Breaking: Choir Director’s Eyebrows Ascend into Heaven as Choir Goes out of Tune

Breaking: Choir Director’s Eyebrows Ascend into Heaven as Choir Goes out of Tune

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13 October 2019

Los Angeles, California- A local church choir has been thrust into the spotlight as reports are circulating that the choir director’s eyebrows have been, prematurely, raptured.

“It was truly a miracle,” said long-time congregation member and greeter Jim Dennison. “I was sitting in the pews listening to the choir and suddenly I saw what I thought was a dove descending over the conductor—”

“—but it wasn’t,” added his wife, Donna Dennison, “It was the poor dear’s eyebrows. They lifted right off her face and up to heaven.”

Reporters followed the rumors from the local Claim Jumper (where many congregation members lunch on Sunday afternoons) to First Episcopal Church, where they were permitted an interview with Mrs. Laura Bell, music director and eyebrow escape victim. However, while the ascension of her eyebrows took her by surprise, Mrs. Bell explained that she supposed she had had it coming for years.

“You see,” said Mrs. Bell, “When the choir begins to go flat, I always raise my eyebrows to remind them to keep their pitch up.”

When asked what went wrong this time, she sighed and confessed that the choir simply had not been watching. Instead, their pitch just continued to sink and her eyebrows continued to rise. She lifted them so high, it seems, that the Lord decided to put them out of their misery and simply call them home before their time.

“It was remarkable,” said First Episcopal’s Rev. Seymore Orwell. “Truly a sign from above. It reminds me of Psalm 121, which I believe is, all things considered, perhaps more rightfully translated, ‘I will lift up mine eyebrows.'”

When asked what she plans to do next, Mrs. Bell shrugged. “It’s alright,” she said. “The choir had a grand time and, besides, I’ve always wanted to try bangs.”

 

Nation’s Organists Rally to Fight Stereotypes as Halloween Draws Near

Nation’s Organists Rally to Fight Stereotypes as Halloween Draws Near

9 October 2019 Los Angeles, California

Nearing the middle of October, spooky season is in full swing and Halloween celebrants across the nation are gathering their pumpkins, brooms, and ominous soundtracks in preparation for their night of revelry. Halloween has long been a time of community, of neighbors sharing chili on the front porch, children meeting for trick-or-treating, schools pausing their lessons for costume parades and apple bobbing. In fact, it seems that perhaps even more than Thanksgiving, Halloween has become a means of bringing people together despite their prejudices.

One demographic, however, continues to feel misunderstood and intends to use this Halloween season to make new strides toward social awareness: organists. As Halloween hosts cue up their perfect party playlist, organ music annually finds renewed appreciation. Toccata and Fugue in D minor, “The Phantom of the Opera,” and the Haunted Mansion theme are among the most popular organ pieces sure to make comebacks this Halloween. While some organists are amused by the use of their music for creepy ambiance, others are speaking out against the stereotypes that it represents.

“Organists across the nation have suffered in silence long enough,” says Frank Steinbeck, chapter president of the National Association of Organists. Steinbeck has long been a contender for organist appreciation and intends to utilize the pipe organ’s Halloween spotlight as a platform to speak out.

“Organ stereotypes have hurt too many,” he said in an interview with The Daily Weak, “Just last week, my buddy Paul Stopford was turned down on a date because he was an organist.”

“It’s true,” added Stopford in a follow-up interview. “She said she couldn’t date me because I play the organ— said I was too creepy for her taste.”

When asked if his rejection might have also had to anything to do with the mask and cloak he was wearing (completely veiling his face and person in foreboding mystery) he declined to comment and instead vanished into thin air.

“Too many have suffered,” claims Steinbeck. “And this ends now.” At this, the opening lines of Bach’s Toccata played apparently from nowhere, though Steinbeck did not seem to notice.

Along with his local chapter, Steinbeck is calling organists to speak out against stereotypes and has even gone so far as to organize an awareness march outside of a local costume shop. Footage from the march shows a small mass of organists holding signs bearing slogans such as “Organists are not only swell, they’re great!”

While the march was, unfortunately, shut down by the police due to rowdiness, it did — accidentally — succeed in increasing the number of registered organ donors in the town.  Not discouraged, the participants expressed a desire for the press and public to know that they represent a diverse range of backgrounds and are united by their desire to eradicate prejudice against organists.

“Just because lightning flashes with every chord I play doesn’t mean I’m evil,” said long-time church organist and amateur murder mystery writer Rodger Turnpage. “It’s probably just an electrical issue.”

Other organists have added to the conversation, claiming October as “Organist Awareness Month” and sharing their stereotype stories online and on church bulletin boards via the hashtag #organfailure. Tweets such as “We are more than Toccata and Fugue in D minor” are circulating the Twitter world or, at least, they would be if any organists knew about Twitter.

“We just hope that as people listen to our music shuffled in with ‘Monster Mash’ and ‘Ghostbusters’ they will realize that we organists are not monsters; we just want our music to be heard,” concluded Steinbeck.

And with that final, powerful plea, Frank Steinbeck, chapter president and social justice warrior, limped off among the tombstones and into the foggy night, never to be seen again.

*Watch this promotional video by an anonymous local organist and share to help end organist stereotyping! #organfailurenolonger

 

Hallow Hill

Hallow Hill

The hill was ghostly. Even before finding an old sign revealing its history as an early Christian burial site, I could sense the tension between life and death in the air that chilled my face. It was a place pulsing with potential, yet quiet and lonely as a sleeping giant. Insignificance and eternity confronted me as I felt at once my own smallness amidst the swirling mist and the faint-but-discernable presence of those sleeping beneath the grass and dirt.

And so, here is a poem.

On Hallow Hill the lichen grows
On trees far, far too young to know
That ‘neath their root-laced, grassy shroud
There lies in loneliness a crowd.

O’erhead crows caw continuous gloom
As doves pray peace for th’unseen tomb.
Such sombre birds of ghostly air,
The only pilgrims passing there—

There where the earth, a swollen bride,
Still nurses those that testified:
Expecting, under dust and leaves,
The birth toward which her babes believed.

Listen! She lulls with willow song:
“Though ages pass, it shan’t be long!”
It shan’t be long ’til these hills cry
As Light tears through their cloud-hung sky.

So tune to joy, you mournful dove!
As bones reknit themselves in love
To stretch, to stand—to kneel—toward
The One who wakes them by His Word.

Theme and Variations

Theme and Variations

Not long ago (though it seems a lifetime), I wrote about modulations. The idea that the dissonance of post-college life would eventually resolve into normalcy was comforting; considering the modulations in music were consoling to me as I felt keenly the sudden transitions I experienced after four years of relatively little change. 

Several months later, I find myself facing another transitional period as I recently moved to Scotland to pursue my master’s in “Theology and the Arts.” Despite my love for this country and its culture, I was nervous: where would I fit in? Back in the States, I had clear roles, routines, and relationships. A creature of habit, I was overwhelmed to find seemingly everything changing, from my time zone to breakfast foods.

Just as a musical metaphor was helpful in reframing how I approached this past summer, I found that the same to be true of settling into a new place and new chapter. In-between, the key is modulation. Now, though, it is theme and variations. Theme and variation is perhaps the simplest musical form to explain: pick a melody or some other musical statement and repeat in different ways until it wears out its welcome. This compositional structure provides the basis for both smaller, stand-alone pieces (such as Mozart’s classic 12 Variations in C Major, K. 265, which most will recognize as “Twinkle Twinkle”) and larger works (such as Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations and Bach’s Goldberg Variations).

The trick to listening and learning such pieces is simply to memorize the key theme and then discover its subsequent incarnations. Indeed, this is the key to internalizing music of all sorts, for it is difficult to ever truly escape from themes and variations. For instance, during my sophomore year as a piano major, I was assigned a piece that was — so I thought — far, far beyond my capabilities. Near tears, I asked my teacher how on earth I was to conquer it. I could not imagine my hands becoming familiar with and even fond of this monstrous composition.

“Memorize it bit by bit,” was my teacher’s first bit of advice. “Start with the main themes and motifs and then find how they vary and develop.”

Learning this piece was a war won by small battles. Still, I came to know it better than any other, and, though it challenged me with every practice session, it became mine. The professor in the studio next door came to recognize that when he heard its opening theme, I must be at work. That daunting piece went on to earn me my first victory in the university’s piano competition and, more importantly, I found that I was able to play it with surprising joy.

Any modulation, be it a new piece or a new chapter in life, must be conquered the same way: Identify a theme, find its variation, and move on to the next. During my first weeks in St. Andrew’s, I have intentionally sought out the elements that I know to be essential themes in my life and, finding these (though in slightly different forms) I have felt more and more at home.

For example, throughout both high school and college, I was the on-call accompanist at my schools. This is a key theme that makes me feel as though I fit in, as though I have a clear role and am known for my skill set. So, as soon as I could, I introduced myself to the music directors at my new university and, within an hour, had several gigs lined up. As an organist and choral singer, I pursued and quickly found a church music ministry. My community of faith and worship during my undergraduate years was essential to my wellbeing and service. Fully aware of this and feeling keenly its absence, I immediately pursued a new position in the same vein, with similar yet diverse people.

Knowing the themes I relied on for normalcy back home, I ardently sought their Scottish variations, and with each new rendition of a continuing idea, I perceived the puzzle of my life falling more and more into alignment with what it ought to be. 

The same is true of smaller elements, of motifs. Themes, in music, are generally the larger building blocks of composition; they are the melodies that recur and are recognizable no matter their evolving ornamentation or transpositions. Motifs, however, are the smaller elements that, though often only a single chord or ornament, are sure to be felt if missing.

My motifs are running trails. Bookstores to sniff around. A coffee shop to frequent. Possibly a garden with a particular bench. Houseplants on my windowsill. Floral accents to everyday items. These seemingly unimportant things are the glue that hold the larger blocks — the themes — together in harmony. Again, similar to the piece I learned years ago, as soon as the small pieces are in place, the larger ones become more manageable. 

Motifs are often quicker to come than themes, making them the best place to start when feeling overwhelmed in a new place or new stage of life. It is so much easier to thrive in the grand scheme of things when the small details are tidy and familiar. Find them, these little things that bring you back to your senses. Love them and cultivate them and use them to string together longer melodies, making yourself at home again in foreign modes, unknown places, until these new-yet-familiar themes, too, become a part of your life song.

Maybe it’s Because of Winn Dixie

Maybe it’s Because of Winn Dixie

I’m reading Gone with the Wind again for what is somewhere between the fourth or seventh time. It seems that anytime I am between books, unsure what to read next, or feeling unsettled, I turn (second to my Bible) to that enormous novel for no better reason than that it is a darn good story.

But my relationship with Gone with the Wind has grown to run deeper than just loving its tale of hard times, moral dilemma, and, of course, gumption. I first read Gone with the Wind as a stressed-out sophomore in high school. I saw its spine in the school’s library and, although my Kaplan AP study guide glared reproachfully at me, I could not resist cracking it open and reading its first page.

“Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were.”

Talk about an intriguing opening line! In it, Margaret Mitchell’s beautifully direct yet alluring voice is already clear and called me to continue deeper into the story of Miss O’Hara. And, though AP exams were looming, I rationed out a chapter each night in the copy that now is bedraggled and overread and never far from my bedside table.

My freshman year of college drove me back beneath the covers of Gone with the Wind. Once more, the story swept me away and restored my own sense of gumption. Like Scarlett, I was able to “square my small shoulders” and boldly face the world. Again and again, each spring semester I found myself returning to Tara and Atlanta and the fascinating courtship of Scarlett and Rhett Butler.

Once I began traveling internationally, I downloaded a Kindle edition so that I could continue my annual reread. The novel has been a constant as I’ve flown around Europe, studied in the UK, and hopped between Southern California and Arizona during long, uneventful summers. Now, it is keeping me company during a grueling layover in Amsterdam as I head to Scotland to begin my postgraduate studies.

In reflection, I’ve known and loved Gone with the Wind far longer than I even realized; in fact, you might say that I was introduced to it through a mutual friend. At a party a week ago, I was suddenly anxious. There were too many people, too many colors, too much noise. And I had too much to do, too many unfinished chores and unpacked cases waiting at home. I wanted to sink through the floor and cry. But then I found, nestled on a bookshelf, a copy of Kate DiCamillo’s Because of Winn Dixie and felt the tension diffuse as if I’d sighted a dear friend with whom I could enjoy comfortable silence even amidst the chaos of the party.

So I sat down and, as I did many years ago, began to read. Opal and Winn Dixie and the Preacher greeted me with welcome arms and I felt companionship in their worries and homesickness. And as I read on, I remembered that in the pages of this children’s story, I was first introduced to the novel that has come to dominate my adult reading life.

Reading Because of Winn Dixie, now and as a child, brought a sense of calm when I needed it most and, I think, planted the seed that eventually led me to Gone with the Wind. So I suppose all this is really a thank-you letter of sorts— to Margaret Mitchell, for her epic novel, and to Kate DiCamillo, for introducing us. Dear authors, your words have been friends to me in so many places and stages; I only hope to inspire others to read them and, one day, to have my own stories shelved beside them.

 

Schumann’s Arabeske: A Musical Love Letter

Schumann’s Arabeske: A Musical Love Letter

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(video performance at link below article)

It is my conviction that one must fall in love to play Schumann well. I did not at first enjoy practicing his Arabeske, Op. 18; while I understood the piece theoretically, I did not truly understand it emotionally or spiritually until I, like the composer, fell in love. Then, all at once, its nuances and imagery became obvious, for I was better able to empathize with its composer and his situation.

This piece, it became apparent, was born of sweet affection. The story of Robert and Clara Schumann is a familiar one: he was a brooding, poetic soul with a passion for literature and composition and she the prodigious daughter of his piano teacher. Their love was one that overcame distance, disapproval, and even disease as Robert gradually declined due to mental illness.

The Arabeske, Op. 18 was composed during the couple’s three-year engagement while Clara was touring abroad. One of his experiments in small-form writing, the Arabeske is an exquisite example of Schumann’s ability to compact immense ideas into concise creations.  In this seemingly-simple piece, reflections of the composer can be discovered. Always torn between his two loves — music and literature — Schumann put elements of both into his work. In the notes of the central motif, we can hear the outline of his beloved’s name: the main theme hangs upon the notes “C” and “A” and might be interpreted as the spelling of “Clara” using the musical alphabet.

Also apparent are the two sides of the composer. In his literary works, Schumann presents himself as both the introspective “Eusebius” and the more extroverted “Florestan.” The opening theme and the first minor passage are reminiscent of the character of Eusebius as they gently flow along but build like an obsession. The more demanding nature of the second minor passage might be considered a Florestian outburst; here the composer is filled with determination! A third character, however, is also present; “Raro,” a name created by combining the last letters of “Clara” and the first letters of “Robert,” is a personification of the balance found in their marriage. This third character resounds in the gentle, bittersweet transition passages and, at last, in the heartfelt conclusion.

There is much more that could be said of this piece. For instance, the ending, comprised of suspensions, sounds like a goodbye across a great distance and the recurring theme carries different connotations with each repetition as the composer considers the same thought with different inflections and emotions. Indeed, I discover something new and lovely with each practice session, but perhaps it is best to let the Arabeske speak for itself, a small love letter from both composer and performer.

Up the Ladder, Down the Ladder: on artistic affection

Up the Ladder, Down the Ladder: on artistic affection

“He now is struck with wonder by
what’s wonderful in him. Unwittingly,
he wants himself; he praises, but his praise
is for himself; he is the seeker and
the sought, the longed-for and the one who longs;
he is the arsonist— and is the scorched.”

The Metamorphoses of Ovid

In his Metamorphosis, Ovid paints perhaps the most poignant picture of unrequited love: Echo desires Narcissus, who desires the beauty of his reflection. This tale displays that to love in vain is to love too little: to love the particular rather than the universal, the carnate rather than what is being incarnated. As creative and intellectual beings, mankind must be reminded of the dangers of preferring images to realities and of settling for earthbound affections rather than allowing these to point heavenward. 

Plato, in Symposium, discusses the love of beauty, and, in particular, the proper ordering of this love toward its highest form: loving the Beautiful itself. The philosopher concludes by introducing a tool (Diotima’s Ladder) for understanding the progression of love from common to virtuous, mortal to immortal.

“First, [the Beautiful] always is and neither comes to be nor passes away… Second, it is not beautiful [in] this way and ugly that way…Nor will the beautiful appear to him in the guise of a face or hands or anything else that belongs to the body. It will not appear to him as one idea or one kind of knowledge. It is not anywhere in another thing…but itself by itself with itself… always one in form; and all the other beautiful things share in that.” 

Symposium, Plato 

Diotima’s Ladder (so named for the woman who supposedly first explained it) emphasizes that love is fundamentally driven by the desire for immortality. According to this idea, affections ought to strive from what is beautiful yet earthly to, rung-by-rung, the Beautiful: that is, the highest form of beauty, which is eternal, objective, self-sustaining, and preeminent. Beautiful particulars partake in this formal Beauty, which is not lessened by their existence, but rather manifest through their various incarnations.

By learning to love beautiful things, lovers progress up Diotima’s ladder to eventually love the Beautiful itself. First, they love the beauty of a single body. Then, this love expands to many bodies before blossoming into a love of the customs and laws which bind people together in harmony. (After all, harmony is an essential element of beauty.) Next comes the love of knowledge, demonstrating the progression from the physical to the philosophical. Finally, through their developed powers of affection, lovers will come to perceive and adore the Beautiful itself. 

In this philosophy, physical beauty becomes a mediator by which admirers might ascend to higher forms of affection. The problem, though, is that humanity tends to love too lowly; lovers become fixated on the glimpses of beauty found in lesser things when they ought to use these to turn towards the greatest Beauty. Mankind is content to praise the dimmer beauty of the moon, willfully forgetting that its light is a mere reflection of the sun’s. Perhaps it is because the Beautiful is, like the sun, too much for mortal eyes. More likely, though, men become acclimated to the climate of lowland loves, with eyes too weak to look heavenward. 

In On Loving God, St. Bernard of Clairvaux embarks on a similar attempt to reorder love. Much like Plato, he defines virtuous love as that which moves toward the highest, most enduring object. Rather than focusing on the love of the Beautiful alone, however, Bernard is concerned with redeeming lesser loves such as self-love by drawing them into proper relationship with God-love. 

His “ladder” is as follows: 

  1. Love of Self, for Self’s Sake
    The beginning of love in mankind is in the love of self; this is not necessarily immoral, for it can—according to Bernard—be the first step toward loving God. However, it may also be the final step for those who look no further.
  2. Love of God for His Benefits
    Here, man begins to love God, but only for the love God has demonstrated to him through His providence. Again, the soul may stagnate here, content with conditional affection.
  3. Love of God for God’s Sake
    Now, the Christian has experienced the sweetness of loving God for His own sake. There is a transcendent intimacy between lover and Beloved which is not reliant on benefits beyond simply loving and being loved. 
  4. Love of Self for God’s Sake
    This level is not reached on earth, for it is the redemption and perfection of self-love. In this, the self is in unity with God and is free to love itself in and through God’s love. This is the fullness of liberty in love. 

Again like Plato, Bernard begins with more material affections and uses them to draw lovers toward unity with divine love. In this, his theology is inseparable from the doctrine of the Incarnation, which is the reconciliation of body and soul in the fullness of love. 

In his allegory, The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis writes of a painter who suffers from the same disordered affection that Ovid depicts and that both Plato and Bernard seek to remedy. As an artist, the painter ought to have a better understanding of beauty, but by his own pride, he descends Diotima’s ladder and renders himself incapable of loving neither beauty as manifest in creation nor the Creator Himself. Through time, he falls in love with his skill and material subjects and out of love with the Light that first enchanted him: 

“‘You’re forgetting,’ said the Spirit. ‘…Light itself was your first love: you loved paint only as a means of telling about light.’

‘Oh, that’s ages ago,’ said the [Painter]. ‘One grows out of that…one becomes more and more interested in paint for its own sake.’

‘…It was all a snare. Ink and catgut and paint were necessary down there, but they are also dangerous stimulants. Every poet and musician and artist, but for Grace, is drawn away from love of the thing he tells, to love of the telling till, down in Deep Hell, they cannot be interested in God at all, but only in what they say about Him.’

-C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce

All lovers of beauty are in danger of becoming like this painter. Often a philosopher or artist will, like a Slinky toy, begin at the top of Diotima’s ladder and walk his way down. Many fall in love with beauty, but then devolve to love the images rather than the inspiration, losing sight of what they were recreating in the first place and loving light with only a utilitarian affection. In the same way, it is easy for artists, philosophers—even theologians—to cease loving God Himself and to settle instead for talking of Him, loving the study rather than the Person

Creative and thoughtful people are especially gifted with the ability to capture what is good, true, and beautiful in God and to communicate it with others or, to paraphrase Lewis, to “catch glimpses of Heaven in the earthly and to enable others to see the glimpses too.” Unfortunately, with great ability comes great responsibility and, in a fallen world, great potential for failure. 

Artists are perceptive and often one or more of their senses are uniquely attuned to the medium of their art. A painter’s conception of color and a musician’s awareness of pitch enable them to capture beauty and share it with others. Likewise, a writer may explain ideas in innovative ways so that readers understand what was previously inaccessible. These artists are placed, by the virtue of their abilities, in a position to leap the lower rungs and work from the top of Diotima’s ladder. (Though, like the rest of the world, they likely begin at the base of Bernard’s steps toward loving God.)

However, there is a danger with being perched so high from the start; artists almost inevitably, like the painter in The Great Divorce, topple from the highest loves to the lowest. It is the same way with a bookworm who begins by loving stories, then loves books for the stories, but eventually becomes a hoarder who would rather buy books than read them. Those who love highly have the farthest to fall, which becomes tragic upon the realization that these talented few were equipped to draw others up the ladder while they themselves are sliding down. 

Recall the words of Ecclesiastes: 

“Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.”

-Ecclesiastes 12:12, ESV

The Preacher of Ecclesiastes, ironically, made a book. Only a few verses earlier, he describes how he “taught the people knowledge, weighing and studying and arranging many proverbs with great care,” proving that not only did he write a book, he did so to share “words of truth” using “words of delight.” The composition of Ecclesiastes was an academic and aesthetic matter. What he warns against in the conclusion, then, is not the making of books, but the making of them for their sake alone. 

Like the painter of Lewis’ allegory, it is unwise to become interested in the act of creating for its own sake or for the sake of reputation, for this becomes similar to the lowest rung on Bernard’s ladder: loving oneself for oneself’s sake. It is all too easy for the artist and philosopher to fall from the truest love of Light and Beauty to the lowest pandering, to sink from gathering glimpses of glory to glorifying the self only. 

The painter’s ghost is concerned with his reputation as garnered by his art’s reception. When speaking with the redeemed spirit, he only wants to know whether there are any famous men in heaven. To his dismay, he receives a very Ecclesiastical answer: fame was vanity compared to being perfectly known and loved in heaven. In descending Diotima’s ladder from loving the Beautiful to his own little beauties, the artist also fails to realize that if he truly loved himself, he would see that, as Bernard explains, perfect self-love is found in unity with God-love.

Readers, I too want my words to be read; I want my stories to be shared and my songs to be heard. However, we must remember why it is that we started creating in the first place: because we glimpsed something enduring and otherly that we wished to capture, communicate, and, eventually, commune with. We wished to clothe the divine so that we might better grasp and share it: to incarnate the invisible through our art and study. 

“To paint a picture or to write a story or to compose a song is an incarnational activity.” 

Walking on Water, Madeleine L’Engle

The essence of incarnation is manifestation and mediation; Christ as the Word of God incarnate displayed divine glory and proved Himself preeminent by being the mediation of man and Deity (Colossians 1:18). If this is so and art is also an act of incarnation, we must learn to love the words we pen only because they are shadows of the Word Himself. We must seek to pursue art only to increase in ourselves and others an appreciation for beauty and, through this, to draw closer in communion with the Source of all beauty. We must refuse to grow out of our first love of Light in favor of shadows. 

So, reader, lay aside your “ink and catgut and paint.” Do not let your love of beauty and creativity stay earthbound; love here and love well, but look ever upward. Let an adoration higher and more overwhelming than your own dictate your smaller affections. Let us not become like Narcissus, in love with the beauty we reflect rather than the Beautiful itself. Nor let us be like Echo, futilely following a beauty that will not love us in return. Rather, in turning to the true Light, let us learn to love beauty better and better until we can see its fullness face to face; let us incarnate it in our art and study so that others might see and believe in the Incarnation Himself. Then, we might truly love and be loved, basking forever in the Light we once only glimpsed.