Monday, September 9, 2019

not even a drop

September 8, 2019

This Self, which is dearer to us than anything else,
Is dearer indeed than a child, dear than wealth,
dearer than all beside.
Let one worship the Self alone as dear,
for if one worships the Self alone as dear
the object of one’s love will never perish. (Briharanyaka Upanishad)

I’m in Phoenix now, actually Paradise Valley, staying at the Franciscan Renewal Center (better known as “the Casa”), and spending as much time as possible with family and also a few friends. Will try now to finish up the conference if not the rest of the time in Sicily.

I knew Fausto, S.J. from our mutual love for and study of India. His own connection there led to him having a close friendship with an Indian Jesuit named Ravi, and Ravi in turn has a close connection with a group of classical Indian dancers––Bharatanatyam, a very stylized symbolic type of sacred dance that originated in the temples, particularly in the south, in Tamil Nadu. (It was banned by the English colonialist missionaries for a time in the 19th century, accusing it of being harlotry, etc., typical dualistic anti-incarnational prudery (“he said, dismissively”).) Talk about sparing no expense: somehow Fausto and Eraldo managed to bring five dancers from a troupe called the Kala Darshini Dancers from Andhra Pradesh in south India. These dancers are a cultural center there that was established by the Jesuits of the Andhra Loyola Institute. We were back at the Palazzo Branciforte for this mesmerizing performance, which was ticketed and open to the public. The local commune had definitely helped with getting these six young women there. Besides the classic Indian dances, they have also choreographed some modern dances based on Gospel stories. When Fausto introduced this event he pointed this out as a prime example of inculturation, taking what is already there in the native spiritual and cultural genius, and employing it as means of expressing the gospel.

One anecdote from that afternoon… I wasn’t getting much exercise outside of sweating and walking, so I took to going on foot to the conferences with the student participants as often as possible instead of driving with the Jesuits. That day they all wanted to stop at a BAR for a cold drink on the way, and I sidled in and asked just for a glass of acqua frizzante, which I find very satisfying and thirst quenching. When the barista gave it to me I started reaching for my wallet, and he said to me, loud enough for all to hear, “Non siamo nel Nord, Signore, siamo nel Sud adesso. Non si paga per acqua qui––We’re not in the north, sir, we’re in the south. You don’t pay for water here.” I clapped my hands and laughed out loud as did the kids.

We were all quite wiped out after that performance and the concomitant trek across town and back by the time got back to our residence. The Capella delle Dame was not available to us that evening for our evening prayer, so we were supposed to use the sanctuary of the huge Jesuit church at the Casa Professa instead. That was also closed and no one could be found who had a key, so we were scrambling around searching for a place to hold evening prayer. I was advocating for us to do something simple and informal, and it was conceded to me, perhaps somewhat grudgingly, by my Jesuit colleagues. We finally found a bland little hall upstairs in the dorm building, and it seemed as if Fausto and Eraldo just turned the thing totally over to me, presiding from my chair with the guitar. I had brought some of the charming music from South Africa that I had fallen in love with some years back, some of which is featured in GIA’s Gather. That was the music and culture I was featuring that day. I don’t have the references with me here but I believe it was compiled and recorded by a Swedish group named Ultryck, based on the transcriptions of a white South African Catholic priest named David Dargie. One of the more popular pieces is called “Thuma Mina,” translated into English as “Send Me, Lord.” I in turn had translated it into Italian. It’s very simple with a single lower harmony. That in addition to a simply chanted psalm, a short reading (read twice) and some intercessory prayers, wound up being for me the most memorable of our prayer services.

Part of the scope of this conference is to introduce the young people into liturgical spirituality. Yet for all my love for our liturgical tradition, I am no big advocate of always doing things exactly as they are laid out in our official books. There is a time to be creative, and that time is whenever we are not compelled to do something official. I always advocate this as well when trying to introduce folks into the Liturgy of the Hours, that the main purpose is not to pray these exact psalms and read these specific reading at this exact hour of the day, as the Church obliges religious and priests. The purpose is actually and above all to pray without ceasing. But “because we are not given to pray as we ought,” (John Cassian) we stop at certain times to renew prayer. And the best thing to do with that pause is to spend some time with the Word, scripture. And pride of place is given to the psalms as it has been from the beginning. But that leaves us lots of room. I think most young people are pre-catechetical and even pre-liturgical. It would be better to form them into the larger spirit of this, and toward that end to “pray as they can, not as they can’t.” If I do work for this conference again, as the Jesuits have asked of me, I think I will push toward something a little lighter for our liturgies of the hours.

I must confess I was once again wiped out and dehydrated by the end of all that on Satruday, and took the evening off again as the participants went for yet another major conference back at the palazzo, entitled ‘Sconfinare nello Spazio e nel Tempo’ offered by a highly acclaimed composer named Roberto Cacciapaglia––roughly translated “Crossing the Frontiers of Space and Time.” But I did go to the last talk on Sunday morning, offered by a professor of Musicology and Music Education from Rome named Raffaele Pozzi. He and I had spoken briefly at dinner the night before, and it seemed to me that he was going to be the bookend to my own opening presentation. And so it was in his talk entitled “Music and Spirituality in the Global World.” He decried how the Church has eschewed great sources of music in favor a banality in modern liturgical music. I was afraid at one point we were going to get an Italian version of “Why Catholics Can’t Sing” (Thomas Day), but he was much more nuanced.

Prof. Pozzi was annoyed that the great modern day Italian composers had not been asked to contribute to the new musical repertoire, and he gave us an example of an Our Father by Stravinsky, which was indeed simple and sturdy, in 4-part harmony. But he also gave us examples of music from Africa, some he had filmed and recorded himself, including the fascinating practice of ululating, which he found fascinating. Interestingly he thought we had not availed ourselves of pre-recorded music enough––something which I have been very much against––saying that recorded music “would be better than four out-of-tune guitarists.” He was dismayed at the Church’s reluctance to use purely instrumental music, and chalked it up to the fact that is escapes the control of the rite (and the censors). He thought that there was too much of an avoidance of expressing the ugly and the dark in our modern liturgical music when 187,000,000 people were killed in wars in the 20th century alone, which needs to be expressed and grieved. One word that he coined I will certainly use again: just as there is pornografia–pornography, so there is pornofonia–porno-phony, ugly, abusive, lewd, exploitative sounds. It was all pretty heady and I thought out of range for these students, not because of their limited musical abilities or intelligence, but because of their limited liturgical experience and post-conciliar history. But they stepped up to the plate with very incisive questions again at the end, though I must say two or three looked a little worse for the wear. I know for a fact that several of them had been up all night, being typical college-aged young people on holiday, because when I got up at 4:30 AM I overheard and them talking on the balcony below mine. And I am pretty sure it wasn’t because they had gotten up for Vigils.

We parted ways there, bidding our goodbyes and thanks in the foyer. I was quite touched when one of the young guys came up and hugged me and held on, and then someone called out (in English) “group hug” and the bunch of them surrounded me and held me for a good minute.

That’s all for the conference, except for this: Eraldo and Fausto and I had a little time together on Sunday afternoon finally, de-briefing and celebrating. First we had Mass at the Jesuit residence and liceo where Eraldo lives and teaches, joined by three other scholastics and a deacon. Fausto asked me to preside and preach. And then they took me to Eraldo’s favorite local restaurant, a little family owned place called simply Pizza e Pasta, where Eraldo knew everybody and everybody knew him. They ordered up three delicious antipasti, one of which was the kind of caponata that Grandma Luci used to make all the time and I simply have to learn to make. The waitress came by to collect our little plates but I said, “No, voglio pulire il mio piatto prima––No, I want to clean my plate first” and reached for a piece of bread, as my Dad would have taught me. They burst out laughing. Then at the end we ate granita, which I also remember as a child; we used to call it Italian ice. This one was with fresh anguria–watermelon. After eating it all I picked up the glass and drank what remained and said, “Non voglio perdere neanche una goccia––I don’t want to miss even a drop!” And they burst out laughing again. I finally asked Fausto what was so funny, and he said that there couldn’t have been a greater compliment to the restaurant than that a foreigner would say something like that. By that time I was laughing too, with delight at the whole ambience.

I’ll pick up with the rest of my Sicilian adventure later. Non voglio perderne neanche una goccia!

Sunday, September 1, 2019

sufis and ambassadors

August 31, still in Rome, the best laid plans…

            ‘La musica è il lavoro più pericoloso al mondo.’* (GeGé Telesforo)

           *“Music is the most dangerous job in the world.”

When I got to the airport this morning shortly before 9, a message awaited me indicating that my flight from Rome to London, London to LAX had been cancelled and that British Airways had booked me on another flight for tomorrow morning. No explanation. I do know that there are flights plans being changed due to incoming hurricane Dorian, and that many flights have been cancelled out of Hong Kong due to the protests ongoing there, but I have no idea if either of those have anything to do with it, or if this is a simple case of overbooking. Luckily Mario, who had driven me to the airport, was still nearby and came right back to fetch me. I was musing on how fortunate I am; what about someone who didn’t have a monastery nearby to house and feed them but might be instead stuck overnight in a foreign country not speaking the language. So here I am back at San Gregorio after pranzo with the brothers and a great thunderstorm with hail, with a few extra hours. Non c’è problema. I can throw down a few more lines about the Zipoli conference.

As I said, I thought that my presentation did set a good tone for what was to come. On the other hand, if I had actually known what was to come I might have very intimidated. With no false humility, I feel as if I was the least qualified of all the presenters. The first up after me was Chiara Bertoglio, who is both a concert pianist and a theologian. If it’s any indication, my biographical blurb was about a half a page, two paragraphs taken from my old website. Hers was a full two and a half pages long, listing every place she performed and every orchestra she had performed with, every article she had written, and every degree she had achieved, including a Level II Masters Degree in the History of Theological Thought from Sant’Anselmo, the Benedictine University in Rome, and another in systematic theology from the University of Nottingham in England. She spoke on “Polyphony, Harmony and Communion: from the Song of the Trinity to Human Society.” I do not remember the other two of three pieces she performed during her talk and at the end, but she amazed us in the middle with a performance of Brahms’ piano transcription of Bach’s Chaconne in Dm for violin, which is performed all on the left hand. She introduced it with a full exegesis of the deep spiritual significance of the piece aside from the musical wonder of it. Brahms said that on one stave Bach had written a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings. “If I imagined that I could have created, even conceived the piece, I am quite certain that the excess of excitement and earth-shattering experience would have driven me out of my mind.” 

That evening then we had a very unique performance of solo music for contrabasso, what we usually refer to as an upright bass, by a woman from Rome named Federica Michisanti. She entitled the performance “Music as a Search for Unity.” The music struck me as rather aleatoric and usually classified as jazz, though it is through composed and performed with a trio. She sat on the steps of the sanctuary and spoke very informally in between pieces about music as a search for one’s own true self, and one’s own “voice” in the broadest sense of the word. A lovely lady, and I had a nice conversation with her the next morning at breakfast. 

The highlight of the evening though was in the venue again: this was the church of San Cataldo, one of the places also recommended to me to see. It has only been accessible to the public in recent years because it is the main church of the Cavelieri di Gerusalemme, otherwise known as “The Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem” founded in 1099, one of the knightly orders founded to protect pilgrims on their way to the Holy Land, especially during the re-conquest of Jerusalem at the time of the 1st Crusade. There were indeed flags with the Jerusalem cross on them scattered around the church still. It was interesting to think that at a time when Muslims and Christians were living peaceably together in Palermo, various pilgrims and their protector knights were also crossing through on their way to defend against Muslims in the Holy Land. What would those conversations have been like? It was a 12th century church in that same fascinating Arab-Norman style, very austere inside, its most notable elements being the three cuppolas that are visible from all over the city and its marble floor with inlaid mosaics, which the guide says is “an extraordinary example of Arabic decorative art used in a Christian context.” (It too is one of the UNESCO protected sites.)

And we were just getting started: that was the first day! All that plus three liturgies!

We had the use of a fantastic place called the Palazzo Branciforte for several events, thanks to a good relationship with the comune of Palermo who also co-sponsored some of the events. Among other things, the palazzo houses an archeological museum, a library, a concert hall, and a fine (air-conditioned) auditorium. The first talk of the morning was there, offered by a musicologist named Cinzia Merletti who spoke on “Cosmology and Spirituality in the Music of the Mare Nostrum,” that is, the Mediterranean Sea. She is also a percussionist and an expert in the music of the Mideast. There were some instruments but she did not perform. She spoke instead quite a bit about the theory and spirituality behind Islamic music, specifically that of Iran and North Africa. 

Dr. Merletti set us up for a wonderful performance that afternoon by the Pejman Tadayon Ensemble entitled “Sufi Mysticism, Dance and Poetry.” Pejman himself is Iranian but now lives in Rome; and the rest of his ensemble––eight singers and instrumentalists plus two dancers and a woman who recited poetry, mostly of Rumi––are Italians. I love this music anyway, but a few things were especially cool about this ensemble. First there was a viola da gamba, a six-stringed Renaissance bowed instrument that I think of (perhaps superficially) as the grandfather of the ‘cello. I love the sound of this instrument, and have several recording of the music Jean Marais, but I had never heard it live. There was also someone playing the duduk, an ancient Armenian woodwind instrument whose sensuous sound still echoes in my memory as I write. In addition the percussionist was almost (almost) of John Pennington class, had many of the same Mideastern drums the John uses and was the only other person I have ever experienced performing with a riqq, the Egyptian drum that looks like a tambourine but is played largely on the drum head and by manipulating the pairs of cymbals. I went up afterward to compliment him and his eyes lit up that I knew what a riqq was and where it was from. (Thanks, JP!) They also featured two whirling dervish dancers, a man and woman. This all took place in a cavernous old Jesuit church that suddenly came to life with their presence. At one point Pejman stated unequivocally that he was sure there had been sufis in Palermo during the Arabic reign. I’d sure like to think so.

And then that evening there was a talk called “Sound and Development of Music Between Spirit and Culture,” by Michele Campanella. I had no idea who he was, but when I got back to Rome and showed the booklet to one of our monks, he raised his eyebrows and said, “He is one of the best known classical pianists in Italy.” He also performed a piece of Mozart, most of Beethoven’s Pathétique Sonata, and a piece of Liszt, who is his speciality. It was very embarrassing though: I could not stay awake through this presentation. It was very warm in the church we were in, it had been a long day and I had not been sleeping well, and I was just miserable, made more so trying to stay awake and not let myself be seen nodding off and falling out of my chair. I slipped out early and apologized to the maestro––and he was indeed always referred to as Maestro Campanella––the next day at Mass. He was not offended. After such refined music, I was actually little uncomfortable when he appeared at Mass the next day, with me leading the students in the few simple chants I had taught them for the Eucharist liturgy (he had the night before criticized some of the new liturgical music he had heard), but he was very gracious and friendly, and told me how much he liked my voice. Sometimes Caesar nods.

The next presentation, Saturday morning, was by far my favorite, and also was the one that made me understand what a genius job Eraldo and Fausto had done in putting this conference together, ensuring that the students got a full range of musical experience. 

It first of all took place in a little cave-like building called the Art Tatum Jazz Club, around the corner from the Jesuit residence, that still smelled like last night’s sweat and beer. It was led by a well-known jazz singer named GeGé Telesforo, who is also a drummer and a well-known TV and radio producer. (At one point he casually mentioned his work on a certain show for RAI, and the student who was asking him the question at the time was just stunned.) To my disappointment, he did not sing, but sat in the stage area, lit up as if he was performing while we sat around at little cocktail tables and on bar stools and talked about what music means to him. No, I take that back: he talked about what music means––period. While he spoke I kept thinking about something I heard Dylan say once, that every time you go on stage you take your life in your hands. He spoke with unmannered passion and authority about the importance of self-discipline (because you may not get any support from your family if you decide to follow a career in music), about respect for your craft, about the importance of always doing everything in your power to put on a great performance. 

I was writing furiously trying to keep up with him he was so eminently quotable. He comes to LA once a year to teach vocal technique at a school in Venice Beach and loves Americans’ way of getting things done. He told how one of his mentors there in LA stood before a group of music students and said to them, “Out there right now there are 500 musicians better looking than you, better than you, and more motivated than you. E voi, cosa volete fare?! And you, what do you want to do?!” At one point he was critiquing pop music and said, “Standing in the middle of pool with a gold chain around your neck surrounded by girls who are touching their culo and twerking isn’t music! That’s cinema!” He also spoke about the importance of having your own recognizable sound, and left the kids with his five senses of music: 1) A sense of rhythm; 2) a sense of form and structure; 3) a sense of melody and harmony; 4) a sense of interpretation; 5) l’ultimo ma non il meno–last but not least, a sense of the show––respect for your audience, yourself, your colleagues. I thought he was marvelous and I told him so. Fausto urged him to come to New Camaldoli if he can when he is in California. He reminded me of Francine Reed and Andy Gonzales and the musicians I used to love to hang out with back in Phoenix, topnotch performers who just loved doing what they do.

One last quote from GeGè, maybe the last thing I heard him say, when one of the kids asked him what he thought the purpose of being a musician was. I have waited for years for someone to say this for me, when the world is in such need of doctors and clean water and environmentalists and food, and it can feel as if making music is just a waste of time. No: “We are ambassadors,” he said, “we’re the messengers.” And he added, “Ignorant people are not stupid; they just don’t know” and they won’t unless we tell them.

That gave me such consolation, I can’t tell you. People can read all about events in the newspaper or online; they can hear about important issues on TV or the radio; they can read about interreligious dialogue in textbooks. But when we sing about it––or better yet, when we sing it––it gets in in another way. We’re ambassadors. We’re the messengers.

Saturday, August 31, 2019

Bal'harm e Ballarò

31 August, 2019

The fact of praising a human and religious tradition does not mean despising the others. The synthesis between all of them can seem improbable and sometimes even impossible, but that which is urgent and important is not the unity between the religions, but their harmony. (R. Pannikar)

Oh my goodness. I almost don’t know where to begin. It was a wild and wonderful time in Sicily, not without its challenges, but still…

It started out with an overnight train trip to Palermo from Rome. I had made this train trip before, 20 years ago, but during the day, and I remember it being one of my favorite trips ever, seeing the northern coast of Sicily at dawn; crossing the Straits of Messina in a huge ferry boat––the entire train entering in; hugging the Mediterranean coastline; getting accosted by vendors in Napoli; finally my young (at the time) confrere Natale hanging off a column waiting for me and waving when I arrived for the first time at Roma Termini that night. This time, not much excitement: an overnight trip in a little cucetta with three berths shared with one guy who had no desire to talk and then a long bus ride in the dark from Messina to Palermo. It was again exciting to cross the straits and I was impressed even more this time at how close the mainland and the island are to each other. We had arrived at the crossing point around 4:30 AM, so by the time we got the train loaded on the traghetto and started across, the first hints of dawn were slipping in.

I was greeting at the train station in Palermo by Fr. Eraldo Cacchione, S.J., who had been my main contact for this conference. We had met once, he reminded me, 10 years ago at New Camaldoli, but I had no recollection of that. The only other meeting of sorts was over WhatsApp from Florence and scores of emails. He and another Jesuit, who I had met several times including once in India, Fr. Fausto Gianfreda, S.J. are the organizers of this now-annual conference called “Zipoli: Corso di Formazione alla Spiritualità nell Musicà,” a course of formation in spirituality in music. They had invited me to come already for the first and second editions of this conference (this was the third) in 2017, but it was impossible for me to get away at the time. When I was plotting this sabbatical, the first thing I thought of was being able to participate in this edition of it, and I let them know right away. However, in addition to offering a conference myself (more on that in a minute), Eraldo then asked me to organize all the liturgies for the week too. That was quite a job, first of all in Italian and secondly doing it long distance, flying blind. In the end Eraldo and his team put together a beautiful Vademecum booklet with the music tha I had put together for the four Lauds’ and three Vespers’ services, in addition to some music for Eucharist.

I really didn’t get the full scope of this event, nor my part in it, until I got here. The participants were college-aged young people (18 to 25, a great age to work with as far as I am concerned), and a relatively small group of them––this year we started out with 15 and in the end there were only 10! They (we) lived together for the week in a state sponsored dorm that was right next to the Jesuit church and residence in a noisy little neighborhood known as Ballarò. It has been a Muslim area for well over a thousand years and still boasts of a rambling open air market––Eraldo referred to it as a souk, in fact. When I was in Palermo with Mom and Dad in 1999, one of the memories I have is of a friend of our cousins driving me to various spots in his Fiat 500, stopping the car and then telling me, ‘Vai, fai in giro––Go walk around,” while he sat in the car smoking. I didn’t speak much Italian at the time and had no idea what I was looking for or looking at. And at one point he brought me to an open market that was actually kind of startling to me in all its foreign chaos. And I have a feeling that this was the same market.

My first hours with Eraldo were spent going over the week and the music for the liturgies, and then getting a quick tour of the most important venues. They had chosen several different sites throughout the city, all within walking distance, for the various presentations, plus we were going to have our regular liturgies of the hours in a little chapel a half a block away, called the Capella delle Dame–the chapel of the Ladies. It’s a fusty little place that is the home of a congregation of noble woman who minister to girls and young women who get brought over to Sicily under nefarious pretenses and often wind up in prostitution or other forms of human trafficking. The chapel and its antechambers, which are filled with Baroque accoutrements, is usually closed up and rarely used, so someone from the congregation had to come and open for us at the arranged times. They were very sweet and welcoming. The space worked well enough for us though it was very hot and airless inside, and I, wearing my choir robe for the liturgies, was usually drenched in sweat by the end. We then went to the site for my own presentation, which was to be the first of the week the next morning. That was my first gasp.

I have read quite a bit about the confluence of cultures in Sicily around the dawn of the first millennium and was very anxious to see some of the spots I had read about. To summarize a very complicated history: in the 9th century, the Byzantine Greeks on the island were feuding with their counterparts back in Constantinople over some political issues (power and money) and so they asked for some help from the Berber, Arab, Persian, and Iberian Muslims from Carthage, what we know as Tunisia in northern Africa, with whom they had already had a trading relationship for some time. (Side note: I was corrected by someone the other day who said that it was a misnomer to refer to it as simply Arab influence, when there was this mixture of tribes, though most books do refer to it as such. This gentleman said it was much more accurate to refer to it as Muslim or Islamic.) That “help” from the north African Muslims turned into a Muslim-Arabic takeover of much of the island in the 9th and 10th centuries. In records from that time Palermo itself (then known as Bal’harm) was often referred to as the medina, “the city” and was one of the largest and wealthiest Arab cities along with Baghdad and Cordoba. A number of churches were converted to mosques, but in keeping with the teaching of the Qur’an a great degree of religious tolerance prevailed. There was also a significant Jewish presence on the island and large Jewish quarters in both Palermo and Siracusa. The Arabs brought with them a high degree of learning, erudition and innovation, which melded into the literacy and education of the Byzantines and Jews. Not unlike pre-15th century Spain, it seems to have been a golden era.

That era was followed by the Norman conquest in the 12th century. The Normans were an amalgamation of Vikings, Franks, Romans, and Celts who spoke an ancient dialect of French. They had already made their presence felt throughout northern Europe and England. This was also the time of William the Conqueror, and just after the great schism in Christianity that separated East from West, so-called Greek Orthodox from Roman Catholic. It must be said that the remaining Byzantines in Sicily were happier under Islamic rule that they were about the prospect of submitting to Rome and losing their rituals and beliefs. Strange bedfellows, but at this point at least, just as under Islamic rule, there was still religious and cultural tolerance. And this is the period I was so fascinated with, many traces of which remain. As a placard that I saw at several points around the city describes it, Arab-Norman Palermo is “an outstanding example of a socio-cultural syncretism between Western, Byzantine and Islamic culture,” an “interchange which gave rise to an architectural and artistic expression based on new concepts of space, structure and decoration that spread widely throughout the Mediterranean region.” Nine religious and civic buildings from this era in Palermo, Monreale and Cefalù are considered UNESCO sites.

All that to say Eraldo then took me to the site where I was to present/perform the next day. And to my delight and astonishment, it was one of the places I had wanted to see, Santa Cristina. Built in 1174, it’s one of the oldest churches in Palermo. Its architecture is very sober and austere, and it has almost no interior decorations. That’s what marks what is known as the Arab-Norman style. It was known as a place that welcomed pilgrims, Sicily being a stopping point on the way to the Holy Land. As a matter of fact the street it is on is still known as the Cortile dei Pellegrini. In addition this church was for a time the abbey church of a group of Cistercian monks. Needless to say, I was delighted that this was going to be my venue. The typical Sicilian style that I was to see over and over again is pretty overwrought high Baroque style with every inch of wall space covered with something, and lots of anguished holy faces. This chaste Romanesque style, always my favorite ever since I studied art history, was like a drink of cool water after a salty meal, and I was glad to be able to experience it several times during my days here.

I had that evening before the conference started to myself, walking up and down the centro storico, many of whose main streets are blocked off from traffic so as to accommodate the throngs of tourists. My host later at the B&B in Bisacquino, who is a Palermitano himself, told me that it is only in recent years that Palermo has cleaned up this area so as to cater to tourism. When he was a boy––less than twenty years ago––it was not so. I heard every version of opinion about this development. One man told me that the Sicilians don’t do enough to promote tourism when there is such a cultural treasure there. Another said that the Sicilians are glad to have all this tourism as a boost to the economy. On the other hand I saw a poster around the corner from the dorm complaining about the raised prices, lack of affordable housing, and abundance of franchises over local businesses.

The next morning I had to jump right in, head first. We had morning prayer at 8 AM at the Capella delle Dame. I had not yet met the kids but I had to lead them in a brief rehearsal of the music, sight unseen, in Italian. I had spent a good part of the early morning rehearsing how to say things like “Now you try” and “Listen and then repeat” and “A little louder” and “Turn to page 3” in second person plural. Like my stilted conversation about guitars a week before, it’s amazing what vocabulary you take for granted. It went fine. I had decided to try to bring in all kinds of “chant” for these liturgies, mirroring our theme of multiculturalism, and this first day, besides a couple of easy chanting tones, I had opted to begin and end morning and evening prayer with the nama japas from Shantivanam and the collection “Hare Yeshu. They picked them up easily, thanks be to God, though they were looking at me a little mystified.

We then went right over to Santa Cristina where I was to offer my presentation, which as I said, was the first of the week. By now it was clear to me what the concept was, but of course I had not idea what was going to follow. Each presentation was to follow the format of an hour and a half of presenting the material, a brief pause, followed by a period of questions and/or a summary, ideally lasting two and a half hours. (Two and a half hours!)

I realize that we Americans really are quite literalists, and I had laid my presentation out exactly––and I mean exactly––as they had asked me to: to speak on music in Benedictine formation; the sound of the Spirit in my spiritual and vocal chords; inter-religious dialogue; music and California; and the various genres from folk to Gregorian chant; and to make it autobiographical as well and to perform for and with the students. The title of my presentation was “From Liturgy to the Religions of the World.” Needless to say I was over-prepared as usual; I had twelve pages of notes typed up. To sum up I spoke on how the music I listened to outside of church influenced the music that I wrote for the liturgy, as part of the wave of music that came out post-conciliar in the attempt to find a musical vernacular to go with our vernacular language, and my specific voice in all that. And then how my background in liturgy and liturgical spirituality (this is something our beloved Bruno used to tell me about myself) helped me in my approach to interreligious dialogue.

I am happy to report it went extraordinarily well. Eraldo and Fausto had done a pretty long introduction since this was the first presentation, so I was actually cheated out of a half an hour and I had to cut two songs and some spoken material, otherwise I think I had exactly the right amount. Every now and then I would stop and ask, ‘Si capisce il mio italiano? Do you understand my Italian?” And they kept saying enthusiastically, ‘Si, si!’, me all the while being rather surprised. The questions were very penetrating and right to the point. Looking back I think there were two things that were especially good about it. First, out of all the presentations, not only did I have the most musical examples mixed into the speaking, but I was certainly the only one that had participation. (It was the best performance of “The Drink Sent Down” ever, with the students singing the alhamdullilah ostinato throughout.) Secondly, again looking back, I really did inadvertently set the tone for what was to come afterward and would be reaffirmed by the final presenter on Sunday morning, Raffaele Pozzi, who spoke on “Music and Spirituality in the Global World.”

One of the things that keep coming to my mind is that I do very few gigs anymore but the ones I do usually take a lot of preparation. I don’t mind this a bit––it’s like going deep rather than wide. The two that I accepted for this sabbatical time, for instance: the opening event for the International Thomas Merton Society took me many hours of reflecting, research, writing, and rehearsing over the course of several months; and this one, even more, with the addition of preparing and sometimes re-scoring and/or translating and adapting all the music for the liturgies besides writing the talk, took even more. And what a sense of satisfaction when they are done. I hope that both of them will have a permanent format at some point: we’ve talked about filming a version of the ITMS presentation and Eraldo said that they want to gather the talks from Zipoli in some kind of a publication. (Italians love to publish things!) But even more, I hope I get to repeat these performances in an appropriate venue.

I’ll write more about the rest of the conference and the time in Sicily later, but before I forget: I just heard that two new “products” (such a crass word) are at the printers/duplicators even as I write and will be available hopefully by the time I get home. First, the film of the concert that we did at Holy Cross in Santa Cruz last year, thanks to the amazing work of Devin Kumar (Bhattacharya); second, the book Hermit, Preacher, Wanderer: Songs and Stories from the Road, which I am so excited about, from OCP. That contains not only the sheet music for twenty of the songs from the Santa Cruz-wandering era, but also prose explanations of the songs and the traditions that they come from, plus photos and excerpts from my travelogues. I’ve never seen anything quite like it before. So please watch for them both.

I'm taking the guys out for pizza again tonight as a thank you, and then leaving from Rome tomorrow morning for the long journey home. I will try to write more along the way.