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Archive for the 'Music' Category

Iona Calls it Quits

Posted: Thursday, December 15, 2016 (11:48 pm), by John W Gillis


Around the time I turned 40, I was despairing of being able to find truly satisfying contemporary music to listen to. I had been listening to (mostly) rock for three decades, and was finding both new and old rock music increasingly unbearable, both musically and, especially, lyrically.

Sometime during the autumn of 2000, I stumbled across an interview with Rick Wakeman where he was asked what his favorite Christian band was. He answered that his favorite band at that point, without qualification, was Iona. I thought that was a pretty good recommendation, and I ordered a copy of a recent (1998) multi-disc concert recording called Heaven’s Bright Sun.

After a short atmospheric piece to open the recording, the band launched into a brisk, poppy song in 4/4 time, combining electronic instruments with percussion and Irish pipes. About half a minute or so into it, an angelic voice started singing a paraphrase of Jesus’ teaching on trusting God from chapter 12 of the Gospel of Luke: “Consider the flowers of the field in their beauty/more lovely than even the clothes of a king”, at which point the drummer (Terl Bryant) fired off a rapid sequence of light staccato cymbal trills as tasteful as anything I’d heard any jazz drummers produce, and I was absolutely filled with delight at what I’d found. I had a new favorite band, and I overcame the temptation to swear off contemporary music as hopelessly puerile.

The rest of that concert album was, for the most part, even more impressive than the opening bit, and I soon found myself buying up their back catalog of five studio albums, and eagerly awaiting new releases. Most of their music is far less poppy than the “Treasure” song that introduced me to the band – being not infrequently instrumental, or longer-form songs with substantial instrumental sections, although their vocal music is gorgeous. Unfortunately, there would only be two more new studio albums released by Iona after 2000: one in 2006 (The Circling Hour), and one in 2011 (Another Realm). Earlier this week, the band announced that they have called it quits as a band, and will be moving on with their own various projects.

Many of the folks that have been a part of this band since it was formed in 1989 have also produced wonderful music as solo artists or in other collaborations. The work of Dave Bainbridge and Troy Donockley particularly stands out for for its quality, although Joanne Hogg’s solo work is also compelling, if less musically ambitious.  All of them do well, but there was something special about the band efforts that we simply won’t have again, and that saddens me, in a way. I appreciate that everyone has to move on in life, but I don’t have a favorite band anymore, and I don’t even see any candidates – for all the old reasons: the spiritual/moral insipidity of most aesthetically good contemporary music, and the aesthetic insipidity of most Christian music. I’m going to miss knowing Iona was out there keeping the world safe from falling into absolute insipidity.

For an outro, the song that brought me such joy upon first listen sixteen years ago:

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The Fish, Out of Matter: R.I.P.

Posted: Sunday, June 28, 2015 (9:49 pm), by John W Gillis


Yes bassist Chris Squire passed away last night at age 67. I don’t usually pay too much attention to what goes on in the entertainment world, as I don’t have much personal investment in it, and never really have. But there have been some exceptions to that. Chris Squire would be pretty close to the top of that exception list.

csSquire had noted on Facepalm® last month that he had fallen victim to a brutal disease, so today’s news was not entirely surprising, but it was disturbing nonetheless, and I’m feeling as if I lost a friend. That’s a silly sentiment, really, considering I never met the man, and may not have gotten on very well with him if we had met. I haven’t had any interest in the music he’s been involved in for the past decade and a half or so, and even the older Yes music can wear a little thin these days.

Yes, as a band, has become little more than a Yes tribute band after parting ways with Squire’s co-founder Jon Anderson several years ago, and, frankly, they’d exhausted their musical genius decades ago. But, at least at the time, it seemed to be a formidable genius, indeed.

My older brother introduced me to the Yes cult when he gave me the Close to the Edge album for my birthday. That would have been late July 1974, when I turned 14. Thinking that the side with two songs looked somewhat more inviting than the side consisting of a single, 18-minute song, I played the second side of the album first. I was absolutely transformed in my relation to music by the end of that first twenty minutes. After spending a few moments in silence, futilely trying to understand what had just happened to me, I flipped the album over and listened to the title track. My wonder and consternation were magnified. As the saying goes: I was blown away.

As he handed me the record, my brother told me that it would cure me of my interest in Grand Funk Railroad. I took that as one of those annoyingly paternalistic things older brothers say to their little brothers to keep the pecking order establishment clear, but by about the time my next birthday had come around, I’d sold all my Grand Funk, Aerosmith, Deep Purple, Alice Cooper, and other non-Yes albums to a kid up the street, for $10. I would eventually listen to other artists again, but the terms of my engagement with music had forever changed, and there would be no going back to Alice Cooper. For the first time in my life, I’d experienced music as a form of art, and not just as a come-on, or an entertainment.

Prior to my initiation into Close to the Edge, I’d spent many hours listening both to “hit” radio and to albums from popular rock bands, searching for a personally satisfying connection with the music: convinced that such meaning was available for the mining, and invariably disappointed as the music failed to deliver. A satisfying ditty here, a satisfying ditty there, perhaps, but even at that tender age, I knew experientially that the music I was listening to was shallow and contrived; that the excitements it created were ephemeral and, ultimately, phony. But Yes music was different.

It’s not uncommon to hear Yes music referred to as “spiritual”, as one way of distinguishing it from most other rock. I get what’s meant by that, which is to say that Yes music is not vulgar, and that it is open to and even traffics in a certain level of transcendence. But to grasp the importance of that, it is important to understand that all music is spiritual, for better or worse. If it weren’t, it would only be sound, because “spiritual” is really just a synonym for something having meaning, and music, by definition, is the appropriation of sound, as sound, into meaning, expressed in time.

But meaning in music can range from boring monotony to cheap titillation to transformative profundity. There’s nothing unspiritual about cheesy music, it just wallows in the shallow end, and it often leaves the intellect unengaged – if not disengaged. So, we could call such music spiritually incomplete or even impoverished, but it remains spiritual even when it is so in a trite or even denigrating way. Political slogans function in much the same way. We could draw an analogy and say that most pop music relates to music-as-art similarly to the way sloganeering relates to literature (i.e. writing-as-art). It would not be inapt to relate both depraved forms to propaganda. It is not for nothing that sensitive souls have from time to time been alarmed concerning the presence of the demonic in certain music. Nor should we fail to recognize that sacred music actually exists, even if one can hardly find a modern liturgist who is cognizant of that fact. Not all bad music is debauched.

The sensual nature of music implies that it always approaches us at the level of our passions, but it is a further engagement on the intellectual level that allows music (or language) to engage a person in a fully human way, in a way that is spiritually “complete”, and thus to form a deeply penetrating meaning. Yes was by no means the only or even the first rock band that pushed their music beyond the banalities of pop and into a realm of deeper musical meaning, but they took advantage of the opportunities presented by the times to produce work that stands as paradigmatic of the possibility of intellectually serious commercial rock music. Thematic development, intricately interwoven melodic and rhythmic phrasing, shifting modalities and tonal centers, complex meters and metrical diversity, all coupled with the esoterically ambiguous but aesthetically charged character of Anderson’s lyrics: the Yes experience was a compelling introduction for this young teen – and many others like me – to the pursuit of the spiritual goal of art, which metaphysics calls the third transcendental attribute: beauty.

I became a hard-core Yes fan. I absolutely loved their music. For a time at least, being a Yes fan seemed like an important part of who I was. Modern people attach themselves to musical acts – or sports teams, or TV shows, or any number of products and/or ideas – in ways that are pretty totemistic. We wear their logos, or colors, or names, or other symbols. We say that we idolize them, because, well, we do. We “identify” with them, because they somehow provide meaning to us; they mediate some greater, unreachable reality for us in ways that allow us to feel we have at least some small part in it. None of this is particularly healthy, but some attachments are worse than others. I drew the Yes logo on my jacket. I wrote their lyrics on my t-shirts. I put their album covers on my walls. After high school, I dropped most of the outward pieties, although the devotion lingered for years, until I found a better way to what I was really seeking.

I was very glad, at the time, to be a Yes fan, and I’m still glad that I was. In fact, I was blessed to be a Yes fan, because in showing me how the musical genre which modern consumer culture had basically imposed on me (rock) could be used as a vehicle to strive, with excellence, the path to true beauty – and to the awe and wonder which beauty inspires – Yes also showed me the path which leads to the first and second transcendental attributes: truth and goodness. That is to say, Yes ultimately showed me the path that leads to God.

It is true that I was not only already baptized, but lived in a family that honored virtue, and acknowledged Christ as Lord. It is also true that I would eventually have to unfix my eyes from all my “idols” in order to properly turn them to God. Nonetheless, Yes opened my eyes to His reality – whether anything like that was ever the band’s intent or not. This is no exaggeration. I was as convinced an atheist as a 14-year-old can be: disgusted with the world, utterly alienated, and frighteningly self-destructive. I was one sad-sack kid. I still grieve for that kid, constantly. It is a grief that deeply informs my relationships with my own children. I don’t know what would have happened to me if Yes hadn’t happened to me. Yes music was a ray of light in the dreadful darkness of my adolescent existence that started a revolution in my life, however slow-moving that revolution turned.

Though I’ve moved on in many ways, there are still three albums from Yes that I would grab for my proverbial desert island supply. One is Close to the Edge, another is the brilliant Relayer album from 1974. But the third would be the 1975 solo album from Chris Squire: Fish Out of Water. Less brash than the band albums, it sounds like what I once hoped Yes would come to foowsound like as they matured. It didn’t quite work out that way. The album nodded toward the Yes mode in places – the thematic resolution at the 12:00 mark of “Safe” is a minute and a half of probably my favorite rock bombast ever. And the outro that follows it, closing the album, is as gorgeous as electronic music gets. Squire’s distinctive bass playing combined the driving rhythmic foundation of electric bass with a melodic sensibility that really set him apart from other bassists. I always hoped he’d record a second solo album before he retired. He had forty years, but he never did it.

But I am thankful for what he gave the world in his work. I don’t know anything about his personal life, but I hope he died in peace with himself and his world. I pray that his family and friends may be comforted in their grief. And now that he has died and faced his Maker in judgment, I pray that Chris recognizes Him as his Lord and Savior, and that he might know the peace of his Lord telling him that “you will be/safe with Me”. Cue the outro…

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Iona Rocks Lowell!

Posted: Monday, June 25, 2012 (7:05 pm), by John W Gillis


My wife & I saw Iona in concert yesterday at the Lowell Memorial Auditorium, and the band was just fabulous. We were fortunate enough to have ordered tickets early enough to have landed front-row seats, and were sitting just toward the center of the stage from new piper Martin Nolan. I’ve been following this band for twelve years, and this is the first time I’ve had a chance to see them, as this is apparently the only time they’ve ever been in this area. I hope they come back soon, as the show was simply fabulous. Excepting a brief tuning problem at the beginning of Chi-Rho, they were as flawless as you’ll hear a rock band. At times the mixing was a bit improper, but it turns out the guy doing the mixing was not with the band, but was someone who had never heard them before, and so had no way to anticipate the various dynamics of this remarkably versatile outfit.

sm iona band

The set, as would be expected, was heavy on material from their newest album, Another Realm.

Apart from that, though, there was surprisingly little newer material, with almost all the other songs coming from their highly productive early period of 1990-1995. The band may have gotten a bit more than they bargained for when, after strongly encouraging the audience to dance, they ended up with more than a dozen uninhibited patrons joining them on stage for a finale of reels. It’s not uncommon to see nuts at rock concerts, but the off-the-wall element of this particular crowd seemed amusingly trapped in a spiritual vortex conflating the reckless abandon of a middle-ager’s mosh pit with a kind of quasi-charismatic Christian piety. It was sight to behold, and fortunately nobody was hurt – not even Martin Nolan, who was mildly molested by one dope.

My only regret is not stopping to speak with the band afterwards to thank them. In truth, I owe them a debt of sorts. Just before I began listening to Iona, I had reached a point where I was despairing of being able to continue listening to contemporary music. The Christian music I was aware of was – how can I put this delicately? – aesthetically challenged, saccharine perhaps, maybe even insipid. On the other hand, the music I liked from an aesthetic perspective was increasingly grating on me because of its own insipidity – that of its spiritual ethos: that ubiquitous modern ethos of self-indulgent hedonism, nihilism, and/or smug bourgeois transgressionism. You know, modernism – broadly considered.

Iona bridged that gap for me, and though I still find most contemporary music to be morally and spiritually insipid, and most contemporary Christian music to be cloyingly sentimental and musically banal, Iona has not only exposed me to a whole genre of music that is both artistically and spiritually serious, but they’ve allowed me to ground my encounter of the broader panoply of contemporary music in a context free of the despair and alienation I was experiencing as I reached my forties, which has enabled me to be somewhat more tolerant of the shortcomings of lesser artists, and better able to enjoy them as far as they might warrant it. I guess that means I’m not a complete old fuddy-duddy yet, which might be a good thing.

Raphael’s Journey

Posted: Saturday, May 14, 2011 (8:32 pm), by John W Gillis


joanne1Music loving Pro-lifers might want to check out the latest solo album from Iona’s Joanne Hogg, entitled Raphael’s Journey. For those not familiar with Ms. Hogg, she is an angelic-voiced Irish beauty who has been the lead vocalist for the Contemporary Christian band Iona since its inception in 1989. Iona falls into more or less the same genre as bands like Clannad or Eden’s Bridge: playing ethereal, Irish-flavored pop, mixing traditional instruments and themes into the standard rock band ensemble. But when Iona rocks, which is not infrequent, they rock with considerably more gusto than most of the other bands of this sort, and their music is often constructed around Christian themes – and is always edifying and nourishing, even when it isn’t explicitly Christian.

Ms. Hogg’s solo efforts, of which I believe Raphael’s Journey is the third, tend musically toward the softer side, as compared to her band’s music, and are much more explicitly confessional  (her first, Looking Into Light, was in fact a collection of hymns; the second, Personal, essentially a collection of prayers set to music). This album seems to be a gentle, prayerful exploration of Joanne’s journey into the mysteries of motherhood in recent years, during which time she has borne two children. The cover of the economicalraphjourneycover packaging is focused on an angelic figure, but with a bright but indistinct image of what appears to be a human right arm reaching up from behind the angel’s right shoulder, hand extended skyward. Overall, it is hard to avoid inferring a reference to the most significant literary appearance of the Archangel Raphael, in the Biblical book of Tobit, where Raphael is sent from the throne of God to make a journey with Tobiah, son of Tobit, to heal the sorrows of two pious families through the marriage of Tobiah and Sarah.

Song titles such as Songs from the Womb, Life is Precious, and Dance of the Unborn convey the sensibility of the album, which places the mystery of human life in the heart of our Creator God, and in the hands of those of His creatures whom He has called to manifest His love. As a father, I have to smile at this new mother singing, in her song Lullaby in Colour, of her determination to let her baby sleep, despite the urge to pick him up and hold him – such a scene is truly a microcosm of parenthood on a couple different levels.

The song Life is Precious, placed in the setting of an abortion clinic witness, is a direct plea to women contemplating abortion to respect the integrity of the human being entrusted by God to their care. While there are aspects of the lyrics that rub me the wrong way (e.g. “I’m not standing here in judgment”), Joanne mentions something of enormous import, which rarely seems to get the notice it deserves in the “culture wars” around abortion, when she sings: “I see you in mortal danger” and “This is life and death for you” – referring to the mother she’s addressing, not the child whose own life hangs in the balance on the sidewalk outside the abortuary. The death of an innocent is a terrible thing, but the killing of an innocent truly manifests a deadly savaging of the perpetrators; a spiritual death sentence that too many will never be able to overcome through the grace of repentance and forgiveness.

Although I think there are better songs on the album, Life is Precious stands out for its clarity of purpose, and for the gentle and accurate portrayal of the Pro-Life movement’s most visible – and despised – champions.

Given that, I’ve transcribed here the song’s lyrics, and posted an audio stream. I encourage Pro-Lifers  to purchase the album from the Iona web store, both for your own musical and spiritual edification, and to support the work of these wonderful people:

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Life is Precious

Standing in the rain I’m praying…

Standing in the rain I’m praying…

 

Standing in the rain I’m praying / you’ll come out that door

Give me just a minute of your time / to hear the words that I am saying:

     You are precious

 

I know that you see a stranger / holding words for you to read

I see you in mortal danger / I’m the second thought

     I pray you’ll heed

 

For life is precious, life is given to us

Life is ours to live, but not to take

 

I’m not standing here in judgment / I am here in love,

Pleading for a chance to help you see / there’s another way

     For you are precious

 

This is life and death for you  / but not just you, it’s for another

God made you someone in His image / but he also made a mother 

     Out of you

 

For life is precious, life I given to us

Life is ours to live, but not to take

Life is precious, life is given in love

Life is ours to hold, but not to break

 

Two hearts beating / inside you

Mercy waiting / to hide you

Two voices speaking / inside you

Truth is waiting / to guide you

 

For life is precious, life I given to us

Life is ours to live, but not to take

Life is precious, life is given in love

Life is ours to hold, but not to break

 

Standing in the rain…

Standing in the rain, I’m praying

Standing in the rain, I’m praying

Celebrating Christ’s Redemption and Immortality?

Posted: Saturday, December 4, 2010 (8:29 pm), by John W Gillis


Quote of the Day for Saturday, December 4th, 2010:

Handel and Haydn Society Artistic Director Harry Christophers, from the Conductor’s Notes in the program for this season’s performance of Handel’s Messiah:

When listening to our performance, take note of [librettist Charles] Jennens’ amazing contribution. We need only look back to mediaeval carols where texts take us from Christ’s nativity through to his crucifixion and resurrection but Jennens takes us further – his is a unique journey which takes us from prophecies of Christ’s coming through the Nativity to Christ’s suffering, his resurrection, ascension to the Kingdom of God and finally to that amazing and jubilant epilogue celebrating Christ’s redemption and immortality.

Huh? Such palaver is the price one pays, I suppose, when the chattering class wanders into the sanctuary.

My wife and I yesterday took in, for the first time, the Handel and Haydn Society’s annual performance of the Messiah – their 156th consecutive year of performing it in Boston! H&H is a very talented ensemble, and the performance of guest alto Catherine Wyn-Rogers was memorable, yet I must confess to having had a hard time getting comfortable during much of the show.

concert-messiah-smI was haunted all night by the probably well-founded suspicion that most of the assembled – of both performers and audience – were engaging this magnificent musical setting of these sacred texts as if it were some kind of fashionably quaint fairy tale, which could just as well have been swapped out for some Italian opera with a snow-elf intoning candy-cane cantatas.

Not surprisingly, good folk complained back in Handel’s day that the theatre was no place for the presentation of such content. I understand the sentiment: I love the piety of the work, but when the presentation substitutes artistic sentimentality for its inherent piety, it is like salt that has lost its flavor.

In one of his many teachings that sounds too offensive to modern ears to be much remembered or mentioned these days, the Lord tells us: "Do not give dogs what is holy; and do not throw your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under foot and turn to attack you” (Mt 7:6, RSV). Again, that might sound harsh, but it’s self-evident that Christ was actually being charitable, as he, by nature, always is. Offering strange fire has never worked out well for anyone.

I tried to enjoy the concert, and I am still trying to reconcile the experience into a true satisfaction, but I can’t quite escape the sense that the aesthetic magnificence obscured a careless trampling of the Pearl of the Word. What you mean matters more than the aesthetic form of what you render, needless to say.

A Topographic Easter Tradition

Posted: Sunday, March 23, 2008 (6:40 pm), by John W Gillis


Staying on my theme of music I listen to on the holy days… I have an Easter morning musical tradition that stretches back a lot further than the 10 years or so I’ve been listening to Gorecki’s 3rd Symphony on Good Friday.

I don’t remember when I started listening to Yes’ Tales From Topographic Oceans on Easter morning, but it goes well back into my murky pseudo-Christian (proto-Christian?) past, into those pre-Church days when I thought that Christianity was something you believed – maybe even something ontologically transformative – but not something that meant, by necessity, an inescapable belonging to – like an ancestral heritage, but of the Spirit. Well, change we must, as surely time does (to borrow a line from the piece).

The music is a bit of an odd choice to commemorate this highest of Christian holy days, being as it is a musical and poetic reflection on the Shastric Scriptures. Religiously, it falls into the category of cheesy New Age noodling. In rather stark contrast to the flesh and blood realism of a resurrection faith, it meanders through layers of mysticism, mythology, and dualistic struggle.

Tales From Topographic OceansStill, it’s not a wholly inappropriate choice for the occasion. The work’s final movement is, as principal writer Jon Anderson notes in the album’s liner notes, “about the struggle between sources of evil and pure love” (Ritual), and the other major themes of the work revolve around the irrepressibility of revelation, and of the role of tradition – memory and ancestry – in forming the foundations of culture, which is really just a single word for the experienced reality that forms the canvas of the work’s character.

And the Easter message is, after all, about the triumph of love over evil, though Christianity would see the struggle as one of faith lived out in human history, rather than a cosmic struggle between opposing forces – a view naively supposing that God might have an adversary (therein obliterating the meaning of Godhead in monotheistic religion). Indeed, Christianity has much criticism to offer the essentially agnostic character of this and other eastern religious worldviews, but that should not obscure the significance of the reality that many points of contact make such criticism viable.

All the same, the occasion of Easter morning would warrant a Christologically-ordered musical accompaniment – something that says “we are of the Son,” rather than “we are of the sun.” In that light, I set the piece aside for a couple years or so, trying to either replace it with something more orthodox, or just leaving the music off. But I’ve found that, so far at least, neither tact has worked.

Part of the problem is that none of the Christian music in my collection has the gravitas required to be a soundtrack to Easter morning. I have a couple Masses, and you’d think they might be appropriate, but I’m not looking to hear Mass at home on Easter morning – the time for my listening to Easter morning music is typically after I’ve been to Easter morning Mass, the time when breakfast is being prepared, and served, and the family is relaxing or getting ready for the afternoon. I guess I’m looking for gravitas, but not that much gravitas. And the rest of the music? Well, it’s just … songs, for the most part, and I’m not looking for songs; I’m looking for music.

Part of the reason Tales works so well in our house on Easter morning is that, while it does explore certain ideas, the lyrical focus is so abstruse as to be virtually meaningless at most points. Particular turns of phrase certainly carry with them images, which together form a kind of patchwork of meaning once or twice removed, so to speak… but the abstractness is so pronounced that the meaning of the work becomes almost wholly malleable in listening to it. In many ways, the words are really just important for their aesthetic character – Anderson could be singing in Sanskrit and it wouldn’t make much difference.

This was a nice characteristic of early Yes music, which would eventually give way to lyrical content with much more direct intent, which I think has the unfortunate consequence of highlighting some of the underlying silliness of the New Age sensibility that has more or less always informed Yes’ and Anderson’s work. “Equal rights for equal people,” Anderson writes in 1997’s “Children of Light.” You’d think it couldn’t get much gushier than that, until in 2001’s “In the Presence Of” he writes: “If we were flowers we would worship the sun, so why not now?”

However, I think the larger part of the reason the work has, so far, retained its place in my house on Easter morning is that it simply feels like it belongs there. In other words: tradition. I’m not sure I would have played it this morning until Joyce dropped a not very subtle hint that she thought it should be playing. It’s just been that way for a long time, and it ties today’s Easter morning together with our past Easter mornings, which in a way is how they themselves are tied together with that morning in Judea long ago, when Mary Magdalene was startled to encounter the living flesh and blood of a man she had seen die two days earlier.

I think if I were to encounter Topographic Oceans as a new piece of vocal music today, I would not want it played in my house as Easter morning “mood music.” I would consider it largely inoffensive in what it had to say about reality (even if a little loopy at times), but sorely lacking in terms of what it does not understand, and hence misleading as an artistic expression intended to provide musical context for this particular, great Solemnity. But I do not encounter it as if it were new, I bring 35 years of familiarity to my encounter with it – and for many of those years, it held a place of high honor in my hierarchy of artistic value. It still does today, in a sense, though primarily because of what it has meant to me – especially in my youth.

At one time, this work was probably the most “spiritual” creation I’d encountered, and it had significant influence in the beginnings of my journey toward God. Not long afterwards, I began to encounter Christ in the Christian Scriptures, where I found some stark differences between the pathos of the Christian (and Jewish) God, and the sterile idealism of the search for enlightenment. I began to understand that my journey to God is not so much a “journey to” at all, but a turning back to a faithful Creator and Redeemer who had been seeking me from the moment of my conception in his Mind. The “journey to God” is actually what the Muslims call islam, submission.

But I would remain without Church for a long time, and in the absence of a genuine organizing principle in the spiritual life, something else will always take its place – even something like music that seems to connect at a deep level. For some years, listening to Topographic Oceans on Easter morning was the closest I ever got to liturgy. In a way, then, it was both a catalyst to my turning toward God, and a workable substitute for a genuinely Christian expression of faith in community.

All this is not to say that we can’t – and shouldn’t – move on from the affections of our youth, just that there are important spaces in our lives that need to be filled – and will be filled – with something…usually something familiar. Jesus himself expressed much the same idea when he warned about the unclean spirit who comes back to the person it had left, and finding his former home “empty, swept clean, and put in order,” returns to dwell there with seven spirits even more evil that itself (c.f. Mt 12:43-45). Now, I’m in no way trying to depict Yes’ music as unclean with this analogy, the point is just that we need to proactively fill the spaces in our lives with the most perfect good we desire, with the deepest truth w can apprehend, because they will be filled with whatever fits, regardless. Things tend to stick, regardless of their character, and the spiritual life is about nothing if not about repentance…

This opens up many questions – which I’ll have to leave, and hope to pick up at a later time – about the nature of tradition, about how it is personalized, about how it develops, about how cultural forms might play very different roles in a stream of tradition, depending on its developmental nature (e.g. how a particular form might play a constructive role in the tradition at a particular point in history, but take on a destructive role later on based either on an anti-historical formalism or a sentimentality that fails to note its contingent character in pointing to something beyond it – such as a puritanical or biblicist attempt to recreate the apostolic-era church).

At the least, though, this problem of mine should leave me more charitable than I was in my recent lament over the way some very poor liturgical music seems to have found communal staying power by living in familiarity’s comfort zone for many older (and not quite so old) priests. It looks like I’m in a very similar boat, after all. But let me also say that I’m very ready to let my Easter morning tradition develop appropriately toward a more orthodox expression of faith, just as soon as I can find something that can also meet the aesthetic standards demanded by the occasion. Ideas are always welcomed!

He is risen, alleluia!

ΑΩ

Good Friday: The Other Mothers’ Day

Posted: Friday, March 21, 2008 (10:01 pm), by John W Gillis


As has been my custom for several years, I listened to Henryk Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3 (Symphony of Sorrowful Songs) this afternoon, before attending the Good Friday liturgy. This is a remarkable work that never fails to move me. I don’t listen to it very often during the rest of the year, but it has become a Good Friday staple for me.

Though Gorecki himself insists that the work has much broader meaning (no doubt), it is difficult for me to listen to it without being overwhelmed by thoughts of the insane brutality of the Nazi death camps in Gorecki’s own Poland. The text of the second movement is actually taken from scratchings on the wall of a Gestapo prison in southern Poland, and the entire piece seems imbued with the lingering memory of a people and a boy (b. 1933) who lived through the madness. In this connection, I see a particular affinity between this piece and Good Friday. It is not for nothing that Isaiah 52 is read in today’s liturgy.

Michelangelo’s PietaAt the simplest level, it is a piece about the suffering of mothers losing their children. It is a Pieta, writ upon the maternity of humanity. The first movement’s text is quite literally a Marian lament, dating from the 15th century, that could have been spoken at the foot of the cross. The third movement uses a local folk song that speaks of a grieving mother yearning for her son, lost in a violent uprising in the early 20th century.

But the shorter second movement is the most remarkable to me. It recognizes a mother’s sorrow through the eyes of a lost child – in this case an 18 year-old Polish girl named Helena, imprisoned by the German Gestapo on September 26, 1944. On the wall of her prison cell, she wrote: “No, Mamma, do not cry -Immaculate Queen of Heaven support me always” (followed by the beginning of the Ave Maria – in Polish).

It is humbling to realize that this girl – in such dire straights – concerned herself, before all else, with the suffering she knew her mother must have been living through on her account. I know a man who, we are told, acted very similarly in his own hour of darkness. It’s a tale that tells of the triumph of charity – and faith – over despair, despite an aching sadness.

Gorecki_3rd_1992Musically, the symphony culminates when, after almost an hour of slow, brooding, dark, aching, sometimes devastatingly angst-ridden waves of sound, the third movement resolves – twice – into an A Major chord that witnesses to the persistence of possibility – though not without a lingering knowledge of darkness.

It is in no way corny or contrived, the way the piece comes around like this; rather, it smartly reflects the essence of a faithful existence in the face of madness and rampant sin. In a Good Friday context, it is simply the realization that Easter has the last word.

God bless all grieving mothers on this day. And God bless Henryk Gorecki, who, whether he intended to or not, managed to capture the Pieta in music – right down to the last note.

A Good Hymn is Hard to Find

Posted: Monday, March 10, 2008 (11:11 pm), by John W Gillis


The parish Lenten Mission began tonight, and I got to the church a minute or so late for the start. The congregation was singing the opening hymn – what it was I have blessedly forgotten, but it was one of those carnival tunes of fairly recent vintage that we used to sing fairly regularly, not too long ago. As I ducked into a pew near the back, I was met by the distinct aroma of moth balls.

The presider was a retired bishop, who seemed to give a very thoughtful reflection (I had trouble hearing a lot of it), but the music we used all night was awful. I got to thinking that the moth balls I could smell were perhaps being used to preserve the 1970’s era pop-hymns we kept pulling out. It was actually rather discouraging.

I pray that enough people will get fed up with this kind of schmaltz before long, and the pop songs will go away. But as of now, this stuff feels like tradition to some of the older priests who’ve spent entire careers singing it – and some not-so-old ones as well. Alas, I might be sing-songing it for the rest of my earthly life. At least I can have confidence that, then, will be the end of it…

As we were preparing to leave, we were all invited to join in singing “City of God,” that ubiquitous hit hymn set to the tune of “Old Smokey” (or is it “On Top of Spaghetti?”):

We are sons of the morning,
All covered in cheese,
I lost my poor meatball
When somebody sneezed.

Let us build the city of God…