregational church on the outskirts of Boston) then recalls himself as a small boy ‘full of innocence, trust, and hope’ singing ‘Jesus loves me, da da da’:

‘A ray of hope began to dawn in me, a belief that there really was something greater out there. For the first time in my adult life I wanted it to be true that Jesus loved me. I didn’t know how to express what I wanted and needed, but with every bit of my last ounce of strength, I yelled out into the darkness, “Jesus, save me.”‘[1]

This is the one part of Storm’s story that in isolation might at first sound suspiciously like a piece of traditional Christian apologetics; at this point, there appears a light ‘brighter than the sun, brighter than a flash of lightning’, and a Being of Light (identified as Jesus in the book) radiating unconditional love, who rescues him from the cosmic cesspit.

The Being of Light takes Howard Storm up and out of the darkness towards the ‘brilliant white center of the universe’. However, Storm (whose tone throughout is remarkably free from self-exaltation) describes himself as racked by feelings of shame, thinking to himself “I am scum that belongs back down in the sewer. They have made a terrible mistake. I don’t belong here.” At this point, he is reassured that “we don’t make mistakes, and you do belong here”, and is comforted by the appearance of beings whom he depicts in terms that could have been taken straight from Olivier Messiaen’s commentaries to works such as Quatuor pour la fin du temps or Couleurs de la cité céleste:

‘Then Jesus called out in a musical tone to some of the luminous entities radiating from the great center. Several came and circled round us. The radiance emanating from them contained exquisite colors of a range and intensity far exceeding anything I had seen before. It was like looking at the iridescence in the deep brilliance of a diamond. We simply do not have the words to express their beauty. When you look into a bright light, the intensity hurts your eyes. These being were far brighter than the most powerful searchlight, yet I could look at them with no sense of discomfort. In fact, their radiance penetrated me; I could feel it inside and through me, and it made me feel wonderful. It was ecstasy. These were the saints and angels.'[2]

Fra-Angelico-Annunciation2-300x294

Fra Angelico (1395/1400-1455), Annunciation (detail), Museo San Marco, Florence

(Messiaen’s inspiration for the costume of the Angel in the première of Saint François d’Assise)

Light untellable

Such descriptions of an unearthly radiance shining from within, incomparably brighter than any created light, yet curiously possible to contemplate without being blinded, are so common and similar within the near-death literature as to have become a cliché. However, it should be stressed that they seem to occur irrespective of the religious background (or lack of it) of the experiencer, and join a long mystical tradition, as Evelyn Underhill points out in her 1911 classic Mysticism:

“Light rare, untellable!” said Whitman. “The flowing light of the Godhead,” said Mechthild of Magdeburg, trying to describe what it was that made the difference between her universe and that of normal men. “Lux vivens dicit” [the living light speaks], said St. Hildegarde of her revelations, which she described as appearing in a special light, more brilliant than the brightness round the sun. It is an “infused brightness,” says St. Teresa, “a light which knows no night; but rather, as it is always light, nothing ever disturbs it”[3]

Evelyn-Underhill-cover-200x300

The language employed to evoke the notion of a light unknown in worldly categories is arrestingly similar in many contemporary near-death reports, however much they may diverge in the metaphysical interpretation of the radiance:

‘It looked unspeakably bright, as if it was the centre of the universe, the source of all light and power. It was more brilliant than the sun, more radiant than any diamond, brighter than a laser beam light.  Yet you could look right into it.’ (A Glimpse of Eternity: One Man’s Encounter with Life Beyond Death, Ian McCormack/Jenny Sharkey. Available on-line at http://aglimpseofeternity.org/ians-testimony/ians-testimony.php)

‘All of a sudden, I was aware of a tiny bright light far away in the “sky” but rapidly coming nearer and nearer. It was shaped like a ball and it was indescribably bright. I tried to shade my eyes, but I did not need to. Despite its incredible brightness and brilliance, it did not dazzle me a bit!

Presently, this light stopped at a distance right above me. It was a sun about the same size as the sun of our world, but it was indescribably brighter. I kept staring at this sun wondering how a light could possess such brilliance.’ http://near-death.com/wagner.html

‘It was like a hundred thousand suns. Bright, incredibly bright. I could look directly in that light. It was so very powerful and ever so bright.’ http://celestial.kuriakon00.com/nde/ken_mullens.htm

‘The pinpoint of Light became a brilliant white beam a trillion times brighter than the brightest sun imaginable, and began to move toward me.  At first, it appeared to be bands of multifaceted light being stretched and pulled together.  I knew this Light was the presence of God.

I was awestruck, overwhelmed by the Light, the love, the love of God for me!  I knew I could go into this Light, which was part of a tremendous force.  And, although the Light was brighter than a thousand suns, it didn’t hurt my eyes.’ http://www.near-death.com/morrissey.html

‘I looked at the fire and realized it was brighter than a thousand suns but you could stare at it without hurting your eyes.’ http://iands.org/experiences/nde-accounts/809-kissed-by-a-marshmallow.html

‘The light – the fantastic light. It was brighter than the sun shining on a field of snow. Yet I could look at it and it didn’t hurt my eyes.’ http://www.near-death.com/group.html

‘The light was so bright that it was brighter than 10,000 suns and I immediately said, “This should be burning my retinas, but it wasn’t. It was a gentle but powerful light. It was pulling me like a gentle magnet.’ http://www.in5d.com/spiritual-reality-nde.html

‘Then I saw a great white light at the end of the tunnel and to me this light was God. I don’t know how to explain it other than it was brighter than the sun.’ http://iands.org/nde-stories/nde-like-accounts/371-light-brighter-than-the-sun.html

‘We then began going towards this beautiful light. As we got closer to it, the light just engulfed me. It was brighter than the sun but didn’t hurt my eyes.’ http://www.examiner.com/article/glauco-schaffer-and-his-two-brothers-drowning-ndes-ii

Hildegard-von-Bingen-Scivias-page-235x300

Page from Hildegard of Bingen’s Liber Scivias Domini (12th century)

In the company of the beings of Light Howard Storm proceeds to undergo what is one of the most striking features of many near-death accounts, and an aspect for which no physiological account of the NDE phenomenon (as for example produced by a lack of oxygen, an excess of CO2 in the blood, endorphin action or the administration of anaesthetics such as Ketamine) has ever produced a coherent explanation: a panoramic, interactive life review.

While by no means a universal part of near-death experience reports, the similarities between life reviews in the NDE literature are such as to merit serious comment. The idea that in the last moments before death the dying person sees her whole life flash before her in an instant is such a commonplace as to be the stuff of urban legend, but the type of life review described by Storm and many others is much more than this. Moreover, these reviews are often intriguingly counter-intuitive, even for those of us brought up in religious traditions in which the inexorability of judgment is an integral part of the structure of moral accountability built into the universe.

Although researchers have stressed that there is a wide variety amongst reported life reviews, there are at least three consistent features of accounts such as Storm’s which are striking for the way in which they confound pre-conceived notions and can be found recurring in many independent narratives:
i) The only dimension of human life which seems to be concerned is the question of how the near-death experiencer has treated other people while on earth. Society’s notions of ‘achievement’ seem to be entirely irrelevant; indeed, the life review may concentrate on events which at first sight seem completely trivial[4]
ii) Although initiated and accompanied by the Being or beings of light, the ‘judgment’ (which is probably best understood as preliminary and pedagogical, not a final verdict as in Biblical passages such as Matthew 25 or Revelation 20[5]) is basically a self-evaluation, a realization of the true moral import of our lives once we are taken outside our limited individual perspective.
iii) The key feature of the life review – and one whose very strangeness would seem to be an indication of authenticity – is that the reviewer is made to understand the effects of her actions on others from their point of view:

‘We watched and experienced episodes that were from the point of view of a third party. The scenes they showed me were often of incidents I had forgotten. They showed their effects on people’s lives, of which I’d had no previous knowledge. They reported the thoughts and feelings of people I had interacted with, which I had been unaware of at the time.'[6]

Another excellent example of this can be found in the account of Steven Fanning read out in Huston Smith’s thought-provoking Ingersoll Lecture given at Harvard Divinity School on October 18, 2001 entitled ‘Intimations of Mortality: Three Case Studies’:

‘With the Being beside me, exuding love and comfort to me, I re-experienced my life, and it was not what I would have expected. While growing up in a fundamentalist church, I had been told many times about what it would be like when one faced God after death. It would be something like watching God’s movie of your life (as in Albert Brooks’s film Defending Your Life). You would watch all the scenes of your life on the screen and there would be nothing you could do but admit that the record was true: ‘Well, I guess you got me, fair and square.’ But this is not what happened. It was a re-experiencing of my life, but from three different perspectives simultaneously.'[7]

Huston-Smith-2005-300x294

Huston Smith, 2005

Fanning describes the first perspective in terms of ‘reliving of overt events as it was re-experiencing the emotions, feelings, and thoughts of my life. Here were the emotions that I had felt and why I had believed that I had them. Here were my conscious reasons for the actions that I had taken. Here were the hurts I felt and my responses to them. Here was my emotional life as I recalled having experienced it.’ However, the second perspective is that of others:

‘I felt what they felt, I lived their emotions as they acted with and reacted to me. This was their version of my life. When I thought they were clearly out of line and reacted with anger or thoughtlessness, I felt the pain and frustration my actions caused them. It was an absolutely different view of my life and it was not a pretty one. It was shocking to feel the pain that another person felt due to what I had done even as, when I did them, I believed myself to have been fully justified because of the person’s own actions. At the time I had told myself that I was justified, but even if that were true, their pain was real. It hurt.'[8]

Many other similar examples of what eminent near-death researchers Kenneth Ring of the University of Connecticut and Evelyn Elsaesser Valarino aptly term a ‘surprising empathic turnabout’ could be offered here, but one particularly compelling one can be found in the NDE account of Thomas Sawyer as recounted in Ring’s and Valarino’s Lessons from the Light.  In his review Sawyer among other things re-experienced an altercation in which he had beaten up a pedestrian whose only offence was that he had almost collided with a pick-up truck that Sawyer had been driving:

‘Tom was forced to relive this scene, and like many others who have described their life reviews to me, he found himself doing so from a dual perspective. One part of himself, he said, seemed to be high up in a building overlooking the street from which perch he simply witnessed, like an elevated spectator, the fight taking place below. But another part of Tom was actually involved in the fight again. However, this time, in the life review, he found himself in the place of the other party, and experienced each distinct blow he had inflicted on this man — thirty-two in all, he said — before collapsing unconscious on the pavement.'[9]

The comment on such life reviews in Ring’s and Valarino’s book is worth quoting:

‘Perhaps the most obvious — and important — insight that is voiced, in one way or another, is that this exercise forces one to think about the meaning of the Golden Rule in an entirely new way. Most of us are accustomed to regard it mainly as a precept for moral action — “do unto others as you would be done to.” But in the light of these life review commentaries, the Golden Rule is much more than that — it is actually the way it works. In short, if these accounts in fact reveal to us what we experience at the point of death, then what we have done unto others is experienced as done unto ourselves. Familiar exhortations such as, “love your brother as yourself,” from this point of view are understood to mean that, in the life review, you yourself are the brother you have been urged to love. And this is no mere intellectual conviction or even a religious credo — it is an undeniable fact of your lived experience.‘[10]

Returning to Fanning’s report, it is however the third perspective which is the only one that can be labelled as true in an ultimate sense:

‘It was not my version, with my justifications. It was not that of the others in my life, with their versions of my life and their own justifications for their own actions, thoughts, and feelings. It was an unbiased view, free of the subjective and self-serving rationalizations that the others and I had used to support the countless acts of selfishness and lack of true love in our lives. To me it can only be described as God’s view of my life. It was what had really happened, the real motivations, the truth. Stripped away were my lies to myself that I actually believed, my self-justification, my preference to see myself always in the best light.'[11]

Although the examples of life reviews I have given are situated in a Western context, medical sociologist Allan Kellehear has recently adduced interesting anthropological evidence to suggest that life reviews are not only found in Anglo-European NDE reports. Two studies carried out  in 1990 (of 197 Beijing residents) and 1992 (of 81 survivors of the 1976 Tangshan earthquake) also confirmed the occurrence of life reviews in Chinese contexts. The same appears to be true in India, where the form taken by such reviews is however different; Indian accounts apparently tend to take the form of a reading of the life record of the experiencer (in accordance with Hindu belief). In Thailand, life reviews are reported as occurring in the presence of supernatural beings (Yama, Lord of the Underworld, and his servants the Yamatoots. The life review does not however seem to be found in African, Native American, Australian Aboriginal or Pacific  NDEs. Whether this should be attributed to the relatively small amounts of research in these areas or, as Kellehear thought-provokingly argues, to differing notions of the self and moral accountability in such cultures is a matter of conjecture (see Janice Holden, Bruce Greyson, Debbie James (eds), The Handbook of Near-Death Experiences: Thirty Years of Investigation, 139-141, 152-154).

Towards a possible interpretation

How then can we interpret the phenomenon of the NDE life review given both the overwhelming structural similarities between accounts on one hand and on the other a certain sense that the experience is not only subsequently expressed in the context of the experiencer’s cultural matrix but also ‘tailor-made’ to suit the individual in question? This would seem to require much more interrogation of the data, but the most credible model is perhaps one that involves the notion of the life review as a ‘feedback loop’ (a concept advanced by celebrated NDEr Mellen-Thomas Benedict) that reflects the experiencer’s subjectivity and cultural background. Such a model also however needs to allow for the possibility that the Divine may ‘accommodate’ itself to the experiential categories of the NDEr for the pedagogical purposes that seem to be an integral part of NDE accounts. In other words, the encounter with a Being of Light present during a life review is no mere ‘projection’ generated by an individual’s psychology, but neither do we seem to be talking about an ‘objectifiable’ free-standing reality which reveals itself in precisely the same way to all who encounter it.

In comparison with the serious work over several decades into near-death experience carried out by some of the researchers referenced above, the public discussions hosted by Rachel Held Evans and Tony Jones (both of whose blogs I admire more generally, I should add) on the subject of near-death experience reports have unfortunately proved depressingly if predictably superficial. To reduce the issue to whether Don Piper ‘really’ – whatever that is supposed to mean in relation to non-bodily consciousness – spent 90 minutes in heaven or whether Colton Burpo’s perhaps hastily-ridiculed vision of Jesus with a ‘rainbow horse’ in Heaven is for Real (of which the most balanced appraisal I have yet found has been penned by Bruce Epperly here) is ‘compatible with Scripture’ is to trivialize a subject with potentially huge implications for the way in which we perceive both science and spirituality.

Colton-Burpo-cover

I cannot help feeling that a more productive conversation might have ensued had the question under consideration been the role of the life review in NDE reports, which in the estimation of Jeffrey Long (whose recent Evidence of the After-Life constitutes the most ambitious survey of NDE accounts yet published), appears to be the element of the near-death experience with the greatest subsequent impact on the lives of survivors, ‘by far the greatest catalyst for change.'[12]  It is also perhaps the most resistant to any kind of reductionist approach due to the richness of its informational and ethical dimension. Indeed, even if it could be conclusively demonstrated that, say, inter-ictal discharges in the hippocampus or amygdala are capable of generating hallucinations as coherent as a panoramic life review[13], this would in itself do nothing to explain the extraordinary empathic content and sense of compassionate judgment found in accounts such as that of Howard Storm. Experienced meaning is not something reducible to changes in brain states; it rather requires assessment on a different explanatory plane. To use a musical parallel, no evidence of an endorphin surge while composing would ‘explain’ the epiphanic dimension of the Adagio of the Ninth Symphony of Anton Bruckner (a real musical ‘near-death experience’ if ever there was one)[14].   Looking to understand neural correlates of transcendent experience is certainly a valid area of research, but to look to chemical causation to explicate an encounter with unconditional Divine love is simply to make a category mistake.

I would therefore invite those who have commented on RHE’s and TJ’s blogs, as well as to those who weighed in during the recent controversy over NDE research at http://www.salon.com between Mario Beauregard and PZ Myers, to read a few accounts of life reviews such as those of Howard Storm or Steven Fanning (the more the better, as the evidence starts to stack up after a while), and then tell me what they think is going on.

_________________________

NOTES

[1] Howard Storm, My Descent into Death: a Second Chance at Life (New York: Doubleday, 2006), 24.

[2] Ibid., 28.

[3] Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism: A Study of the Nature and Development of Man’s Spiritual Consciousness (Methuen, 1912), 299.

[4] In another re-telling of his story, Storm remarks: ‘My life was shown in a way that I had never thought of before. All of the things that I had worked to achieve, the recognition that I had worked for, in elementary school, in high school, in college, and in my career, they meant nothing in this setting.[…]I got to see when my sister had a bad night one night, how I went into her bedroom and put my arms around her. Not saying anything, I just lay there with my arms around her. As it turned out that experience was one of the biggest triumphs of my life.’ (reprinted on-line at http://familytreemaker.genealogy.com/users/v/o/n/Gottfried-H-Von-sponneck/FILE/0003page.html )
[5] Terence Nichols of the University of St Thomas concurs in his perceptive and balanced chapter on near-death experience in his recent Death and Afterlife: A Theological Introduction ‘How does this peculiar element of NDEs relate to the individual or the last judgment? Certainly it is not the last or final judgment, in which we seee our lives in the context of all of human history. Rather, it seems to be a foretaste or a preview of the individual judgment – it is a judgment by one’s own conscience, after all – but in the light of a loving being’ (Death and Afterlife: A Theological Introduction (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2011), 201n.). An interesting Jewish interpretation of the life review in Talmudic categories can be found at http://www.innernet.org.il/article.php?aid=299

[6] Storm, My Descent into Death, 30.
[7] Huston Smith, ‘Intimations of Mortality: Three Case Studies’, Harvard Divinity School Bulletin, Winter 2001-2002, 12-16 (available online at  http://www.theisticscience.org/spirituality/DivBull2002winter-Smith.pdf ).

[8] Ibid.. Dutch cardiologist Pim van Lommel, author of an important study of cardiac arrest patients in the Netherlands, describes the same phenomenon in non-religious terms: ‘All of life, from birth up until the present moment, can be relived as a spectator and as an actor. This makes it much more than a speeded-up film. People know their own and others’ past thoughts and feelings because they have a connection with the memories and emotions of others. During a life review people experience the effects of their thoughts, words, and actions on other people when they originally occurred, and they also get a sense of whether love has been shared or withheld’ (Pim van Lommel, Consciousness Beyond Life: the Science of the Near-Death Experience (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 35). The NDE literature abounds with such examples, e.g. Sandra Rogers (following a suicide attempt by gunshot in 1976): http://www.near-death.com/experiences/suicide03.html or David Oakford (after a drugs overdose in 1979): http://www.near-death.com/oakford.html

[9] Kenneth Ring and Evelyn Elsaesser-Valarino, Lessons from the Light: what we can learn from the near-death experience (Needham, MA: Moment Point Press, 2006), 157-8. Emphasis original. Sawyer’s own account of his life review, which does not include the incident related by Ring but does describe the review in terms of a similar triple perspective to that mentioned by Fanning, can be read at http://www.near-death.com/experiences/reincarnation03.html A further arresting life review not dissimilar to that of Howard Storm can be found in the case of another former atheist, Barbara Whitfield, http://www.aciste.org/index.php/integrationaccounts?id=71

[10] Ibid., 161-2. Emphasis original. Ring’s interpretation is close to that of British philosopher David Lorimer’s notion of ’empathetic resonance’, the conviction that the Golden Rule is not merely an ethical exhortation but an expression of the fundamental interconnectedness of all reality. See also Bruce Greyson, ‘Near-Death Experiences and Spirituality’ in Zygon, 41/2 (Summer 2006), 393-414:404. I have commented elsewhere on the way in which contemporary scientific work on mirror or ‘Gandhi’ neurons (V.S. Ramachandran) appears to be revealing that even in our corporeal existence we quite literally have the capacity to feel the pain of others. See Peter Bannister, ‘The Return of Spirit: Christian theology and consciousness research’, available online at www.peterjohnbannister.com/TheReturnofSpirit.pdf

[11] Huston Smith, ‘Intimations of Mortality’, 14.

[12] Jeffrey Long and Paul Perry, Evidence of the Afterlife: the Science of Near-Death Experiences (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 110.

[13] This is the suggestion made by Jason J. Braithwaite in the article ‘Towards a Cognitive Neuroscience of the Dying Brain. An in-depth analysis and critique of the survivalists’ neuroscience of near-death experience’ (Skeptic Magazine 21/2 (Summer 2008)).

[14] The choice of Bruckner for this illustration is deliberate; as the conductor Sergiu Celibidache remarked late in life,  “To him, time is different than it is to other composers. To a normal man, time is what comes after the beginning. To Bruckner, time is what comes after the end. All his apotheotical finals, the hope for another world, the hope of being saved, of being again baptised in light, it exists nowhere else in the same manner”. Quoted in http://www.mtosmt.org/issues/mto.98.4.5/mto.98.4.5.james.html . Emphasis mine.

In search of vital signs (3) – post-scriptum (Not gaga over Gaga)

(Cntd from ‘vital signs’ 2). I was serious about that last part about Arvo Pärt’s Morning Star vs Bad Romance, actually. Yes, I do have serious reservations about the performance artist Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, a.k.a. the now ubiquitous Lady Gaga, and not merely on purely musical grounds. I am willing to concede that she is in some ways a mesmeric performer with a genuine vocal technique and a vivid creative imagination. I am also willing to take her at her word when this former Catholic schooler describes herself as ‘a very religious woman’; given the prevalence of spiritual vocabulary in songs such as ‘Born this Way’ it is understandable that her work should have provoked a number of broadly favourable theological analyses (for example from Tom Beaudouin and others in the Catholic America magazine, or Dr Pete Philips of the University of Durham, secretary to the Faith and Order committee of the British Methodist Church, who writes:

‘the Church needs to get Gaga, to interpret Gaga, to listen to Gaga, to engage with Gaga and the pantheon of celebrities amongst whom she is the latest shining star.  For if we do not get Gaga, we do not get the world.  If we cannot engage with Gaga, then we cannot engage with the masses, the majority who come nowhere near the church doors week by week by week.  Proverbs was right: Get Wisdom!  But to evangelise contemporary society, we might also want to say: Get Gaga! ‘

It is not difficult to sympathize with the rationale being expressed here, and the desire for a non-judgmental assessment displayed by commentators such as Philips  is particularly understandable in the light of the recent cancellation of the Jakarta leg of her current tour following the threat of violence from conservative Islamic groups. When Germanotta says that ‘there is nothing holy about hatred’, that is of course a sentiment with which most of us would heartily agree.

However, my appreciation for those trying to react to Mother Monster’s provocative antics in a mature and charitable fashion is tempered by my instinct as a parent of pre-teenage children for whom names such as Gaga, Beyoncé, Jay-Z and Rihanna are not only already well-known because of their songs (with which they’re better acquainted than with Mozart) but also denote potential role models. Here I have to say that I seriously wonder whether I and my fellow theological reviewers have been surveying the same material.

Lady-Gaga-Stephen-Fry-239x300

Lady Gaga and Stephen Fry

A first set of serious reservations concerns the deliberate and sustained flirtation with occult imagery common to the quartet of artists mentioned above, which fills me with a sense of déjà vu after my research into the 1960s for my series of posts entitled ‘Spirituality in and out of focus’. It is beyond reasonable doubt that the Lady Gaga and the nexus of highly successful musical artists clustered around rapper and founder of Roc Nation Shawn ‘Jay-Z’ Carter have deliberately cultivated the use of occult symbols more usually associated with Heavy Metal and familiar within the iconography of popular music for over 40 years. ‘Baphomet’ goat’s heads, ‘devil’s horns’, 666 hand gestures or the ‘All-Seeing-Eye of Horus’ are omnipresent visual symbols in Lady Gaga’s work which may seem surprising in the context of infectious pop but have been established vocabulary for the likes of Black Sabbath (one of Germanotta’s favourite acts[1]) for over a generation. That we have been here before, albeit accompanied by different music, is transparently obvious to anyone who has done their musicological and sociological homework on the history of rock ‘n roll. Especially as concerns the strange and baleful influence of Aleister Crowley, whose ‘law of Thelema’, “do what thou wilt” is ostentatiously sported by Jay-Z in Gothic print on a T-shirt worn in his trailer to the now infamous video ‘Run This Town’ featuring Rihanna and Kanye West.

Jay-Z-Crowley-T-shirt-300x233

Anyone who does a casual Google search on the subject will discover within a few seconds that the internet is now rife with more or less speculative deconstructions of the occult symbolism of this and similar videos, the most well-known detective work having originated on the very popular website www.vigilantcitizen.com, run by an anonymous Canadian Christian who has evidently done substantial research into modern occultism and additionally claims to have worked as a producer for a number of well-known urban musicians.[2] There is considerable evidence to suggest that the carefully-orchestrated use of esoteric and masonic imagery by Jay-Z (not least in his clothing line ‘Rocawear’) and others is at least in part a war of nerves with ‘Vigilant Citizen’ and others, a game of provocation running something along the lines of ‘you say we’re Illuminati? OK, so that’s who we’ll be’ (the clearest pointer being Jay-Z’s rapping on the song ‘Free Mason’ by Rick Ross where he expressly attempts to counter the internet rumours of his masonic  membership and the ‘Run this Town’ video where the masonic symbolism is so unmistakable as to be caricatural).[3]

Jay-Z-Masters-of-the-Craft-T-shirt-300x228

What all this is designed to achieve – and it should be added that the means employed to generate this esoteric web of  symbols are extravagant – is far from clear. Having discounted the idea that the symbols employed by Gaga and company are mere coincidence (readers who have ever encountered individuals who unwittingly wore designer Baphomet headgear or Horus jewellery costing six-figure sums without realizing it are welcome to contact me), two logical possibilities seem to present themselves.

The first, which I will simply bracket out on the grounds that unverifiable speculation is unhelpful, is that something covert really is going on here. The second, which requires no particular leap of faith or conspiracy theories regarding in the power of the Illuminati or other secret societies, is that this is all basically a commercial stunt aimed at stoking controversy and enhancing the artists’ mystique via a glamorously sinister type of branding (as if some of the best-selling musicians on the planet were in need of extra publicity). This only constitutes ‘mind control’ to the same degree as all advertising that knows how to harness the power of image and music.

This having been said, it remains to be explained why video clips such as Bad Romance and Born This Way should be saturated with a self-consciously occult symbolic content in the first place, references that could not possibly be intuited from simply listening to the songs and reading the lyrics. And why did Gaga’s friend Beyoncé Knowles-Carter (Jay-Z’s wife, who appears in the video of Telephone) choose to shock many of her own fans a few years ago by adopting the demonic alter ego ‘Sasha Fierce’, consciously playing with dark imagery through her stage persona – an alter ego which she then claimed to have ‘killed’ as redundant, having integrated Sasha F. into her own personality. What exactly is going on here with this current set of self-styled sorcerer’s apprentices?

________________

Even if the hypotheses of the conspiracy theorists (who have perhaps only succeeded in making opposition to Lady Gaga, Jay Z and friends look paranoid and faintly ridiculous) turn out to be pure fantasy, the frequently violent, degrading and sexually explicit content of the video material we have been considering is definitely not. In itself, this ought to be sufficient reason for those who consider the Haus of Gaga to be essentially harmless if admittedly flamboyant eccentricity to think again. Even more than the irresponsible flirtation with the occult, the penchant for sexual violence which is a persistent mark of Lady Gaga’s work constitutes my principal reason for saying that her music should carry a more serious health warning than some well-meaning theological commentators might like to make out. Again, this is a combination that we have seen before, as I observed in the case of the Rolling Stones in the period immediately preceding the débâcle of Altamont in December 1969. Which is not an auspicious precedent.

In saying this, I by no means wish to argue that there are no elements of religious sincerity in Lady Gaga’s output; my own sense reading interviews and reports of her exchanges with mentor Deepak Chopra is that Germanotta’s work should be seen in terms of her own struggle with deeply contradictory impulses stemming from her Catholic upbringing on one hand and her subsequent embracing of the lifestyle of the New York avant-garde whose shock value has brought her fame and fortune. The bizarre nature of her act can be viewed as her attempt to bring this internal conflict into the open; as she admitted in her Rolling Stone interview of July 2010, ‘a lot of the work I do is an exorcism for the fans but also for myself’, a remark in keeping with her much-quoted line from the song Judas: ‘Jesus is my virtue and Judas is the demon I cling to.’ As long as this struggle continues, my guess is that the grisly side of Gaga will continue to manifest itself in all its splendour. Which will not necessarily be pretty viewing, especially if (as I suspect) Germanotta is, like Beyoncé, aiming at an ‘integration’ of her shadow side somewhat along Jungian lines rather than overcoming darkness with light.

Everyone has the right to battle with their own personal demons, of course. What concerns me is the collateral damage. And here I would like to make an appeal in all earnestness. If you, like me, are a parent or adult relative of pre-teenage children who read about stars such as Lady Gaga, Rihanna and Beyoncé in magazines destined for the 10-14 year age group, and who return from school whistling Bad Romance, please do force yourself to watch the official video of BR, ‘Born This Way’ or ‘Just Dance’. If you are still convinced of the singer’s suitability for a junior audience, and if you have a stomach that can take it, do a google video search for ‘Lady Gaga crowd surfing Lollapalooza 2010’. You will not necessarily enjoy what you find, but I urge you to do so anyway out of a sense of adult responsibility.

Afterwards, ask yourself honestly whether the South Korean Media Rating Board’s insistence that the recent Seoul performance of Lady GG’s ‘Born this way ball’ be restricted to over-18s should simply be dismissed as pandering to religious fundamentalism.

__________________

NOTES

[1] As well as being an admirer of Ozzy Osbourne, Lady Gaga is also an avowed student of the film-making of Kenneth Anger, whose occult and pornographic work is referenced in her controversial videos to Alejandro (Anger’s Introduction to the Pleasuredome) and Born this way (Lucifer Rising). This should come as no surprise given Anger’s iconic status within the art-house underground from which Gaga emerged to stardom.

[2] It should be said that ‘Vigilant Citizen’, while not free from speculative excess in its sometimes outlandish interpretations, is one of the more intelligent blogs attempting an exposé of popular culture, as is acknowledged by a balanced article in The Guardian :http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2010/jul/01/lady-gaga-vigilant-citizen-illuminati

[3] My unwillingness to engage with conspiracy theories in this post should not be taken as a denial of  the existence of occultistic strands of Freemasonry (whose activities are public knowledge and are definitely not a figment of the conspiratorial imagination).  For example, about 200 yards away from the Paris apartment block in which I am writing this post is a bunker-like structure devoid of any outward signs other than a letter-box marked I.M.F. I puzzled over its occupants for over a decade before at last discovering that it is in fact the official location of the ‘Rite Ancien et Primitif de Memphis-Misraïm’ branch of the Institut Maçonnique de France, whose publicly accessible literature details its interest in the fields of alchemy, gnosticism and Egyptian hermeticism for the benefit of possible adherents.

In search of vital signs (2)

Three days prior to the first performance of Roxanna Panufnik’s Love Endureth in Westminster Cathedral I had been in Wales for a concert given by the remarkable 12-voice ensemble Ars Nova Copenhagen under conductor Søren Kinch Hansen at All Saints’ Church, Penarth in the Vale of Glamorgan Festival.  Nothing suggested that this would draw a major turnout: All Saints’, though a pleasant enough church, is hardly one of Wales’s most prestigious buildings, and the two commissioned composers with works on the programme (Gavin Bryars and myself) both had problems finding it! Ars Nova may be a Grammy-winning choir, but they are scarcely household names in the UK, and they were performing an evening of music comprised exclusively of works written by living composers. If broadcasting Beethoven 7 over a PA system can prevent loitering, as we discovered thanks to Philip Hensher in the previous post, then this repertoire ought to have provoked a veritable public stampede in the opposite direction.

All-Saints-Church-Penarth-225x300

All Saints’ Church, Penarth

Except that it didn’t. For some inexplicable reason the church was packed with around 250 listeners – a good proportion of them local residents of this small seaside town just outside Cardiff. And listen they certainly did. The evening began with Three Stages, a joyfully anarchic soundscape of Copenhagen street cries, birdsong and Renaissance melody by Danish composer Pelle Gudmunsen-Holmgreen. As an extraordinary extended exercise in choral acrobatics it had already made my jaw drop when I heard Ars Nova rehearse it in a studio at Welsh National Opera the previous evening, not least because it was very evident that this is a piece that gives the choir immense pleasure (I saw none of your typical ‘Contemporary Music Scowls’ here). But in concert Ars Nova’s output of vocal energy – in an acoustic doing them no favours – was even more remarkable: I was not the only member of the audience pinching myself in order to remember that we were hearing only a dozen rather than forty voices. This was no ‘percentage’ singing in the sense of trying to economize vocally in order to survive the very demanding and exposed 75-minute programme; instead each work from first to last (Australian Anne Boyd’s hypnotic As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams) was performed with equal passion and commitment.

VOGF_Penarth_P5104051_edited-1-300x239

With Ars Nova Copenhagen. Photo: Susan Scheid

It is not for me to comment on my own Spiritus divinae lucis gloriae – other than to emphasize the conviction and plasticity with which Ars Nova performed it – but I and many others were very touched by Gavin Bryars’ new setting of Psalm 141, commissioned for our SDG Psalms Project. Simple without ever sounding banal, its plaintively flowing chordal writing marked by subtle and well-judged harmonic sideslips, Bryars’ Psalm 141 is deeply expressive while never becoming cloying, and we hope that many choirs will find performing it a richly rewarding experience.

None of what I have just said, however, fully explains the size and enthusiastic engagement of the audience in Penarth; my intuition is that at least three additional factors were at work. One is the fact that the Vale of Glamorgan Festival’s artistic director John Metcalf has over the years quietly succeeded in creating a discreet but very real cult following for what I would term ‘new music with a human touch’ in South Wales. As the Guardian‘s reviewer put it, the festival ‘manages to extend its audience’s aural horizons with an approach that appears benign but is actually quite radical’.

Secondly, although the legendary Welsh choral culture may no longer play the role in local communities that it did in its heyday (I can recall attending church services there as a teenager where the standard of voices was such that you could have recruited congregational members at random for an opera chorus), there is no doubt that the first association of music in Wales remains with choral singing rather than orchestras or solo instruments.

Thirdly, there is what might be termed the ‘Arvo Pärt effect’. Having now observed a number of audiences at concerts where Pärt’s music has been on the programme, I have consistently found that the audience brings a peculiar energy of its own – the expectation not merely of being treated to a performance of artistic excellence, but rather of experiencing something on the level of human communication that goes beyond the purely musical. In the case of the Vale of Glamorgan Festival, this may have not a little to do with Pärt’s 75th birthday visit to Wales in 2010 for a festival concert featuring his 4th Symphony (as well as the SDG-sponsored first performance of the orchestral version of his piece In Spe): my guess is that a fair proportion of the Penarth audience would have remembered seeing or indeed meeting the composer in person. Which is not an experience that you forget in a hurry.

Ars Nova Copenhagen, who together with their founder Paul Hillier have worked intensively with Arvo Pärt, performed three pieces (all in English) by him whose brevity was inversely proportional to their impact: the haunting Deer’s Cry (a setting of the prayer known as ‘St Patrick’s Breastplate’ commissioned by the Louth Contemporary Music Society), O Holy Mother of God and Morning Star. It was the latter which particularly caught my attention; commissioned by Durham University for its 175th anniversary in 2007, Morning Star sets a luminous text found above the tomb of the Venerable Bede in Durham Cathedral, and which was printed on the Penarth concert poster:

“Christ is the morning star, who when the night of this world is past
brings to his saints the promise of the light of life and opens everlasting day.”

Bedes-tomb-Durham-cathedral1-300x235

Bede’s tomb in Durham cathedral. Photo: Robin Widdison

In referring to Bede, Morning Star follows the procedure also found elsewhere in Pärt’s recent output of finding a material connection between the location of the commissioner and the heritage of Christian spirituality. Some examples of this are Cecilia, vergine romana – written for the Accademia Santa Cecilia in Rome , Littlemore Tractus for choir and organ (commissioned by the Vicar of Littlemore for the 2001 bicentenary of John Henry Newman’s birth and setting words from a sermon preached by him in Littlemore) or La Sindone (‘The Shroud’) – composed for the city of Turin in conjunction with the 2006 Winter Olympics). Morning Star is a typically Pärtian combination of the ancient and the post-modern; written with characteristic transparency it manifests the composer’s unique ability to evoke a whole spiritual and emotional world in the space of a few minutes and with a bare minimum of notes. Like so much of Pärt’s music, it is as limpid as Mozart’s Ave verum corpus or a Schubert Moment Musical, and yet it also has something of the spontaneous directness of a Lennon/McCartney single of a type that Western art-music has not tended to generate for a very long time. Ars Nova delivered it with great power but also a complete lack of affectation which left me wondering – is this a modern-day Bach chorale, or the perfect pop song, or both? As we noted in the previous post, Philip Hensher may think that ‘classical’ music will have died a death from incomprehensibility in a century’s time, but not if composers communicate with their listeners like this.

Pärt-Creator-Spiritus-cover-300x300

As a coda I would like to suggest an experiment fit for Pentecost. Participation doesn’t unfortunately come entirely free, but as you’ll see it’s not very expensive either. Ars Nova Copenhagen include Morning Star on their consistently excellent new CD of works by Arvo Pärt entitled Creator Spiritus. I would myself highly recommend getting the album in its entirety as I find it quite mesmeric, but this not strictly necessary for our experiment. Here are the instructions:

1. Go to your favourite mp3 music store and type ‘Pärt Creator Spiritus Copenhagen’ into the search engine

2. Once you’ve been directed to the Harmonia Mundi recording, shell out $0.99 or the equivalent in euros, roubles, Uruguayan pesos etc. for Morning Star

3. Download it to your habitual mobile audio device

4. Activate the ‘loop’ or ‘auto repeat’ option

5. Take a brief look at the text (above)

6. Taking any chewing gum out of your ears and turning off any reality TV shows you may have running in the background first, close your eyes, adjust the volume to a decent level and listen to the piece at least 3 times. Or as long as it takes for the music to get ‘inside’ you, so that you reach the stage of ‘active listening’ where you can anticipate where the piece is headed and breathe together with it. If you feel so inclined, treat Morning Star as a prayer, meditation or mindfulness exercise. If that’s not your thing, then just listen.

7. Leave a comment in the box on this blog.

Am I the only one who thinks that if the 462,077,235 people who have been viewing Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance on YouTube could just make it through steps 1-6 the world might be a different place?

Veni Creator Spiritus …

The death of classical music? In search of vital signs (1)

We’ve been here before, haven’t we. The prophets of doom have been clearing their throats again to announce the impending death of classical music. The source of the latest jeremiad is English novelist and journalist Philip Hensher, writing in the British Independent newspaper on May 18, who begins his lament by noting that the London Underground has taken to playing the opening of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony over public address tannoys – but not in order to lift the spirits of weary commuters. Instead, Henscher notes, it seems that researchers in the field of sociopathology have come to the conclusion that the general public is so averse to classical music that anyone tempted to loiter with malicious intent will be sent running in the opposite direction. Beethoven as crime deterrent – a depressing sign of the times:

‘Even 20 or 30 years ago, the great history of art music was something of general interest and respect. Now, it has turned into, at best, a specialist interest, and at worst something to move people along rapidly in a public place. Are we seeing the end of art music? Is our generation the last that will see it as anything but a remote and specialised interest in this country?’

As a symptom of this malaise, Hensher points to the way in which serious music competitions such as BBC Young Musician of the Year (which I can remember following with great interest as a teenager, and which first brought several friends of mine to public attention) have lately been completely upstaged in the media by celebrity ‘talent’ shows whose message is that years of painstaking study, discipline and noble aspirations are a nothing but a waste of time in our karaoke era:

‘There is space on television for people who can’t conduct and can’t sing – Maestro and Popstar to Operastar – but not for people who can. Soon, we will be asked to admire a pretty girl playing a first-month piano exercise with elaborate orchestration behind her. The art acquired over a lifetime will be sought out for admiration by a diminishing few.’

Such words may sound elitist and a little cruel, but it has to be admitted that there is something distinctly strange in reading about a TV programme such as ‘Maestro at the Opera’ in which celebs – not professional musicians – battle it out for the right to conduct an act of Puccini’s La Bohème at London’s Royal Opera House. You can make up your own mind as to whether you find the rationale offered by the ROH itself convincing or not, but it is worth remembering (a fact of which the general public is not necessarily aware) that the opera houses of the world function thanks to largely invisible music staff, many of them endowed with encyclopedic knowledge of the operatic art and remarkable talent in several disciplines – including the extremely difficult job of singer psychotherapy – who will never be given such opportunities.

Hensher pinpoints what he sees as the collapse of ‘cultural confidence’, the notion that ‘everyone can and might enjoy art music, if they’re exposed to it’, as having occurred over a period spanning the last decade of the twentieth century and the first of the new millenium. For the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, cue BBB: Bernstein and the Berlin Phil. playing Beethoven 9. For the twentieth anniversary of the event in 2009, bring on rock band Tokio Hotel: readers can draw their own conclusions from Hensher’s comparison …

kinshasa-symphony-274x300

There is much with which I can sympathize in this article – Hensher’s point is surely well-taken that one of the spiritual ailments of Britain (and by extension the affluent West in general) is the mass media’s reduction of anything and everything to the level of superficial entertainment. That the deeper significance of art-music seems to be a closed book to much of Western society is indisputable. Indeed, there is a certain irony in the fact that it is not in the countries that birthed it but in once-colonized nations such as Venezuela or the Democratic Republic of Congo (which might have been thought likely to react against Western classical music as an alien cultural expression imposed by imperialist aggression) that its transformative social potential has been grasped most spectacularly through participatory grass-roots initiatives such as El Sistema and the life-affirming work of the astonishing Kinshasa Symphony Orchestra.

And yet I cannot find myself agreeing with his wrist-slitting prognosis for the future of classical music:

‘I will miss it. Probably some readers will miss it, too. But in a hundred years, no one will. It will be incomprehensible, dead, and gone, and very few people will care.’

It may well be that the elite cultural institutions mentioned by Henscher (national public broadcasters, the great European orchestras and the hallowed canon of the Austro-German symphonic corpus that constitutes their core repertoire) are indeed in decline. But it strikes me that to say that in a century’s time classical music will be as obsolete and indecipherable as cuneiform is masochistic in the extreme. What if Philip Hensher is simply not looking in the right places, particularly in the nooks and crannies away from the limelight where in my experience some of the most interesting things are often to be found?

________________________________

I will not attempt a systematic refutation of the article’s conclusion, but merely point to a few signs of life that I myself observed on a recent whistle-stop visit to Britain. On May 13 I was at Westminster Cathedral in London, where SDG’s latest Psalm commision Love Endureth by Roxanna Panufnik had its first airing with the Cathedral choir under Martin Baker during Vespers. It is difficult to convey in writing the impact of this highly unusual sung liturgy (performed almost exclusively in Latin), projected by the choir from the East End out into the vast space of this truly cavernous building. Words such as ‘timeless’ and ‘numinous’ come readily to mind but cannot replace the sensory and spiritual experience of the moment. Westminster Cathedral is definitely what the early Celtic Christians used to call a ‘thin place’, where the veil separating the realm of worldly appearances from a greater reality of ‘things in themselves’ (to use Immanuel Kant’s categories) somehow seems less opaque than elsewhere. This is all the more notable given the Cathedral’s location in the hubbub of London’s commercial West End, a backdrop against which it stands as an important witness – in a manner not dissimilar to the church of St Gervais-St Protais in Paris, home to the Fraternité monastique de Jérusalem, or the Kaiser-Wilhelmgedächtniskirche in the heart of West Berlin – to alternative, counter-cultural values whose importance an increasing number of people inside and outside of organized Christianity are beginning to realize.

Westminster Catholic Cathedral

Westminster-Cathedral-225x300

Westminster Catholic Cathedral

Listening to Roxanna Panufnik’s haunting setting of Psalm 135/136, whose Sephardic Jewish melodic inflections seemed to merge seamlessly with the Cathedral’s neo-Byzantine architecture, it was as if the Biblical narrative of the liberation of Israel from Egyptian oppression (the prototypical anti-imperialistic narrative of the Judeo-Christian tradition) referred to in the text was tantalizingly made present for a few brief minutes. After the opening invocation, ‘Praise the Lord, for he is good: for His steadfast love endureth for ever’, a hauntingly poetic first section praises God’s work in creation, characterized by the gentle undulation of slow chordal streams in bitonal motion, with a mellifluous soprano solo floating above them. Love Endureth then builds to a compelling climax in its second part, in which the Hebrew text Ki L’olam chasdo (‘For forever His mercy’) is treated as an ostinato over which the choir recalls the Exodus in a powerful declamation:

‘Who brought Israel from among them: With a mighty hand and a stretched out arm: Who divided the Red Sea into parts: And brought out Israel through the midst thereof: And overthrew Pharaoh and his host in the Red Sea.’

Westminster-Cathedral-Choir-School-225x300

Westminster Cathedral Choir School

As the choir reached Love Endureth‘s culmination in the moments prior to the return of the opening refrain, the music seemed to flare up in such a way as to evoke the fiery epiphanic language of the Old Testament ‘prophetic imagination’, to use the title of a memorable study by theologian Walter Brueggemann. Were it not for the awareness that I would probably have been promptly been escorted out of the building by Cathedral security for creating a Public Disturbance, I might well have exclaimed the words of the prophet Elisha in 2 Kings 2:20 on seeing his mentor Elijah taken up to heaven in a whirlwind aboard a chariot of flame: ‘My father! My father! The chariots and horsemen of Israel!’

In attempting to describe this visionary moment it is important to emphasize the role of the Cathedral acoustic as what I can only term an ‘active presence’; prior to the service Roxanna and I had both attended the final rehearsal of the piece at the Westminster Cathedral Choir School (a constant hive of musical activity where Cathedral musicians Martin Baker and Peter Stephens march the choir through the huge daily quantity of liturgical music with remarkable efficiency and consummate professionalism), and although the sonic effect of Love Endureth in the modest rehearsal space was already impressive, the aural result in the Cathedral itself was on another plane altogether.

Nave-of-Westminster-Cathedral-225x300

Talking with people at a small reception afterwards, it was clear that I was not the only one to have found hearing Love Endureth intensely moving, and to come away from the Cathedral changed in some small way, sensing that something had happened during the liturgy. Which surely has to be one of the hallmarks of authentic worship. Sitting next to me in the nave was someone whose normal weekly encounter with the Psalms takes the less exotic form of responsive speaking in a predominantly African Methodist Church (and who was on his way to a Sunday evening service in a South London soccer stadium); as he remarked, the Westminster Cathedral Vesper service may be an acquired taste as far as its ancient language and form are concerned, but it would be a great shame were it not to exist.

Roxanna-Panufnik-225x300

Roxanna Panufnik with the score of ‘Love Endureth’

Did someone notice any of this apart from the Cathedral congregation and maybe a few stray tourists stumbling into the building from the piazza outside? Maybe not. This particular first performance almost certainly went unobserved by the official media channels and London music critics. But so what? With the advent of social networking via the internet my hunch is that an ever greater role in the dissemination of New Music will be played not by print journals but by the infectious enthusiasm of individual bloggers eager to share their personal experience of live events with friends and other internauts. And the number of such freelance commentators is potentially far greater than we might at first think, especially when you consider that the première of Love Endureth was part of the larger London-wide Festival of Contemporary Church Music held from May 12 to 20 in venues across the city.

The programme of this festival makes for instructive reading, as it seems to indicate that, contrary to all the talk of the demise both of ‘classical’ music and of Western Christianity, there is actually a quiet explosion in artistic creation for the Church happening right now: the Festival listing contains no fewer than 18 world premières, including contributions by highly-respected names in the British contemporary music scene (Julian Anderson, David Matthews, Judith Bingham) and the active participation of top publishers Faber & Faber. If the London Festival of Contemporary Church Music’s visibility is not as great as might be expected given the sheer amount of activity represented, it is only because of the geographical spread of festival events which seem to have assembled themselves in a ‘bottom-up’ fashion rather than being concentrated in one place as a result of vertical, ‘top-down’ central planning. This kind of ’emergent structure’, to use a fashionable technical term, may fly somewhat in the face of our traditional concept of ‘event management’, but my intuition is that it represents the shape of the future: it passes relatively undetected to the untrained eye because its overall shape can only be seen from a certain altitude (what looks diffuse at ground level looks highly concentrated from a bird’s eye view, as you can test by zooming in and out of a landscape on Google Earth with the ‘places of interest’ activated).

The transition from top-down to bottom-up thinking characterizes many cultural trends in the age of Wikipedia, the OpenStreetMap project or ‘crowdfunding’. The basic principle embodied in all three is that involving as many collaborators as possible within an open source structure with a bare minimum of overall steering allows something to be generated that  is more than the sum of its parts. From Philip Hensher’s article it is not clear that he has really grasped the potential for the future of classical music represented by this innovative approach to stimulating artistic creativity (although it should be remarked in passing that the Church is probably not the first place he would look, given that he is not exactly a friend of organized religion, even if he can on occasion bring himself to say a kind word for the Martin Niemollers of this world).

A further intriguing example of what I mean is an ongoing initiative of which I also became aware during my visit to Westminster Cathedral, this time in the field of organ music. The intrepid British organist William Whitehead (who was present at the May 13 Vespers service) has embarked on a huge project to fill in the missing pages in J.S. Bach’s Orgelbüchlein that JSB left blank save for the titles of chorales encompassing the whole Church Year. The 118(!!) projected pieces to be based on these chorale melody will be written by a wide variety of composers (contributions are being actively solicited over at http://www.orgelbuechlein.co.uk/rules/ ) from students to established professionals, and will range from works for beginners to settings intended for certified 8th Dan black-belt organ virtuosi.

petrushka-project-300x148

It is perhaps interesting to note a conceptual convergence between William Whitehead’s scheme and the recent launch of Schott Music’s  ‘Petrushka Project’, a large-scale endeavour to generate 70 new pieces of piano music which will subsequently be available via Schott’s digital platform notafina and on a YouTube ‘Petrushka Channel’. 21 of these compositions will be aired at the Juilliard School’s Paul Hall on June 19 by pianists Michael Brown and Christopher McKiggan, including pieces by composers such as Peteris Vasks, Robert Beaser, Bernard Rands and Viktor Suslin, with further performances in the pipeline in London, Mainz and Beijing.

Another name appearing on the Petrushka Project roster which immediately drew my attention is Gavin Bryars, who will be one of the heroes of part two of my search for vital signs demonstrating that reports of classical music’s impending doom are premature. We’ll be keeping a close watch on our musical ECG and EEG monitors, so stay tuned.

Further details concerning Roxanna Panufnik’s Love Endureth, and her upcoming Warner Classics CD on which it will be included, can be found at http://www.loveabide.com/cd-tracks/