After a while, okay, you’ve worked twenty years or twenty-five years. Okay, so you’ve got this many grants, you’ve got this long a resume, you have these people that hate you, you have these people that love you, you’ve done this piece, that piece, this piece, that piece…and then you go to your grave. And what do you think you have—a piece of paper that tells you all the pieces you’ve done? So what? The only reason for doing it is that you might have the joy of discovery on a day-to-day level. The only reason for doing it is really that you love doing it. What it gets down to is: how do you want to spend your time on Earth?
—Meredith Monk, from Heresies: A Feminist Publication on Art & Politics, no. 17, 1984
~Nancy Rosenbaum, producer
Tuesday Evening Melody: Allegri’s “Miserere Mei, Deus”
by Lisa Moore, guest contributor
This song affirms that humans create beauty. When that woman’s voice rises above the rest and spirals around, it is pure and intoxicating.
Miserere Mei was written by Italian composer Gregorio Allegri in the late 1630s. As legend has it, this piece of music was protected from being transcribed or played outside of the Sistine Chapel for the Tenebrae (“darkness” or “shadows” in Latin) service. Doing so was punishable by excommunication.
The story goes that, after more than a century, young Mozart heard the work in 1770 and rewrote it from memory when he returned home. His transcription ended up in the hands of an Englishman who published it in 1771. Rather than being excommunicated, Mozart was called to Rome and praised by the pope for his musical genius. The ban was lifted, and now it is one of the most common works to be performed by a cappella choirs.
Why would this song ever have been banned in the first place? Because it was so very beautiful. Perhaps people would hear this music and have a spiritual experience. That experience, of course, could then be had anywhere they heard that music and open a personal pathway to a relationship with God. The Church wanted to be sure that that type of communication could only occur with its guidance and control. There are other examples of music being avoided because of the belief that it insinuated evil, like the tritone.
Other composers also transcribed it, and there is quite the dispute about who got it right and whose version is the best. I first heard a recording by the Dale Warland Singers, so I think I’m stuck with my first love, but there are many recordings — including the gorgeous version above performed by The Sixteen — both with adult and children’s choirs.
As interesting as all of this is, I’m not trying to make any big statement. I just want to share this amazing music that deeply touches my soul, no matter what sort of mood I am in.
Lisa Moore is a medical student at Loyola University in Chicago. She attempts to maintain her identity as more than somebody who studies through yoga, creative cooking, reading, and writing.
We welcome your reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the Being Blog. Submit your entry and contribute a deeper understanding of the world around us.
Classical Flash Mob Stuns Commuters
~Susan Leem, associate producer
Jesper Nordin conducts the Sjællands Symfoniorkester (Copenhagen Philharmonic) in a flash mob at Copenhagen Central Station playing Ravel’s Boléro. This kind of performance art reminds us that, when you least expect it, you can become submerged in beauty within moments: anywhere, by anyone (in street clothes, hauling a bassoon), and it can disappear just as quickly.
Tuesday Evening Melody: Bobby McFerrin + Esperanza Spalding Jam at the Grammys
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Next week we release our show with Bobby McFerrin for Father’s Day. I guarantee you’ll want to download it. It’s a magical, somewhat unexpected conversation. One of the ideas he and Krista dig into is the importance of improvisation — and how he finds great meaning in the mystery of the moment, even embracing the fear of unexpectedness.
This duet with Esperanza (yeah, we’re on a first-name basis) is out of this world. Take a few minutes to pay witness and enjoy.
Inner Restlessness and Unease with Stillness: An Interview with Jane Moss on Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival
by Kate Moos, executive producer
This year, Lincoln Center announced that its fall festival for the first time would be produced around a unifying concept: that of “spiritual expression and the illumination of our large, interior universes,” according to Jane S. Moss, Lincoln Center’s Vice President of Programming. The series, dubbed the White Light Festival, began October 28th and includes an array of musical experiences and tastes, ranging from Brahms’ requiem to Meredith Monk, to the Tallis Scholars, and from Antony and the Johnsons to the Latvian National Choir.
Last spring, as these ideas were taking shape, Jane Moss asked Krista for her thoughts on the idea and shared a bit of its inception, including her own experience as a creative professional seeking spaciousness. She agreed to answer a few questions via email for the Being Blog.
It seems that your own interest in finding a way to manage life in an increasingly noisy and busy world was part of what prompted you to explore the idea of White Light. How did that happen, and what has changed for you? As is always the case with our programming, the idea for the festival grew out of a confluence of factors. First, I have been very struck over the past five years or so by a dramatic increase in what I would categorize as addictively outer-directed lives — facilitated by technology — and a dramatic decrease in the capacity to fully inhabit the moment. There seemed to be a growing unease with simply being, and being receptive and absorbing all that is around us. These developments were also leading to what I would characterize as an inner restlessness and an increasing unease with stillness.
I feel quite strongly that a full engagement with a work of art is essentially a contemplative act that demands moving inside ourselves and then allowing art to inhabit us and vice versa. So, many of these developments were working against the very engagement that lies at the core of our mission at Lincoln Center.
It also seemed that everyone I knew felt that they were increasingly out of control of their own time. Paralleling the ease of the technology was a sense of having no time for oneself — much less time for a personal, non-cyber connection with a friend. And of course there was/is the problem of everything operating at a profoundly distracting high level of speed.
And yet I was quite convinced that people were actually seeking more internally nourishing and deeper connections and content in their lives. I also knew that music and arts presentations could offer them that, but we needed to be bold in articulating a context in which that message was clear. Simply stating that a work of music or presentation was, from an aesthetic point of view, “the best” was not enough — a larger statement about the meaning and moments of transcendence that music can offer was what we articulated in the White Light Festival. And strongly presenting that larger context for music has had such resonance for our audiences.
We think of religious or spiritual virtues in terms like humility, compassion, and hospitality. Were there particular spiritual or religious values that helped shape the program itself? Specific themes you were drawn to? The fundamental truth or belief or faith for me personally is that there are vast swathes of consciousness or being or interior life that lie inside ourselves but outside the narrowly defined linguistic confines of our ego. When I use the word transcendence what I mean are our experiences of ourselves that lie outside our ego. And I think it is through those experiences (achieved by a wide variety of means: spiritual practices such as meditation, or religious convictions, falling in love, experiences of nature, or mind-body practices such as yoga, or artistic experiences and creativity in diverse pursuits) of transcending the ego and thereby having access to the far larger universe inside oneself that one discovers compassion and humility and profound connection to others. For many, a central feature of discovering that larger universe is the belief one is connected to a far larger or infinite field of being or consciousness.
Is it likely this idea will live in future programming? What might that look like at Lincoln Center? So the White Light Festival, which will be an ongoing, annual festival, is really focused on transcendence as defined above in its many manifestations. In the first year, we chose overtly spiritual music as our first exploration, but that will not always be the case.
The series reflects an eclectic array of voices and material. As you developed the program, were there any surprises for you in what emerged? Transcendence almost by definition is eclectic because it is available and sought by virtually everyone on the planet regardless of nationality or cultural background. And perhaps the most frequently encountered avenue out of the ego is artistic expression, which is itself remarkably diverse. Great artistic experiences are both deeply personal — somehow you feel less alone — and universal — you feel connected to others who love what you love yet differently. The most surprising discovery for me in our creation of the White Light Festival was the response of the artistic community, who love having their work perceived in a “White Light” context.
And that context is perfectly defined by the composer Arvo Pärt:
“I could compare my music to white light which contains all colors. Only a prism can divide the colors and make them appear; this prism could be the spirit of the listener.”
That is how the White Light Festival got its name.
White Light, Big City
by Kate Moos, executive producer
This year, Lincoln Center announced that its fall festival for the first time would be produced around a unifying concept: that of “spiritual expression and the illumination of our large, interior universes,” according to Jane Moss, Lincoln Center’s Vice President of Programming.
Last spring, as these ideas were taking shape, we got an email from Jane, who wanted to test her ideas with Krista, and so we met late one afternoon during an already-scheduled business trip to New York, in Jane’s office on the upper west side. She shared an intriguing story with us about her own search for spaciousness in a busy urban life, as part of the back story for this major arts event. We hope to share more of her thoughts with you next week, when Jane has agreed to answer some questions for the Being Blog about how that yearning for space and silence became an exciting new series of programming.
The White Light Festival, as it’s called, begins tonight at Lincoln Center and includes a fascinating mix of musical experiences and tastes, ranging from Brahms’ “Requiem to Meredith Monk” and “Antony and the Johnsons” to the Latvian National Choir. A series worth keeping an eye on, and check out some of the multimedia offerings on the site.
Those Wild Fes Sufi Nights Are Calling
by Hussein Rashid, guest contributor
Some people had Elvis. Others had The Beatles. My dream concert is the Fes Festival of World Sacred Music. With a rotating list of performers, it does not matter who was there, but the idea of the festival is what counts.
Over ten years ago, I bought a CD called B’ismillah (“In the Name of God”), a two-CD set from a Fes concert. In that moment, I knew the power of music. The organizers started the festival 16 years ago to bridge the rift amongst civilizations after the first Gulf War and they sought to use music as a common language. The concerts continue to bring in a variety of musical traditions from around the world to show what all people have in common.
My review at Religion Dispatches explains the mechanics of this year’s festival. However, one highlight that I was totally unprepared for was Sufi Nights. After the formal concerts during the afternoon and evening, there was an area set up for local Sufi groups to perform.
Sufism is a broad label for a wide variety of mystical traditions in the Muslim faith. Sufi groups tend to reflect their local cultures, bridging the Arabicized scholarly religious tradition with the local, living Islam of the different communities Muslims belong to. Some of these Sufi groups rely heavily on music.
In the United States, we have been exposed to Sufis and Sufi music for a long time. Jalaluddin Rumi is one of the best-selling poets in the U.S. and is founder of the Sufi group known as the “whirling dervishes.” Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones introduced the Master Musicians of Jajouka to new audiences. The late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was a musician from Pakistan known for qawwali singing, a type of devotional music in South Asia that was incorporated into films like Dead Man Walking.
Because Sufi groups are deeply embedded in the cultures in which they emerge, the free Sufi Nights concerts attracted large numbers of Fasians, in addition to the international crowd who had come for the festival. Each night the performers would be welcomed, personally, by the local community. They were part of the life of the city. They were neighbors and co-workers, cousins and clients.
There was an immediate intimacy between the audience and the performers because of their local character. It was incredibly easy to be swept into that feeling. The small theater area helped to highlight that feeling of intimacy. One night, my camera battery had run down, and I didn’t have any extras. I allowed myself to enter that world. Coming from a South Asian cultural context, I have to say that the ritual did not taste right on my tongue, but that didn’t mean that I did not relish every moment of it.
The invocations and formulas the Sufi groups used were known to all the locals. They participated with the people on stage, not just “singing lyrics” but entering the ritual themselves.
A Sufi group from Ouazzane, Ahl Touat Dar Dmana, performs with Driss Abou Sabr Zerhouni.
Young children entered the ecstatic states of coming nearer to God, moving their bodies and calling out the names of God. The adults took a little longer, but they too participated in the rituals, entering those moments of nearness to the Divine. Tears ran down people’s faces as they approached the ineffable, and smiles lit the ground as though reflecting the divine light they were seeing. It was being in a timeless, placeless space that continued for an eternity and ended in an instant.
Except, you realize that the performance ended, but the moment did not. The songs are popular ones. Young men continued singing after concerts were over.
You would go into the old city, where the stores were, and hear these songs played in shops alongside the latest Shakira tune. The difference between the sacred and the profane is much more porous in these contexts. Here, popular does not mean a-religious, and religious does not mean private. No one was forced to believe or practice anything; stores would remain open during prayer time, sisters would walk down the street, one in hijab and the other not. As a result, people lived and expressed their faith at every moment.
The great secret of the Fes Festival are the Sufi Nights. It is the bridge that the organizers so desperately want to build. You cannot be unaffected by the experience. If you have an open mind, it helps you to see the world a little differently. It’s the one part they do not put on CD; nor should they. I am too young for Elvis, too young for The Beatles. I did get my Fes Festival and I am looking forwarded to going again.
Hussein Rashid is a native New Yorker and proud Muslim. Currently an instructor at the Center for Spiritual Inquiry at Park Avenue Christian Church and based at Hofstra University, he is deeply committed to interfaith work and is passionate about teaching. He believes we need to start talking more intelligently about Islam specifically, and religion generally.
We welcome your reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication for the On Being Blog. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.
Watch Live Video of John Hodgman in Wits
(tonight, 8pm CT)
Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Well, with all the video streaming of live SOF events over the past year, we’ve gotten pretty dang good at making things work and, more importantly, troubleshooting when things go wrong. So, when I can, I jump at the opportunity to share my experience and help our many colleagues.*
And, I’m not going to fib, it’s also a great opportunity to collaborate differently, figure out new ways of doing things, and see some phenomenal talent from behind the glass. And tonight’s show is one of them! Plus, we’ve always wanted to do comedy on our program. This is my roundabout way of making that happen!
So, if you’re looking for some no-cost entertainment, a few good laughs, and the ability to opt in to a vigorous Twitter conversation (hashtag is #wits), stop by around 8 pm Central tonight.
* Did you know that we are part of the same organization that produces hundreds of live events and programs like A Prairie Home Companion with Garrison Keillor, Marketplace, The Splendid Table with Lynne Rossetto Kasper, Performance Today, the entire Minnesota Public Radio service, etc.?
Looking Beyond Your Own Window
Nancy Rosenbaum, associate producer
“if you want to trace yourself back to kings or the pyramids or whatever, that’s nice, but then it’s very important that you turn away from this narcissistic mirror and you begin to look out the window and you begin to realize there are other people out there with different histories, different mythologies, and that your job now is to enter out into the world. Your history, your ideas, is a gift and you’re also in a position where you receive the gift of other peoples’ culture, and that’s the exchange…”
—E. Ethlebert Miller in “Black and Universal”
In the quote above, the poet makes a point about the importance of knowing your cultural history while not being so myopic that you close yourself off to other traditions. After seeing a stunning work of contemporary dance by Brazilian choreographer Bruno Beltrão, this idea is percolating inside me.
Beltrão came up as a hip-hop street dancer in Rio in the 1990s, but over time he grew creatively frustrated with the conventions of a genre that celebrates individual virtuosity and has a predictable soundtrack. He formed his all-male dance troupe Grupo de Rua to push the boundaries of what hip-hop street dance could be if it evolved to include other traditions and movement vocabularies.
Speaking after this weekend’s performance, Beltrão explained that some audiences react negatively to his work because he doesn’t deliver on people’s expectations. He no longer performs, saying that dancing is an intimate act he prefers to do it at home and with people who are dear to him.
All of this has me thinking about the tension between being a follower versus a shaper of a particular tradition. Are some traditions (artistic, religious, cultural) more open to expansion and reinvention? And, if so, what makes them this way? Is it harder to stay open to change if your tradition has been ignored, misunderstood, or devalued? I don’t have easy answers to these questions and wonder what others think?
Marc Sanchez, associate producer
“This project is inspired by the rigor and austerity of religious practices while decrying the barriers that religion creates. We will approach our research as a devotional practice allowing this intension to essentialize our communal purpose. Simplicity and economy can demonstrate how extreme restriction can be turned into powerful kinesthetic expressions. This project seeks to create a performance that is the sum of perfect gestures and total sensory engagement.”
The performance also features original music by Alan and Mimi Sparhawk of the band Low. And, upcoming performances are scheduled at PS 122 in New York, Wesleyan University in Middletown, and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.