Sunday, February 07, 2016

Silence, Music, and Deep Prayer 5

“The circle begins when a song is sung – newly created or recreated.

A composer makes up a song, writing it into being.
A reader takes up the page, transposing it back into mental sound.
The performer moves the mental sound into physical sound.
A listener hears the song and joins the circle.

The circle is complete when the creator, performer, and listener 
are made one through the song.

Can you complete the circle each time you sing?”

- a challenge from Alice Parker’s The Anatomy of Melody

Kathy with Alice Parker at Hymn Society in 2015


We started the musical portion of the evening by considering the idea that, while  stirring hymn singing can inspire us in the moment and change us over time as a strong element of corporate worship, prayerful music has power to redirect our hearts.

As we repeatedly pass through the words and shapes of a work of prayerful music, we are drawn deeper and deeper into its message. In the process, we often find:

a sense of the Spirit’s “still small voice”
a change in our perspective
a reorientation to God’s love

At times, these experiences anchor us and help us to live better.

Throughout the night, we explored Alice Parker’s Glorious God and aspects of Christian community. Glorious God is a canonic work and consists of single lines of melody which, when sung in canon, create rich chords and tone-clusters that are highly expressive of community and transcendence. 

A brief theological basis for this emphasis on community

While the Trinity is a mystery, it seems reasonable to think that a world as interdependent as ours must be the creative work of “God in three persons” 

- a God who can and does model love within His own being 

- a being in whose image humanity is created

Thus, cooperation, community, and recognition of the elements of Creation’s interconnectedness could be fundamental to our existence.

Community with Alice

Alice Parker attained notoriety through her work with Robert Shaw and is universally respected for her musical genius and greatness of spirit. As a follow-up on our study, and as we enter the season of Lent, I recommend considering Aice Parker's words in this moving musical sermon. 

Kathy and I have had the privilege of being with Ms. Parker, first on her farm in Massachusetts where Kathy was studying song-leading, then on several occasions at various conferences. 

Musicians who travel to study on her farm sit around a table in her house and gain deeper knowledge of how to respond to musical lines and to each other. They gain this knowledge by making music together with Ms. Parker's guidance.

One night, I had the privilege of walking Ms. Parker back to her house on the mountain, and with just a few words - words I don't even remember - she changed my understanding of how to compose and freed me from some of the most significant things that had been blocking my work.  I am certain she has done the same for many, many others.

Glorious God

Not being Catholic, Ms. Parker sought a text for her Mass that would follow the essential shape of the Mass but would highlight certain facets of her own theology. Amy Jo Shoonover provided such a text.

The Kyrie is Trinitarian and addresses God as glorious, loving, and healing. The focus is on being brought together by a God like that as one enters worship with this text. 

We quickly learned the tune of this Kyrie by rote and that prompted some discussion about how many of us are bound to the page which can sometimes degrade the quality of our actual listening. Thus, we almost immediately saw the spiritual ramifications of working in the way that Ms. Parker usually does: learning to sing by listening to one another makes us very aware of how well we do or do not listen. A good practice of listening is something we need for developing healthy community.

After Dr. Cotton shared some teaching on silence and on how we might consider the thoughts that come to us as we are offering our silence to God as an offering, we sang the Kyrie again and discovered that, while we might have felt tentative as individuals, as a group, we knew it better than we thought we did. This speaks of the importance of community and also suggests something of the profundity of Ms. Parker’s work. The following passage from her book The Anatomy of Melody (p. 121) explains her aims in composing.   

“When rhythm, pitch, and word combine in just the right proportions, an organism like a living form results. This form is balanced within and cohesive without, pulsing with life. It is a whole with a beginning, middle, and end. It sets up an expectation and fulfills it . . . It seems inevitable. It lasts.

“Melodies that endure are like fundamental physical forms: cloud, stream, tree. They have a rightness in which each element is subordinate to the whole and everything works together for structural unity.”

Producing work like this is a lofty goal that requires humility on the part of the composer and the music. The composer’s hand should be discrete to the point that the music seems to have always existed as a part of Creation, and no moment in the music should draw undue attention to itself upsetting the sense of wholeness.

A series of excerpts from The Anatomy of Melody helps us think through the link between singing and community. On page 186, three paragraphs end with these wonderfully insightful sentences.

1. “The trick is to anticipate what the singers need in energy or beat or accent or mood.”

Here she is describing what has been shared by leaders of singing in various cultures and times. Leading singing is an act of community that involves great sensitivity and well-calibrated response on the part of the leader.

2. "We don’t progress further until the singers have realized that they must listen and allow their voices to join the sound of the whole group."

This is Ms. Parker’s modus operandi. She expects the level of engagement with one another through sound to be high. All will move together and do so well, or no forward movement will occur. Ms. Parker maintains this approach in a remarkably gentle but demanding way.

3. “If it’s well-taught, it is cradled in the singers’ inmost memory.”

Full participation in performance that is beautiful is the destination. The whole process moves incrementally and with liveliness toward that point of arrival.

As we discussed during our first night of our class, information can become deeply embedded in the human brain through musical means. Ms. Parker is modeling how to treat that process as a holy endeavor.

Next we turned our attention to the Sanctus and Benedictus.

This portion of Ms. Parker’s Mass begins “Holy, Holy, Holy unimaginable Pow’r.”

This power is unimaginable in magnitude. We simply cannot frame in our minds the power of the “Maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.

But it is also a power unimaginable in quality. We are unable to envision a power that cannot be corrupted or become oppressive but is willing to make itself vulnerable, instead.

Finally, the text does not say that God has this power. God is this power.

As we sang this portion in canon and seated in a circle, we discovered that the words “unimaginable power” form a continuous ring throughout the music that lifts the singers into worship of the eternal and transcendent God.

We briefly discussed the following line: “Earth and Heav’n sing your praise. Osanna.” “Earth and Heav’n” is clearly text-painted with an arpeggio ascending from “Earth” to “Heav’n,” and “Osanna” is a word of praise with overtones of deliverance.

Still seated in a circle, we concluded our evening by singing a portion of the Agnus Dei. The text begins, “Lamb, Lamb, Lamb of God who bears our burdens: Forgive our sin.”

I think this repetition of “Lamb” has potential for causing us to consider that this liberation is achieved by a means that is also unimaginable to us. The thought is extraordinary. This liberation is achieved not by a military force, not by a strong leader, not by a brilliant preacher, not even by a good liturgy – but by a lamb that was slain. One who did not defend himself bears our burdens and forgives our sins.

Some readers might enjoy this video which shows pictures of Ms. Parker's farm accompanied by the first movement ("Mountains") of my symphony named for her farm. Inspired by Ms. Parker's commitment to participatory music-making, this little symphony was written for an ensemble of amateur and beginner string players along with a clarinet and a horn. The sweet horn playing was done by Kathy Hulin.

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Children of Eden and Faith Integration

Here's a little speech I recently gave for the cast of our upcoming musical, Children of Eden. While it was a response to some specific issues a few cast members raised, I think it gives some nice examples of what one might mean by faith integration in the performing arts.

Children of Eden and Faith Integration
Charles J. Hulin IV
February 1, 2016

In what follows, I hope to provide some perspective on how to engage meaningfully with professional work in the arts as a Christian.

Some of you have expressed concerns about the retelling of Genesis in Children of Eden and about ways in which the musical might be misrepresenting the God we Christians say we believe in.

I am here to assure you that your performance of this musical will not be an easily misinterpreted stand-alone event. Instead, it will be introduced in such a way as to make the following points clear to the audience. And by introduced, I mean by speaking and in print . . .

As I share with you tonight, I might become emotional, passionate, and vulnerable because that’s how I am and we’re Pentecostal here.  It’s also because we are trying to preserve the possibility of doing musicals in our community in a way that has the potential for changing people’s lives.

Here are the points we are going to make sure the audience hears and understands before they see the musical.

1. This is not the way the story plays out in Genesis. This musical is a work of historical fiction, which means the authors took their outline from the Bible and created some details of their own to engage the audience. People will understand that and we just need to tell them it’s the case.

2. Not only is this not exactly like Genesis, it does not clearly present the image of God we generally embrace as a community of Christians.

3. No one involved with this production particularly believes that what is seen on the stage is how things actually happened.

4. The people on the stage are acting. They are pretending to be other people with views and experiences and feelings that are not their own.
Both our audience and our selves need to be aware of these things and to accept them since they are the basic facts of the situation. Once we establish this foundation, we can move on to real faith integration and get something spiritual out of this work.

So in addition to letting everyone know that what they see on stage is not exactly what’s in the Bible, we will also talk about some of the following in our introduction.

1. We will invite the audience to go home and read Genesis for themselves. A great way to follow up on a performance like this would be for audience members to talk with their Christian and Jewish friends about what they believe. Personally, I think being involved with this musical will be a great opportunity for each of us to witness to our peers and family as the material on stage should get some deep conversations started. I’ll be praying for that to happen. 

2. Regarding those deep conversations I hope you end up having, the art of this musical is the thing that’s going to provoke them. While scripture gives us some answers, art’s role is to raise questions that lead us to think and feel more deeply. 

And the questions this musical raises are classical theological questions. Here are a few of them.

Why do we reject the goodness God intends for us?

How did evil come to be in a world God created and why is it linked to knowledge?

How much is God like us? Is God vengeful? Does God curse his children? Does God get hurt? Does God change?

What does it mean for God to be the father of humanity? In what ways are Adam and Noah fathers of humanity?

How much do we confuse our experience of our earthly fathers with that of our heavenly father? I had a great dad, but before I could truly accept and love him, before there could be some real peace between us, I had to realize that I was expecting things from him that only God could provide. Some of you probably had fathers who it seemed didn’t really know how to love you, and I’m here to tell you that can confuse you about how much God loves you.

And the questions go on:

How do we reconcile the sometimes seemingly genocidal God of the Old Testament with the loving Jesus of the New? And is it okay to wipe out a whole race when you think God tells you to?

How should we respond to violence whether it is a random local act or a global apocalypse? Should we isolate ourselves from those we see as different or should we come together in those situations? 

Those are Christian college-level questions. Those are questions that Seussical would never get us discussing but Children of Eden will. I think that gives the Holy Spirit a lot to work with.

3. The audience needs to know this musical isn’t just about Genesis. As the musical encourages us, we need to look beyond the historical fiction on the stage to its relevance to our living in the here and now. That’s where being alive to God comes into play (and into the play). If we stay engaged all the way through to the climax of Children of Eden, if we stay focused on getting to the real point its creators intended, we will see that it is about both the struggles and the goodness of family. It is about what it describes as the hardest part of love, which is the letting go. When you’re old like me, that means a lot.

And it’s about how we ought to conduct ourselves when it seems like God’s not there. Throughout the musical we literally see that God is there even when the characters don’t feel like it.

And it’s about the “most precious and terrible” gift we have in life: choice.

As the authors write and as you will sing, “Our hands can choose to drop the knife, our hearts can choose to stop the hating. For every moment of our life is a beginning.” And a little later, “There is no journey that has gone so far we cannot stop and change direction.”

I am certain that there are actually thousands of people in Lakeland who need to hear that message who aren’t going to go to a church to hear it, and it might not be preached at the church even if they do go. But some of them will be in your audience.

So I repeat that we will endeavor to get these points across so that the Spirit can use your efforts to bring about redemption in the lives of your audience members. I respectfully request that anyone who is considering dropping out, reconsider, as I believe we are working towards a powerful moment of ministry in our community that can only happen if we stay true to our commitment to the process. I implore you to keep your minds and hearts oriented toward that ultimate goal.  

Finally, if you are personally struggling with any of the material in the musical, I invite you to engage, one on one, with my colleagues or me so that we can work together to grow spiritually and to bring about things God wants to happen.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Silence, Music, and Deep Prayer 4

Tonight we share a fresh psalm experience following up on some of the ideas Dr. Sledge shared last week. We are going to join together in repeating a phrase from Isaiah 40 – the words “He shall feed His flock” – sung in a relaxed way to a simple descending scale as Handel set those words in Messiah. As we sing those words, I invite you to picture Jesus extending his hands out and down as in a gesture of inviting us into peaceful pastures.

We will sing this canonically, meaning like a round. I’ll get one group started and our guest, Mr. Bryant, will lead the second group. Once it feels like we have settled into a reflective mood as a group, we’ll allow the singing to fade out. When the singing fades out, Anna will read a portion of the 23rd Psalm as recently translated by our friend, Dr. Cameron McNabb.

It is my hope that this evening's psalm experience will haunt us in a good way and encourage us to trust in Jesus for the things we need including deeper understanding of ourselves. It occurs to me that, in one way or another, I spend much of my time consciously or unconsciously trying to have my needs met but not turning to Jesus to define or meet them.


What is an oratory? An intentional Christian community and the building where their events are held. The building is not, in essence, a church for the saying of Mass but for other activities such as teaching, meditation, performances, etc.   

“Oratory” is derived from a word associated with praying, pleading, speaking – expressions we might hear from a pulpit

An oratorio is a large musical work, usually based on a Bible story, and rendered by singers and orchestra. It a sort of thing that might be heard in an oratory. Stylistically, it is a lot like opera minus the staging and acting but with a more robust role for the choir.

Handel (1685-1759) was a German composer who was brought to England to provide Italian opera.

Lent was oratorio season. It involved an annual ban on staged works. Handel composed 17 oratorios and put more and more of his energy into oratorio work in his later years as the interest in Italian opera waned. His oratorios tend to be based on Old Testament situations and his public would have seen a parallel between Israel as God’s chosen and favored people and their own nation. We often do something similar in today's America.

Handel's Messiah is in three large sections:
Prophecy and Promise of the Redeemer
The Suffering Lamb Who Redeems
Thanksgiving for the Defeat of Death

These titles remind us that this is not a Christmas piece or an Easter piece, but something composed for use during Lent. Aspects of it can be relevant to any season of the church year and one scholar has planned out services based on excerpts from Messiah that would be appropriate for Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, missions, Christ the King, the Second Coming of Christ . . .

Messiah consists of 53 musical numbers, some of which are cut from most performances, and it includes texts from Isaiah, Malachi, Zechariah, Psalms, Lamentations, Matthew, Luke, Hebrews, Romans, Revelation, and I Corinthians.

It begins with an overture and I was playing Handel’s arrangement of that overture just before we started our class. Jen Peter Larsen describes the overture as expressing a “mood without hope” and interprets it as “darkness from which light will later shine forth.” A sense of movement from darkness to light is characteristic of the entire oratorio.

I keep talking about the process of making abstract concepts more concrete through musical actions and what that process contributes to our spirituality. Last week, Dr. Sledge referenced the practice of text-painting in his own psalm settings and tonight we will be exploring that in greater detail in Handel’s music. (Text-painting is a sort of musical onomatopoeia in which the sounds do what the words are saying.)

Handel was a master of this. He did it well and creatively. He did it probably more than we realize. And he did it without it ever becoming silly.

“Every Valley” from Messiah is compelling music whether or not the listener is aware of the text-painting. But tonight, I would like to invite you to raise your consciousness of this aspect of Handel’s genius. Tracking these types of details – details that demonstrate the seemingly limitless imagination, personality, and technical mastery of Handel, tune us up more fully to appreciate that this music is, as my music theory mentor Vern Falby would say, “saturated with glory.”

Ed Bryant and me

Listening to Mr. Bryant perform "Every Valley," members of our group discovered the following instances of text-painting. There are listed here in the order they occur in the piece. I encourage reading over these discoveries then listening to one or both of these recordings while following the text-painting as described below.

Here, Juan Diego Florez sings the air with breathtaking elegance and flexibility. 

And here, the great Canadian tenor Jon Vickers sings a performance of tremendous strength and radiance. 
One of our participants beautifully recognized the text as a "descripitive poem" and Handel's music as providing the "environment" of the poem for the listener. 

The initial "Ev-ry valley" climbs up out of a literal valley of register.
    single notes on "ev" and "ry"
    climbing more rapidly on "valley"
    snappy dotted rhythm on "valley" accentuating the rapid rise

The word "exalted" is very dramatically elongated and climbs floridly. It is being lifted, exalted.

As the first "exalted" comes to a close, the orchestra returns to the opening vocal "ev'ry valley" motive. This overlaps with a mountain-like shape in the voice on the words "shall be exalted." The impression of these overlapping parts is that of the sense of perspective we experience in the mountains when we glimpse further rows of mountains between the rises of nearer mountains.

Following the next "exalted," there is an octave leap on the word "mountain." This is precipitous and is the largest vocal leap to this point in the piece. Immediately after this descent are a quick little rise and fall on "hill" which are appropriately scaled to their neighbor "mountain." The phrase ends with a jump down to a rather low note on the word "low."

Next, the line wobbles on "crooked" but lingers on single notes for the words "and the rough places plain." The word "plain" seems to be on a plain with a few small undulations or furrows. 

The next "crooked" passage is even more angular and the bass line covers some pretty rough terrain at the same time. 

We come to another "plain" and this time, its notes seem to paint a terraced landscape where a hillside has been leveled in stages making it fit for growing things. The last "rough places plain" in this section feels simple and quite resolved.

In the last third of the piece, Handel demonstrates subtle variations on the text painting choices he has already made.

The next "Ev'ry valley" moves directly to an octave-long drop-off. This instantaneously heightens the intensity. Contributing further excitement, he adds larger leaps to the "exalted" passages. 

The final "crooked" is set to the interval of a tritone, the "diabolus in musica," an interval avoided to a great extent in the Medieval due to its dissonance and its disturbing quality. This is only one of two times the interval is use in the vocal part. The earlier was on the equally appropriate "rough places." Singing a tritone is always a rough place.

Following this exploration, Dr. Cotton asked for testimonies of the power of music of this sort to transport and transform the listener. He went on to share that those types of experiences are available to us when we "slow down and give ourselves over to the works." To use C.S. Lewis's term, works of art require our "surrender."

We concluded the evening with a compline service, including a reprise of "He Shall Feed His Flock" framing these reminders from John 10:

Jesus said,

“ . . . I am the gate for the sheep . . .

Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture

 . . . I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. 

Jesus said,

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep . . .

Jesus said,   

“I am the good shepherd.

I know my own and my own know me,

just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.

And I lay down my life for the sheep . . . I lay it down of my own accord.”