How small a thought

OK, so this one fell through my cybercracks. I realized once I saw the latest Facebook entry from the SDG office that I missed Steve Reich’s 75th birthday by one day. But I couldn’t let this go past without a brief comment from this blog, so I’m playing very rapid catch-up here. I can still remember the huge impact that my first encounter with Reich’s Music for 18 musicians made on me as a teenager back in the 1980s, and my enthusiasm for his music has remained unabated ever since.

reich18musicians-300x300At a time when so many composers have either restricted themselves to purely formal concerns in their music or else sought ideological ‘engagement’ while neglecting issues of musical language considered in its own right , Reich has stood out in combining a penetrating exploration of the very nature of music with a courageous desire to tackle the ‘big questions’. I have always felt that Reich has something of the Hebrew prophetic mantle to him, as of all the major composers working in what we at SDG refer to as ‘the Biblical tradition’ he is perhaps the one who has demonstrated the most consistent and thought-provoking engagement with modern history in a way that often provides a word of timely warning yet never despairs. Steve Reich’s music remains fundamentally luminous even when addressing the rise of Nazi Germany (Hindenburg from Three Tales) and the Shoah (Different Trains), issues of ethnic and inter-religious conflict (Daniel Variations, The Cave), or the threat to humanity posed by technology, whether in the form of genetic manipulation (Dolly) or the development of nuclear weaponry (Bikini). At 75 his work retains a troubling yet inspiring sense of ethical urgency perhaps best captured in the chilling lines from William Carlos Williams’ poem The Orchestra written after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, unforgettably set by the composer  in The Desert Music:

‘Man has survived hitherto because he was too ignorant to know how to realize his wishes. Now that he can realize them, he must either change them or perish.’

For an extended consideration of Steve Reich’s rootedness in the Hebrew scriptures, click here for the text of a lecture entitled Mend its fractures, for it is quaking – modern musical settings of the Psalms given in 2009 at the St Andrews University Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts, containing a discussion of Tehillim, one of my favourite works of Reich which still sounds as fresh now as when it was written in 1981.

In my mind as I was researching my subject-matter was the search for points of commonality between three vitally important streams of musical and spiritual renewal in music in the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries – the ‘New Jewish music’ emerging from North America (Reich, Aaron Jay Kernis, David Lang, …), the music of the former Eastern Bloc (Gorecki, Pärt, Gubaidulina, Silvestrov, Vasks …), and the French art associated with the Catholic intellectual revival and the birth of the nouvelle théologie that crucially shaped the Second Vatican Council (Olivier Messiaen).

Naturally these three strands of Biblically-inspired music are extremely diverse in musical idiom, but I do not think it is riding rough-shod over their particularities to claim that all these composers share a commitment to at least three things. The most obvious is an unfashionable commitment to transcendence that flies in the face of a prevailing materialism (whether in its Western consumer or Marxist dialectical variants). A second is the sense that the way forward lies not in a rupture with all tradition but rather an avant-garde retrieval of ancient sources; there are several names for this stance, whether one uses the French Catholic term ressourcement, or the Eastern Orthodox phrase ‘neo-patristic synthesis’ (‘going forward with the Fathers’) or talks more philosophically of an alliance of the pre-modern and the post-modern against the pathologies of modernity. The third is a belief in the value of simplicity as a remedy for a society built on self-aggrandizement (if Messiaen might seem a somewhat odd companion for the minimalists in this respect, it should be remembered that alongside many passages of dazzling complexity one can also find many movements of pure monody or pieces employing nothing more than the simplest texture of melody and chordal accompaniment).

In Steve Reich’s case this striving for simplicity is beautifully encapsulated by his Proverb of 1995 – a work drawing on Pérotin in which his kinship with Arvo Pärt is at its most musically and spiritually apparent -, with its words taken from Wittgenstein’s Culture and Value: ‘How small a thought it takes to fill a whole life’. Reich’s art is, like Pärt’s, one of extraordinary concentration, a re-discovery of the essence of contemplation as the elimination of the superfluous for the sake of focusing on the ‘one thing necessary’. Or, to quote a second aphorism of Wittgenstein which Reich also cites in his notes on Proverb:

‘If you want to go down deep you do not need to travel far’.


Ludwig Wittgenstein seated between his sisters, 1920

In an epoch characterized by an insatiable craving for hyper-stimulation and a consumerist approach to the acquisition not only of goods but also experiences, this is surely a message worth heeding. For it to have emerged simultaneously in divergent geographical contexts and religious traditions leaves me at least with the impression that Someone is trying to tell us something. We need to decide whether we will live as eternal tourists endlessly flitting over the surface of things, or as pilgrims in search of depth. And we must do so not merely out of a concern for our own personal spiritual fulfillment, but rather because it is becoming increasingly evident that if our desires remain unchanged, we will indeed all perish.

September 12th – on orthodoxy, mysticism and personal encounter

Back in the mid 1990s, I met and began playing with a brilliant young American saxophone virtuoso and improviser who was then studying in Paris on a Fulbright scholarship. Now a professor at Augustana College (Rock Island, Illinois) with an impressive international track record as a performer and teacher, Randall Hall rapidly acquired a reputation for delivering electrifying performances of some of the most challenging and adventurous scores presently being written for the saxophone, as you can judge for yourselves from this clip of Hard for tenor solo sax by Tunisian-born French composer Christian Lauba (1952 -).

It was however for a reason unconnected with music that I thought of Randall yesterday. His father was on the United Airlines 77 airplane that hit the Pentagon on September 11, 2001.

Out of respect for his and his family’s grief I would not have mentioned this specifically on this blog except for the fact that he recently went public with his story in an interview with Iowa Public Radio, a link to which appeared on Facebook this morning. This thoughtful interview concludes with an excerpt from a meditative piece which Randall composed and played in memory of his father, and can be heard in its entirety here:


A few months ago another of Randall’s Facebook entries quoted Joseph Campbell’s The Masks of God: Occidental Mythology:

‘It is the law of our subject, proven time and time again, that where the orthodoxies of the world go apart, the mystic way unites. […] The orthodoxies are concerned primarily with the maintenance of a certain social order, within the pale of which the individual is to function; in the interest of which a certain “system of sentiment” must be instilled into every member; and in defense of which all deviants are to be, one way or another, either reformed, deformed, or liquidated.[…] The mystic way, on the other hand, plunges within, to those nerve centers that are in all members of the human race alike, and are at once the well springs and ultimate receptacles of life and all experiences of life.'[1]

Unpacking this quote would merit a post in itself, but the initial comment about orthodoxies and mysticism is one to which have I found myself returning on many occasions, and it strikes me with particular poignancy now as I reflect on two multi-faith commemorations of the tragic events of 9/11 held here yesterday in Paris (where a 25-metre high monument to the victims has been set up by the Trocadero). In the evening, a colloquium on the challenge to the three Abrahamic faiths of ‘becoming a blessing’ for all humanity was held at the American Church, where French religious and political leaders including Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, Jacques Chirac, Lionel Jospin and the Rector of the Paris Grand Mosque, Dr Dalil Boubakeur had gathered in the days after the attacks in New York and Washington. Dr Boubakeur again participated ten years on, being joined by rabbis, Christian clergy and Muslim scholar Imam Mohammed Azizi – for whom I had the honour of translating -, who all offered brief but extremely constructive thoughts on the current prospects for inter-religious dialogue and responded to questions collected by faculty and students from the American University of Paris. This colloquium was preceded by the laying of a wreath by the miniature copy of the Statue of Liberty at the Pont de Grenelle on the River Seine at the end of a subdued but dignified ceremony of remembrance, during which the most powerful moment was perhaps the tear-stricken recitation of an Islamic prayer by the director of the Al-Ghazali Institute of the Paris Mosque.

IMG008-768x1024Does the ‘mystic way’ indeed unite where orthodoxies as defined by Campbell divide, or is this merely a well-intended but ultimately vapid New Age generalization? Well, if ‘mysticism’ is taken in the broadest sense of a receptivity to the working of God in the experiential context of lived human encounter, which is the primary location for the deconstruction of the stereotypes and humanly-constructed barriers associated with conflict, then I would contend that we clearly need to answer in the affirmative. With the proviso, that is, that ‘unites’ does not mean ‘homogenizes’. As one Jewish participant in the colloquium emphasized with reference to the thought of Martin Buber, it is in opening ourselves to the human Other as one created in the Divine Image whose difference from us is an enrichment (and by implication not a threat) that we can transcend the divisions with which our world is rife. The testimonies of many involved in ecumenical or inter-religious dialogue attest to the transformative power of participation in concrete joint initiatives in which doctrinal differences are not denied but rather bracketed out in the interests of working for the common good. This is truly a ‘mystical’ encounter, as it is in both the mutual discovery and the pain of inter-personal relationships that God’s restorative work is felt in daily living. Here is a healing power which is experienced as self-authenticating, indeed revelatory of God’s own being on a level which cannot be ‘proved’ intellectually to the satisfaction of the criteria of ‘orthodoxies’ (when narrowly defined in Campbell’s terms) but which we nonetheless recognize as authentic and authoritative.

This is not however to say that such mysticism needs to be opposed to orthodoxy in the latter’s truest sense; indeed, given the multiple clashes of religious fundamentalisms of various stripes it is perhaps more important than ever to demonstrate the falsehood of such an opposition. At our colloquium, it was stressed that what is required is not the abandoning of tradition, but the ‘conversion’ of believers of all faiths to what is genuine and deepest within their own traditions.

Within a Christian framework, one particularly compelling recent example of the positive contemporary potential of ancient tradition is the book Communion & Otherness by leading Greek Orthodox theologian John Zizioulas (Metropolitan John of Pergamon), centred around precisely this notion of a mysticism of personal encounter of which several of yesterday’s contributors appeared to be speaking. Drawing powerfully both on modern Jewish philosophical tradition (Buber, Emmanuel Lévinas) and the Trinitarian thought of the Eastern Church in the early centuries of Christianity, Communion & Otherness is a profound meditation on the grounding of both unity and diversity in the very nature of a God for whom relationality is not accidental but ultimate.

For Zizioulas, the ‘fear of the other’ which is responsible for the breaking of Communion is a ‘pathology  built into the very roots of existence’, the ‘result of the rejection of the Other par excellence, our Creator’. The result is only too evident in our contemporary world:

‘In our culture protection from the other is a fundamental necessity. We feel more and more threatened by the presence of the other. We are forced and even encouraged to consider the other as our enemy before we can treat him or her as our friend. Communion with the other is not spontaneous; it is built upon fences which protect us from the dangers implicit in the other’s presence. We accept the other only in so far as he or she does not threaten our privacy or in so far as he or she is useful for our individual happiness.'[2]

Our problem, argues Zizioulas, is that we so often mistakenly see difference as the enemy of a falsely-conceived unity which parallels Campbell’s definition of a “system of sentiment” ‘in defense of which all deviants are to be, one way or another, either reformed, deformed, or liquidated’. The truth is that, on the contrary, difference is absolutely essential to and constitutive of relationship; ‘No person can be different unless he is related. Communion does not threaten otherness; it generates it.‘[3] The way to restoration of community lies in ‘kenotic’ self-emptying, in the sacrifice of our pathological desire to impose our will on that of others. We must refuse individualism, as ‘the ‘kenotic way is the only one that befits the Christian in his or her communion with the other – be it God or one’s ‘neighbour”'[4] This is the very opposite of religious triumphalism, requiring deep contrition for the times when our lives have been governed by the logic of exclusion; ‘by being rejected, or simply feared by us, the other challenges and provokes us to repent'[5]. The source of such contrition is ‘the sorrow of failing to bring creation to communion with God’, rooted in a sense of the high dignity and calling of the human being. And as Zizioulas reminds us, ‘the higher the model the deeper the repentance.'[6]


Saint Macarius the Egyptian (c. 300-391)

In Communion & Otherness Zizioulas reverses Sartre’s famous dictum that ‘hell is other people’ by quoting a story attributed to the 4th century monk and hermit St Macarius the Egyptian which has haunted me ever since I first read it some years ago:

‘Walking in the desert one day, I found the skull of a dead man, lying on the ground. As I was moving it with my stick, the skull spoke to me. I said to it, “Who are you?” The skull replied, “I was a high priest of the idols and of the pagans who dwelt in this place; but you are Macarius, the Spirit-bearer. Whenever you take pity on those who are in torments, and pray for them, they feel a little respite.” The old man said to him, “What is this alleviation, and what is this torment?” He said to him, “As far as the sky is removed from the earth, so great is the fire beneath us; we are ourselves standing in the midst of the fire, from the feet up to the head. It is not possible to see anyone face to face […], but the face of one is fixed to the back of another. Yet when you pray for us, each of us can see the other’s face a little. Such is our respite.” The old man in tears said, “Alas, the day when that man was born.”‘[7]

Faced with the earthly hell of the fires not only of 9/11 but of the many fires lit in its wake which continue to burn throughout the world, the sung lamentation of a Rabbi, the Christian appeal to love our enemies, or the tears and prayers of an Imam by a bridge in Paris are surely the work of that same Spirit of Divine compassion to which the account of Macarius bears witness. It is thanks to them and to that one Spirit that we can see each other’s faces a little.



[1] Joseph Campbell, The Masks of God: Occidental Mythology (London: Penguin, 1976), 448-9.

[2] John Zizioulas, Communion & Otherness: Further Studies in Personhood and the Church, ed. Paul McPartlan with a foreword by Rowan Williams (London: Continuum, 2006), 1.

[3] Ibid., 5 (emphasis mine).

[4] Ibid., 6.

[5] Ibid., 4.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Translated B. Ward, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers (1975, 136f.), quoted Zizioulas, Communion & Otherness, 3n..