Throwback Thursday: “Northern Lights,” Ola Gjeilo

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Here in D.C., we sit in breathless, panicky expectation of a whammy of a snowstorm.  It’s been a while since we’ve gotten some serious snow, so we are all tremendously excited and choosing to express our excitement through stock-piling essentials like steamer clams, green tea mochi, and cheese doodles…and then forgetting things like toilet paper and granola.  But we got a little taste of the coming storm last night when thick, pebble-sized flakes of snow started drifting down after dark.  I shuffled home through the gentle snowfall and stood under a streetlamp for a minute.  The snow was beautiful.

Everything is quieter in snow.  Snow muffles sound – car wheels, human feet- and in so doing encourages us to keep silent.  Snow is the only weather event I can think of that makes no sound.  You can hear wind, rain, hail, sleet…but you can’t hear snow.  You’re one sense down, which naturally heightens all other senses to compensate.  And we can’t help but plug that gap with our own, very personal, feelings.  All of a sudden you want to relieve your childhood through sledding, or be a better neighbor through keeping an eye out for the homeless and getting them to shelters, or dive deep into spirituality and mysticism for which silently falling snow provides a natural backdrop.

But, there comes a point in every snowy day when you huddle for warmth and feel very much like the animal you truly are – an animal that is grateful for some shelter, and a moment of stillness in which to contemplate nature’s terrible, sacred beauty.  This is what Gjeilo’s staggeringly lovely choral piece was written to celebrate.

Pulchra es amica mea,
suavis et decora sicut Jerusalem,
terribilis ut castrorum acies ordinata.
Averte oculos tuos a me
quia ipsi me avolare fecerunt.

Thou art beautiful, O my love,
sweet and comely as Jerusalem,
terrible as an army set in array.
Turn away thine eyes from me,
for they have made me flee away.

 

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Termagant Tuesday: “Dear Old Stockholm,” Eddie Higgins Trio

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On this day in 1520, Sten Sture the Younger (you remember him), the regent of Sweden, was mortally wounded at the Battle of Bogesund and died on the ice of Lake Mälaren.  Sture’s big thing was independence from Denmark, which, while that’s clearly been taken care of by now, remains an amusing point of contention between these two countries.  Ikea (you remember Ikea), a Swedish company, has a puckish habit of naming their flooring after towns in Denmark.  “Oh ho ho!” you might say.  “How very puckish!”

Well, yeah, but if Burberry named their door mats “Boston,” “New York,” and “Philadelphia,” it might be a little annoying.  (Then again, Americans are narcissistic enough to think of it as a compliment, so IDK.)  Klaus Kjoller, of the University of Copenhagen, discovered that Ikea had named foot-wiping items after Danish towns, concluding this was an insult because, rationally, “Doormats and runners, as well as inexpensive wall-to-wall carpeting, are third-class, if not seventh-class, items when it comes to home furnishings.”  Burn!

Charlotte Lindgren, an Ikea spokesperson, responded by explaining that, even if this HAD been a thing Ikea had done intentionally, which it totally wasn’t so stop alleging it was, it’s a compliment!  “These critics appear to greatly underestimate the importance of floor coverings.  They are fundamental elements of furnishing. We draw worldwide attention to Danish place names with our products. That has to be a positive thing.”  Snap!

So, today, give thanks for Sten – for fighting for Sweden’s independence, and for insuring that one of the world’s largest, most confusing meatball-and-furniture companies can foment mild diplomatic spats with their rugs. Skål!

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

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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: “Sanctus,” Franz Schubert

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This heartbreakingly beautiful piece is from Schubert’s German Mass.  I love the version with words, of course, but this simple instrumental version is haunting.  It is my go-to for when I need to calm down and center myself.

FRIEND WEEK! Sacred Sunday: “And I Saw A New Heaven,” Edgar Bainton. Submitted by Sara.

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Yankette’s Reaction:

Oh, stick a fork in me.  This piece might – might – be more fun to sing than listen to, but nevertheless, it’s a sucker-punch.  It starts so mildly, but by the end, you’re completely wrung out.  It’s a masterwork.

Shameless friend promotion!  Sara is the best singer I have ever sung with, in my life, ever, and probably always will be.  She also happens to be an astoundingly cool person.  So listen to her singing and then put her in any and every musical production you have going.  Trust me.

Sara’s Justification:

Here is Edgar Bainton’s “And I saw a new heaven.” If you’re Anglican you’ve probably heard it; if you’ve been involved in church music at all you’ve most likely sung it. I am of the opinion that most British choral music that has stood the test of time is pretty darn good, but I don’t think I’m alone in thinking that this anthem might be the best one ever. It’s written in the same lush late-romantic style as pieces by Bainton’s better-known contemporaries, like Vaughan Williams, but what I think makes this one so special is that it doesn’t draw on any of Vaughan Williams’ sensible British folksiness. There is a sense throughout the anthem – in both its dynamic and textual heights and most hushed moments – of an otherworldly ecstasy that cannot be matched in the rest of the choral repertoire from this period. Listening bliss. Enjoy!