Sacred Sunday: “As One Who Has Slept,” John Tavener

Standard

Today, in the Christian tradition, is one of the last significant days in the liturgical calendar before Ash Wednesday: Transfiguration Sunday.  This day marks the occasion that Jesus transfigured, or metamorphosed, before his disciples – upon summiting the top of a mountain, Jesus’s face and clothes shone with a white light.  While emanating this heavenly brilliance, Jesus is seen to speak with the prophets Elijah and Moses, both long since dead, about the upcoming final months of his life.  Peter asks whether he and the others should prepare three shelters for Jesus, Elijah, and Moses.  But before he finishes, the voice of God declares, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him”.  Elijah and Moses disappear.

This story is important for a few reasons.  First, it identifies Jesus as the proxy of God on earth – the people’s judge, savior, and direct link with the divine.  Second, it previews the resurrection – of Jesus himself, and of all who believe in him.  But I love this story for another reason: I love it because of the achingly human motivation behind Peter’s question.  He acts as anyone who has experienced something transformative would act: they want to freeze time.  Sailing right past the fact that Elijah and Moses are very, very dead, Peter wants to set up camp for them (They’re here now, aren’t they?).  He wants to keep them there.  This is, of course, impossible.  But, God love him for trying.

We take two-dimensional pictures of landscapes, of people, to capture their three-dimensional physicality, and the multi-dimensional feelings we felt upon seeing them.  We tattoo our skin to immortalize a meaningful time in our lives.  Even though we know, as Peter must have rationally known, it isn’t possible to suspend time and trap a moment, or a person, or a ghost, still we can’t help ourselves from trying.  The promise of Jesus is that he will connect us to the eternal.  One day, we will be able to relive these moments.  One day, we will be able to never be without someone again.

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the season of Lent, which leads to the retelling of the crucifixion narrative, and then onward to glorious, redemptive Easter.  I am approaching this season of Lent with more dread than in other years because I know that, this year, I have more of Peter in me than I’ve had before.  I lost a very close friend and mentor to cancer last year – my choir director.  His death comprehensively hollowed out church and sacred music, and though I have continued singing, nevertheless, that hole is still there.  And so, half of me expects his resurrection at Easter.  It’s a bafflingly irrational feeling but I can’t help myself from envisioning him conducting the timpani and brass quartet ornamenting “Jesus Christ Is Risen Today” as we all process in, and completely accepting that he’s there.  “Oh, hey – Ben’s not dead!” would be as easy to say as “Oh, hey – Ben made it back from vacation in time for the service!”  The other half of me – the sane half – knows that Easter will bring back so many happy memories, now bittersweet, that it will feel like Ben is, in fact, there in spirit.  I will want to freeze that feeling.

That, of course, will be impossible.  But, God will love me for trying.

Tavener’s piece comes from the Liturgy for Great and Holy Saturday: “As one who has slept, the Lord has risen; and rising, he has saved us.  Alleluia.”

Advertisements

Throwback Thursday: String Quartet No. 12 in F Major, Op. 96, “American,” Antonin Dvorak

Standard

On this day 227 years ago, George Washington was elected the first president of the United States of America.  About a century later, a man from Nelahozeves, a town in the Austrian Empire, wrote a piece of music about the country.  Clearly, the American experiment was somewhat of a success.

I don’t tend to like string quartets, but this is one of the loveliest and more fun pieces of classical music I came across last year.  The first movement’s first 12 notes will get stuck in your head for days.  The second movement (09:08) is a prime example of how to write a heartbreaking melody: keep it simple.  The third and fourth movements are cheerful and lively.  Whereas string quartets tend to make me feel claustrophobic, this string quartet feels like someone threw open all the windows on a spring afternoon.

 

 

Worldly Wednesday: “Wondering, feat. CAPS,” Yotto

Standard

In keeping with this week’s apparent (and accidental) Scandinavian theme, today we travel from Sweden to its erstwhile east wing, Finland.

Finland is a really neat country, a land of 5.5 million passionate and brooding people who all know how to tango.  This track, from Finland’s most exciting young electronic musician, Otto Yliperttula – aka, Yotto, is all about passionate and brooding.  Yotto specializes in deep house music and last spring joined the highly respectable house label, Anjunadeep.  Though he has arguably more popular tracks, this one is my favorite.  When the beat drops at 4:48, it’s like merging onto an empty Autobahn in an exquisitely sleek sports car. 

Modernism Monday: “Que Sera Sera,” Sly & The Family Stone

Standard

I am white woman who grew up in a series of small, almost entirely white towns.  I attended a homogenous high school and a pretty homogenous college.  My childhood hero, Kirby Puckett, was black, but maybe because he was only about two inches tall on his baseball cards, it never occurred to me that he was a difference race.  I just didn’t see it.  This isn’t a case of charming “race blindness” that we all hope little kids have.  It was a stereotypical case of a small brain rationalizing new information in its own little limited context.

The first time I truly understood there were different people in the world wasn’t because I met them in person – that came later – but because I heard them.  Sly & The Family Stone’s calmly resigned, melancholy version of the Doris Day’s chipper “Que Sera Sera” was an undeniable clue that my worldview was an exception to the norm.  Doris’s “Que Sera Sera” was indefatigably hopeful because it was founded on the certainty that it was the way of her world for things to work out for the best.  As I was the white daughter of two upper middle class parents, living in a safe neighborhood, the “whatever” that “will be” in my life, too, was pretty much guaranteed to be one of a selection of good options.  I hated Doris’s song because it was too treacly, not because it wasn’t true.

Doris Day’s version came out in 1948, three years after America had emerged victorious from World War II with a strong economy.  Things were on the up and up.  1948 also marked two fundamental milestones for civil rights.  In February, Truman sent a letter to Congress on the issue of the rights of African Americans, the first sitting president in history to address the issue.  His letter recognized cracks in the social contract that had been there for centuries:

“Today, the American people enjoy more freedom and opportunity than ever before. Never in our history has there been better reason to hope for the complete realization of the ideals of liberty and equality.  We shall not, however, finally achieve the ideals for which this Nation was founded so long as any American suffers discrimination as a result of his race, or religion, or color, or the land of origin of his forefathers.  Unfortunately, there still are examples—flagrant examples—of discrimination which are utterly contrary to our ideals. Not all groups of our population are free from the fear of violence. Not all groups are free to live and work where they please or to improve their conditions of life by their own efforts. Not all groups enjoy the full privileges of citizenship and participation in the government under which they live.”

And, five months later, Truman  signed an executive order ending racial segregation in the armed forces – in the face of overwhelming criticism from the various service secretaries.

The following year, the number of lynchings went up.

In Doris Day’s America, there was already “complete realization of the ideals of liberty and equality.”  In the entire United States of America, however, not so much.  Twenty years and the birth of a movement later, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would be assassinated, riots would set major cities on fire throughout the country, and finally, public schools would begin to de-segregate.  So in 1973, when Sly & The Family Stone reinterpreted Day’s message, it really wasn’t all that clear what the future would hold for all Americans.  Would the country realize that it was fragmented into different pockets of affluence, poverty, and luck?  Would it care?  Who would help whom, and how?  Would Dr. King’s message reach anyone anymore, or would he become a sentimentalized figurehead wheeled out every year so white people could express politically correct devotion to the idea of equality?

In 2008 when America elected its first black president, many announced that we were now living in a “post-racial America.”  On the contrary: we have spent the last seven years grappling with why this still isn’t true.

In King’s words, “Whatever you do, you have to keep moving forwards.”  Given we truly do have the power to collectively change our environments, we owe it to ourselves and our neighbors to spend today in acts of service, yes, but also imagining what about the country we would want to change.  Consider how we would unify the country that still remains a loose collection of affluence, poverty, and luck.  And then, tomorrow, start moving forwards.

 

Sacred Sunday: “Freuen Wir Uns All In Ein,” Michael Weisse

Standard

 

This extraordinary hymn was written by Michael Weisse in the very early 16th century in Silesia.

Silesia

Silesia

I can’t find the German or English anywhere for the life of me, so sorry to leave you hanging.  Nevertheless, I can’t get enough of the tune.  It’s classic German and classic Baroque at the same time: solid, four-square construction, with gorgeous but sober harmony.  It’s an earth-bound hymn with heaven-ward eyes, like all good prayers should be.

Worldly Wednesday: “Stimela,” Hugh Masekela

Standard

This is such a sucker-punch of a song.  You don’t even need to understand the words (which are below, never fear, faithful readers) to know it’s about something fairly wretched involving a train.  This song portrays the life of black African migrant workers working in South African mineral mines. Some melancholy songs are more mellow than sad.  Not this one, not by a long shot.  This is sad, resigned, longing, resentful, and angry, all at the same time.  By the time harmony spreads out at 2:31, you’ve already committed yourself to listening to the whole thing, maybe even again a second time, even though it’s a tough haul.

Masekela wrote this song in 1974, about halfway through the lifespan of the apartheid regime in South Africa.

—-

There is a train that comes from Namibia and Malawi
there is a train that comes from Zambia and Zimbabwe,
There is a train that comes from Angola and Mozambique,
From Lesotho, from Botswana, from Zwaziland,
From all the hinterland of Southern and Central Africa.
This train carries young and old, African men
Who are conscripted to come and work on contract
In the golden mineral mines of Johannesburg
And its surrounding metropolis, sixteen hours or more a day
For almost no pay.
Deep, deep, deep down in the belly of the earth
When they are digging and drilling that shiny mighty evasive stone,
Or when they dish that mish mesh mush food
into their iron plates with the iron shovel.
Or when they sit in their stinking, funky, filthy,
Flea-ridden barracks and hostels.
They think about the loved ones they may never see again. Because they might have already been forcibly removed
From where they last left them
Or wantonly murdered in the dead of night
By roving and marauding gangs of no particular origin,
We are told. They think about their lands, their herds
That were taken away from them
With a gun, bomb, teargas and the cannon.
And when they hear that Choo-Choo train
They always curse, curse the coal train,
The coal train that brought them to Johannesburg.

Throwback Thursday: “String Quintet in C, D. 956: II. Adagio,” Franz Schubert

Standard

Ever get that feeling that the universe is up to something?  Like there is something going on and you don’t know what, but something is definitely up?  That’s how this week has felt to me and I’ve needed music constantly.  Anyone who knows me will tell you I never go anywhere without my headphones.  I literally never leave the house without those happy little wires running from my ears to my iPhone.  This week, the second movement of Schubert’s extraordinary string quintet has been on heavy rotation.

This piece is a prime example of why I just adore classical music.  It seeks out and absorbs your emotions like rice absorbs the water around salt crystals.  As rice expands in water, so too does music like this grow as it finds and absorb your thoughts and feelings, and in the end, you can see its real shape.  It helps you look inwards and check in with yourself – “oh, so that’s what’s going on.”  When you hear this piece, how do you feel?  What do you think about?  Where does your mind go?  Pay attention to whatever comes back to you; you may or may not be surprised.  For me, this piece magnifies both happiness and sadness, which is why I have been listening to it so much this week.  It calms me down the way sharing a burden with a worldly friend can be calming.  I have to be very careful listening to this piece, among others, when I’m in a certain kind of mood – otherwise it becomes too sodden and it takes on that mood’s shape permanently.

Your results may vary, of course.  But I hope it enhances and magnifies good things when you hear it.