Friday, August 29, 2014

Loss Faith

My parents' headstone



As Kathy and I reach our 17th wedding anniversary, I find myself thinking of the pains and losses we have suffered over the years. Some of those things seem like they could have really thrown us for a loop but I don't think any of them have.

Lately I have found myself hearing from more and more atheists, agnostics, and believers who struggle with the question "How can a good God let such bad things happen?" And I agree with all these folks that events from Liberia to Gaza to Ukraine to China to our own border with Mexico do and should weigh heavily on the hearts and minds of anyone who is paying attention. These things challenge all of our unexamined ideas about how the world works.

In response to of all this, I'm writing this post as some sort of confession and explanation of my own faith, and I write it in a spirit of hope that it will be useful to fellow strugglers.


I don't see the logic in scolding anyone for not believing. Often, I think "believing" is really just feeling like you believe. And sometimes, your feeler gets tired.

I also don't see the point in lying to others, to God, or to ourselves about what we are feeling. That lying might just be coming between us and a more real relationship with the divine.

I think faith is much more than intellectual ascent to a few propositions. As others have said, most notably Jesus, faith is a way of life and love, a consuming action of one’s whole being.


Light has been shed for me in the midst of the shadows of losses. It has fallen particularly on words from I Kings 19.

The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. 13 When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.

The thing that has become illuminated in this passage for me is the fact that God was not in those things. We talk about God's omnipresence and we like to sing that the "whole world is in his hands" but this passage is indicating that God was not in the wind, the earthquake, or the fire. 

I am comforted by this biblical truth: God was not in those things. 

From what I've learned, it is likely that the writer was making it clear that the Lord being referenced here is someone other and beyond the nature deities being worshiped at the time. A concept of God's transcendence is being articulated in this passage.

The transcendent God, one that is beyond our realm, one that is, in fact, outside the realm of realms or any other category, is the God that starts to make sense to me. It is the God who is convincing because of being beyond our grasp, whose essence is irrelevant to grasps.     

But the passage also suggests that the presence of God and the whisper of God are not inaccessible to our experience.  Using the words of the Iona liturgy, I think there is a wooing going on here. There is  stillness, smallness, and silence, as well as some sense of movement in which God's presence might be found. 

Where does this wooing happen? Maybe at the mouth of the cave of the heart.

And where is that presence passing by? I’ve encountered it in worship and in the testimony of others. 

And it is passing. It's alive and not to be pinned down. It can't be locked into our brains or into a formula or into some sense of proof. It requires that we respond in moments and learn to dance with it. It appears to desire an ongoing relationship, not to become an object for us merely to observe or possess. 


In the rituals of worship, we engage the narratives of scripture which are testimonies of those who have encountered that presence. Like us, those many writers witness to inexplicable good and bad breaking through in the breadth of their experience. Also like us, they sometimes dismiss the good that streams into the senses and fixate on that which is not so satisfying.


In spite of the way that some ideas about scientific method have undermined a sense of faith for many, I find that experience itself points me in the direction of God or at least in the direction of needing some way for accounting for phenomena that seem to be from beyond our realm. 

Following one loss, I had a moment in which it seemed that it was time to express anger and maybe even to lose faith. In those moments of rage a bit of my father’s experience returned to me asserting that God is there regardless of what I might feel at any point in time.

Here's my father’s retelling of that experience from his early manhood. I’ve excerpted it from an autobiographical chapter he wrote in an unpublished book on ministry.


Yet another indelible memory from those years that helped shape the future of my life is one that also witnesses to the 
goodness . . .
grace  . . .
and glory
of the God Who has a plan for every life. 



My father within a year or two of this occurrence
One bleak, cold Sunday afternoon in November after playing basketball with my boyhood friends I was walking home. At that time there were two routes by which I could reach home: one by way of the woods and the other by way of the streets. On this afternoon I had chosen to go through the woods. Dusk was completing its transformation into darkness as I came to an open field and began to run as I was eager to get home. As on several earlier occasions, there was something very strange going on that I could not understand. It seemed that I was not alone; that someone was with me. Suddenly, I heard deep in my innermost being a voice urgently, persistently saying, “Change your direction as you are desperately needed along the other route.” Without any hesitation I obeyed the urging. I remember that I felt as though a strange and mysterious power was upon me, that something dreadful had already happened or was going to happen. Soon I found out why I was directed to take the other route home, for as I started across the bridge spanning the railroad tracks I thought I saw an object huddled against the tracks. The first impulse was to continue on my way and count this object as some kind of joke being played, but the Voice restrained me and I went down the hill to the tracks to find a body with blood around the base of the skull. It was the body of a boy who lived just behind our family. He had been walking down the railroad and was hitting the butt of his rifle on the track, thus discharging the shell that entered the base of his skull. I thought about my saving his life for months, even years thereafter and would one day see it as God acquainting me again with death and weaving into the fabric of my life its reality and certainty. 


If we know enough people and our conversations are open and wide-ranging, we find that there are moments of knowledge like this that go beyond a conventional understanding of data gathered by the senses. There are also spontaneous healings of body and soul. And there are visions being had that have a depth, personality, and meaning that exceed the workings of any troubled individual's twisted grey matter.

When we add up all of that stuff, and as we keep adding more to it, we need an explanation, an epistemology, that aspires to do those things justice. And of course there is already a great range of explanations that have been espoused by generations and generations of people whose experiences and wisdom we might be tempted not to give much credence.

Of those explanations, I find the Christian concept of a God whose essence is transcendent, but who also lovingly becomes one of us, to be most compelling. The message that God is beyond us but also loves us seems to me like a good basis for being. It has energy and complexity that satisfy and activate. I can live with it and live by it. While a god worthy of the name needs to be other in essence, Jesus backed up his promise to be with us always by undergoing the sorrows of our existence. And spiritual stories from credible sources like the one from my father reveal the reality of a Spirit that still communicates that message.


In the midst of good and bad experiences, there is a presence. Nothing less than that adequately describes what happens in the fullness of human experience. The Bible is a record and an interpretation of that presence. In it, we see that God woos us. Sometimes that wooing comes in the midst of tumult where it needs to sound more like an intense stage whisper. “Life and death hang in the balance is says. "Respond for your action is of the greatest import,” it implores.  

The Bible provides access to a rich tradition of struggle and of experiencing that presence. Its pages contain no denial of the bad that happens. Instead, its words remain relevant because the people who spoke and wrote them were remembering the name of the Lord in peace and in trouble. Their consistent witness is that God delivers us through things, not necessarily from things. It proclaims that, in spite of the winds, earthquakes, and fires, God is present.


To conclude, I share an ancient blessing from Psalm 20. I think it’s good for sitting at a graveside, or waiting outside an operating room, or for those sad and empty moments that sneak up on us in the midst of our daily work.

May the Lord answer you when you are in distress;
    may the name of the God of Jacob protect you.
May he send you help from the sanctuary
    and grant you support from Zion.




Postscript for pianists:

For those who might play piano, I’d like to share a recent work or outline for a work. The idea for this and several other pieces came to me as an inspiration while we traveled back to Lakeland after this summer’s Lasker Summer Music Festival. When the time is right and musical ideas start flowing – when the mechanics of inspiration kick in – my faith in the presence that passes by is strengthened further.

This work is the beginning of Pilgrimage of Practice IV which is a postlude to the piano curriculum I’ve been writing the last couple of years.  The entire series is based on stories of the life of the 6th century Irish saint, Columba. Volume IV introduces piano students to various practices of 20th and 21st century music. This piece explores indeterminacy as well as a bit of silence.

I encourage you to play it for yourself. Lately, I’ve been playing it daily and finding it to be a religious experience.



The Hermit’s Hollow
Like the prophets,
Columba went to a secluded place to commune with God.




wind, earthquake, and fire . . .

Beginning in the bass register,
Play a chromatic cluster, an octatonic upheaval, and a treble tremolo.





still small voice . . .

Quietly play a series of seven pitches, each one followed by a silence.
Attend to each pitch until it is inaudible.
share each silence with your listeners.




Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Teaching and Compassion

speaking to a big, somewhat unfamiliar crowd at the beginning of the semester
+
thinking of the few members of that crowd who will not appear to know the basic procedures that have been published and discussed
+
one's own education in a pressurized environment
=
an edgy affect from the speaker (me)


Today was the first day of our Departmental Recital, a weekly meeting involving most of our music majors. In this first meeting, I explain a few policies and (this snuck up on me today) I was a little fussy and sarcastic doing so.

That might be okay, but there were many in my audience who did not deserve such an approach. Plus, some might have enjoyed it mostly because I was laying down the law about their neighbors' behavior.

Some music colleagues might be reading this and thinking I'm being over-scrupulous or I'm just too nice in being concerned about this. While I appreciate those thoughts about me if anyone is actually having them, I think they are also an indication of the fact that sarcasm, upbraiding speech, etc. are so ingrained in many of us by our culture that we rarely stop to question whether they might ought to be out of bounds.

When I stand before that group of students, I am, no doubt, standing before a few fellow human beings who have been told they are more trouble than they are worth. And I stand before some others who were led to believe that some abuse they experienced was their own fault. What they need is acceptance, connection, a recognition that there is goodness in them and that I'm glad they are here - not browbeating.

And so I turn to the summary of the gospel - love God and love others - and I think of those who have carried that banner through my life. I hear the words and remember the spirits of pastors who knew that was what it's all about. And I see colleagues marching around the campus with that flag lifted high.

These thoughts bring me to a new discipline, a new focus I might undertake as this year unfolds.

So often, the mean and defensive attitudes and the cutting quips that accompany them sneak up on me and I find that my living is not matching my beliefs. Maybe at the tolling of each hour, before circumstances have set the tone, I should pause and lift that great banner of caritas before I move into the next hour's span.

Saturday, August 09, 2014

In Defense of Spence



At their "best," institutional practice rooms tend to be pretty sterile. A quick Google search of practice room images will prove this. To be fair, the large rooms with numerous instruments and a bit more color are probably recording studios, not practice rooms. And that one guy looking at the New York skyline is in the Juilliard dorm, not a practice room. The images of medium-lengthed hallways, which some photographer mistakenly thought would become fun by having students poke their heads out of the doors, show the immediate environment of practice rooms. (By the way, I've been that photographer.) And the small, neutral-colored rooms with no windows but maybe a mirror and a piano - those are practice rooms. Aesthetically speaking, spartan. For all their sound-proofing, not so musical.

Many college-aged musicians have tender spirits. Their artistic temperaments can make them very sensitive to their physical environments. Their hearts and psyches are open and that which seems merely drab to another can be downright oppressive to these young people who are feeling so much and are still learning a lot about managing their very being. What they're going through is a normal stage of development. It's something along the lines of negotiating being in the world but not of the world.

In addition to those issues related to the physical environment that can cloud the innocent eye, there are all sorts of things lurking in practice rooms waiting to catch us all off-guard and alone:
  • doubts about our talent 
  • self-esteem issues that we brought from home or from our first teachers
  • the concern that performance practice is something everyone else knows but we can't quite figure out how to really know it for ourselves                                                                                
  • the infinite longing for the ultimate answer to technical questions
  • the great unknown of the future which often feels more like a tightrope walk off a cliff than a broad plain rising to majestic peaks  

I think all of the above are possible and likely happenings in most any practice room. On the campus where I work, we have practice rooms in an old nursing home which became a dorm which became practice rooms. An interesting story, I think, but in the highly landscaped, new-construction world of Florida, it's unusual. If you transplanted our building to a setting shaped by a culture that puts great stock in making use of existing structures, it wouldn't be unusual at all. And while I was initially picturing Scotland when I wrote that last sentence, downtown Richmond or Savannah would do just fine. For that matter, even in our local culture, the re-purposing of an old warehouse as a church would most likely be thought of as something awesome.

Nonetheless, it seems that interpretation is sometimes needed to help us appreciate the real beauty of the spaces in which we live and work, the goodness that is deeply woven into their fabrics. And so I share the following paragraphs which I wrote on Facebook this morning as several students discussed their return to campus for the new school year.

 
As rooms go, even the finest practice rooms rarely have a lot of nice things said about them. In general, I think practice rooms rank somewhere around hospital rooms on the great continuum of rooms.

My point is that the primary issue with any practice room is psychological, not physical, in that we shut ourselves up in them alone for hours at a time to do the disciplined work of really changing ourselves. It's hard to be excited about that day in and day out because it frequently involves coming face to face with the things in ourselves we'd rather not be aware of.

Our practice rooms have character and a history. In addition to the normal hard work mentioned above, they have housed prayer meetings, intense emotional support from peers, and creative moments when students have learned by being goofy. Caring faculty have sought out students in those rooms when a jury went badly or a question wasn't answered well or when a tragedy had turned a student's world upside down. Perfectly soundproof, no. But in Spence, you know that music is not made in a vacuum. Indeed, community is just beyond the door. One is not as alone in such a practice room. It is a real human environment like where a family lives. And yes, it was a nursing home. When you sit quietly before your instrument, you might just more deeply sense the relationship of your music making to the big picture. Your path is not just about the perfection of counting and control of sound. In your very room, questions of old age were asked such as: "Why am I still here on this earth?" And, we hope more often than not, daughter or little grandson appeared at the door to give an answer with their presence. Or a pastor fulfilled the ministry of showing up at the bedside of a demented one when no one else was there to see. And loved ones gathered as their resident moved on to another world. In that very hallway, they started to process their grief and sought the beginnings of a way forward.

I also can't imagine that as dorm rooms or practice rooms, marriage proposals haven't happened there. Plus, half the rooms have a lovely view of the lake. I become inspired when I see the various water birds drifting in for a landing - light, legato, Spirit-like.

Which brings me to what I think my real point must be. What has happened there makes it hallowed ground. When you go to a shrine, it might have some holes in it. It might be a little dingy. It might make you think of another time. It shows signs of the use of many pilgrims. And in its worn-ness, it has great potential for connecting you to others and to the Spirit that has woven beauty into daily life there. So I'm going to think of it as sacred ground, because it is.

P.S. It won't be there forever.

P.P.S. Blair, sorry for hijacking your nice post.  


Here's a picture of the way I plan to see it - a bit like a cathedral beside the lake.





Saturday, June 28, 2014

June!

Lo and behold, it's June! Actually, nearly July. I've found one moment, late at night, to blog a bit  between our trip to Scotland and Ireland and the Lasker Festival.

A fantastic musical point of our journey overseas was worshiping at Christ Church in Dublin on Trinity Sunday. The key musical insight was that medieval high tech (a Gothic acoustic and a fine choir) is as good or better than any modern sound system. In fact, to hear the springing to life of such vibrant sounds while watching mere humans make them, was nothing less that miraculous - a true experience of "transcendence in the space," as the priest put it.



On returning home, I made a little music with an experienced musical friend. My friend threw me a curve ball. Really, I think the music threw my friend a curve ball.

While music can help us remember words, words can lead us astray while making music. In this case, starting into the wrong set of words led my friend into a similar, but not identical, musical phrase that was supposed to have occurred later in the music, requiring that I jump forward and make a cut in the performance.

I've often been pretty lucky with these sorts of things. Many times, my eyes have, by instinct or coincidence, jumped to the right spot on the score. Not this time. In fact, this time I took a gamble. I put my money on my singer friend catching the mistake and getting back on track with the right phrase. That's not what my friend did, so I needed to jump ahead, and my eyes couldn't find the right spot quickly enough for me not to sound lost.

The moral of the story? These things happen. Also, I would be wise to mark phrases that begin similarly with an easy-to-see, colorful bracket so I'll be prepared for such goings-on.

One more thing I'll remember from this June: at the invitation of another friend, we went on this lovely tour of the Lake Mirror civic center here in Lakeland. It was well-researched, charmingly presented, and covered politics, wildlife, history, and a bit of music. Here's a beautiful scene across the lake that I captured on film as we neared the end of the tour.




Tuesday, May 20, 2014

From the Composer's Hermitage

Recent conversations with composing students and colleagues have refreshed my awareness of the composing process. I believe I've written similar things before on this blog, and that just goes to show how true to my experience these things are.

1. Composing is a discipline, just like practicing or performing. You don't really know and understand about it until you are regularly working at it. Also, the dynamics of the process can be forgotten rather quickly during a hiatus from daily composing work.

2. Thinking you're writing for posterity or comparing you work with the great music you already know while you're trying to write it is a fast track to writer's block.

3. Sometimes, you need to write a lot of a thing to get it out of your system and move on to some stuff you might think is better.

4. Instead of trying to compete with Beethoven's finished works in one's sketches (!) think of your work as student work or experimentation. Explore lots of ways of generating material to keep from getting locked up: set a text, improvise, choose an existing model for some aspect of your work . . .

5. What you really need is a very clear assignment. Sometimes, you get stuck because the assignment you have given yourself isn't detailed enough.

6. And there is that stage in composing during which you feel like you're just spinning your wheels. This might happen with every work you write. There are minutes, hours, days, etc., when it seems like you've wasted your time, that nothing of worth has come out. For someone who isn't regularly involved in the discipline, this can be very discouraging.

How should you deal with this wheel-spinning time?
A. Know it's normal.
B. Have composer friends who can let you know it's normal.
C. Be a trouvere. That's an old word for "composer" that comes from the same root as the modern French verb for "to find." The point is that composing is a search in sonic and spiritual realms which usually involves some wandering and some groping about.
D. Know that those tedious times might be more than just a hassle to endure. They appear to be necessary for actual productivity. As John Cage put it, "the way to get ideas is to do something boring. For instance, composing in such a way that the process of composing is boring induces ideas. They fly into one's head like birds." 

7. Think like even more of a genius than you are. Notice, for example that Beethoven edited his pretty rudimentary materials into greatness. You, too, should try editing. Also, particularly important for developing well-rounded complete works is  thinking like Mozart, Hindemith, or Britten: have a vision of the whole. Carry it with you away from your usual composing station. Develop the habit of recognizing and moving along the continuum between your big ideas and actual notes on the page.

8. Pay attention to the engineers of other structures. They are your company, too. For example, 2000 years ago, Vitruvius declared three facets of architectural expression - "commodity, firmness, and delight." These aspects are indispensables of the composer's construction work,too. You must take into account your work's use. You need to apply excellent craft. And your basic impulse is probably to create something with aesthetic appeal. In terms of use, knowing who you are writing for is a big part of the clear assignment. Beyond that, when the current use and cultural context have become things of the past, the quality of craftsmanship will still be apparent. And we all want to touch and move the audience.

9. There's a wonderful moment when you have passed through the basic discovery of materials, the tedium, and the conceiving of the overall structure. In that moment, you finally see the big picture and have filled in enough details to know how the rest of the work is to be composed. And you know how to do it! That's the climax. From there on in, it's smooth sailing. After you have a few pieces under your belt, you actually develop an appetite for the work that gets you to that vantage point. I think it's then that you realize you really are a composer.

10. Finally, a word on inspiration. Some of the greatest composers have prayed for it. I have, at times, too. That prayer is a challenge and involves a bit of trepidation. It requires trusting that God will provide something through the process and suggests that you would dare try to intermingle your conscious human efforts with some mysterious mission above your own. Doing the work of composing as a follow-up to that prayer is a blessing that can build your faith.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Summer 2014



It has been three months since I've blogged. I'm happy to be getting back to it.

During those three months, my time has been filled with learning the ropes of coordinating aspects of our department from adjuncts to budgets to concerts to dates to educational materials to . . . okay, I'll stop there. Teaching and performing have continued, but time to reflect and express what has been coming out of those activities has been non-existent. I hope to catch up on those things during the summer months.

Summer has begun with several fun Florida wildlife encounters -
crossing paths with a rat snake while hiking with Brian Blume,
passing rather closely to a roadside alligator while driving with Wesly Hulin,
and noticing my first young little blue heron while walking with Kathy Hulin at Lake Hollingsworth.
(The photo above is an egret we saw in the same location back in January.)

Summer has also begun with some diverse music making this very morning at All Saints' Episcopal here in Lakeland -
improvising some pre-service meditative music following the ringing of the great bell,
a hymn arrangement with one of our young saxophonists,
a gospel anthem with our youth choir,
and some lovely music by Stefan Waligur sung by the children during communion.

Each of these works I was privileged to play functioned differently and drew me into a different mode of musicality and experience. The gospel piece, for example, took me to a place of joy with the rhythms and waves of its structure and its spiritually encouraging text.

The varied workings of pieces of music often get lost in the shuffle as we seek to instill a musicality that almost seems to have an existence independent of the details of specific works. (An interesting question to ask one's self, musicians, would be: What works have shaped my musicality?)

Phrase endings taper. Melodies are clearly projected. The flow goes over the bar-line. These are all good habits, but they are mere shadings, as I believe Stravinsky stated. To be experienced as significant human moments, works of music require engagement and expression at the level of their essence. Their specific structure and feeling need to prevail.

I find myself thinking of the first movement of Schubert's Sonata No. 16 in A Minor, Op. 42, D. 850 which I am currently exploring with a very good student of mine. This work by one of the very greatest writers of tunes is far from a simple expression of tunefulness. That generalized musicality I described a bit of above might be adequate for a series of well-behaved charming phrases. But this is not that. This is a churning, heaving structure. It is a drama unfolding through tones and silences. To play it well, to play it truly, I think one must sense something of the strangeness of Schubert's material, his obsessiveness with it, and the process he creates out of it.

We piano teachers sometimes wax poetic with images of the woods and bears and references to "The Telltale Heart," etc. This isn't because the music is particularly about these things but because that way of talking tunes us into the tone and process of works like these that require us to recognize and be in the drama as we share them.










    

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Experience

Ugh. I'm preparing to say "goodbye" to my 41st year in a few days.

Actually, I'm okay with it. 39 upset me. 40 was a calmer version of 39. And I think 41 has been a summing up of the last 20 years for me.

In these final days of 41, three events seem to have closed out that epoch in my life meaningfully.

1. a solo recital on the SEU series consisting of works from my auditions for D.M.A. programs that I have played several times since, as well as compositions by myself and my friend James M. Gurthie from our Chowan days
2. a final day in the recording studio with my colleague Shudong Braahmes on our Massenet chanson project
3. accompanying a couple of anthems on the South McKeel school music program including "Sahaytah" by Ben Allaway which was a lovely experience of sharing in a work about peace and community with a choir of children before a very large audience

I think I'm sensing that, over these last 20 years  (plus the 21 before that) I've gathered a little experience. This state of having a little experience under my belt is not so much about learning concepts - I think I've known these concepts for a while - but more about being able to apply them more than before.

What are these concepts?

  • Concentration is the name of the game in performance, recording, and maybe in living, too. In making music, one concentrates on the sounds and how they unfold. You have to discipline your thinking and develop the ability not to be distracted by internal chatter that's not relevant to the sounds themselves. At the same time, you need not to get confused by concentrating on concentrating!
  • The honest emotion of the moment when we come face to face with the music is the appropriate emotion. In performance, we sometimes fool ourselves into acting like we're feeling all sorts of things in the mistaken notion that we will have a compelling performance that way. It's the music that moves the listener and perhaps the performer's earnestness, not our manufactured histrionics.
  • When working with other musicians, truly knowing the tempo gives a lot of peace. In classical music, we often feel that what happens within the time-span of the musical work is what matters, but being with the tempo in advance together is an important staring point that can set up a better relationship with your collaborator and the music.
  • Our perceptions in the moment of music-making are often inaccurate. Our high level of focus within very specific parameters and our expectations can confuse us about what we're actually hearing. Recording and playback prove this. I sometimes hear intonation problems and lack of rhythmic coordination during performance that are not even there on the recording! Performing and listening are very different experiences. Trusted listeners can provide useful feedback we wouldn't have otherwise.
  • Stress usually doesn't help you perform better and it's mostly about stuff that doesn't matter anyway!
  • The experience of beauty and of health, including healthy relationships, are not just important for our development and refreshment as artists. When you take a walk by the lake or a trip to the art gallery, or have a good conversation with a friend, it doesn't just speak to your artistry. It ministers to your soul.
  • Things take time. This is true of getting a recording just right and evidently it's true of getting my bad moods to clear out!
I think that's what I know and am applying a little more frequently.