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 www.patmetheny.com 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 http://www.allaboutjazz.com/iviews/pmetheny.htm


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)

Kissing the leper

Today is World Leprosy Day, and the walls of the Paris métro are plastered with harrowing images of sufferers from a disease which many of us associate with Biblical times but not with the present everyday reality of many people around the globe. I can myself attest to the shock of seeing lepers and many others struck by crippling illnesses (or anti-personnel mines) begging in the tourist sites of Cambodia, in 2009, where the vast majority of those afflicted go wholly untreated, not least because the Khmers Rouges ruthlessly exterminated the whole Cambodian medical profession in the 1970s. The sight of those beggars remains powerfully etched into my memory, and I find it difficult not to think of them every time I read the chilling words of Matthew 25:42-43 addressed to the ‘goats’ who find themselves on the wrong side at the Last Judgement:

‘I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

The unpalatable, but life-changing truth for anyone who takes those words seriously is that it is in these faces that we see the face of the Son of God.

Inevitably the question arises of how to live as an artist in the affluent West in the light of this realization. Is concerning oneself with matters of aesthetics at a time of huge and urgent global needs an insult to the lepers of this world, a culpable evasion of social responsibility, a luxury that we can ill afford and for which we will be held to ultimate account?

Albert Schweitzer

Albert Schweitzer

Perhaps there is no straightforward answer to this question. On one level it is undeniable that to allocate precious time and resources to art that might otherwise be devoted to ministries of compassion is difficult to justify with a clear conscience. As the life and work of the organist, theologian and doctor Albert Schweitzer eloquently demonstrate, there are certain situations where the call of conscience demands putting art (and academic theology) aside in order to address more pressing human concerns. In his memoirs, the great French organist Marcel Dupré relates how his and Schweitzer’s teacher Charles-Marie Widor attempted to persuade the future doctor of Lambarene not  to travel to Africa:

‘I was present the day when he announced to our teacher his decision to leave for Gabon to found a hospital […]. Widor attempted to dissuade him by saying that he would have to interrupt the great work he was doing, in particular on Bach and his times.

Full of deference, Schweitzer replied to each argument, his head lowered: “Yes, Maître, but God is calling me.” The next day, asking Widor whether whether or not he had been able to persuade him, he replied: “My poor Dupré, what can you do when a man answers you: “God is calling me”?'[1]

Marcel Dupré at the organ of Saint-Sulpice in Paris

Dupré goes on to describe his final meeting with Schweitzer in later life in a manner which speaks eloquently of the relativization of his own (considerable) musical achievement in the face of Schweitzer’s ethical stature. The two organists met for the last time at the Paris church of St-Sulpice where Dupré was the world-renowned titulaire; having gone down to the crypt to pay his respects at Widor’s tomb, Schweitzer made a request which took Dupré by surprise: “I am going to ask you something – I would like you to refer to me as ‘tu’ [the French familiar form of address, as opposed to the more formal ‘vous’]. Thunderstruck, I replied: “You to me – by all means, but me to you – that I could never do.”[2]

Dupré relented (at Schweitzer’s insistence), but the point of his story regarding the subordination of aesthetics to ethics in the hierarchy of values is clear. It should however also be said that Schweitzer did not wholly abandon music after leaving for Gabon, playing frequent recitals on his returns to Europe in between spells at Lambarene in order to raise funds for his medical work. If there is no contesting the primacy of relieving human suffering over musical pursuits, it is equally undeniable that a world without artistic expression would be a grim and inhospitable place indeed, and that the search for beauty and meaning embodied in art is a dimension of existence which is arguably as vital as provision for material needs.

An intriguing case exemplifying the tension between these two affirmations and perhaps a hint as to their reconciliation is the opera St François d’Assise by another organist, Olivier Messiaen, himself a pupil of Dupré. A full-blown treatment of this monumental work is of course beyond the scope of this present post; what interests me in the context of World Leprosy Day is the turning-point in Francis of Assisi’s spiritual growth represented by his kissing of a leper (depicted in the scene entitled Le Baiser au Lépreux in Messiaen’s opera). The Legend of Saint Francis by the Three Companions recounts the incident as follows:

‘One day while Francis was praying fervently to God, he received an answer: “O Francis, if you want to know my will, you must hate and despise all that which hitherto your body has loved and desired to possess. Once you begin to do this, all that formerly seemed sweet and pleasant to you will become bitter and unbearable, and instead, the things that formerly made you shudder will bring you great sweetness and content.” Francis was divinely comforted and greatly encouraged by these words.

Then one day, as he was riding near Assisi, he met a leper. He had always felt an overpowering horror of these sufferers, but making a great effort, he conquered his aversion, dismounted, and, in giving the leper a coin, kissed his hand. The leper then gave him the kiss of peace, after which Francis remounted his horse and rode on his way.’

Saint Francis gives his coat to a poor rider (by Giotto di Bondone)

Francis’s natural aversion to the leper is common to us all; in the face of human disfigurement we react like Job’s friends who ‘see something dreadful and are afraid’ (Job 6:21). Yet Francis’s example teaches us that this need not be an insurmountable obstacle, even if it may seem that way from a human point of view.

The author of the Canticle of the Sun is as powerful an example of the union of meditative spirituality (epitomized by his mystical contemplation of  nature and his encounter with the Ange Musicien who plays him the ‘music of the invisible’) and action as the Christian tradition can offer; the message of Francis’s encounter with the leper as told both in the Legend of the Three Companions and in Messiaen’s opera, is that any contemplative aesthetic which turns away from the suffering of the world cannot attain to any genuine beauty. Here we can detect an autobiographical note in Messiaen’s reading of the life of St Francis; in 1972, a few years before beginning work on Saint François, he had found himself criticized by the young Dutch theologian Johan Vos during a panel discussion prior to the European première of his Méditations sur le Mystère de la Sainte Trinité for concentrating exclusively on a ‘theology of glory’ in his music, as the German organist Almut Rössler relates:

‘Mr. Vos, a young theologian from Holland, asks a lengthy question which above all concerns Messiaen’s relationship to contemporary reality and suffering; and in the course of it, the glimmer of a reproach becomes apparent: that Messiaen in his music, caught up in medieval thinking, too abstractly and esoterically pursues a kind of theologia gloriae which scarcely has anything to do with the actual situation of today’s human being and his need for redemption.

Messiaen’s reply at the time was disarmingly frank:

‘You said that I express only joy and glory in my music. Well, I’m afraid I’ve no aptitude for their opposites […] it isn’t my nature to bury myself in suffering.’ [3]

There is a cruel irony in Vos’s accusation, in that Messiaen’s life was actually deeply marked by personal suffering (it should be remembered that he had not only undergone incarceration during the Second World War, but that his life had also been deeply impacted by the mental disintegration of his first wife Claire Delbos over a period of two decades). There is a good deal of evidence to suggest that it was the very depth of this experience which made Messiaen look to music as its antidote.

Olivier Messiaen and Claire Delbos, 1939. Photo: private collection of Nigel Simeone

Nevertheless, the composer’s subsequent libretto for Saint François d’Assise seems to indicate that Messiaen probably conceded that Vos had a point, and that any Christian art which emphasizes transfiguration and final glory (of which there is no shortage in the opera’s concluding scene) has to balance this with a this-worldly Theology of the Cross if it is to carry conviction. In Messiaen’s opera some of the most powerful music is to be found not only in the scene with the leper, but also in the terrifying seventh tableau – a passage of rare dramatic power – in which Francis receives the stigmata at La Verna (one of Europe’s great sacred sites where I have had the enormous privilege of playing recitals on two occasions) as a mark of his solidarity with the Crucified Christ.

It is hard not to have some sympathy with those critics who see the vast orchestral and scenic resources required to perform Saint François as being strangely at odds with the radical simplicity of the saint himself. I would contend, however, that the work still remains a inspiringly counter-cultural witness for our times, particularly when it is recalled that it was written as a commission for the all-too-secular venue of the Paris Opera. Messiaen may not have tended for the leper as literally as Albert Schweitzer (who in 1954 constructed a ‘Village of Light’ for leprosy victims), but that is not to devalue his contribution to the advancement of God’s Kingdom. A work of art can never be a substitute for practical works of compassion, yet it can both raise awareness of their necessity, and make its own unique contribution to the healing of the human person seen as a holistic unity of body and spirit (as the strange attraction of the music of Arvo Pärt and Henryk Gorecki for hospital patients reminds us). Messiaen’s message in Saint François is in the last analysis not dissimilar to that of Schweitzer; artistic beauty and the search for justice are not opposites but belong together as marks of God’s coming reign. How to ensure the coherence of these two elements in practice is a task which all of us involved with the arts would do well to ponder. Not without a measure of fear and trembling if we bear in mind that the face of the leper, from which we would rather look away, is that of the One who, to quote from the seventh tableau of Messiaen’s opera libretto, ‘comes from the reverse side of time, goes from the future to the past and advances to judge the world’.

Information about World Leprosy Day can be found at http://www.leprosymission.org.uk/resources/default.aspx

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[1] Marcel Dupré raconte … (Paris: Bornemann, 1972), 71.
[2] “Je vais te demander une chose, je voudrais que tu me tutoies”. Abasourdi, je lui répondis: “De vous à moi, avec joie, mais de moi à vous, je ne pourrai jamais”. Ibid., 74.
[3] Almut Rössler, Contributions to the Spiritual World of Olivier Messiaen, with original texts by the composer, translation Barbara Dagg and Nancy Poland (Duisburg: Gilles und Francke, 1986), 52-53.

Truth is symphonic (vi) – Just say yes?

Herbert Blomstedt with Jan Katzschke (right) and Peter Bannister

After my last post on the metaphor of God as the ‘Divine Attractor’ composing a cosmic symphony, my intention had been to close these reflections on analogies between orchestral music-making and the spiritual life. That was until I was unexpectedly invited in mid-September by pastor and theologian Beat Rink, international director of Crescendo, to interview Maestro Herbert Blomstedt at the ‘Being Salt and Light in Culture’ conference in Dresden at the end of the month. A member of SDG’s advisory board, Herbert Blomstedt is a former music director of the Leipzig Gewandhaus, Dresden Staatskapelle and San Francisco Symphony orchestras, among others. His comments were so lucid and thought-provoking that it persuaded me to add the present postscript to this series on ‘symphonic truth’.

First a few words about the maestro for all those of you who thought that Karajan was the only great conductor named Herbert. Born in the US of Swedish parents in 1927 but spending his childhood in Scandinavia, Herbert Blomstedt’s career has been long and extremely distinguished; if he is not a household name, this can largely be attributed to the fact that his music-making is based on values antithetical to the media circus and the insatiable thirst for spectacle that seems increasingly to power the classical music ‘industry’. With Blomstedt there is no clearly marketable visual product – no theatrical stage manner, baton pyrotechnics or carefully groomed external image. As an experiment, try watching a YouTube video clip of his conducting (a good example would be the ZDFTheater television broadcast of the Leipzig Gewandhaus playing the finale of Brahms’ First Symphony: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MQ8J27BrvhE) without the sound. At first you may be underwhelmed if your main interest is in staring at the podium, but Herbert Blomstedt is living musical proof that appearances can be extremely deceptive (I have yet to see him live, but what I’m saying here is not only based on recorded audio and video: I have also heard extraordinary reports from performers such as pianist Martin Helmchen, who recently played Mendelssohn’s Second Concerto and Beethoven’s Triple with the Berlin Philharmonic under his direction). Look at the physical commitment coming from the orchestra and you’ll begin to understand what I mean; what we have here is the opposite of the frequent scenario in which a conductor flails widely in front of disinterested and apathetic players – here is rather a maestro who evidently believes that energy should principally be directed to where it properly belongs, i.e. into the hands of the people who actually translate the composer’s score (the higher point of reference) into living sound, not focused on the conductor’s baton.  His task is to release their energy as efficiently and simply as possible, offering logical direction without interfering or attracting undue attention to his own person. This is not to abdicate leadership, but rather to provide a coherent interpretational framework within which the musicians can express themselves freely.

Now turn on the sound and you’ll get some inkling as to why Herbert Blomstedt has held long and successful tenures with some of the world’s most eminent orchestras. Like his benchmarking recordings of the Nielsen symphonies with the San Francisco Symphony, Blomstedt’s Brahms displays a rhythmic drive which is hugely powerful without sounding forced; his interpretation exhibits an impeccable sense of structural proportion derived from a clear understanding of the music’s inner motivic coherence, delivered with a spacious, open orchestral sonority coupling breadth with great alertness and linear clarity. Neo-classical interpretation in the best sense of the word.

Our panel discussion in Dresden took as its starting-point an extended interview given by Herbert Blomstedt in a recent book by Beat Rink and Franz Mohr (former head piano technician for Steinway & Sons) entitled Mich umgibt ein grosser Klang, a fascinating volume which also includes contributions from Sofia Gubaidulina, Masaaki Suzuki and SDG’s own artistic director John Nelson, among others. It would be impossible to summarize our hour-long conversation, but the general tone was set by Herbert Blomstedt’s very first remark. Gone, he claimed, is the time when, to quote Molly Bloom’s final words at the end of James Joyce’s Ulysses , it seemed that the essence of life was to be found unambiguously in the words ‘say yes’! This was of course a justifiable reaction to the nay-saying and Victorian pruderie of the nineteenth century, but Blomstedt argued that today’s world now presents the opposite problem. For the first time in history, human progress actually depends on our ability to say ‘no’ in certain situations, both as individuals and as a society.

In our times one of the principal reasons why this has become a challenge is the loss of rootedness in contemporary Western culture. In Mich umgibt ein grosser Klang , Blomstedt points to a modern malaise deriving from collective amnesia, the loss of a sense of a memory central both to music and to the overarching narrative of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures:

‘Now music and faith have this in common, that they build on memories. This in no way means that they are therefore conservative and set in stone. They rather refer to a pool of experiences which are now taken up and worked through. They build on rock rather than on sand.’ […] ‘Good music relies on memories which always appear in a new light. Now faith is also impossible without memories. The English Bible puts it beautifully: “Remember …”, “Never forget it!” – “Tell your children what God has done for you! Bind the words on your hand and on your forehead! Always think of them and act accordingly!”‘ (1)

(‘Die Musik und der Glaube haben nun gemeinsam, dass sie auf Erinnerungen bauen. Das bedeutet keineswegs, dass sie deswegen schon konservativ und versteinert wären. Sie beziehen sich vielmehr auf einen Fundus von Erlebnissen, der nun aufgegriffen und verarbeitet wird. Sie bauen auf Felsen statt auf Sand.’ […] gute Musik setzt auf Erinnerungen, die sie immer wieder in ein neues Licht rückt. Nun ist auch der Glaube unmöglich ohne Erinnerung. In der englischen Bibel heißt es so schön: «Remember …», also «Vergiss es nie!» – «Erzähle deinen Kindern, was Gott für dich getan hat! Binde die Worte auf deine Hand und auf deine Stirn! Denke immer daran, handle danach!»’)

This remembrance has nothing to do with fundamentalism or ultra-conservatism, whether religious or artistic (from his early studies with John Cage in Darmstadt to his 2005 Leipzig recording of Sven-David Sandström’s epic High Mass, Blomstedt has always demonstrated a keen interest in modern music). It nonetheless prevents the person with roots from losing her core identity by being blown in all directions by passing fashion. Memory is crucial to exercising the power of moral decision, which inevitably includes a capacity to refuse as well as to embrace possible courses of action.

In a world of seemingly endless distractions where we are bombarded on every side by conflicting voices clamouring for our attention as consumers, we can only return to our roots via a rejection of the superfluous in order to concentrate on the essential (a recurring motif in the thought of Arvo Pärt, I noted, having the Estonian composer’s 75th birthday uppermost in my mind after my meeting with him earlier in the month). While Blomstedt admitted that living in Stockholm rather than in Dresden during his time with the Staatskapelle (1975-1985) sheltered him from the many downsides of the former East Germany, he nonetheless expressed a certain nostalgia for the (enforced) simplicity of lifestyle in the DDR in this respect.

On a musical level, this means saying ‘no’ to the prevailing culture of individualistic self-absorption – an especial temptation in conducting (‘a very dangerous profession’, spiritually speaking, where the lure of status, glamour and financial reward seems so powerful), but a yes to humility, to modesty, to the recognition that performers are subservient to the composer and even more so to the Creator.

This of course an intensely counter-cultural message which cannot simply be made credible by word alone but needs to be lived out on a consistent if unspectacular daily basis. Although his devout Christian faith is no secret in the musical world, Blomstedt made it plain that he is allergic to religious rhetoric. On one hand he expressed deep respect not only for colleagues of other faith traditions,  but also for others such as Japanese musicians, who may have no overt religious beliefs but nonetheless display extremely high ethical standards (something he regards as connected with vestiges of their Buddhist heritage). On the other hand, he made the sobering claim that some of the weakest musicians in the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra were actually professing Christians who somehow imagined that God would magically solve all their technical problems without the need for them to take their artistic responsibilities seriously through sheer hard work and self-criticism. Sincerity of religious convictions can never be a substitute for musical excellence.

One aspect of Herbert Blomstedt’s career on which we didn’t touch, but which was certainly in the background to our whole discussion, was the fact that as a Seventh-Day-Adventist, he has made it a long-term policy of his not to rehearse or study on Saturdays. For me it is this unfashionable commitment to Sabbath which is at the heart of what he was trying to convey in Dresden when referring to the contemporary importance of saying ‘no’. In a consumer society in which the reduction of all things (and people) to quantifiable commodities exerts a seemingly inexorable pressure, the message of the Sabbath is that human beings are structured so as to function within certain limits. A recognition of our finitude and dependency on a source outside ourselves is fundamental to our existence as creatures. There has to be a space where the human striving for achievement and economic production is set aside and put in proper perspective. Not only in order to prevent us from driving ourselves relentlessly towards exhaustion in pursuit of ultimately meaningless goals, but so that a block should be put on our merciless exploitation of the earth and its poor. When read in a context of ecological crisis and massive social injustice threatening to engulf us all, Blomstedt’s statement that, for the first time in history, progress will only be possible by saying ‘no’, acquires particular urgency and relevance.

It is however intriguing and significant that Herbert Blomstedt has never seen a problem with performing concerts on Saturdays, which presumably means that he does not perceive them as work (it would be interesting to hear whether orchestral musicians share his opinion!). Indeed, he regards concerts as highly appropriate to the Sabbath in that the act of collective performance has a quality of gift to it, an act of thanksgiving in the celebratory presentation of the fruits of human labour which one might in some way call Eucharistic. Furthermore, there is a solid theological tradition which sees an eschatological dimension to collective music as sheer gratuitous play, a pointer to the endless joy of God’s eternal Sabbath.This idea of the ultimate gratituity of God’s being is memorably expressed by the great contemporary Lutheran theologian Robert W. Jenson. ‘God is beauty; to be God is to be enjoyable’ (2). This beauty has a ‘musical’ quality to it, being characterised by the ‘perfect harmony of the triune life.’ And it is precisely this harmony in which humanity is called to participate; in the words of Jonathan Edwards quoted by Jenson in the final page of his two-volume Systematic Theology headed Telos, ‘When I would form an idea of a society in the highest degree happy, I think of them … sweetly singing to each other’. Jenson then concludes:

‘The enlivening Telos of the Kingdom’s own life […] is perfect harmony between the conversation of the redeemed and the conversation that God is. In the conversation that God is, meaning and melody are one.
The end is music.’ (3)

1. Mich umgibt ein grosser Klang, ch. 2. Translation mine. The association of music, memory and theology is a tradition going back to Augustine’s philosophy of time (most famously explored in Book 11 of the Confessions with its notion of the ‘threefold present’ binding past, present and future as memory, attention and expectation). In language, we cannot hear any even a syllable ‘unless memory helps us so that, at the moment when not the beginning but the end of the syllable sounds, that motion remains in the mind which was produced when the beginning sounded’ (De Musica 6.5.10 – see Roland Teske, ‘Augustine’s philosophy of memory’ in The Cambridge Companion to Augustine, ed. Eleonore Stump and Norman Kretzmann (Cambridge: CUP, 2001), pp. 154-155).

2. Robert W. Jenson Systematic Theology vol. 1 (New York: OUP, 1997), p.234.

3. Jenson, Systematic Theology vol. 2, p. 369.

Arvo Pärt at 75

If the world is currently recalling the sad and momentous events of 9 years ago and holding its breath concerning the irresponsible maverick actions of a small church in Florida, it is perhaps comforting to know that there is something to celebrate on September 11. Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, arguably the world’s greatest living composer of sacred music, was born 75 years ago today.

Arvo Pärt

Just yesterday I returned from attending a major retrospective of Pärt’s work at the Vale of Glamorgan Festival in Wales, where I had the unforgettable privilege of meeting the composer and of giving a pre-concert tribute to him prior to a concert given by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales at the Millenium Centre in Cardiff. The programme featured a new arrangement of Pärt’s In Spe from 1976 (partially sponsored by us at Soli Deo Gloria) as well as his cantata Cecilia, vergine Romana, together with a remarkable and moving performance of his Fourth Symphony, ‘Los Angeles’. You can read the text of my talk here: http://www.peterjohnbannister.com/APtribute.pdf

Rocks of Ages (i) – Lascaux and the origins of sacred art

A few posts ago I mentioned American paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould and the intriguing tension in his writing between his professed agnosticism and his enthusiasm for masterpieces of sacred music such as Haydn’s Die Schöpfung. I thought of Gould and the title of his book Rocks of Ages again last week while visiting the Musée National de Préhistoire in the Dordogne, a region famous not only for its culinary delicacies such as foie gras and confit de canard (both of which I try to avoid out of respect for my arteries and reservations about the dubious ethics of animal force-feeding involved in their production) but also for its spectacular rock formations and caves, housing not only fantastic stalactites and stalagmites but also some of Europe’s most famous pre-historic art.

Lascaux, 'Hall of the Bulls'

Abbé Breuil, Lascaux 1940

Lascaux is the best-known of these sites; discovered in 1940, it was memorably termed the ‘Sistine Chapel of Prehistory’ by the French priest and prehistorian Abbé Henri Breuil (1877-1961) on account of its fabulous images of horses, bulls and bison dating from around 17000 B.C.E.  The cave has been closed to the public since 1963 in order to preserve the paintings (although I highly recommend a virtual tour at http://www.lascaux.culture.fr/#/fr/02_00.xml: certainly easier and perhaps more worthwhile than visiting the facsimile cave ‘Lascaux II’ outside which I waited for over an hour in 36°C heat), but there are other sites such as Rouffignac where original art from the Middle Magdalenian period (around 13000 B.C.E.) can still be seen.

Rouffignac, 'Great ceiling'

Contemplating this grand plafond after a slightly scary train ride through the labyrinthine tunnels of Rouffignac, I was struck by the superior artistic quality of the depiction of the mammoths and other creatures (enough in itself to debunk notions of ‘progress in art’ – you can even find instances of the use of perspective here). The ability to translate sensory impressions into a meaningful Gestalt of great expressive power and depth is clearly something that has been deeply anchored in human culture for a very, very long time; indeed, it would seem hard to deny that the aesthetic dimension of human existence is something primary which cannot be reduced to any purely functional explanation. But just what possessed these artists to venture through dark, cold passageways in order to leave these imprints many hundreds of yards from the light of day? Their motivation was clearly strong – these are no casual scrawls, no graffiti along the lines of ‘CRO-MAGNON WOZ ‘ERE’ -, but what was the purpose of their endeavour, one that nobody other than initiates would even see? Surely more was involved than merely ‘depicting’ their world in a realistic fashion, as one of the most celebrated paintings of Lascaux makes apparent:

'Wounded bison', Lascaux

While the bison depicted here can in some respects be said to be ‘realist’, the same is clearly not true of the human representation of the figure on the left (which has four-toed bird’s feet in place of human hands) . It is striking that the artist clearly differentiates between ‘realistic’ and ‘symbolic’ styles, presumably employing both in the same image for some purpose unknown to us; although may interpretations have been proposed, it is hard to escape the conclusion that some form of ritual activity is associated with the desire to depict this scene, which is found in a narrow cleft in a particularly inaccessible part of the cave. As Princeton Professor of  Theology and Science Wentzel van Huyssteen has recently remarked in his 2004 Gifford lectures in the course of a discussion of the development of human ‘higher consciousness’ (i.e. the consciousness of being conscious that seems to separate us from other animals), there is strong support among contemporary theorists, including figures hostile to religious belief such as David Lewis-Williams, that the Upper Paleolithic art extant in France and Spain was linked to shamanism, suggesting that ‘art and “religion” were simultaneously born in this creative process’ (Alone in the world? Human uniqueness in science and theology (Rerdmans: Grand Rapids, 2006, p. 250). The sensory deprivation offered by the total silence and darkness of the caves which made them a gateway for the ancients to the spirit realm, van Huyssteen surmises, triggering visions and altered states of consciousness which were then ‘fixed’ by the visual images painted on the rocks. The walls of the caves – on which hand imprints are left in other important sites of the Dordogne such as Pech-Merle, as if to stress the importance of the act of touching them – effectively functioned in Paleolithic culture as a type of membrane between the visible and the invisible:

‘Touching the rock wall would then literally imply a touching of the veil that separated humans from the spiritual world […] It is clear, then, that in a variety of ways people touched, respected, painted, and ritually treated the walls of caves because of what they were and what they believed existed behind their surfaces. The cave walls were never just meaningless background: they were part of a highly charged metaphysical context, a context that provides for us today some of the first material evidence available for the origin of the first religion.’ (ibid., p. 252)

What is being shown in the ‘wounded bison’ image, he argues following Mircea Eliade and other scholars, is not simply a hunting accident, but a shaman being transformed into a bird-spirit at the moment of death (falling backward in a moment of hallucinatory ecstasy).

Whatever one may think of such an interpretation, the remarkable image offered by the bird-man and the wounded bison certainly provides evidence that our ancestors were already searching for a realm of meaning lying beyond immediate appearances. Indeed, the origins of this quest can be traced back further than the Upper Paleolithic era; even before homo sapiens emerged as the unique lasting form of hominid life, the Neanderthals already seem to have been performing burial rites – the evidence is overwhelming that it is the existential encounter with the frontier of death which is at the root of all subsequent human ritual.

From the perspective of faith, the implications are unmistakable: human beings since time immemorial have been created with a restless spirit open towards the transcendent. We have always been driven to seek answers to the riddles of life, death and experiences of altered consciousness (in hallucination, dream and sexual arousal, all of which may shape forms of artistic expression without however explaining the impulse to process these experiences through artistic creation). Art and religion are intertwined as primal expressions of human culture, yet the admission of spiritual and aesthetic dimensions to human life that cannot be accounted for by ‘hard’ materialist versions of evolutionary biology is one which many of the scientific authors whose works are on sale in the bookshops at the pre-historic sites in the Dordogne (Richard Dawkins being the most obvious example) are adamant in denying.

The debate between science and religion in the English-speaking world has certainly proved somewhat fractious in recent years due to an undignified shouting match between the ‘New Atheists’ (Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett) and equally intransigeant Biblical literalists. In France, however, there is a peculiar Gallic twist to this situation in the form of the additional factor of an official secular state ideology which has attempted – since the Revolution of 1789 and particularly following the separation of Church and State in 1905 – to bracket questions of faith entirely out of public life. This leads to a curious and incoherent silence as to the ultimate meaning of the cave paintings over which the French Government has custodial responsibility; the question of whether the desire to re-create the hunt scene depicted above in Lascaux should be viewed in proto-religious terms, as an attempt to deal with questions of the beyond in confronting death, is off-limits as far as the public square is concerned. Why? perhaps because serious engagement with the question would require us to countenance the idea that we are inherently ‘religious’ beings in the broadest sense, and that religion, being at the very root of humanity’s development, is maybe not simply a sociological expression of a ‘primitivism’ which we have now outgrown, as the Enlightenment would have us believe.

René Girard

One prominent French writer who has spent much of the last 40 years breaking the taboo concerning the expulsion of religion from French intellectual life – a phenomenon to which I will return in part two of this post – is René Girard (b. 1923). In his epochal Things hidden since the foundation of the world, he argues forcibly that the message of the pre-historic art of the Dordogne is that a religious dimension is integral to the very meaning of the term ‘culture’. No substantive discussion of the human phenomenon can occur if the issue of the origins of religion is systematically ignored. The question of the birth of art is not the only area of human activity implicated; leaving aside the question of whether the depiction of the hunt in the Lascaux Shaft image should be associated with shamanism, hunting should be seen as a rite in itself, linked to an intuitive encounter with transcendence through blood and sacrifice. To ignore the ritual element in this ancestral form of human behaviour is simply modern obfuscation that flies in the face of all the evidence:

‘The hunt has an invariably ritual character in primitive societies. Here again, most theorists implicitly or explicitly take the ritual aspect of hunting for a senseless embellishment and remain unperturbed by the fact that it constitutes the sole invariant among infinitely diverse techniques. Yet these too are related so closely and intimately to aspects of ritual that the religious element in hunting cannot be the mere intruder and interloper we always take it to be, even if we are careful not to lessen its role.
Specialists tell us that the human digestive tract has remained that of the mainly vegetarian omnivore, the kind of system that preceded ours in the course of evolution. Man is not naturally a carnivore; human hunting should not be thought of in terms of animal predation.
To understand what might have impelled human beings to set off in pursuit of the largest and most dangerous animals or to devise the strategies necessary for prehistoric hunting, it is necessary and sufficient to recognize that hunting, at first, was actively linked to sacrifice. […]
Even today the religious nature of hunting, the ritual distribution of roles, and the sacrificial character of the victim, suggest such an origin. Some prehistoric evidence, from the magnificent cave paintings in the Dordogne to the geometrical arrangements of bones and human and animal skulls found in some areas, could also be cited.’

(René Girard, Things hidden since the foundation of the world (Paris: Grasset, 1978, English translation London: Continuum, 1987), pp. 72-3.

Without necessarily agreeing with the extended theory of sacrifice proposed by Girard (a fascinating subject which would merit an entire series of posts in itself), prominent Lutheran theologian Robert W. Jenson makes much the same point as the French theorist in seeing the cave paintings as the first religious art, a form of embryonic worship. Ritual is integral to our identity as human beings, rooted in our direct personal relation to God which is the qualitative ‘ontological’ difference between ourselves and the rest of the animal realm. Secular anthropology may say otherwise, but the imagery of Rouffignac and Lascaux – art as a symbolic, ritual action – is startling evidence of that difference:

‘Who were Adam and Eve? They were the first hominid group who by ritual action were embodied before God, made personally available to him. Theology need not join debates about whether, for example, the cave paintings were attempts to control the hunt or were thanksgivings for the hunt, were “magic” or “religion.” The painters were human, as we may know simply from the fact of their ritual. And so they were presumably fallen, and therefore with their rites did indeed try to bind the contingency of the future, to do magic. But by the very act of giving visibility to wishes directed beyond themselves, they in fact gave up control and worshipped.’ (Robert W. Jenson, Systematic Theology vol. 2 (New York: OUP, 1999), pp. 60-61)

Music and Transfiguration

Anton Bruckner, 1894

One of the pieces of music which has most haunted me in the classical repertoire over the years is Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony. Particularly the third movement with its extraordinary ecstatic tutti outburst shortly after the opening. I thought of it again today, as August 6th is the Feast of the Transfiguration: I have always associated that incredible and wholly unprepared blaze of light with the Gospel narrative of the Transfiguration of Christ on Mount Tabor. I see this as the most eschatological moment in nineteenth-century music, as if Anton Bruckner, who termed the Adagio of his Ninth Symphony his ‘farewell to life’ was suddenly granted a glimpse of Christ in the glory of his Resurrection, a foretaste of the life of the world to come given ahead of time. One conductor who seized this dimension of Bruckner’s symphonism with special acuity (whatever you may think of him in other repertoire) was Sergiu Celibidache, who made a penetrating comment on the composer in the film Celibidache’s Garden:

”For him, time is different from what it is for other composers. For a normal person, time is what comes after the beginning. Bruckner’s time is what comes after the end. The apotheoses of all his finales, the hope of another world, the hope of being saved, of being once more baptised in light – all this exists nowhere else’

the Alpine snowfields of La Meije - the inspiration for Messiaen's 'La Transfiguration'

A second composer who also seems to experience time differently from the rest of us was Olivier Messiaen (who curiously had no interest whatever in Bruckner’s music), who regarded the Transfiguration as the most significant moment in the history of our planet. His monumental oratorio of the 1960s La Transfiguration constitutes one of the high points of his output and his synthesis of music and theology.  This incredible work is too rich and complex a subject to be tackled in this post, but anyone out there undaunted by the French language and a fairly heavy dose of theology and philosophy can take a look at http://www.zshare.net/download/79078168ca4b03c3/

Icon of the Transfiguration Theophanes the Greek, 15th century

The Feast of the Transfiguration has traditionally been highly important for Eastern Christianity, which has always viewed redemption in terms of the transfiguration of the whole cosmos under the Lordship of Christ. However, there has also been something of a re-discovery of late of the notion of transfiguration in Western theology. A striking example is provided by the great German Lutheran theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg in his description of experiences as a teenager which led him to Christian faith. The most significant of these (occurring perhaps not coincidentally after a music lesson) linked Epiphany and Transfiguration:

‘The single most important experience occurred in early January 1945, when I was 16 years old. On a lonely two-hour walk home from my piano lesson, seeing an otherwise ordinary sunset, I was suddenly flooded by light and absorbed in a sea of light which, although it did not extinguish the humble awareness of my finite existence, overflowed the barriers that normally separate us from the surrounding world. Several months earlier I had narrowly escaped an American bombardment at Berlin; a few weeks later my family would have to leave our East German home because of the Russian offensive. I did not know at the time that January 6 was the day of Epiphany, nor did I realize that in that moment Jesus Christ had claimed my life as a witness to the transfiguration of this world in the illuminating power and judgment of his glory. But there began a period of craving to understand the meaning of life, and since philosophy did not seem to offer the ultimate answers to such a quest, I finally decided to probe the Christian tradition more seriously than I had considered worthwhile before.’ (‘God’s Presence in History’ in Christian Century, March 11, 1981)

This same theme of Transfiguration can be found in words written by Pannenberg fifty years later which musicians and other artists of faith would do well to meditate, and not only on August 6th. Some, indeed many of us have been privileged, like the first disciples, or Bruckner, Messiaen and Pannenberg, to experience a fragmentary anticipation of the coming glory of God through artistic beauty, human relationships and Christian community; would that our lives would transfigure the reality around us, however minutely, for the healing of a world in pain:

‘The comprehensive vision of a transformation of all things in the light of God’s glory can serve, among other things, as a clue to the specific character of art in the context of a Christian culture. It is the transfiguration of present reality, a transfiguration that includes the element of judgment as well as glorification. in the greatest works of Christian artists in the history of Christian culture such a transfiguration of present reality was achieved and thus intimations were present of the Christian eschatological hope’ (Wolfhart Pannenberg, ‘The Task of Christian Eschatology’ in Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson (eds), The Last Things: Biblical & Theological Perspectives on Eschatology, pp. 11-12.

Truth is symphonic (v) – the Divine Attractor

‘Don’t look at the trombones – it only encourages them’ was one of the items of advice given by Richard Strauss to young conductors discussed in part four of this series (at least in Itay Talgam’s paraphrase – the original is actually far less piquant: ‘never look encouragingly at the brass, except with a brief glance to give an important cue’). In the last post I discussed the way in which, although the model of a composer-conductor directing an orchestra might seem useful as a metaphor for God’s interaction with the world, Strauss’s example enlarged to divine dimensions would generate a disinterested Deity far removed from the God of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures.

Herbert von Karajan - eyes wide shut

Talgam gives a particularly interesting analysis of one maestro who follows Strauss’s dictum, but for a completely different reason from that adduced by the composer of Till Eulenspiegel – Herbert von Karajan. He neither looks at the trombones nor at anyone else: Karajan’s eyes are shut (try counting the number of pictures of him with eyes closed on Google Images) as he conducts the orchestra with rounded gestures which are certainly aesthetically pleasing but which cannot be interpreted as clear instructions. How does the orchestra know when to play?, asks Talgam (Gennadi Rozhdestvensky once posed me the same riddle regarding Valery Gergiev while I was working under him on Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades). The answer is that the players look at each other and take collective responsibility for producing a unified attack – which is precisely Karajan’s aim: his refusal to give an unequivocal beat is a deliberate tactic designed to ensure that the players do not enter into a false sense of reliance on the conductor.

At first sight this seems to provide promising material for theology: the idea of a conductor who withdraws in order to promote the development of the orchestra’s own potential would seem to accord with Christ’s self-effacing leadership based on the renunciation of gestures of power and control (‘it is a wicked orchestra that asks for a sign’, I’m tempted to say). As I remarked in the last instalment, it would appear to correspond to Jesus’s remark to his disciples that ‘it is for your good that I am going away’ (John 16:7) in order that the Beloved Community should develop under the leadership of the Holy Spirit. However, Karajan’s example also has a more troubling side; whereas Christ remains present with the disciples through the Spirit whom he sends, Karajan is absent in terms of genuine contact, his eyes being closed. As Talgam points out, this sends out the message that the only real music going on is that in the maestro’s head: what the players produce (their job being to guess at Karajan’s musical vision) and the audience hears is only a shadow. For this reason there is no genuine relationship, for all the laudable talk about the collective ownership of the performance. The appearance created by Karajan is one of profound spirituality, but for Talgam the result is ultimately somewhat sterile because of the lack of communication between the podium and the orchestra. This kind of Divine Conductor would be a rather inscrutable Deity offering the world a semblence of autonomy but fundamentally unwilling to interact with it except by mind games.

Having myself played under conductors who function through manipulation of this type (please contact me privately if you want me to name names!), I can affirm Talgam’s observation that this kind of inscrutability is extremely unnerving, especially when it is accompanied by explosions of anger or dirty looks at players who fail at the guessing game, making mistakes because of their inability to interpret inherently ambiguous gestures. The pressure under which this leadership style places the performers can actually generate what on the surface seem like impressive results obtained by sheer fear, but the dynamic is clearly an unhealthy one. With a little stretch of the imagination, you might compare the members of the orchestra to worshippers concentrating intensely on appeasing an implacable God of stern countenance, who they fear will strike them dead for displeasing him, although he gives no indication of how exactly this is to be done.

Carlos Kleiber

So, having examined some negative models, what does Itay Talgam offer by way of usable counter-examples? Well, it will probably come as no surprise to anyone who has taken more than a surface interest in the art of conducting that he turns for inspiration to Carlos Kleiber (‘so unique, so remarkable, so outstanding that one can only describe him as a phenomenon’, wrote Gunther Schuller in his otherwise fairly merciless deconstruction of the baton-waver’s art The Compleat Conductor). Critical opinion on Kleiber is by no means unanimous – see Norman Lebrecht’s article at http://www.scena.org/columns/lebrecht/040730-NL-kleiber.html for a typically outspoken verdict on a maestro as famous for what and when he did not conduct as for what he did. Yet the video evidence offered by Talgam is compelling, showing a master technician who is so far beyond technique that his direction gives the impression of permanent improvisation. Nobody can accuse this conductor of refusing to make decisions of interpretation, but freedom and dialogue are an integral part of his interpretive process, with his conducting both shaping the orchestra’s music-making and reacting to it in unpredictable, sometimes almost outrageous ways. Like Karajan, he is prepared to allow his orchestral soloists considerable autonomy, but unlike Karajan he is constantly if unobtrusively present, never leaving his musicians to fend for themselves or letting them flounder in guesswork. Transposed theologically, Kleiber’s example would seem to point towards a God in whom transcendence and immanence combine, comfortable enough with himself and sufficiently confident in his passionate vision that he can invite others to participate in it as co-creators without needing to micro-manage them the whole time.

To Talgam’s line-up I would like to add a further model which he doesn’t discuss: the conductor as Attractor. Unbeknown to many music-lovers, one of the acid tests of conducting is how to react when things start to get out of control. Because they sometimes do. This is most apparent in the opera house where, unlike the concert hall, the complex web in which the maestro is entangled has the potential for generating utter chaos, to put it bluntly. Indeed, I would say that this situation, in which the on-stage action is frequently so frenetic that direct contact between the singers and the podium is impossible, is actually a much more revealing model of Divine interaction with a world which is literally hell-bent on going its own way than the relatively controlled context of a symphony concert.

There is one extremely instructive but highly uncomfortable observation-point for the kind of cross-fire that goes on in the opera house. Officially the audience isn’t supposed to know anything about what goes on there, but I know it rather well from first-hand experience: the prompter’s box (a.k.a. ‘the hole’ – le trou du souffleur in French). For the uninitiated, this is a decidedly claustrophobic booth in between the orchestra and the edge of the stage, with just enough space to move your arms if you happen to be the size of a tamarin monkey, equipped with a microscopic monitor on which to watch the movements of the conductor behind you. I got stuck in this box at Opera Bastille as part of my duties in the course of a stimulating but mind-manglingly complex contemporary opera production a few years ago; my responsibilities included yelling out cues and directions to hopelessly lost soloists and chorus (problems compounded for me by the need to hit ‘moving targets’ and to avoid being picked up by French Radio microphones), humming notes and attempting to duplicate the gestures from the podium in miniature. At times it was planned mayhem, at times unplanned, as some less-than-perfectly prepared singers decided that, rather than aiming for fidelity to the score, they would ‘play the percentages’ and improvise every second note on the basis that nobody would notice.

James Conlon

Under such conditions some conductors would have headed for the psychiatrist’s couch, thrown tantrums or tendered their resignation. But not so the maestro in question, the imperturbable James Conlon. I remember his description of the tactic to be adopted in such circumstances, one which he acquired over decades of conducting at opera houses throughout the world – rather than panic in an effort to bring wayward singers to heel immediately when faced by a discrepancy between them and the orchestra, he would calmly keep beating, accelerating or slowing down imperceptibly so as to maintain the general flow and to meet the erring soloist at the ‘next corner’. This proved an extremely successful policy.

I thought of this example recently when reading Archbishop Jozef Zycinski’s remarkable and profound study on Christianity and natural science entitled God and Evolution: Fundamental Questions of Christian Evolutionism, in which the author compares God to the concept in physics of an ‘attractor’ imposing directionality on a non-linear system marked by inherent instability (the opera I mentioned above was a perfect human exemplification of such a scenario!). The attractor draws the evolution of the system towards itself, despite what appears to be randomness and chaos. Zycinski compares Divine action in the world to the ‘role of an attractor, which forces a new direction of development on processes not susceptible to the principles of deterministic interpretation.’ (p. 162) Just as the method of conducting in the face of musical chaos is persuasive rather than interventionist, so God as Cosmic Attractor acts subtly, as Zycinski argues in terms borrowed from the process philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead:

‘He does not […] explicitly determine the direction of actually occurring processes, but only tries to “attract” them towards His patterns. The rich reality of diverse operations is not, however, strictly determined, and can achieve scenarios of development alternative to those proposed by the Divine Poet of the World.’

Intriguingly, Archbishop Zycinski uses a symphonic metaphor (surely with Balthasar’s image of the ‘world-orchestra’ in the back of his mind) which powerfully expresses a deep insight into the interplay of human and Divine freedom, and with which I will close this series of posts dealing analogically with the One who is both the supreme conductor and composer of the music of creation:

‘The history of the world is not then a recording played from a cosmic compact disk, but the completion of a great symphony in which man can aim at Divine patterns of beauty, but can also keep his authorial rights to cosmic dissonances and discords’ (Jozef Zycinski, God and Evolution, p. 164)

Truth is symphonic (iv) – the world orchestra

Itay Talgam

In the third part of this on-going series of posts I reflected on Gustavo Dudamel’s conducting style and its relationship to his training within José Antonio Abreu’s Sistema for musical education in Venezuela. Dudamel certainly provides a thought-provoking challenge to prevailing models of interaction between the maestro and the orchestra; in this instalment I will however be arguing that every style of musical direction (and it should be remembered that there are as many as there are conductors) reveals certain assumptions about group dynamics which are worth pondering. Here I will be referring to the highly stimulating and entertaining presentations on the subject by leading Israeli conductor Itay Talgam, a former music director of the Tel Aviv Symphony Orchestra who in recent years has been using video analysis of great maestri such as Carlos Kleiber, Herbert von Karajan, Richard Strauss and his own teacher Leonard Bernstein in order to offer penetrating insights into management techniques and broader issues of human relations.

Although Talgam’s religious references are oblique rather than direct, his words are laden with Jewish wisdom (he tellingly remarks that Bernstein conceived his conducting in rabbinic terms) which would seem to beg theological transposition; it is my contention that an examination of conducting techniques provides fruitful material for consideration not only of interaction between human beings, but also of the relationship between the world-orchestra and the Divine Conductor. The great Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar uses just this analogy compellingly in his book Truth is Symphonic

‘Before the Word of God became man, the world orchestra was “fiddling” about without any plan: world views, religions, different concepts of the state, each one playing to itself. Somehow there is the feeling that this cacophonous jumble is only a “tuning up”: the A can be heard through everything, like a kind of promise. “In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets …” (Heb. 1:1). Then came the Son, the “heir of all things”, for whose sake the whole orchestra had been put together. As it performs God’s symphony under the Son’s direction, the meaning of its variety becomes clear.’

As I asserted following Miroslav Volf in the post ‘Constrained by the Score?’, we are of course talking about a composer-conductor here, not a maestro directing someone else’s music. However, it is clear from Balthasar’s evocative words that this is no Divine Dictator playing every instrument himself; instead, he is dealing with players who have genuine autonomy, who frequently behave in an un-coordinated, chaotic manner and who need the conductor’s unifying direction in order for their ‘cacophonous jumble’ to become music.

Richard Strauss

Balthasar’s Christocentric analogy suggests a leadership style combining discipline and freedom. So what sort of conducting style best mirrors this? Logically, one might want to turn first to examples of composer-conductors, but certainly not to the one analyzed by Talgam – the Richard Strauss of his later years. What we see in Talgam’s clip of Strauss on the podium is a conductor casually twitching his baton in disengaged fashion, his minimal gestures bearing no relation to the dynamics of the orchestra or expressive content of the music as he leafs through his own score. What Strauss offers is a curious combination of absentee direction (no eye contact with the instrumentalists) with an insistence that the players should do nothing but slavishly reproduce a text which has been determined in advance in the minutest detail. What sort of image of the Divinity would emerge from a theological extrapolation of this musical example, I wonder? A Divine Metronome, not unlike the Divine Watchmaker of eighteenth-century Deism – but one with a penchant for total predestination -, who simply ‘winds up’ the orchestra of the world at the start and then lets it tick away without further interaction with it, remaining essentially remote and diffident for the good reason that the running of the watch has been determined in advance. Or else the giver of a lifeless religious code of law to be obeyed unthinkingly, with no possibility of dialogue between the legislator and his subjects. In either case any genuine engagement on the part of the conductor with the players is excluded; indeed it would be surplus to requirements given that nothing novel can actually happen during a performance where everything is scripted. There is moreover a strange dualism in operation here: Strauss the composer (i.e. the mind) is everything, while Strauss the conductor (the body) merely beats time. As Talgam remarks somewhat skittishly, Strauss is simply being faithful to rule number two of his Golden Rules for  the Album of a Young Conductor: ‘you should not perspire when conducting: only the audience should get warm’. Whatever we may think of such a maxim, we are clearly a long way from Balthasar’s image of an incarnate conductor. Such a maestro might correspond to Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover, but certainly not to the passionately moved God of the Judeo-Christian tradition who is capable of involvement and suffering (‘enjoying himself in a Jewish way’, to use Talgam’s memorable definition of the word).

What of the opposite approach, a conductor who takes the orchestra by the scruff of the neck and pulls it along by sheer force of the will (here Talgam turns to Riccardo Muti, perhaps a little unfairly – my comments here are not targeted against Muti personally as much as at the leadership style which Talgam is describing)? His assessment is ambivalent; on one hand, he recognizes that spectacular results can indeed be attained by a highly directive, hands-on form of management which may be appropriate in certain circumstances. When rehearsal time is limited and efficiency at a premium – as with a guest engagement – it is possible to raise the level of orchestral performance within as little as a few minutes by assuming total control via the use of unequivocal and irresistible gesticulation. However, when this strategy is applied in the context of a longer-term relationship, the outcome is more problematic, as it can provoke frustration on the part of the players who are not encouraged to develop by being given responsibilities of their own, and who may resent being micro-managed. A concept of God derived from this method of conducting would certainly be incarnate but fundamentally incapable of letting go, interventionist in a way that the Christ of the Gospels (who teaches his disciples rather than giving them orders, eventually leaving them so that they should develop under the internal direction of the Holy Spirit) definitely appears not to be.

In Part 5 we will look at some other examples from Talgam’s (and my own) gallery of conductors to see what clues they can offer towards an understanding of the nature of God’s relation to the world-orchestra.

Truth is symphonic (iii) – The Empires strike back

In part 3 of this post, I would like to turn to issues of conducting, focusing on Gustavo Dudamel, currently the Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and conductor of the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela.

Let me start with a confession. I personally tend to react allergically to promotional hype and am generally intensely suspicious of young maestri placed in front of major orchestras at an early age. There are many reasons for my scepticism, but one of my principal complaints is that in recent decades, the time-honoured tradition whereby conductors were drawn from the ranks of orchestral musicians, opera répétiteurs and composers seems to have been replaced by a fashion for ambitious young baton-wavers without any rank-and-file experience or understanding of music from the inside, pushed into the limelight by managers on the strength of success in conducting competitions or slick marketing videos. This goes hand in hand with a view inculcated by the music industry in its cult of eternal youth and perpetual novelty that the conductor is essentially a born genius belonging to a different species from those s/he leads, whose job consists of the imposition of an individual vision on a group of servants by an act of irresistible will. Many of these young conductors certainly have talent and attitude by the sackful, but what they frequently lack is any meaningful apprenticeship within structures of music-making which would i) allow them to appreciate the bewilderingly complex artistic and human parameters involved in the act of performance (this is perhaps most glaring in opera, where a degree of flexibility in decision-making is demanded of the conductor which far exceeds that required by a symphonic concert) and ii) give them some basic notions of humility.

Fortunately there are some recent signs of a return to a saner view of the role of the maestro; regarding the younger generation I can for example point to the rise to prominence of Alain Altinoglu – a former colleague of mine from the trenches at Opera Bastille, where I worked on and off for a number of seasons -, who has just made his debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York with a production of Carmen which will also travel to the Chicago Lyric Opera in October. Although he is now in great demand in the world’s most renowned houses, Alain has always been at pains to stress the value of his early training as a piano accompanist and member of the backroom staff at the Paris Opera, seeing his current work on the podium in terms of a deep continuity with his days as a musical apprentice. Anyone who has worked with him for any stretch of time will know the merits of a conductor who has emerged from within the unglamorous world of tiny rehearsal cubicles and prompters’ boxes where the fundamentals of operatic conducting are learnt the hard way.

Alain Altinoglu

A similar sort of continuity, though with an added social dimension, is very evident in Gustavo Dudamel’s leadership of the Simon Bolivar Orchestra; not only was he himself an orchestral violinist, but those whom he now directs are the same musicians with whom he spent much of his childhood. Having himself been nurtured like them by José Antonio Abreu’s El Sistema, it is logical that he should conceive of his role in relation to the orchestra differently from that of an imported maestro. There is certainly no lack of genuine individuality in his conducting, but there is no sense of an isolated individual standing against the collective. Instead his personal energy relates to that of the group by way of mutual reinforcement. What is striking about the Venezuelan Youth Orchestra is the incredible physical engagement of all the players (especially notable in the string section when compared with the majority of European orchestras, in which the level of physicality normally decreases with distance from the podium). No hierarchical logic of domination in operation here – these are musicians who, on the contrary, clearly feel empowered by their musical director rather than constrained -, yet neither is there an impression of ‘mob rule’ as can be the case when an orchestra dominates a weak conductor by sheer weight of numbers.

It is interesting to consider how something of this unique dynamic also appears to operate between Dudamel and the forces in Los Angeles (even if their latest American tour seems – almost inevitably – to have provoked something of a critical backlash). A couple of months ago I decided to put a video of a Hollywood Bowl performance by Dudamel of the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony under the microscope and was intrigued to see the results of the re-appropriation of this Old World masterpiece in a Pacific Rim context. Naturally the unabashed populism of this kind of event may not be to everyone’s taste. If what you are looking for is Olympian grandeur, intimations of the Kantian sublime, a musical counterpoint to the depth of Germanic philosophy, then look elsewhere. Similarly if what you are after is a historically-informed exploration of performance practice issues à la Roger Norrington. But what you get is perhaps more authentically Beethovenian than a rendition based on literalistic adherence to the composer’s metronome markings and non-vibrato string tone; what comes across more than anything else is the sheer elation not merely of the orchestra but above all of a chorus formed largely of Latino, Asian and African Americans at being able to claim as their own an artistic heritage once reserved for a white elite. In Dudamel’s appointment with the L.A. Philharmonic these choral singers clearly see mirrored their own cultural enfranchisement. The use of Beethoven 9 as an icon of ‘universal fraternity’ may seem so well-worn as to be nothing more than a tired cliché, but here it seems imbued with fresh and unexpected vigour. I was especially struck by the sense of struggle in Dudamel’s reading of the contrapuntal section following the central ‘Seid umschlungen’ passage; at this point it is frequent for the whirling motifs of the violins to be reduced to a virtuosic but decorative accompaniment to the choral theme on its return, but not so here. Instead, each note is allowed to make its impact, while every choral interjection of the word ‘Freude!’ is given its full declamatory weight.  The overall feeling is the same as that encapsulated in the motto of El Sistema –  ‘tocar y luchar’ (‘play and fight’). Not so much the meeting of  Beethoven with Schiller as much as the deaf composer’s encounter with South America’s liberator Simon Bolivar – maybe a truer return to the revolutionary ideals of Beethovenian thought than the backdrop of Tinseltown’s open-air amphitheatre and a forest of white tuxedos might at first suggest.

Simon Bolivar

This seems to tie in nicely with the penetrating cultural analysis offered by Penn State University Professor of History and Religious Studies Philip Jenkins in a remarkable study based on contemporary demographics entitled The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (revised edition 2007). In it Jenkins describes some of the ways in which the Christian centre of gravity in the world is shifting rapidly and inexorably towards the southern continents, changes which are also engendering profound and surprising transformations within the Northern Hemisphere. Whereas once it was northern missionaries who spread the Gospel southwards, we now see a startling inversion of the paradigm, with immigrants from the global south injecting new life into an increasingly secularized First World by remaining faithful to a Christian spiritual legacy that the north (and particularly Western Europe) once confidently exported but has now abandoned. Gustavo Dudamel’s move from Caracas to Los Angeles at the helm of forces drawn from the formerly colonized nations of Latin America, Africa and Asia would seem to be an exact musical analogue of such a reversal. Here are a conductor and musicians rejoicing in their exuberant performance of music from a culture that once imposed itself upon them by force – to use Jenkins’ memorable description, ‘The Empires strike back’!

Truth is symphonic (ii)

Continuing my previous post concerning the pioneering vision of Jose Antonio Abreu in Venezuela for social transformation through music known as El Sistema, I would like in this post to focus on a compelling speech given by Abreu on receipt of the TED prize in 2009, (well worth viewing  on-line at http://www.ted.com/talks/jose_abreu_on_kids_transformed_by_music.html ) which provides a remarkable glimpse into his philosophy.

Abreu’s project stems from the conviction that the world is in crisis. This might seem somewhat obvious given the profound and chronic problems of Latin America (huge social inequalities giving rise to exclusion, family breakdown, drug abuse and violence). What is not obvious is Abreu’s diagnosis that these problems cannot be solved merely by being addressed on the material level, as they are symptoms of something far deeper:

‘A few years ago, historian Arnold Toynbee said that the world was suffering a huge spiritual crisis. Not an economic or social crisis, but a spiritual one. I believe that to confront such a crisis, only art and religion can give proper answers to humanity, to mankind’s deepest aspirations, and to the historic demands of our times.’

Abreu’s idea, of creating a network of children’s and youth orchestras and choirs as a way to give Venezuelan children an escape route from poverty, was grounded in a belief in the spiritual power of music, particularly music of the Western classical tradition. This may seem a little surprising, given that one might have expected Western art-music to have been poorly received in the barrios as the preserve of a Europeanized elite, an alien product imposed on the people by a colonialist culture. Abreu’s view, however, was precisely the opposite: having been a classical musician himself, he was convinced that art is not a leisure pastime for the rich but a social right of which no one should be deprived by economic inequality. Once children are given instruments and access to the spiritual values embodied by genuine art, the result is a form of liberation; their music-making not only transforms them personally but also affects their family and community circles concentrically in a radical way.

‘The spontaneity music has excludes it as a luxury item and makes it a patrimony of society. It’s what makes a child play a violin at home, while his father works in his carpentry. It’s what makes a little girl play the clarinet at home, while her mother does the housework. The idea is that the families join with pride and joy in the activities of the orchestras and the choirs their children belong to. The huge spiritual world that music produces in itself, which also lies within itself, ends up overcoming material poverty. From the minute a child’s taught how to play an instrument, he’s no longer poor. He becomes a child in progress heading for a professional level, who’ll later become a full citizen. Needless to say that music is the number one prevention against prostitution, violence, bad habits, and everything degrading in the life of a child.’

Crucially (and in opposition to the individualistic, competition-based model offered by music conservatories), El Sistema’s methods of musical education are not individual but corporate; musical groups become models of true community in the pursuit of a common goal:

‘In its essence, the orchestra and the choir are much more than artistic structures. They are examples and schools of social life, because to sing and to play together means to intimately coexist toward perfection and excellence, following a strict discipline of organization and coordination in order to seek the harmonic interdependence of voices and instruments. That’s how they build a spirit of solidarity and fraternity among them, develop their self-esteem and foster the ethical and aesthetical values related to the music in all its senses.’

Choirs and orchestras endow their participants – for the most part drawn from the most disenfranchised sectors of society – with identity and the right to exist in public life:

‘Mother Teresa of Calcutta insisted on something that always impressed me — the most miserable and tragic thing about poverty is not the lack of bread or roof, but the feeling of being no-one, the feeling of not being anyone, the lack of identification, the lack of public esteem.’

It is clear that Abreu’s underlying vision of the human being is not of an autonomous, independent individual but rather of someone who finds her true self through interdependence with others. Although he does not say so explicitly, it is not difficult to see how this is the logical outgrowth of Christian faith rooted in a belief in the creation of humanity in the Trinitarian divine image, of Being as Communion (to use the title of John Zizioulas’s ground-breaking study of the Trinity as the root of human personhood). Sociality is as irreducible a dimension of human existence as individuality because God, the source of all existence, is the loving community of Father, Son and Spirit.

The experience of choral and orchestral music-making tells us that the development of individual personality and collective identity are not to be placed in opposition. Instead – as in St Paul’s vision of the church in I Corinthians 12-14 – each person’s gifts are developed for the benefit of the community, which in turn promotes the growth of each of its members:

‘The music becomes a source for developing the dimensions of the human being, thus elevating the spirit and leading man to a full development of his personality. So, the emotional and intellectual profits are huge — the acquisition of leadership, teaching and training principles, the sense of commitment, responsibility, generosity and dedication to others, and the individual contribution to achieve great collective goals.’

One of the key elements of El Sistema that ensures its cohesion is the fact that older children teach and lead their younger colleagues from an early age. As a result, leaders emerge from within the system who perceive their leadership in terms of solidarity and continuity with those they lead, not domination. In part 3 of this post, I will offer some thoughts as to what happens when one of these El Sistema leaders bursts onto the world stage – Gustavo Dudamel.