Kenotic logic: Cynthia Bourgeault and Gavin Bryars

As those of you who come to this blog via our front page probably already know, next week is going to be an intense one for SOLI DEO GLORIA, with three of our newly-commissioned works being sung for the first time. In addition they will all be coming to life on British soil, which curiously represents fresh territory in terms of SDG’s activity in the area of New Music. On Thursday May 10th the Grammy-nominated Danish vocal ensemble Ars Nova Copenhagen be giving the first performances of pieces by living legend Gavin Bryars (Psalm 141) and myself (the choral cycle Spiritus divinae lucis gloriae) at the Vale of Glamorgan Festival in Wales, while three days later the choir of Westminster Catholic Cathedral in London will be singing a fascinating new English/Hebrew setting of Psalm 135/136 by Roxanna Panufnik during Sunday Vespers.


Westminster Cathedral

I will certainly be reporting back on what should be an exciting few days, but before I head off in the direction of the Eurotunnel some equally serious business is afoot here in Paris on Monday, when I will have the privilege of conducting a radio interview on Fréquence Protestante with Rev. Cynthia Bourgeault, one of the most compelling contemporary writers and presenters working in the area of contemplative Christian spirituality. An Episcopal priest who spends much of the year at the Trappist hermitage on Eagle Island, Maine, Rev. Bourgeault is currently in France and will be speaking at the American Church in Paris on May 10. I had already known her work for some time through some captivating audio-visual footage of her presentations on Centering Prayer as well as her daring yet consistently responsible re-appraisal of the relevance of Mary Magdalene (the subject of her book The Meaning of Mary Magdalene: Discovering the Woman at the Heart of Christianity) for the Church in a post-Da Vinci Code era. What I did not realize, however, until I began to do some a little exploration of her page at in preparation for Monday’s interview, is that Cynthia Bourgeault is also a trained musicologist of impeccable pedigree, having studied here in France with none other than Nadia Boulanger. Not only that, but she also has a keen interest in New Music, having collaborated with the Aspen composer Ray Vincent Adams in creating a musical Passion setting to which she contributed the libretto .

Those interested in exploring Cynthia’s work will find a rich variety of resources on her web page, including a moving tribute to one of our mutual spiritual heroes, Brother Roger of Taizé and a thought-provoking series of ‘observations and reflections on the Future of Church’ (written in dialogue with Christopher Page); the issues on which she touches with great creativity are so wide-ranging that I feel a little daunted by the task of restricting our broadcast conversation on Monday to a mere 25 minutes!  There is a well-nigh infinite range of topics we could discuss, but I suppose that if I had to focus on one key question it would be this – what is the significance of the re-discovery of the contemplative tradition not only for the Church but for our contemporary Western civilization, and why is this re-discovery happening at the present time? It is certainly a remarkable phenomenon that over the last few decades, an increasing number of people (including myself) have been drawn to the notion that the spiritual way forward for the West lies at least partially in ressourcement, a retrieval of ‘the sources’ of ancient Judeo-Christian spirituality (in which, as Thomas Merton and others such as Huston Smith and Harvey Cox have pointed out for a long time, many points of contact are to be found with the world’s other great wisdom traditions). Lest there be any misunderstanding here,  I am not speaking about some archaizing, anti-scientific retreat into dogmatic religious certainties in the face of the perceived godlessness of late modernity. It may surprise some who associate monasticism with a quaint nostalgia for a distant bygone era to discover that Cynthia Bourgeault’s work is peppered with allusions to quantum physics and contemporary neuroscience. Such references are doubtless bound to raise the blood pressure of proponents of a reductionistic scientism such as the polemical blogger PZ Myers, whose current undignified spat with Montreal neuroscientist Mario Beauregard (co-author of The Spiritual Brain)  over at is indicative of a skeptical mindset for which any rapprochement between science and spirituality is anathema. The parallels which Cynthia draws however definitely resonate with folks such as myself who view the idea of a remorseless struggle between science and faith as a socio-historical construct rather than a logical necessity, and who are convinced that we are currently witnessing the gradual emergence of new non-materialistic paradigms within science (pioneered by figures such as Beauregard) which will be far more amenable to dialogue with the world’s great faith traditions than is widely believed.


Although Cynthia Bourgeault’s writing and speaking on Centering Prayer is intimately linked to spiritual practice, it would be a mistake to think that her prime concern is the propagation of a set of meditative techniques; I would prefer to see her work more broadly in terms of passionate advocacy of the importance for our society of recovering a contemplative attitude towards reality.  This stance, founded on an awareness of the inter-connectedness of creation’s participation in transcendental goodness, beauty and truth, is antithetical to the logic of domination that has marked so much of Western rationalistic thought since the Enlightenment, supremely expressed in the apotheosis of technology (Jacques Ellul’s système technique, a dualistic scheme in which an all-powerful human subject triumphs over lifeless matter). Such exclusionary binary thinking is marked by an inherent violence whose consequences for human community and the planet more generally are becoming ever more apparent. This, one might say, is the manifestation of the egoistic, aggressive chimp in all of us whom we so often fail to humanize (one of Cynthia Bourgeault’s choice expressions borrowed from Buddhist terminology is ‘monkey mind’) . A central contention of eminent modern contemplatives such as Cynthia Bourgeault and Richard Rohr is that this mentality – the source of many of our individual and social tensions – needs to be overcome by ‘non-dual’, holistic thought and living.  To the extent that this transition can only come about by a renunciation of the ego’s desire to dominate others and the world, it requires a kenotic stance of self-emptying spoken of in many religious traditions, but for Christians supremely exhibited in the  life of the Rabbi of Nazareth whose path Henri Nouwen famously called the ‘way of downward mobility’.

Which brings me to Gavin Bryars.

I sometimes ask myself what would be my top five pieces of sacred ‘classical’ music of the last fifty years. My truly indispensable Desert Island Discs (only one per composer allowed here). Olivier Messiaen would have to be onboard, although I’d be hard pressed to choose between La Transfiguration, Des Canyons aux Etoiles and St François d’Assise. At least one of Arvo Pärt’s masterpieces would surely also have to be in there (I’m spoilt for choice here – Como una cierva?, La Sindone? Perhaps Kanon Pokajanen, or maybe Tabula Rasa despite its lack of an overtly ‘sacred title’?). Steve Reich’s Tehillim would probably make it into the top five from the Jewish side, and I would be strongly inclined to take some Gorecki with me (Symphony n.2 or 3? Beatus Vir? Lerchenmusik?). Alfred Schnittke’s Choir Concerto, Sofia Gubaidulina’s Offertorium and Jean-Louis Florentz’s haunting Laudes for organ would all be strong contenders for inclusion. But one piece I cannot imagine not taking with me to any Desert Island would be Jesus’ blood never failed me yet by Gavin Bryars. Or, to be more precise, by Gavin Bryars and the unidentified ‘tramp’ whose singing is immortalized in this unique, unforgettable piece.

Gavin-Bryars-Jesus-blood-1993-300x295On Bryars’ website you can find the now legendary story of how Jesus’ blood never failed me yet came into being as the composer was toying with some discarded tape from a documentary film about the London homeless made with his friend Alan Power in 1971. Making a tape loop out of a religious song sung by one of the film’s interviewees – not an alcoholic, it should be noted in passing – , Bryars took the reel for copying to the Fine Arts Department at Leicester Polytechnic (now De Montfort University) where he was working. There he noticed something quite unexpected:

‘The door of the recording room opened on to one of the large painting studios and I left the tape copying, with the door open, while I went to have a cup of coffee. When I came back I found the normally lively room unnaturally subdued. People were moving about much more slowly than usual and a few were sitting alone, quietly weeping. I was puzzled until I realised that the tape was still playing and that they had been overcome by the old man’s singing.’

This extraordinary reaction, with which almost anyone who has heard Jesus’ blood will surely empathize, persuaded Bryars to write ‘a simple, though gradually evolving, orchestral accompaniment that respected the tramp’s nobility and simple faith’, the result being ‘an eloquent, but understated testimony to his spirit and optimism’.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to give a verbal description of the impact of the tramp’s song (‘Jesus’ blood never failed me yet … this one thing I know, for he loves me so’) on the listener, but if any piece of music merits the word ‘kenotic’, it is surely has to be this one. Here I am not merely talking of the tramp’s material poverty; for those of a religious persuasion, the combination of simplicity and brokenness to be found in his singing encapsulates the pure faith of the ‘poor in spirit’, while even many who do not share the tramp’s belief still find themselves overwhelmed by the sound of the elderly man’s voice as somehow epitomizing the human condition. Moreover, Jesus’ blood is also ‘kenotic’ from the viewpoint of the composer (who, intriguingly, was at the time primarily interested in Zen Buddhism, having become disillusioned as a student with the Congregationalist faith in which he had been raised[1]); the artistic success of the work derives in large measure from Bryars’ own receptivity to his objet trouvé and sensitivity to the inflections of the voice, which the piece follows sympathetically without ever seeking to manipulate, simply allowing it to be itself. This kind of artistic renunciation, the refusal to view composition as an act of imposition of the will on the musical material, sometimes termed spiritual minimalism – which Arvo Pärt, Henryk Gorecki and Valentin Silvestrov also all remarkably discovered independently of one another in the early 1970s – would seem to be the very stuff of contemplative, non-dual thinking. It might in addition be said that this music also requires a ‘kenotic’ attitude from the listener, who needs to let go of the intellectual gratification associated with strongly directional musical form and expectations of ‘development’; appreciating a piece such as Jesus’ blood does not so much require analysis as surrender.

I am perhaps not alone when I say that there are days in which I feel incapable of listening to any music other than Jesus’ blood never failed me yet, either in its original 1975 version or the extended treatment of 1993 featuring Tom Waits. Interestingly, the closest approximation I know to it is the repetitive prayer music written by the French organist Jacques Berthier for the Taizé Community (a subject on which Cynthia Bourgeault offers some thoughtful insights in her book The Wisdom Jesus: Transforming Heart and Mind–A New Perspective on Christ and His Message), which at times bears a very strong aural resemblence to a tape loop. I vividly recall being part of a choir singing the refrain Spiritus Jesu Christi, Spiritus caritatis for a full 25 minutes at the Taizé European meeting in Wroclaw, Poland in 1989 – the same length as the 1975 recording of Jesus’ blood never failed me yet. Structured in a strangely similar manner to Gavin Bryars’ work and often communicating the same sense of timelessness, the music of Taizé is shot through, like the singing of the nameless elderly London tramp, with the spirit of the First Beatitude, as it is put in the words of one of Berthier’s most disarmingly simple canons:

Confiance du coeur, source de richesse. Jésus, donne-nous un coeur de pauvre

[Trust of the heart, source of riches. Jesus, give us poverty of heart]


Brother Roger of Taizé (1915-2005). Photo: Sabine Leutenegger

Peter Bannister and Rev. Scott Herr in conversation with Cynthia Bourgeault on Fréquence Protestante: ACP Today with Cynthia Bourgeault (click for audio: interview begins at 7:00)

Details of her presentation at the American Church in Paris can be found at

Further information about the Ars Nova Copenhagen concert featuring Gavin Bryars’ new setting of Psalm 141 and Peter Bannister’s Spiritus divinae lucis gloriae can be found at


[1] A fascinating interview with Gavin Bryars discussing his Church upbringing and ongoing relationship with Christian spirituality (as well as Zen) can be found at

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.

Rhythms of the Spirit?

Two weeks ago I had the great privilege of spending several days as a guest artist at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in connection with the official launch of Soli Deo Gloria‘s Psalms Project. This was a time not only of intensive music-making, about which you will hopefully be able to read more in due course on our website, but also of some wonderful public and private conversation with others who are wrestling with some of the same questions as myself concerning the rôle of the arts in today’s Church.

A central musical issue in our discussions was the question of the rhythmic dimension of music and its potential theological significance. This surfaced naturally given that I had travelled to Michigan in order to present my setting of Psalm 96 written in honour of Elsbeth Shannon and her work with the ‘African Hymnody Project’ in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. My work in writing and preparing to speak about the piece led me to reflect on the particular gift of Africa to the worship life of Global Christianity (which of course is huge, especially if one takes into account the fact that the whole explosion of drum-based popular music over the last fifty years would be more or less unimaginable in isolation from its African roots). Listening to the legendary Missa Luba created by Congolese musicians in collaboration with Belgian priest Guido Haazen in the 1950s, watching video footage sent to me by Elsbeth Shannon of worship from the town of Kananga, or hearing the African choir within my own congregation here in Paris, I was unfailingly struck by the dynamic, sensory nature of African worship in which rhythm is absolutely primordial.

Can the same be said about the Western classical tradition? Readers of these pages will already be aware that I have been arguing that contemporary sacred music is indeed extremely vibrant, and that my tastes incline towards the deep expressions of Christian spirituality emerging in the late twentieth century from Eastern Europe (Arvo Pärt, Henryk Gorecki, Schnittke, Gubaidulina, Silvestrov…). This musical ‘faith stream’ communicate a powerful sense of the transcendent that often takes the form of a rapt, ecstatic stillness. This music certainly possesses a remarkable spiritual energy.  But pulsing rhythmic life is not its primary focus. This is by no means a criticism, as it is perhaps unrealistic to expect music to be all things to all people, but I find myself racking my brains in search of modern examples from within European Christian art-music that reflect the same rhythmic vitality as I observe in the musics of many other cultures from the exuberant wedding celebrations of the North African Maghreb that I regularly observe outside the local mairie here in Paris to the virtuoso feats of Indian tabla masters or the slit-log drummers of the Pacific Cook Islands. Indeed, it seems to me that European art-music is historically and geographically exceptional in having seen emancipation from regular pulsation (one which curiously negates the glories of its own rhythmic tradition such as Beethoven’s 7th Symphony, called by Wagner the ‘Apotheosis of the Dance’) as a mark of musical progress.

It would of course be grossly inaccurate to assert that no modern Western classical composers have been interested in the possibilities latent in the energy of driving pulsation, but it is striking that in the cases of many of the most prominent exceptions, the catalyst to the re-discovery of pulse has been some kind of investigation of non-Western musical idioms. Obvious examples here are Bela Bartok’s exploration of the indigenous musical cultures of Southeastern Europe, Stravinsky’s ‘Russian’ period or the remarkable and unique personal synthesis of Hebrew, African and American elements in the music of Steve Reich. The implicit conclusion to be drawn from the felt need some of the greatest musicians of the last hundred years to find fresh stimuli for their compositional language is that they found rhythmic resources lacking in an increasingly a-corporeal Western tradition. This tendency towards disembodiment finds itself mirrored in Western classical music’s progressive obsession with musical notation as the locus of all meaning, downplaying music’s sensory impact; I can myself recall hearing the view emanating from the high priests of theory at Cambridge University that ‘the ‘real musician’ doesn’t play an instrument at all, but  just reads the score’.

The apparent comeback of fast, rhythmic composition in recent decades after a wholesale demolition of regular pulse in European modernism in the years following World War II might seem on the surface to be a reversal of this tendency, but I would argue that this is an ambiguous phenomenon which is not necessarily synonymous with a re-discovery of the physicality of rhythm. For composers such as John Adams or Louis Andriessen (both of whom I greatly admire on many counts), the primary reference for their rhythmic work no longer seems to be the human body and the natural world, but the mechanized, de-personalized environment of Western urban life which they reflect as much as critique.[1] Examples of this approach span stylistic differences – think of Harrison Birtwistle’s clocks (explored here by a fellow veteran of the Cambridge New Music scene, the redoutable Nicolas Hodges), Andriessen’s De Snelheid or John Adams’ Short Ride in a Fast Machine, whose very title arguably says as much as the score itself.

Steve Reich performing ‘Clapping Music’, 2006. Source: LPLT

One composer who displays a fascinating ambiguity towards rhythmic phenomena is Olivier Messiaen. On one level, it should be acknowledged that, by experimenting with methods of rhythmic organization from outside the post-1500 Western canon (albeit derived primarily from encyclopedias rather than first-hand experience), Messiaen produced some of the most striking innovations of the modern period, particularly in his works up until Turangalîla. There can be no contesting the physical energy of Dieu parmi nous from the organ cycle La Nativité (1936), the remarkable unison Danse de la fureur from the Quartet for the End of Time (1941) or the airborne fast passages of the Trois Petites Liturgies de la Présence Divine (1945). Yet in later years Messiaen’s concept of rhythm seems to have changed fundamentally – perhaps under pressure from the Young Turks of the European avant-garde, many of them his own pupils. Rhythmic work seems to be re-conceived principally in terms of written duration in abstraction from any felt pulsation; the clearest instance of this shift is perhaps Messiaen’s unpromisingly titled 64 Durées (’64 Durations’) from the Livre d’Orgue, a movement which systematically works through all multiples of a sixteenth-note from 1 to 64 over nine minutes or so. Although Messiaen proudly referred to the resulting theoretical construction as a ‘rhythmic victory’, the aural experience of 64 Durées is actually fundamentally a-rhythmic, in that the total absence of pulsation means that the ear has no sense of the basic unit from which the notated rhythms are generated. This is not to say the piece is devoid of beauty (Messiaen’s poetic instinct thankfully leads him to counterbalance the cerebral dimension of the music with the freedom birdsong), but it can only be considered a ‘rhythmic victory’ by radically re-defining what we mean by the term rhythm, effectively evacuating it of its perceptual reference-point.[2]

This is deeply ironic given Messiaen’s underlying ontology of music as ultimately derived from the properties of sound in the natural world, as exemplified by birdsong and the harmonic series. Why he did not extend his reflections to include an ontology of pulse (surely the corporeal and natural phenomenon par excellence) has always been a mystery to me and leaves the impression of a logical inconsistency in his otherwise extremely insightful and wide-ranging philosophy of music. I vividly remember a conversation with one of his last and most talented pupils, the composer and ethnomusicologist Jean-Louis Florentz (1947-2004), who flatly stated that in this respect his beloved maître was simply wrong.

My thesis is that the retreat of Western music from bodily rhythm is symptomatic of a more general aversion of Western intellectual culture to the body which has been spectucularly unmasked by trans-cultural encounters of all kinds, both in terms of the new dialogical possibilities created by global travel and the huge influx of people from the Global South into the cultural centres of the West. Given the extent to which Western intellectual history has been shaped by Christian theology, it is logical that this should be intimately connected with a long heritage of theological mind-body dualism which is the ultimate reason why Western liturgical music has often tended to place a ‘timeless’, ethereal or ‘interior’ spirituality in opposition to musical temporality. Do not misunderstand me here: of course the deliberate meditative slowness ‘spiritual minimalism’ of Arvo Pärt and others has a powerful rationale to the extent that it is a reaction against the empty desire for speed associated with modern de-humanizing technology (i.e. a concept of rhythm rooted in machinery or militarism of any stripe). That is not however to be confused with the dubious but widespread idea that rhythm in the positive, corporeal sense, as an integral part of the God-given properties of natural sound, has nothing in common with genuine spirituality.

St Augustine provides the paradigmatic instance of such thinking  in the Confessions (X.6.8.)

‘But what do I love when I love you ? Not the beauty of any body, or the rhythm of time in its movement ; nor the radiance of light, so dear to our eyes ; not the sweet melodies in the world of manifold sounds […] it is none of these things that I love when I love my God. And yet when I love my God I do indeed love a light and a sound and a perfume and a food and an embrace – a light and sound and perfume and food and embrace in my inward self. There my soul is flooded with a radiance which no space can contain ; there a music sounds which time never bears away.’

Bob Marley, 1980 (photo: Eddie Mallin)

In his seminal work of pneumatology entitled The Spirit of Life, which significantly concludes with a quotation from Bob Marley’s ‘One Love’, Jürgen Moltmann quotes this passage from Augustine but offers his own corrective to a spirituality focused so heavily on interiority :

‘When I love God I love the beauty of bodies, the rhythm of movements, the shining of eyes, the embraces, the feelings, the scents, the sounds of all this protean creation. When I love you, my God, I want to embrace it all, for I love you with all my senses in the creation of your love. In all the things that encounter me, you are waiting for me.’

The worship music of Christian Africa would appear to side with Moltmann in demonstrating that the separation of the spiritual and the sensory is a false dichotomy. There is surely a spiritual dimension to rhythmic vitality in music just as much as there in the liberation from the straightjacket of artificially-imposed metrical patterns that we find expressed in rhapsodic Gregorian chant, Messiaen’s birdsong transcription or the unearthly, cosmic sound of Silvestrov’s Liturgical Chants. This is surely obvious to any music-lover who has experienced the irresistible energy of black soul/gospel music from Mahalia Jackson to Donnie McClurkin and Fred Hammond, or the ecstatic praise of Steve Reich’s Tehillim. Or for that matter anyone who has taken the trouble to learn a fast organ fugue of J.S. Bach, a feat that is impossible without integrating head, heart and … all four limbs.

[1] Here it is Steve Reich who arguably displays the most penetrating and prescient appreciation of the double-edged character of technology in works such as Three Tales.

[2] For all his fighting talk of ‘rhythmic victory’, there is some tantalizing evidence in Messiaen’s own comments on the works of his most aggressively avant-garde period that he had pangs of conscience at having changed his views on rhythm. In the Traité, Messiaen calls the provocatively complex ‘irrational’ rhythmic patterns (which he in fact disliked) of the Messe de la Pentecôte a ‘sacrifice to the idols of the twentieth century’.

[2] Jürgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life : a Universal Affirmation (Minneapolis : Fortress, 2001), 98.

This finds itself mirrored in Western classical music’s progressive obsession with musical notation as the locus of all meaning, downplaying music’s sensory impact; I can myself recall hearing the view emanating from the high priests of theory at Cambridge University that the ‘real musician’ doesn’t play an instrument at all, but  just reads the score. Curiously, although fast, rhythmic music seems on the surface to have made something of a comeback in recent decades in the works of composers such as John Adams or Louis Andriessen (both of whom I greatly admire on many counts), the primary reference for their rhythmic work no longer seems to be the human body and the natural world, but the mechanized, de-personalized environment of Western urban life. Think of Harrison Birtwistle’s clocks (explored here by a fellow veteran of the Cambridge New Music scene, the redoutable Nicolas Hodges), Andriessen’s De Snelheid or John Adams’ Short Ride in a Fast Machine, whose very title says it all…

Whose delusion?

Counterpoint goes electric

One composer who I hope will be a focal point of this blog during 2011 is the eternally youthful Steve Reich, who celebrates his 75th birthday this year. Over the last couple of days I’ve been revisiting some of his music, not least in search of a counterweight to the Eastern European focus of much of my blogging over the last few months. Not that I apologize for the latter; I rather regard Steve Reich (and what is sometimes referred to as the ‘New Jewish Music’ in general, of which Osvaldo Golijov, Aaron Kernis and David Lang are notable examples) as complementary to figures such as Pärt or Gorecki when discussing contemporary music with a spiritual focus.

One piece that particularly intrigues me is Reich’s Electric Counterpoint (1987) for guitar and tape, not merely for its intrinsic artistic merit (in its characteristic combination of pulsating energy and subtle harmonic shifts it echoes Tehillim and The Desert Music, albeit on a more modest scale), but also on account of Reich’s collaboration with Electric Counterpoint‘s first performer and a long-time hero of mine, guitarist Pat Metheny.

I can recall discovering Reich’s and Metheny’s music at around the same time as a teenager in the mid-1980s. I immediately recognized that something linked the two musicians when I heard Reich’s seminal Music for Eighteen Musicians and the Pat Metheny Group release Offramp, including a track entitled ‘Eighteen’ which I always interpreted as being a respectful nod in Reich’s direction. Perhaps the correlation ought not to be surprising, given that Reich was himself a jazz drummer and counted musicians such as John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy among his formative influences. In any case, twenty-five years later, Metheny again openly referenced Reich ‘with very special thanks’ in the notes to one of his most ambitious extended compositions, the hugely impressive album-length The Way Up (2005).

Despite the undeniable musical relationship between Reich and Metheny, it is not habitual to discuss the latter’s work within the framework of ‘classical’ contemporary music. Listening to pieces such as The Way Up or As Falls Wichita, so falls Wichita Falls, I not often find myself wondering whether the conceptual separation of ‘classical’ from ‘jazz’ is not all a huge mistake. Having followed a little of the current discussion over at the NPR blog involving David Lang and others on the subject of ‘How Do We Fix Classical Music’ , I guess I’m not the only one to be asking this question. Going along with it is the issue of how our view of contemporary classical music might be altered by taking account of musicians such as Metheny. Over the last few decades so much European contemporary music seems to have made it a point of honour to underline what is no longer possible (in terms of melodic construction, harmonic structure, large-scale form and the like). It comes as a shock to to hear a composer-improviser who is able to blend traditional formal articulation and rich tonal-modal harmony with sonic experimentation and a melodic idiom which is at times every bit as adventurous and sophisticated as that of, say, a Berio Sequenza. According to the prevailing canons of modernist theory you’re not supposed to be able to do this, yet if you listen to the first recordings of Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays you will hear that theory exposed as ideology by twenty-somethings from the American Midwest who clearly haven’t read the same rulebooks as the professors.

In a similar way the textbook history of electro-acoustic music begins to look very different once you allow ‘popular’ use of electronics to enter the discussion. Academic textbook accounts may focus on sinewave manipulation at the Westdeutscher Rundfunk in Cologne or investigations at IRCAM in Paris, but in reality the truly significant sonic legacy of electronic music is far more likely to lie in Jimi Hendrix’s feedback improvisation on The Star-Spangled Banner or the extraordinary central ‘underwater’ section of Pink Floyd’s Echoes than in the output of European research programmes. Here I reminded of a scene in the epic serialized film Heimat: The Second Generation by German director Edgar Reitz, when the (for the most unbelievably self-obsessed) hero Hermann Simon, a precocious 1960s avant-garde composer on the threshold of national recognition,  admits in a moment of lucidity that the Beatles and the Rolling Stones are light years ahead of the supposed Young Turks of ‘highbrow’ electronic music.

For a composer working in the Western ‘classical’ tradition there is something deeply unsettling about these reflections. Could it be that the supposed difficulty of finding a coherent musical language is an illusory one caused by the straightjacket of a certain way of looking at music history, rather than a crisis genuinely related to the musical material itself? What are we to make of musicians such as Metheny who, unburdened by theories of the Death of Art, blithely make work which is so obviously far more vibrant and substantial than many of the generic modernist commissions still showcased as cutting-edge praxis by the contemporary music establishment?

Estupenda Graça

Given their musical commonality, it would seem tempting to try to explore the idea of an overtly spiritual connection between Metheny and Reich; indeed, a glance at a few of the guitarist’s titles would at first sight indicative of a spiritual dimension to his output. First Circle (1984) featured a track entitled Praise, while Metheny provided a choral setting of Psalm 121 for the soundtrack to The Falcon and the Snowman; more recently instances include Inori – Prayer on Tokyo Day Trip (2008) as well as Spiritual with Charlie Haden (2006) and his accompaniment of  vocalist Anna Maria Jopek singing traditional Polish prayer (Upojenie, 2002). One release where a certain neo-religious coloration is unmistakable is Metheny and Mays’ legendary duo album As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls (1980), not least because of the evocative ‘ambient’ use of church organ-like sounds in the twenty-minute title track. A fascinating podcast with the two musicians at for example finds Mays discussing the piece September 15th (a moving homage to Bill Evans) as reaching ‘almost a spiritual place’, while Metheny relates how his solo on It’s for you (the nearest approximation to angelic flight in music as I for one can imagine) was subsequently set to words by a Gospel group. As Falls Wichita, so falls Wichita Falls (1980) concludes with the selection Estupenda Graça (‘Amazing Grace’ in Portuguese), a quasi-improvised postlude featuring the inimitable vocals of Nana Vasconcelos that intriguingly somehow came to resemble the hymn of the same name in an unplanned manner.

It is certainly true that Metheny is given to speaking about music in terms which are highly spiritually suggestive:

Music reminds us of where we were before and where we are going after.  It is a mysterious vapor that somehow slips in the cracks between this plane of existence and some other one. The people who are good musicians have the ability to conjure up more of that vapor than others.  Everyone recognizes it when it’s there.  It’s something universal that goes beyond language and beyond race, country, or nationality.  It is unmistakable when that vapor is there, we recognize it as something we all have in common.  More and more, I see that it is the same thing you find wherever there is love, intensity, energy or human potential.  All those good things include this same mysterious vapor that is the fabric of music.

“I have often thought of music as a kind of vapor that occupies that same frequency of human response as those other unquantifiables that we all seem to need—love and faith.”[1]

This description of a ‘mysterious vapor’ ought to resonate with any musical performer who has engaged in anything more than surface reflection on the phenomenon of musical experience, but I would contend that it is particularly strongly connected to the art of improvisation. The question of why and from where certain ideas rather than others well up during the course of improvised music-making (especially when the music is moving too fast to be produced on the basis of rational calculation) naturally leads us into consideration of the mystery of the human person, the relationship between the conscious and the unconscious mind and the whole nature of what might be termed ‘inspiration’.

When it comes to organized religion, however, something rather unexpected and indeed troubling emerges from Metheny’s statements, especially when you consider that he has in some circles even been considered alongside Duke Ellington, Wynton Marsalis or Dave Brubeck as a composer of ‘religious jazz’. Turn to his website and you will discover that he appears to have thrown his lot in with the New Atheism, enthusiastically advocating books such as John Allen Paulos’s Irreligion: a Mathematician explains why the arguments for God don’t add up, Sam Harris’s The End of Faith or Richard Dawkins’ God Delusion as ‘must read’ material.

It occurs to me that this is a striking example of the way in which current embodiments of Western Christianity have unfortunately succeeded in alienating an artistic community which ought logically to be open to seeing a connection between artistic experience and authentic spirituality, whether Abrahamic or Oriental. To find  Metheny turning instead to the hard-boiled materialism of Richard Dawkins is unfortunate, to say the least. I may be mistaken, but my intuition is that he and many others are reacting (quite justifiably) not against genuine faith and a belief in the transcendent, but against rigidly intolerant, dogmatic belief systems that have done religion a great disservice. Whereas the Church ought by all rights to have been able to establish a constructive dialogue with contemporary artists through the seeking of common elements of spiritual vision, the opposite seems to have happened. Metheny might be said to typify an all-too-frequently held position that is not so much ‘spiritual but not religious’ as ‘spiritual, therefore anti-religious’. This is a stance that should give those of us who claim to be people of faith much food for thought as to the equation in many quarters of religion with intolerance and an obsession with the private salvation of individuals belonging to a specific religious ‘tribe’. For Metheny as for many others, this tribalism rings false because of the lived experience of the universality – by implication transcendent – of music:

‘I don’t have specific spiritual beliefs other than that I know I believe in music itself and, to me, within that world alone is an infinite world of itself and that’s the world that I, kind of, choose to live in. You know, music is a constant source of fascination and mystery for mean its something that I always approach with a lot of respect and humility because I see belief in music as something that comes from a place outside of our regular consciousness. You know, when I read about religion and these people that are very religious, it seems in a lot of ways, more about ego to me. More about, like, people trying to make sure they get into Heaven, or something or that they’re cool when they die. There’s a lot of, like, well, we know this, but, you don’t know that, kind of thing. The thing about music that I like is that it is very inviting to everybody and it sort of, it really functions as a mirror for people and I think that religion as its best can do that, too. So, I think they’re very similar.’ [2]

Creative engagement with the New Atheism

Happily there are however signs in various sectors of the Church of a timely acknowledgement of the need for creative re-engagement with modern art (examples being Archbishop Rowan Williams’ thoughtful Grace and Necessity: Reflections on Art and Love, Benedict XVI’s meeting with contemporary artistic practitioners in 2009 or the Vatican decision to establish a pavillion at this year’s Venice Biennale). In the area of jazz, an innovative venture has been in progress in Berlin’s Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche, where saxophonist and composer Uwe Steinmetz has been drawing substantial audiences by bringing secular jazz musicians into dialogue with Christian reflection in the late-night concert series In Spirit (with guest performers including one of Metheny’s collaborators, the legendary bassist Steve Swallow).

I would like to think that this type of event can provide a forum for re-connecting with the Pat Methenys of this world whom encounters with judgmental, pathological forms of religion have driven into the hands of its cultured despisers. I nearly said ‘fashionable enemies’, to use words from the title of David Bentley Hart’s typically virtuosic, erudite and entertaining riposte to the New Atheism entitled Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009). But what if the scientific New Atheists are not seen as authentic Christianity’s enemies, but rather its unwitting friends? That is the provocative recent claim of UCC Minister Michael Dowd, host of a remarkable recent teleseries on the current state of dialogue between faith and science entitled The Advent of Evolutionary Christianity (interviewees including the likes of John Polkinghorne, Brian McLaren, Richard Rohr and Joan Chittister, whose National Catholic Reporter review you can find here). Dowd has even gone as far as to call writers such as Dawkins and Harris ‘God’s Prophets’ on the grounds that what they are doing is exposing pathological forms of ‘otherworldly religiosity’ that have nothing to do with real faith, and thereby unknowingly help to save religion from itself.

Michael Dowd

One of course may or may not agree with Dowd’s position, which has predictably attracted not only enthusiastic support – including the recommendations of six Nobel Laureates – but also trenchant criticism. Putting on my theologian’s hat for a moment (and here I am speaking purely for myself rather than on behalf of anyone else), I find it unnecessarily bashful towards personal language for God and overly Bultmannian in its severance of the existential aspect of faith from Divine action in history. This is not the place for me to argue the merits of any specific theological perspective, but my personal vote goes to those Christian and Jewish writers who have the nerve to affirm the over-arching Biblical narrative while being ruthlessly critical of the static metaphysics to which theology has so long been wedded and which can hardly stand in the face of modern science. Figures who come to mind here would be Jürgen Moltmann (and by extension Abraham Heschel’s notion of the ‘pathos of God’ on which he draws), Wolfhart Pannenberg, Archbishop Jozef Zycinski and John Haught, who is interviewed on The Advent of Evolutionary Christianity. But I am prepared to concede that Michael Dowd is on to something in his general approach towards dialogue, which is what interests me in the present context. While I am perhaps less inclined than he is to show intellectual hospitality to the New Atheism, I would nonetheless contend that Dowd, at least as a facilitator of thought-provoking discussion, is doing us all a service by advancing the debate in an interesting way that goes past conventional polemics between ‘believers’ and ‘unbelievers’ (Dowd’s wife and teaching partner, the science writer Connie Barlow, has described herself as an atheist). With events such as his teleseries we are returning to genuine conversation, within which there is room for respectful disagreement, rather than being locked in a slanging-match. This in itself is something to be welcomed, whatever one may think of Dowd’s own opinions.

The essence of Dowd’s thesis is one with which many of us would surely agree, regardless of where we may stand on the theological spectrum. For all their strident rhetoric, Dawkins and his fellow travellers are correct in assessing that religion at its worst has been a hugely damaging force; this however has little or nothing to do with religion at its best. It is the former which has driven away artists such as Pat Metheny, perhaps because we have missed the opportunity to offer them the latter. Which is not necessarily their problem.


[1] Interview with Lloyd Peterson in Music And The Creative Spirit (Scarecrow Press, 2006), reprinted in All About Jazz (November 2008). The first quote is taken from a 1997 guitar magazine interview which is frequently cited online but which I have not so far been able to trace to any specific publication.

[2] Interview for All About Jazz (June 2000), available at

I don’t have specific spiritual beliefs other than that I know I believe in music itself and, to me, within that world alone is an infinite world of itself and that’s the world that I, kind of, choose to live in. You know, music is a constant source of fascination and mystery for mean its something that I always approach with a lot of respect and humility because I see belief in music as something that comes from a place outside of our regular consciousness. You know, when I read about religion and these people that are very religious, it seems in a lot of ways, more about ego to me. More about, like, people trying to make sure they get into Heaven, or something or that they’re cool when they die. There’s a lot of, like, well, we know this, but, you don’t know that, kind of thing. The thing about music that I like is that it is very inviting to everybody and it sort of, it really functions as a mirror for people and I think that religion as its best can do that, too. So, I think they’re very similar.(All about jazz review, 2000)