Music Communal and Mystic

Yesterday was an unusually rich day. After spending a morning working on a paper I’ll be giving next week I was off to Cambridge, Ontario, for a Bridging Communities Through Song concert. This is an annual event organized by Mino Ode Kwewak N’gamowak (Good Hearted Women’s Singers)- a drum group of Indigenous women who sing (mostly) traditional songs. They have partnered with the Waterloo Regional Police Male Chorus, an especially pertinent partnering given the fact that the police and First Nations have not usually had the best relationships, and certainly little trust. They were joined by the Rainbow Chorus, an LGBTQ+ chorus. The theme was care for water, and the program began with a prayer acknowledging the gifts the Creator has given us. The music was so very varied in genre: touching, fun and inspiring, and had the rich character of speaking from and to the community

After supper, my eldest and I drove to Toronto. She had bought me a ticket to a Toronto Symphony Orchestra concert. It was the first of a three concert series called “New Creations Festival.” For the series, composers were commissioned to produce new pieces. For last evening’s concert, four pieces were performed. One was a riff on “O Canada,” the second a Trauermarsch/Funeral March, the third a piece focussing on the ephemeral character of perception, and the fourth a piece attending to Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. This latter had five movements reflecting Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. The piece included a score, some improvised orchestral music and improvised singing by Tanya Tagaq. This latter is an Inuit throat singer, who is quickly becoming rather famous in Canada, and abroad. For those who have never hear throat singing, it is hard to describe. The range of sounds is beyond description; for many new to its hearing, it delights, shocks, and intoxicates. But it isn’t about sound alone. Tagaq’s body contortions to her singing allow one to see what is heard.

As she sang, I first sensed the land suffering losses: I imagined northern terrain twisting in agony at the stunning grief of environmental decay. I then visualized communities facing days upon days without children in their midst, sent to residential schools for programmatic assimilation to European culture. I heard and saw her own pain. The sounds were so utterly primal. This throat singing comes from the earth, from life – like Adam/Land and Eve/Life – and so awakened in me a kind of primal ache. It was both beautiful and strange. Words fail me, in describing it, or I fail words, but still I try. I must.

Some experiences really evade description because they strike a core so fundamental to our being that these give birth to new language, to halting words. These experiences are so dear to us that we are driven to expressing them, if even in faulting words. Perhaps this is what the great mystics knew. I am not sure that this concert was a mystical experience, but I think it is about as close to it as I am going to get. I still am processing this experience, or perhaps it is processing me….

Advertisements

Poetry of Naught

Some poems say no:
No I will not be ignored;
No I will not be understood;
No I will not be written;
No.

we need to listen
to such poems
through such poems

Hard silences speak
You, You the
Pause, You the
Comma, You the
Full Stop.

You may or may not be
captured by earthly languages or
heavenly tongues, but You
shape shift
that, this
poetry of naught into me
where it now
resides as
seed.

People behind People

Just last night I joined my wife and her parents in Stratford, ON to see the play “The Last Wife” by Kate Hennig. We had occasion to bump into the playwright, whose parents are friends of ours. She spoke of the surreal experience of hearing words that she had written come to life by actors. I’ve had that experience to a lesser extent in hearing liturgical pieces I have written enlivened by others. I can only imagine what it must have been like for her, but I can tell you a little of what the play was like for me.

The play was really quite incredible; a riff on the life of Kateryn Parr, the last wife of Henry the Eighth. In the production notes Ms. Hennig describes her interest in imagining the character of the too often suppressed voices of women. The play does a nice job of inviting its viewers to envisage history differently. The director nicely signals this in a couple of ways on a sparse but powerful stage. Hanging at centre stage from the ceiling is an upside down castle, and we see the back of a throne, letting us imagine life behind this seat of power, whose front is presented to the kingdom but not the audience, save at the end. These are effective signals which are further funded by images of bedroom exchanges between Hal and Parr, the everyday handles for the royal couple. We witness their day to day struggles as well as historic junctures. Ms. Hennig has done her historical homework but also advertises “viewer beware.” Poetic license is at the heart of art, which aims at something bigger than “just the facts.” So, we were invited into an alternate view of some hard historical data; we were invited to imagine history from the other side of the throne. What did this accomplish?

I was entranced. The use of colloquial language allowed me into the history in a different way; reminding me that bigger-than-life boats float in everyday waters. It invited me to think about events behind “The Event.” It reminded me that historians cannot catch it all, and there are a constellation of forgotten and little known factors that are as important as the known facts. But this decentering experience is also more broadly supported by the experience of being a patron of the theatre. The room darkens, lights ebb and flow, you see stage “hands,” people really who subtly manage the matter that sets the scene. Music comes and goes. It is hard to be “objective” in the sense intended by historians of the 19th century. Your feelings are at the fore as you consider the characters Kateryn and Henry. You begin to think about how you read all texts (the Bible, the paper, the news, emails etc) and the role of the many stage hands play in our everyday world. Someone translates texts; someone delivers the paper; someone secures a connection; someone references a source and writes an introduction. I am dependent on these many, and beholden to their choices.

Of course, Ms. Hennig made choices and we are glad for that. She chose to investigate the life of Katelyn, and she has been working on the lives of the two other Tudor Queens Mary I and Elizabeth I. I look forward to her take on these characters and the experience of entering again the magic of the theatre. This is completely not my world, but it is a world that completes a part of me that is otherwise left undone. So, to her I offer my gratitude, as well as to all the thespians who venture the drama of it all.

This Side of Language

These days the squirrels
query me about the nature of life
on this side of language.

I reply that their
play displays a tongue
of their own, one
that portrays that
theirs is not mine.

And yet, yet if I look
with intention and listen
with attention I discern
their voice as mine
recedes.

This is a mystery:
to listen is to divine;
to watch is to marvel;
and perhaps to speak
of this spoken life.

Poetic Justice

Not far from my ear
I hear my tongue slicing air
with jabs of hope.

I witness world
being carved by this to and fro;
the thrust of a trust
that truth will weigh in.

I’m never sure which will win:
this incessant stab at grabbing what-is
or that ever present slip-into-not.

At least I have a
ring side seat, a treat
when television bores and
my books are too, too heavy.

Tasting Trials

It is impossible
to do justice to
taste even while I yearn
to tell of delights
tickling my tongue with
this delicacy or that.
This tantalized tongue
that tries to talk knows that
it cannot describe taste to
a “t” and so knows intimately
language that limps;
speech that works with lack.
It points, it gestures, it stammers;
but it cannot stop.
This tongue peppered with fire
refuses silence even though its words flail
as they try to fly
like chick from nest,
like dove from ark.

Reforming Language

Dear Readers, as a matter of course I do not post sermons, but I am going to make an exception this week.  I was asked to provide a 3 minute reflection on the Reformation and Language in chapel today, and thought some might be interested in reading my speaking.  Allen

In John 8:31 Jesus says:
If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples,and you will know the truth and the truth will make you free.

This word “word” was of such importance to John and his community, and was of incredible importance to the Reformers studying John. The Greek word for word, logos, means word but so much more. It can also mean speech, subject matter, an accounting or reckoning as well as reason or motive. While all of these words have different nuances they all point to a linguistic common denominator. Language is at the heart of being human. God spoke the world into being and we are made in the image of God, so speaking – or more broadly – communicating is being human.

Communicating was a big deal for Martin Luther. Some years ago a group of us traveled to Eisenach in the former East Germany and visited the Wartburg Castle, where Luther translated the New Testament into German. We were told that, at that time, the German lands each had a dialect. Luther’s translation of the Bible was an important step in developing standard German, which he used to great benefit in communicating the Gospel: the good news, that Jesus is God’s word to us of grace; Jesus speaks to us of the unconditional love of God; Jesus is God’s unconditional love for us. This word was at the heart of the reformation.

Unfortunately, it is very easy for us to reduce this word to an idea, an idea that we can master – rather like the times tables. But the gospel is not an idea; the gospel is an event, a happening, something that cannot be orchestrated, nor manipulated. The gospel is all about God, and where God is at work, anything is possible. God cannot be put in a box, and God’s word cannot be manhandled. This is why Luther insisted that the Church was not a Federhaus, a pen house, or a house of writing, but instead a Mundhaus, a mouth house. Scholars will sometimes translate Mundhaus as house of speaking, but I like mouth house. It sounds more problematic, perhaps a little cheeky, and besides, it is very sensual.

Mouths, after all, are the loci of taking in and spitting out. They are the location of our ingestation as well as our protestation; they are the place of the kiss, and the curse; they are the smile, the frown, they are language incarnate; language in flesh. The church is a fleshy place and a mouth house is a house that is bodily in nature. Debbie Lou has spoken often to the choir of the role the body plays in singing. Of course, the same is true in speaking. Communication is a bodily event. And so, when we think about language, we think about bodies: my body, your body, the body we call the body of Christ, the body we call the cosmos, the earth, the universe; the bodies – all of these bodies – that God loves intimately.

The church is a mouth house, but I would be amiss to neglect to point out that a mouth that never stops speaking is cacophanous; sounds begin to screech and our ears weary from too many words, from too much sound. A motor mouth church wears its hearers down; bombarding them with cliches, with half truths, with pollyanna-like pious, plastic language. It is enough to make you want to shout “Enough!”

Language, like music, depends upon silence. The space between the notes, the consonants, the sounds makes hearing them possible, makes ingesting them pleasurable, makes repeating them desireable. Language without silence is noise, and we all have enough noise in our lives.

There is a certain freedom in knowing that sometimes, sometimes we can be like God can be: quiet, and that this quietness is not a betrayal of the gospel, but intrinsic to its nature. Sometimes, sometimes, what needs to be said, for now, is nothing….