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.
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.
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