Monday, September 30, 2013

All Of It Was Music

 The night was bending in a grin 
 As streetlight shadows tattooed skin 
 Whatever we were tangled in
 All of it was music.

This longtime love of mine, Over the Rhine, drove into Minneapolis this weekend. They opened their guitar cases and their mouths wide and cried out an anthem to faithful presence. All the livelong night. They ran their fingers along fretboards and traced the lines of the map they had traveled all these years. I've been along for part of that.

Since my dear friend introduced them to me in high school, I have been hooked. Once, the two of us drove eight bleary-eyed hours down to Cornerstone Music Festival just to take in their show. Another time, my man and I happened to be in Seattle when they filled a little club in the Ballard neighborhood with people and...themselves. In-between the sightings, their lyrics have provided proof-texts for my own life experience. Generous-hearted artistry and faithfulness seem to go hand in hand. Hallelujah.

As it happened, there was great deal of music to be had this weekend in my hometown. Speaking of faithful presence, the husband had his dance card full with practice, rehearsal, and a show. So, I struck out on the town to find my fortunes with friends new and old. The result was treasure.

First, I gathered with the faculty at school to listen and learn about the music of Arvo Pärt. I had heard his name in passing before, and it had always had a magical quality to it, like if I chose to put myself under that spell someday, it would be very, very good. I was not disappointed. A longtime friend and colleague skillfully led us through Pärt's music and ideas, especially the concept of "tintinabullation." The composer coined this word to describe his work that includes:  bell-like sounds, meaningful repetition, and an anchoring in deeper musical theory. (Like centering around the triad and home chord, for those of you so inclined.) When it came to the hearing, I was floored. Here was a "minimalist" composer that I could get behind. There was a warmth and humanness to his sounds that was intensely attractive in a way that others (such as John Cage and Phillip Glass) have never achieved for me, personally. My ears and mind were still ringing with his music when I  wandered over the Cedar Cultural Center to catch Over the Rhine playing. Which. was. lovely.

The next evening, I was very fortunate to visit the Dakota Jazz Club, again, thanks to a friend. (This is becoming a theme, it seems.) The great Dave Holland was playing with his Prism project (Craig Taborn, Kevin Eubanks, Eric Harland), which is a jazz fusion sort-of thing. Much like the Pärt, I mentally prepared myself for a musical "workout," as in I thought that it would be very good - but kind of difficult to take into my ears and have my brain process it. And, like my previous experience, nothing could have been further from the truth. The music drew me in with its nervous excitement and joyous stretches of notes. What's more, Dave came over after the show and chatted with our table about what jazz means. "Improvisation is listening," he said. Also, he suggested that a person's character dictates how they will play: a generous man will play that way; a selfish man will play accordingly. That is, jazz, with its fluidity between form and freedom, provides a forum for the playing-out of personality. Finally, the advice he received once from another famous musician as a young man, "play it all." Don't limit yourself to a certain style that you happen to take a shining to right now. Play it all. 

For example, what do you do when you find wild pears in the neighborhood park? You play it all. You try something new and outside of your vocabulary. To that end, several weeks of ripening and painstaking hours of labor later, the juice is set up as must for future cider. Not to mention the fifty-some pints of wild grape jelly brought in from riverbanks and suburban side yards a few short weeks ago. All of that bounty just keeps on comin', and we are trying to put it all up somewhere. All of it, music.

Or when the unwinding summer leaves you with a dry dusty warmth and hankering for cooler winds, you go out into it. You catch the last yellow rays of the day and the flow of blue riverstream. It's all etched in the driftwood cast up on shore, and you sit for a minute. With a brother, a lover, a friend. Play it all, to the last note.

As I write this, there is still music rumbling the floorboards of our home and I hope that never changes. Tonight, the Boom Boom Room* is a thumpin' in the lower regions, preparing for their imminent appearance on the surface of the Twin Cities music scene. In contrast, last week at this time, it was all mandolin and ringing voices as we enjoyed an impromptu confluence of food, friends, musical instruments and wine.

Regardless, all of it. Music.

*More information here.

Monday, September 02, 2013

Be Blessed, You Dear God-Created World

"Alyosha stood gazing and suddenly, as if he had been cut down, threw himself to the earth. He did not know why he was embracing it, he did not try to understand why he longed so irresistibly to kiss it, to kiss all of it, but he was kissing it, weeping, sobbing, and watering it with his tears, and he vowed ecstatically to love it, to love it unto ages of ages"(362).

At this early moment in The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, the young Alyosha is overcome with a love yet to be defined. For many years, he had been living in a monastery and studying under Father Zosima, an ancient known for his mystery, wisdom, and extraordinary love of people.  However, as his beloved teacher fades from this world and prepares for the next, he tells Alyosha that the thrust of his life will soon carry him out of the little community and into the great outside, to "sojourn in the world".

The young man is very unsure of this path at first, and struggles to understand why it must be so. Finally, one day at the vigil surrounding Father Zosima's coffin, Alyosha has a vision of the dead man rising and coming over to speak with him one last time, encouraging him once more: "Begin, my dear, begin, my meek one to do your work!" The young man is filled with wonder and runs outside to the starry dome of a sky, thrusting his head into it and marveling.

It is at this point that he falls to the earth and embraces it, sobbing, vowing, loving. He finally surrenders to the shape of his life as God would have it. "It was as if threads from all those innumerable worlds of God all came together in his soul, and it was trembling all over, touching other worlds...some sort of idea, as it were, was coming to reign in his mind."

He saw it all, in a sudden flash - and it changed him forever. He saw how life was made of the intricate interweavings of the great cumulus-inhabited expanses above, the clouds of dust beneath, and all the life that man's breath can breathe in-between. By stretching out his hands and grasping the earth with the love that had grown in him for years, he could embrace the ugly, the pain, the beauty, the suffering - and thereby aid in its transformation into the kingdom of God. Three days later, he leaves the monastery.

I wonder, do I have that kind of courage? Do I lay hold of it all, letting my hands be pierced through by the thorns while my nose takes in the winey scent of the bloom?

Another place where I have glimpsed this vision of love for the world is in the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, through the new biography by Eric Mexatas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy and also a collection of Bonhoeffer's writings and thoughts, Meditating on the Word. As a young man at college and seminary, Bonhoeffer showed an intellectual brilliance and steadfastness to principles that impressed both liberal and conservative theologians alike. Several famous German seminary professors courted him with the hope that he would work under them. His family, historically aristocratic on all sides, encouraged his career as it seemed to lead toward promise of recognition in university circles (even if he had picked religion of all things  - this in a family of doctors and lawyers).

He walked this path for a time, distinguishing himself in the city among greats such as Karl Barth and the venerable Adolf von Harnack. His course of study required several appointments as a pastor (usually seen as a tedious necessity to young theology students), but young Bonhoeffer was attracted to this hands-on, practical working-out of his ideas on the church. Increasingly, he devoted his time to organizing much-needed Bible studies for young people, visiting the old and sick, and crafting stunning sermons that would draw the minds and hearts of his congregants toward God. He did not really abandon his studies, but rather the desire to make them official and institutionalized slowly drained away. His energies were directed more and more to the people who were outside the towering walls of the university.

I should be clear about this. Bonhoeffer never stopped learning and thinking, not even after he was imprisoned by the Nazis. His personal reading lists and output in the form of writing was prodigious, especially during his imprisonment, but there was a distinct shift. He wanted it to serve the world, to love it. Even when that world turned on him and many other righteous persons, as it did under the Third Reich. In a letter from Tegel Prison to his best friend Eberhard Bethge, he wrote the following, first explaining the way in which Christ had been "in the world":

"The answer of the righteous person to the sufferings which the world causes her is to bless. That was the answer of God to the world which nailed Christ to the cross: blessing. God does not repay like with like, and neither should the righteous person. No condemning, no railing, but blessing. The world would have no hope if this were not so."

He then goes on to explain the Christian's role in the world's redemption:

"The world lives and has its future by means of the blessing of God and the righteous person. Blessing means laying one's hands upon something and saying: You belong to God in spite of all. It is in this way that we respond to the world which causes us such suffering. We do not forsake it, cast it out, despise or condemn it. Instead, we recall it to God, we give it hope, we lay our hands upon it and say: God's blessing come upon you; may God renew you; be blessed, you dear God-created world, for you belong to your creator and redeemer. The renewal of the world, which seems so impossible, becomes possible in the blessing of God."(Meditating on the Word, 99-100, emphasis mine).

This was from the pen of a man who would be murdered by Nazi soldiers not one year later. Like his Saviour, he "loved them to the end," even his traitors.

I find myself at a beginning. I am not sure what it all means. Like Alyosha and Bonhoeffer, it will be defined as I step forward into it. What I do know is that it has something love, the world, suffering, and beauty. My refrain for the sojourn: "Be blessed, you dear God-created world."