No humdrum life for us

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Tonight, I make pilgrimage to the pantheon of DC culture: The Kennedy Center.  La Boheme is closing this week and I’ll be going to see it with a friend.  It’ll be my first time seeing/hearing this classic of the repetoire.

Among the many adjectives ascribed to opera, one must certainly be, “Over the top.”  Storylines are frequently complex, never dull.  Plots range from the very most tragic to the heights of Olympian triumph, never neutral.  The music represents an incredible synthesis of melody and character development, perhaps the world’s first form of multi-media entertainment.  And then there is, of course, the volume (‘nuff said).  Yes, opera is superlative… and because of that many people turn away from it.  “To each his own,” I suppose, but opera can prove a great exercise in measuring how we live.

Chapter five of Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church frames the life of human beings as an ongoing response to what, in the Church, we call the “universal call to holiness.”  The most condensed summary I can manage is this: God invites and affirms that all people can be more like him; each in a way particular to his/her vocation and life circumstances lived according to the truth.  Not a bad starting point for leading one’s life… but something we can easily lose track of.  Commenting on the universal call, theologian Marianne Schlosser (Univ. of Vienna) comments in the winter 2013 edition of Communio International Catholic Review,

“Holiness in every day life as inconspicuous as it may be, is not humdrum…  The language of a call to holiness is challenging, indeed, ‘steep’ – an ‘arduum’ is sought and hoped for from God.”

And here, we come back to the world of opera.

Opera’s etherial heights and infernal depths mark the dimensions of human experience, perhaps not as we see them, but certainly as God created them.  Mothers and fathers balancing the struggles of child-rearing, work, social and civil life are saints and heroes; likewise the idealistic young intern moving to DC to make our country a better place.  Reading the synopsis of La Boheme last night, I discovered that it is the story of poor hard working students who fall in love.  They pawn their meagre possessions for food and medicine.  They wear tattered clothes.  They die.  Nothing could (to human eyes) seem more humdrum, but Puccini’s music helps us to see their ordinary lives through eyes of faith in which heroic love and tragic death reveal something deeper about ourselves, a touch of the divine… so that even at the tragic end we stand up and applaud beauty in the opera, and in ourselves.

The Form of Country Music

I enjoy country music… sometimes.  Even calling myself a dilletante of the genre would be an exaggeration.  I started listening to it when I worked on the Hill.  My usual classical station would put me to sleep after lunch… pop music risked being inappropriate to the office.  Country’s positive lyrics and pep kept me awake in the mid afternoon.  I only mention this to highlight what an ear-opening experience this morning was.  Scanning the Post’s style section I found an article  about Sam Hunt’s new album “Montevallo.”  The glowing album review is typical in many ways, but for this:

“The 29-year-old is a fine-grain storyteller who knows how to roll, bounce, massage and leap-frog syllables in speedy, nuanced bursts. His most emotive verses toggle between singing and speech, locating a previously undiscovered sweet spot between Conway Twitty and Drake.”

The author, Chris Richards hits on a key principle of western aesthetics: the relationship between form and matter.  Super quick: form is the other-worldly ideal of a thing… the heavenly perfection of what we wish a thing could be.  Matter is the stuff (paint, clay, bricks, words, sound) that we on earth form into art.  A thing is beautiful insofar as its form shines through its material reality. (see Saward, John. “The Beauty of Holiness and the Holiness of Beauty.” for more)

Musically, think of a spectrum between pure form and pure matter; the form being pure melody, the matter being words without music.  Playing around inside this spectrum has yielded some of our great treasures. Opera leans heavily toward the melodic; sometimes to the point of “bending” bending words to suit melodies.  Epic poetry (Homer, Dante, et al) relies on the lilting patterns of words and their syllables to provide a music-less melody simply by pronunciation.

Mr. Richards seems to have stumbled on this philosophy lesson in Mr. Hunt’s latest album.  It’s not an altogether new concept.  Rex Harrison was famed for “musical speech” in “My Fair Lady,” because – as Harrison confessed – he couldn’t really carry a tune (e.g. I’ve grown accustomed to her face).

I’m not sure if “Montevallo” will make a country convert out of me.. I’m not going out to buy boots just yet… but even as I type I can’t stop listening to the music’s wonderful interplay of form and matter.  Today, keep your eyes peeled and ears open to form shining through matter… you may find it opens you to new forms of art and makes life just a little more heavenly.

“Person-al” Art

ApolloMuses
The Greek Muses

 

This Sunday’s Washington Post featured two great articles about getting to know music.  The first, by Geoff Edgers follows American orchestras’ efforts to expand their listener base using digital media.  The second article, by Anne Midgette, discusses pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s recent exploration of Bach’s Well-tempered Clavier.

More deeply knowing art is like getting to know people.  Artists pour their humanity into their works.  So a piece of art (be it music, sculpture, photography etc.) has its own identity independent of me.  I have to humble myself, to open myself to that identity.  I interact with the art, but I don’t get to control the art or define it.  I treat it as another subject (not an object).

Aimard touches on this dynamic when he reflects, “You just have to be in contact with this music as rightly as possible, as sincerely as possible, as generously as possible.”  Commenting on LiveNote, an app for concertgoers, Edgers remarks, “…I developed a better sense of how to experience the performance…  I felt connected to what was going on in the hall musically but realized that there was a crutch [i.e. LiveNote] if I got curious or confused.”

Just as a good friend helps me navigate my day, getting to know art at a “person-al” level can too.  So be sure to explore podcasts, wiki-articles, apps and yes, even traditional bound books as you’re getting to know DC’s cultural resources in a deeper way.  You might be amazed at the results.

Pierre-Laurent Aimard will perform this Friday as part of the Library of Congress’ annual music series.  See “Touring Tips” for some easy-access concert venues I’ve been to.

Today’s Soundtrack

Have you ever thought it would be nice to have a soundtrack for life?  Some days accommodate music more easily, or obviously than others; today is one of them.  November 2 is All Souls Day, a time of special prayer for the dead.  If you’re looking for a way to gild your experience of this holy day, consider listening to The Dream of Gerontius (music by Edward Elgar).

John Henry Card. Newman
John Henry Card. Newman

The Dream is a poem by Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman the great convert, pastor, and academic.  Newman describes the experience of a soul dying surrounded by loved ones.  It’s a wonderful inspiration for prayer and hope-filled meditation on our own mortality.

(For more on praying for the souls in purgatory, check out paragraphs 210 and 211 of the Compendium of the Catechism).

 

Praying with Music

‘just got back from hearing the BSO play Brahms at Strathmore… What a joy!  I was also challenged and surprised by how much I enjoyed a much more modern pice: Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto #1.  Think about the following exercise for your ride home in the car / metro or even while jogging on the treadmill.


 

It’s hard to get away from the noise of our world.  Hectic lives, car horns, the sound of the metro passing underground, smartphone alerts, push notifications… Even if none of these existed, you  can easily hear five languages at any given moment walking down a street or sitting at a cafe in DC.  Silence is golden… and ultimately the ideal setting for discernment of what’s going on inside each of us at any moment.  But coming from our noisy world, many find real meditative silence intimidating.  

Consider this… consider turning a weakness (distracting noise) into a strength (music for meditation). Some of what follows is drawn from St. Ignatius’ Loyola’s techniques for the discernment of spirits.  Other parts may sound like contemporary trends in “mindfulness.”  I’ve read significantly on both, and both influence my own prayer life, but what follows are ultimately just my own musings.

The Goal – A greater degree of self-understanding.

What you’ll need – music to listen to, some time by yourself, a pen and paper… and an open mind.

I find purely instrumental music (classical, jazz etc.) best for this.  Listening to lyrics can break my train of thought, but if you have the discipline to do so, you can use sung music as well.

Step 1: Listen to your music track once just to hear it.

Step 2: Listen again to get to know it better

Step 3: Listen a third time and begin taking notes.

What are you noting?  It depends on what you notice the most… maybe it’s the pace of the music… maybe a particular instrument stands out…maybe thoughts of an individual come to mind… or something you did …or forgot to do during the day.  Note your emotions too.

Don’t Judge Your Notes!  There’s no right or wrong here… You’re just collecting data to establish “This is where I’m at today.”  So you’re not “wrong” to notice a flute in the middle of a cello concerto.  Realizing you forgot your dry cleaning isn’t necessarily a foolish distraction in this exercise.  It’s just data.  Finally, the feelings you experience in the music make you neither vicious nor virtuous… they’re just data to be considered.  Analysis comes next.

Once you’ve journaled your experience of the music, begin asking the questions like “Why?”  or, “What was behind [fill in the blank]?  Some of the answers may mean nothing.  Some generate more questions.  Others may be self-illuminating.  Others may inspire prayer: “God, thank you for [fill in the blank].” or, “Lord help me to [fill in the blank].”  Still others may need unpacking over time.

Finally, consider that the more deeply we explore the mystery of our own self, the more we begin to know the mystery of Christ who is our origin and end… all of which can only be helpful as we venture out into the noisy world all over again tomorrow.

Stay Tuned! Coming Soon: Music and Inner Life

JohannesBrahms
Johannes Brahms

This Thursday at The Music Center at Strathmore I’ll be listening to Brahms’ Second Symphony… one of my favorites… but it got me thinking: music is an amazing entry into inner realities… including one’s relationship with God.  Stay tuned for reflection on how to use any kind of music, from Bryan Adams to Brahms to learn more about the interior life!