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.

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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.

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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]

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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 …

Sacred art or ersatz worship?

Last week, waking up after the performance of Bach’s St Matthew Passion conducted by John Nelson at the Festival de Saint-Denis, I found an intriguing message in my email box, quoting three remarks by a four year-old girl in the United States, who had watched the concert on the internet via Medici TV’s live webcast. The first comment was on baritone Stephen Morscheck singing the part of Jesus: ‘He sounds like Captain Hook’. Well, I guess we can forgive that one. The second concerned the conductor, as our young viewer was unconvinced by her mother’s explanation of the necessity of his role in setting a tempo and shaping the flow of the musical discourse: ‘Well, he should just show them once, and then they musicians could just do it on their own.’ Now there’s a debate that will run and run, as various conductorless orchestras beginning with the Russian Persimfans ensemble in the 1920s through to the Orpheus and Australian Chamber Orchestras today have attempted to dispense with the maestro with varying degrees of success. But the comment which really fascinated me was the one which our pre-schooler made watching the audience file into the historic St-Denis Basilica: ‘the people have come to hear about God’. Really? On one level I am inclined towards scepticism. Two days before, wandering into the church prior to the first orchestral rehearsal just as Sunday evening Mass was beginning, I was not the only one to be struck by the fact that over half the chairs in the basilica were turned away from the altar towards the concert platform at the West end of the building, while in the chancel there were perhaps 20-30 people present for the liturgy. Not many coming to hear about God over there…

Saint-Denis Basilica

Is sacred music a form of ersatz worship, as some cynics claim? All too often I have heard the complaint that all that is left of ‘Christendom’ is a great artistic heritage which now constitutes little more than a set of museum artifacts as incomprehensible to the general public as Egyptian hieroglyphics, given that society has completely lost contact with the religious symbolism and narrative on which such art is based. According to this logic, we are deceiving ourselves if we believe that the fact that the Basilica was full for the performance of the St Matthew Passion means anything at all on a spiritual level. The sceptics are only too ready to proclaim that the public is merely there to consume a luxury product like any other, one that was once the living expression of a vibrant Christian culture but which is now nothing more than a beautiful but meaningless relic. Indeed, there are some who would tell us that it is only once even those relics have disappeared that we will be lulled out of a false sense of security and finally wake up to the seriousness of the spiritual situation around us, from which it follows logically that it might be best if classical sacred music were simply allowed to die.

And yet my theological as well as artistic instinct tells me that naïveté of the four year-old is in some ways nearer to the truth than the hard-boiled sociology of sacred music’s cultured despisers. Yes, we are clearly living at a time in Western Europe of considerable alienation from the institutional Church, a phenomenon whose roots I have been trying to probe in my series of posts entitled ‘Spirituality in and out of focus’. Contrary to many media reports there are powerful signs of renewal (I was recently at a vibrant Eucharistic celebration in my local Catholic parish attended by over 1000 people from across the ethnic and socio-economic spectrum), yet we should be under no illusions; vast swathes of the population react allergically to our preaching, are deeply suspicious of our Scriptures and find our liturgies at best exotic, at worst irrelevant. And yet it is my personal experience that they may well cross the threshold of the Church for a concert of sacred music. Their motivation may be mixed – the couple in front of me at the St-Denis performance giggled their way through Part One of the Passion and left at the interval -, but the fact remains that a large audience paid not inconsiderable sums of money to sit through three hours of demanding music, as dense as many a sermon or theological lecture, most following the libretto intensely. For them, so it would seem, this was no mere entertainment.

What is going on here? In his ‘Letter to Artists’ of 1999, Pope John Paul II suggested that it is precisely at a time of great secularization that the arts acquire a particular significance in reminding society of the transcendent openness and innate spiritual quest of the human being:

‘the Church has not ceased to nurture great appreciation for the value of art as such. Even beyond its typically religious expressions, true art has a close affinity with the world of faith, so that, even in situations where culture and the Church are far apart, art remains a kind of bridge to religious experience. In so far as it seeks the beautiful, fruit of an imagination which rises above the everyday, art is by its nature a kind of appeal to the mystery. Even when they explore the darkest depths of the soul or the most unsettling aspects of evil, artists give voice in a way to the universal desire for redemption.’

In the secular Western European landscape it can be argued that the undisputed masterpieces of sacred art such as Bach’s St Matthew Passion, as the repository of Christian humanism at its most profound, have become more important than ever. The case of Bach seems very telling: the Lutheran culture generating his peerless body of work seems to have disappeared from the historic Protestant European heartlands (Germany and Scandinavia) just as spectacularly as Catholicism in France, and yet Bach’s music – as a distillation of the best of Christian tradition – has somehow survived. It moreover remains contemporary in a way that a museum exhibit cannot, for a number of reasons. Firstly, a musical score, like a work of literature, is a pattern of information rather than a chunk of matter; it is not subject to the ravages of time as that pattern is infinitely reproducible and does not decay with the paper on which it was originally inscribed. At the same time, inbuilt into the very fabric of a piece such as the St Matthew Passion is the need for actualization, translation into sound through an act of performance unfolding in real-time, meaning that Bach’s works can be experienced today as a living aural reality. The principal reason for the survival of this music, however, is surely that while rooted in the specific historical narrative of the New Testament and Bach’s own cultural location, it simultaneously gives us a glimpse of a transcendent eternal reality of Beauty, Goodness and Truth. As the great Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, perhaps the foremost living composer of sacred music, remarked in 1968 while still living in a Soviet Union relentlessly hostile to Christianity, Bach cannot simply be relegated to history (even by the You Tube viewing figures for Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga, one might add):

‘Many art objects of the past appear to be more contemporary than our present art. How do we explain it? […] I think the modernity of Bach’s music will not vanish in another two hundred years, and perhaps never will […] the secret to its contemporaneity resides in the question: How thoroughly has the author-composer perceived, not his own present, but the totality of life, its joys, worries and mysteries?

Two pages from the fair copy of J.S. Bach’s St Matthew Passion BWV 244 (1736)

And this is where the great sacred masterworks of the past can and surely must serve as an inspiration for the future. In his letter, John Paul II re-iterated his belief in the continued action of the Holy Spirit in the conviction that present-day artistic creativity has its roots in the Divine creativity that brought our universe into being:

‘The Spirit is the mysterious Artist of the universe. Looking to the Third Millennium, I would hope that all artists might receive in abundance the gift of that creative inspiration which is the starting-point of every true work of art.

Dear artists, you well know that there are many impulses which, either from within or from without, can inspire your talent. Every genuine inspiration, however, contains some tremor of that “breath” with which the Creator Spirit suffused the work of creation from the very beginning.’

It is both humbling and inspiring  for a composer of faith to recall these words. For all the stylistic differences between the works of Palestrina, Bach, Bruckner, Franck, Messiaen or Arvo Pärt (just to mention art-music in the classical tradition), we can – if we pay sufficient attention – feel the breathing of the one Holy Spirit in them all across boundaries of time and space. Yes, the St Matthew Passion does leave me speechless and dumbfounded, as there is something almost inexplicably miraculous in the sheer level of inspiration, range and intellectual mastery running through its 68 movements. Yes, it may well be that Bach’s incredible achievement will never be equalled: somehow JSB’s own statement that anyone who worked as hard as he did could do the same is a little hard to believe. But that doesn’t mean that contemporary composers shouldn’t be willing to try, to fail boldly -after all, there is no reason why the same Spirit who infused Bach’s work should not be blowing in the artistic world of today, and it is my experience that the Paraclete is indeed at work in our times through the arts in sometimes bewildering yet profound and powerful ways.

I know from many recent conversations that this sense is shared by many European Christians from Lisbon to St Petersburg who find themselves hovering between excitement and discouragement. Their vision of what could be is tempered by the reality of what is (just yesterday I for example saw a headline proclaiming the imminent disappearance of the Church of England); their enthusiasm for the cause is frequently dampered by geographical isolation, disillusionment with the music profession, lukewarm reception within the Church, and by severely limited resources which prevent their creativity from flourishing not merely for the benefit of communities of faith, but for the common good of believers and unbelievers alike. This is why some of us are convinced that there is a need for the establishment of some kind of network specifically devoted to the realization of projects involving sacred music on this continent, led by those who have a grasp of the particularities of the multiple European cultural situations with their challenges and opportunities, but in conversation with Church circles with serious resources at their disposal, i.e. in North America. There is surely a powerful case to be made for trying connect the great sacred artistic heritage of the past, in whose DNA the Christian tradition somehow remains indelibly engraved, with the energy of contemporary creators seeking to draw upon it and push it in new directions. As I have written before on this blog, there is compelling evidence that remarkable creative initiatives are taking shape along these lines; if many of these are, intriguingly, bubbling up from the ‘periphery’ of Europe (on the ‘Celtic fringe’ or in the ex-Soviet Union), I remain convinced that there is also a potent undercurrent of artistic spirituality waiting to be unleashed in countries such as Germany and France. It is not dead, merely lying dormant, awaiting a revival such as the French renouveau intellectuel catholique of the early twentieth century that produced the writing of Claudel and Bernanos, the paintings of Georges Rouault or the music of Poulenc and Messiaen.

Maybe we would do well to recover the unjaded vision of a four year-old in Illinois watching all this from afar and start believing that the concert audience really has come to hear about God. It may well be that the freshness, generosity, organizational skills and enterprising spirit of North America have a role to play in catalyzing renewal in Western Europe (just as its material reconstruction after World War II would have been unthinkable without the Marshall Plan). We may not yet know what forms such a partnership may take, but it is my intuition if this Transatlantic connection can be nurtured appropriately, then something may well change for good on both sides of the ocean separating our two continents.

Pour la gloire de Dieu et le salut du monde

(For the glory of God and the salvation of the world)