MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Music for Easter Weekend

Kings_college_cambridge_ceiling

For this Easter weekend, you can stream the Good Friday performance of Scottish composer James MacMillan’s St. Luke Passion from King’s College, Cambridge (the compose conducts).

In a recent interview with Boosey & Hawkes, MacMillan speaks about the work:

I’ve always enjoyed a fruitful fascination with the Passion story, and there are deep reasons through history why artists and composers have been attracted to it, right up to our own times. The story is compelling and the images are powerful, prompting a variety of responses. Each time I return to it I try and find different perspectives. Some works are purely instrumental reflections following Haydn’s example, such as my Fourteen Little Pictures for piano trio, or the Triduum of orchestral works written in the mid-90s. Others follow more familiar formats with choir, such as the Seven Last Words from the Cross or the St John Passion.

As to why he chose the narrative found in Luke’s gospel:

My setting of the St John Passion took a particular approach, examining the human drama, and was almost operatic in impact. So returning after a five-year interval I wanted to take an alternative direction. St John stands apart from the other three so-called synoptic Gospel writers who share structure and common material and, of those three, St Luke has a special appeal for me. As well as relating Christ’s life and teachings, Luke is concerned with the idea of the Kingdom of God which points forward to the same author’s Acts of the Apostles. This started me thinking about a more spiritual, inward, and pared-back approach to create a focused work about an hour long.

Meanwhile, here is the incomparable Jordi Savall conducting Bach’s St. Matthew Passion (featuring Le Concert des Nations at the Palau de la Música Catalana, Barcelona).

Not to be missed, even if not specifically Holy Week-related: Bach’s Mass in B minor from Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s recent tour with the English Baroque Soloists and Monteverdi Choir (which included a stop at the Lucerne Easter Festival; this performance is from the Paris Philharmonie.

For good measure, here’s Johann’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’s cantata on the Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus, Wq240:

The culmination of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 (“Resurrection”), a composition tailor-made for Leonard Bernstein:

Finally, from John Adams’s The Gospel According to the Other Mary (Act 2, scene 5 (“Burial/Spring – Mary Awakens on the Third Morning”):

Filed under: Bach, Easter, John Adams, new music, spirituality

Poem for the Day: “Redemption”

Salish

“Redemption”

Having been tenant long to a rich lord,
Not thriving, I resolvèd to be bold,
And make a suit unto him, to afford
A new small-rented lease, and cancel th’ old.

In heaven at his manor I him sought;
They told me there that he was lately gone
About some land, which he had dearly bought
Long since on earth, to take possessiòn.

I straight returned, and knowing his great birth,
Sought him accordingly in great resorts;
In cities, theaters, gardens, parks, and courts;
At length I heard a ragged noise and mirth

Of thieves and murderers; there I him espied,
Who straight, Your suit is granted, said, and died.

–George Herbert

Filed under: poetry, spirituality

John Adams’s Gospel

Gospel

Since my essay is included in this recording, I have to recuse myself from offering a review, but I can say that I consider The Gospel According to the Other Mary among John Adams’s most profound accomplishments. It certainly probes new ground for this ever-evolving, brilliant musical mind.

As for the critical reactions I have seen, nothing yet has come to my attention that seriously grapples with the full complexity of this score.

A curious note: Gospel was among this year’s Pulitzer finalists. I think it’s a safe bet that this year marks the first time two composers sharing the same last name were up for the same prize, which in this case was taken by John Luther Adams for Become Ocean.

If you haven’t had a chance to explore this Adams/Peter Sellars collaboration, do yourself a favor.

Filed under: American music, directors, John Adams, new music, spirituality

Poem of the Day: “Carrion Comfort”

afternoon

“Carrion Comfort”

NOT, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist—slack they may be—these last strands of man
In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.
But ah, but O thou terrible, why wouldst thou rude on me
Thy wring-world right foot rock? lay a lionlimb against me? scan
With darksome devouring eyes my bruisèd bones? and fan,
O in turns of tempest, me heaped there; me frantic to avoid thee and flee?

Why? That my chaff might fly; my grain lie, sheer and clear.
Nay in all that toil, that coil, since (seems) I kissed the rod,
Hand rather, my heart lo! lapped strength, stole joy, would laugh, chéer.
Cheer whom though? the hero whose heaven-handling flung me, fóot tród
Me? or me that fought him? O which one? is it each one? That night, that year
Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.

–Gerard Manley Hopkins

Filed under: poetry, spirituality

The Budding Buddhist

Buddha

Like modern physicists, practitioners of contemporary literary theory of the post-structuralist persuasion trade in ideas that can seem uncannily reminiscent of the ancient insights of Buddhism: ideas like the slippery elusiveness of language, the self/author as an illusion.

But even without the filter of once-fashionable theory, certain artists themselves trigger comparison with aspects of the Buddhist quest. Beethoven’s final piano sonata, the Opus 111, replaces the conventional design with a two-movement dialectic that is frequently likened to a transition from Samsara (the stormy world of struggle of the C minor first movement) to Nirvana (the serene variations of the Arietta). “The farewell of the sonata form,” as Thomas Mann’s character Kretschmar in Doktor Faustus puts it.

According to the writer Pico Iyer, Marcel Proust is another artist who brings Buddhism to mind. Proust “ventures into the farthest reaches of self-investigation and reflection on subjectivity, but brings his understandings back into language and archetypal episodes that anyone can follow.”

The Buddha, as I understand it, ultimately devoted himself to the simple exercise of sitting still and resolving not to get up until he had looked beyond his many delusions and projections to the truth of what he was (or wasn’t) and how to make his peace with that.

A recreation of Proust's cork-lined bedroom (Musée Carnavalet in Paris)

A recreation of Proust’s cork-lined bedroom (Musée Carnavalet in Paris)

Am I the only one who thinks that this sounds very much like someone in a cork-lined room, almost alone for years on end and turning a fierce and uncompromising light on all his experiences and memories so as to see how much of them might be wishful thinking, and what they owe to illusion and the falsifications of the mind? Marcel Proust never formally meditated, so far as I know, and he never officially quit his gilded palace to wander around the world, practicing extremes of austerity and cross-questioning wise men. But if I want to understand the tricks the mind plays upon itself—the ways we substitute our notions of reality for the way things are and need to dismantle the suffering false thoughts can create—I can’t think of a better guide and friend than the author of “À la recherche.”

[…]

Proust’s genius, like that of his compatriot Cartier-Bresson (who called himself “an accidental Buddhist”), is to register every detail of the surface and yet never get caught up in the superficial. Here is the rare master who saw that surface was merely the way depth often expressed itself, the trifle in which truth was hidden thanks to mischievous circumstance (or, others would say, the logic of the universe). It takes stamina, bloody-mindedness, concentration, and a fanatic’s devotion to stare the mind down and see how rarely it sees the present, for all the alternative realities it can conjure out of memory or hope. Proust had the sense to belabor us with little theology, academic philosophy or overt epistemology; yet nearly every sentence in his epic work takes us into the complications, the false fronts, the self-betrayals of the heart and mind and so becomes what could almost be called an anatomy of the soul. I’m not sure sitting under a tree in Asia 2,500 years ago would have produced anything different.

Filed under: aesthetics, Beethoven, Buddhism, creativity, Proust, spirituality

Peter Lieberson’s Final Word: Shing Kham

Peter Lieberson

Peter Lieberson

I can’t believe it’s been over two years since the passing of Peter Lieberson, a truly wonderful human being and a highly gifted artist. He had so much still to say when he left us.

For the posthumous Los Angeles Philhamonic premiere of Peter’s percussion concerto, Shing Kham, I had the unique privilege of being able to write about his final — but unfinished — word as a composer. I’m so grateful to Peter’s widow Rinchen Lhamo and the marvelous percussionist Pedro Carneiro for sharing their memories and insights regarding what Peter was thinking about when he worked on the score up until his untimely death in Tel Aviv on 23 April 2011.

Here’s the note I wrote for the LA Phil’s concerts:

For Peter Lieberson, working on what would be his final composition “was a life-sustaining and joyful activity,” according to the writer Rinchen Lhamo. She adds that it’s likely Pedro Carneiro’s “unique capacities as a percussionist had something to do with this: something brand new for Peter to wrap his mind around.” Lhamo was Lieberson’s wife when he died from complications of lymphoma in April 2011. Although he had been in treatment for some years, she recalls that her husband anticipated being able to complete Shing Kham up until his last bout of illness, which arrived suddenly and unexpectedly. Several other projects on the horizon – including an orchestral song cycle he planned to compose to poems by Lhamo – additionally indicate the resurgence of creative energy that accompanied work on the percussion concerto.

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Filed under: music news, new music, spirituality

Recovering Genius: Pope Francis and Wagner

Pope_Francis_in_March_2013

(Pope Francis in March 2013)

By now, the extraordinary interview Pope Francis gave to fellow Jesuit Fr. Antonio Spadaro, which was recently published in America Magazine, has generated incredible interest on many fronts, from the Pope’s comments on moral priorities and his memorable metaphor of the Church as a “field hospital” to his discussion of art and creativity.

When discussing human understanding, Pope Francis revealed a fascinating perception of Wagner:

When does a formulation of thought cease to be valid? When it loses sight of the human or even when it is afraid of the human or deluded about itself. The deceived thought can be depicted as Ulysses encountering the song of the Siren, or as Tannhäuser in an orgy surrounded by satyrs and bacchantes, or as Parsifal, in the second act of Wagner’s opera, in the palace of Klingsor. The thinking of the church must recover genius and better understand how human beings understand themselves today, in order to develop and deepen the church’s teaching.

Maybe I’m on the totally wrong track here, but I almost notice an echo here of Wagner’s own formulation of the relation between art and religion from the time of Parsifal:

When religion becomes artificial, art has a duty to rescue it. Art can show that the symbols which religions would have us believe literally true are actually figurative. Art can idealize those symbols, and so reveal the profound truths they contain.

The entire interview with Pope Francis, “A Big Heart Open to God,” is in English translation here.

Filed under: aesthetics, religion, spirituality, Wagner

How Much Does That Picture Cost?

Rothko-No. 61
Mark Rothko: No. 61 (Rust and Blood), 1951; LAMOCA

The Florida-based art historian and curator Daniel A. Siedell reflects on art’s spiritual cost in a recent interview with Meaghan Ritchey for The Curator:

Being human means dealing with limitations. I think that the overly romantic idea that somehow creativity only takes place when you’re free of restrictions keeps a lot of good art from entering the world—or, perhaps, it actually prevents a lot of bad work from entering the world…What makes the existence of art in the world so remarkable is that it comes at great cost, sometimes through enormous challenges, but almost always through the slow drip of inconveniences, frustrations, and self-doubt.

This is why I am fascinated by what happens in the studio as the artist devotes her life to making artifacts that have no apparent use in the world, artifacts that are often ignored and misunderstood, especially in the church. Artists lean into that fear that every human being has—that the work we do doesn’t matter.

I’m attracted to artists who, on a daily basis, are making the commitment to be a particular kind of artist, in spite of the challenges and the limitations of their life situation—artists who have the faith to keep doing what they’re doing. They don’t have it all worked out—doubting their sanity and the wisdom of their choices. But in faith, they go to the studio and work. In the process they’re strengthening my faith in art, offering me assurance, and serving as a means of grace to me as I struggle with the wisdom of devoting my life to looking at smelly pigments smeared on a scrap of canvas amidst all of the very difficult challenges and responsibilities in my life.

Filed under: curating, spirituality, visual art

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