Thursday, May 1, 2008

echoes of old truth

The spoils of war is our knowledge of the world,
so large it fits in a handshake,
so hard it cold be described in a smile,
and as strange as the echoes of old truths in a prayer.
Wislawa Szymborska

I seem to have forgotten that I had a blog, until someone in Phoenix reminded me last week, saying, “I read your blog all the time.” But I am here in Durango again, at the very coffeehouse (The Steaming Bean”) where I launched the thing last summer and bound a determined to add a little something before I go. (You will note that I posted some new pix on the picasa website of one event this past month: )

I am here in Durango with my long-time collaborator John Pennington. This is the ninth year in a row we have played here as part of the Animas Music Festival, a small eclectic festival for which John actually took over the directorship a few years back. It was here that we premiered the oratorio “The Song of Luke” in 2002, as well as another large piece for orchestra, dancers and choir in 2004, our statement about the war entitled "Echoes of Old Truth." Particularly that latter piece seems oddly apropos this year again and even specifically today, the fifth anniversary of the infamous “Mission Accomplished” event on board the aircraft carrier. We’ll be revisiting two pieces from “Echoes” again tomorrow at our concert.

John has entitled this year's concert “Peace Pieces,” drawing from all our material concerning peace (there’s a lot!) with the addition of a few new pieces, an Jewish song called "Sheshalom, " and a choral number based on a Celtic prayer called “Deep Peace.” (We are, incidentally, performing also with the choir of St Mark’s Episcopalian Church, the venue of the concert.) We’re also going to be singing George Harrison’s “Give Me Love,” with our own arrangement. This morning we performed, for the second time, at a juvenile detention center here in Durango, the Neirs Center, that runs a program called Rites of Passage. We opened up with “Give Me Love,” and it went well, and was also pretty moving for me. George Harrison, along with Bob Marley, is someone from whom I would be proud to say I have picked up the mantle.

Anyway, I wanted to revisit that song cycle, “Echoes of Old Truth,” for you here, since it was pre-blog. It was written in a large part as my response to the outbreak of war in 2003. On the evening of March 19––the feast of St Joseph––of that year I was listening to the radio news when I heard that we had begun to unleash our campaign of “shock and awe” on Baghdad. My response was immediate viscerally deep sadness, and the theme of one of the dances, “War: St Joseph’s Day,” suggested itself to me almost immediately. I still often play that piece solo on the guitar, though in the larger piece it is scored for marimba, harp, flute, violin and cello.

At the time I had been exploring texts from a variety of European poets, and for “Echoes” I settled on three Nobel laureates, Wislawa Szymborska, Eugenio Montale, Czeslaw Milosz. What those poets shared in common is that they all had had experience of war first-hand, and that experience is in some way reflected in their art. What the particular poems I chose had in common was that all three of them were in the third person plural, that is, in “we” language. (Because of this “we” I chose to leave the choir often singing in unison.) Milosz himself wrote about this “we”––as a matter of fact in a foreword to a collection of Szymborska's poetry––that this “we”
... denotes all of us living on the planet now, joined by a common consciousness, a 'post-consciousness,' post-Copernican, post-Newtonian, post-two-world-wars, post-crimes-and-inventions-of-the-twentieth-century. It is a serious enterprise to venture a diagnosis, that is, to try to say who we are, what we believe in, and what we think.
This is echoed by the Italian poet Eugenio Montale, who was deeply offended by the hard-line polarizing social divisions in postwar society of his day, and for whom there existed only those sentient few who were able "to perceive the inauthenticity of their surroundings and resist it in the core of their beings." Thus his poem ends: Questo solo possiamo dirti: / cio che non siamo / cio che non volgiamo––“This, today, is all the we can tell you: / what we are not , what we do not want.”

The piece begins with a rather naive and tonal dance, an innocent Consecration, (which I also often still play combined with the Malayalam “Aarathi”) leading to Szymborska's mature reflection on growing up surrounded by social conflict.
We knew the world backwards and forwards––
so small it fit in a handshake,
so easy it could be described in a smile,
as plain as the echoes of old truths in a prayer.

History did not greet us with triumphant fanfare––
it flung dirty sand in our eyes.
Ahead of us were distant roads leading nowhere,
poisoned wells, bitter bread.

The spoils of war is our knowledge of the world––
so large it fits in a handshake,
so hard it could be described in a smile,
as strange as the echoes of old truths in a prayer.
I chose to leave Montale's poem "Non Chiederci" in the original Italian to further emphasize the apophatic nature of his poetry with its "thrust toward an unavoidable and yet unreachable transcendence." But here’s the English:
Don’t ask us for the word to square
our shapeless spirits on all sides,
and proclaim it in letters of fire, to shine
like a lost crocus in a dusty field.

Ah, those who walk secure,
a friend to self and others,
uncaring that high summer prints
their shadow on a peeling wall!

Don't ask us for the phrase that can open worlds,
just a few garbled syllables, dry like a branch.
This, today, is all that we can tell you:
what we are not, what we do not want.
There is quite a chaos of mixed meters as the choir solemnly proclaims those last lines of Montale in polyphony, leading to a frustrated outburst of the marimba, finally answered by the flute solo playing a piece called “St Bruno’s Day,” bringing us into the cleansing solitude of St Bruno, the founder of the strictest order of Christian hermit monks. My idea was to tie in with the Muslim tradition, in which the Prophet (peace be upon him!) teaches that the lesser jihad gives way to the Greater Jihad, jihad al nafs, the “struggle against the self.” Truly successful is the one who purifies the soul. (Qur'an 91:9) And out of that cleansing solitude hopefully comes an experience like that of Milosz’ friend and correspondent Thomas Merton who was
overwhelmed by the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. … There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun. … There are no strangers!
And so the piece ends with Milosz’ benediction “Rays of Dazzling Light”:
Light off metal shaken,
Lucid dew of heaven,
Bless each and every one
To whom the earth is given.

Its essence was always hidden
Behind a distant curtain.
We chased it all our lives
Bidden and unbidden.

Knowing the hunt would end,
That then what had been rent
Would be at last made whole:
Poor body and soul.
From the beginning of this period in my life, the desire to be out on the road singing has been prompted by a desire in me to do something (!) about the situation in the world. I remember telling the audience at my first public event in 2003 in Washington DC how I had asked permission to be out of the monastery for a couple of years because, “The world is little crazy right now, the church is a little crazy right now, and I’m a little crazy right now, and the only thing that makes sense to me is being here with you singing this song...”

The Dalai Lama and Eckhart Tolle agree with these words of Fr Bede Griffiths that
. . . the whole human race has now come to the moment when everything is at stake, when a vast shift of consciousness will have to take place on a massive scale in all societies and religions in order for the world to survive.
I hope our music and work can lead toward that shift in consciousness, not only to love our enemies, but to realize that we have no enemies. Everything is at stake.