The Silence of God

The music soars to a climax, and ends. The audience sits breathless, silent. The silence is entire, beautiful in and of itself, and very, very short–just before the applause begins.

Karen Armstrong, a British author and commentator known for her books on comparative religion, writes in “Louder Than Words,” (Literary Review) about the power of silence from a theological point of view. The article is a review of Silence: A Christian History by Diarmaid MacCulloch.

The silence of God is about the Divine as utterly incomprehensible. There is nothing we can say. All our language about God is meaningless because the Divine is beyond all our language–all our understanding.

But what about that pause when the symphony ends? Does art participate in a holy silence, the silence that is God? Almost certainly, I think, silence is present and central to art, literature, music.

Said William Blake, “If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.”

In the meantime, most of us must rely on art.

Spanish Revelations scan

When I get old enough…..

I am now 73 and still working hard at writing, still learning, still trying to form prose that says something and says it well. What gives me courage are other old artists. Take, for example, Louise Bourgeois who declared, “”I am a long-distance runner. It takes me years and years and years to produce what I do.”

Bourgeois made her greatest work after the age of 80. When she was 84, and an interviewer asked whether she could have made one of her recent works earlier in her career, she replied, “Absolutely not.” When he asked why, she explained, “I was not sophisticated enough.”

Practice what you know

Try to put well in practice what you already know; and in so doing, you will in good time, discover the hidden things which you now inquire about. Practice what you know, and it will help to make clear what now you do not know.

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn


Rembrandt took his own advice and painted many pictures of old age, and especially of his own aging.

Jonathan Jones, who writes about art for the Guardian, lists many painters whose attitude towards old age was either dismissive or negative. However, Rembrandt, he says, is “an artist to grow old with.”

“His unrivaled and sustained self-portraiture shows how he himself changed with time. As he ages, he sees himself more intimately: he stops pretending to himself. To compare his self-portraits at the ages of 34 and 64 is to witness someone grow in suffering and sorrow and, perhaps, wisdom. At 34 he looks proud, at 63 he simply looks human.”


The extraordinary old

Years ago I remember watching an old black and white television program of the Grand Ole Opry. I was struck by how many older people starred alongside the younger ones–people who’d been around for years, and were still country music favorites. I wasn’t very old then, but I remember feeling comfortable in a way I didn’t usually. As if I were watching from a comfortable-old-couch comfortable. It was “a new normal” for me and I liked it.
There are old singers around, although not a lot of them. I think there will probably be more as the population ages. But mostly singers in every genre of music are young or still trying to look and act young. I’m so glad there’s a MickJagger(69), a Tony Bennett (86), and a Willie Nelson(79). Old people sing too!

Tony Bennett in 2003. Photo by Tom Beetz. Permission from Creative Commons.

I started thinking about all of this because of an article on WQXR by Fred Plotkin entitled “The Song of the Ancient Soprano.” He wasn’t just talking about older singers like Placido Domingo (71) or Mirella Freni (77) who have chosen their roles wisely and with their age in mind; he really was talking about “ancient singers,” people who were raised in a different musical culture, who knew Puccini and Strauss, and represented another way of singing. Frequently, they’re Italian: “No country seems to venerate ancient sopranos and tenors more than Italy, where a very old person who is still actively engaged in life and work is referred to as forte. This term implies not simply “strong” but admirable.”
He cites some formidable examples. Angelo Lo Forese (92) who was still performing at the age of 91 can be heard on Youtube singing music from Il Trovatore at the age of 90. The author gives special attention to Magda Olivero who was born in 1910. She made her Met debut at the age of 65 singing the role of Tosca. She was not only believable as the fifteen-year-old heroine, she was deeply impressive. Olivero is now 103; she sang in public well into her 90s. Not quite as outrageously amazing is Giuseppe Taddei who died in 2010. He made his Met debut as Falstaff at the age of 69. The role was age appropriate, but that’s the only reason his appearance was anything short of amazing.

Magda Olivera at 100

Some people have questioned whether it’s helpful to the aged to hold up examples of those among us who are extraordinary, inclulding those who are athletically or academically gifted. Most of us won’t be singing or dancing at 99. I don’t know how much the extraordinary say about the rest of us. I do think it makes a difference for all of us when the aged and the young are all in the mix, whether it’s cultural, social, academic…. whatever. It reminds me of another time I felt similarly comfortable. The choreographer Bill T. Jones was in Burlilngton, Vermont doing a ballet based on Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The closing scene was a rousing one with all the dancers–very old, old, middle aged and young–naked and dancing. It was remarkably satisfying.

The world as soundscape

My computer has been disabled-again-this time for nearly five days–but while the digital universe was silent, there was music, and especially last Friday night at a Warebrook concert where a flautist graced the stratosphere; a tenor declared love in German—and when the German is Richard Strauss speaking of love, it is most definitely about love; and the tenor returned to reinterpret life according to Vachel Lindsay, William Butler Yeats and local composer, Sara Doncaster. This is not to discount the delightful Irish tunes arranged by John Corigliano and rendered by the flautist and a perfect soprano. As they say, and with truth, you had to be there!

Sounds, especially organized sounds, make life so worth living.

Which brings me to the review by Jeremy Denk of “The Great Animal Orchestra, Finding the Origins of Music in the World’s Wild Places,” by Bernie Krause.
We’ve all heard how nature sounds, some of us from walking in a meadow or sitting quietly in the woods, listening. Others of us from playing one of those audio tranquilizers for the sleepless. But Bernie Krause has been listening for decades, making recordings and archiving wild soundscapes:

Krause offers endless odes to sonic nuances: the timbres of waves crashing on the world’s beaches, the echo effects brought on by dew, the acoustics of night and day, the dry, hot rattles of deserts, the way baboons bounce their voices off granite outcropping, to send them deep into the forest.

He’s examined the many uses of sound in nature—from mating and hunting to self-defense and the marking of territory—all those and more. He’s listened to a wooded landscape before it was logged (selectively), and after, and while its devastation was difficult to see, it wasn’t hard to hear. He’s come to a fascinating conclusion: that “the healthier the habitat, the more ‘musical’ the creatures, the richer and more diverse their scores. Sound complexity is a measure of health.”

Often, sound is social. For example, he describes spadefoot toads, chorusing together to confuse predators about the location of any one individual. A jet soars overhead and the toads get out of sync. Their auditory shelter is temporarily lost and hawks swoop down, able now to locate individual singers.

Suddenly music, sound, has a deeper dimension and one more intimate to our earth and vital to its survival. Friday night’s concert was far more than it seemed. I already knew the lyrics contained birds and moonlight. I could hear that.  But the music and all of the earth’s soundings are kin. Listening is a far more delicate and ambitious task than I’d thought.


Korean drummer performing at Langley International Festival 2010. Photo by dance photographer, Brendan Lally.

Years and years ago, I had a part in producing a United Methodist Women’s Assembly in Cincinnati. There were about 10,000 people there and I can’t remember which night–it might have been the opening–but it was, at any rate, for me, a never to be forgotten event when several small Korean women drummed the opening. The sound was loud, amazing, passionate….. and I’ve never forgotten it.

Since then, I’ve seen drummers and known women who drummed, but I had no idea that drumming is spreading among seniors in centers and homes, that it’s enabled the participants to make music, to share a beat, to build muscle, to make community. I wish my mother, lost in a world misshapen by Alzheimers, had been able to drum. She’d have drummed her anger until she felt empowered again, strong, and oh, so loud.

Someday, I think I’ll go drum. I’d like it to be with a community of people of all ages. I’d like some of them to be wonderful musicians. It would be another world, like meditation, but big and noisy.

A God of your own understanding

I’m not at home this week and so I’m making short, pithy posts. No running on and on as I tend to do. Just things that caught my imagination and made me think.

Today’comes from a woman on public radio. I was on my way from one place to another and she’s not someone whose name I remember, but someone city-bred, the daughter of a gangster, she had lived most of her life among people busily and professionally breaking the law. Sounded tough.
I was startled when she talked suddenly about God. “A God of your own understanding,” she said.  Of course, I thought,  it must always be a God of your own understanding. But what a perfectly wonderful way to express it.

And what will that God feel like and look like? Sound like?








Now, it’s your turn….

Is contemporary art able to grapple with the world-changing events of our day?

A New York City fireman calls for 10 more rescue workers to make their way into the rubble of the World Trade Center. Creative Commons.

A decade ago the writer Don De Lillo wrote that 9/11 would change “the way we think and act, moment to moment, week to week, for unknown weeks and months to come, and steely years.” The historian Taylor Branch suggested it was a “turning point against a generation of cynicism for all of us, “ and Time magazine added that “one good thing could come from this horror: it could spell the end of “the age of irony.”

On the tenth anniversary of 9/11, Michiko Kakutani, writing in the NY Times, concluded “They were wrong, of course. We know now that the New Normal was very much like the Old Normal, at least in terms of the country’s arts and entertainment.” He cites the continuing love of violence in movies and on TV, and adds that in the current economic downturn, Hollywood has taken the safer path of producing the special-effects extravaganzas that will sell.

… a lot of post-9/11 culture seems like a cut-and-paste version of pre-9/11 culture — or a more extreme version of it. Indeed, pop culture has slide so far into the  slough of celebrity worship and escapist fluff that the antics of the Kardashian sisters now pass as entertainment. Sensationalism continues its march, and so does the blurring between news and gossip. Reality shows, which took off in 2000 with “Survivor,” continued to snowball in popularity. James Patterson, Michale Crichton and John Grisham continued to dominate best-seller lists. Even things thought, after 9/11 to be verboten — like blowing up New York for a big-screen thrill—soon made a comeback: In “Cloverfield” (2008), the Statue of Liberty is decapitated as a monster trashes the city.
…. Instead of being the threshold to the future,” the critic Simon Reynolds writes in his astute new book, “Retromania,” the 2000s “were dominated by the “re-” prefix; revivals, reissues, remakes, re-enactments.”

Kakutani examines much of the art produced in relation to 9/11 — there’s not a lot of it and the best  of it seems to approach the subject by indirection. One of the best books, Colum McCann’s “Let the Great World Spin” focuses on the walk between the twin towers by tightrope walker, Philippe Petit, in 1974. There are books and films (but mostly documentary) and sidewalk art.

Photography has been the medium that has grappled most intimately with the event, although Ed Fischl’s “Tumbling Woman,” attempted to react to the event as fulsomely. His statue of a falling woman, on display in Rockefeller Center, was designed as a memorial to those who jumped or fell to their death from the World Trade Center. After a few days, it was abruptly draped in cloth, curtained off, and removed, because of complaints that it was too soon and the sculpture was too disturbing.

Is it all just too much for art? One commentator I read suggested that too many artists today are engaged in irony and satire, and there is nothing in 9/11 that can be engaged that way. Is it that we’ve gorged on horror stories in our popular culture too long and any attempt to look at 9/11 is bound to fall short? Another article I read examined the treatment of the subject in school textbooks here and abroad. The superficiality of the accounts is breathtaking. Obviously,  it’s not just art. It’s all of us.

I suspect that that we haven’t really grappled with the reality of what happened that day. At least not in its significance as a turning point in our history.

Eggleston’s tricycle and the obvious in art

I recently went to a poetry reading at one of our local bookstores. I didn’t know the writer’s poetry, I only knew his reputation, which was considerable. As it turned out, I was deeply disappointed. As my friend Sally would have said as she left after only a few verses—if she’d been there in the first place: “There was no word magic.”

I didn’t leave, and I was glad I didn’t because towards the end of the session he explained himself. He strives to be ordinary, he said, to write the way ordinary people talk, to be natural. I wanted to cry out, “But how easily the ordinary can become the trite, the trivial!” I didn’t. The applause for him was too loud. No one would have heard me. Besides, I have no courage.
It’s not that I don’t appreciate the ordinary. I even cherish it. The ordinary keeps us safe from the disorienting experiences of the extraordinary. Breakfast, lunch, dinner. Life by the clock . Life shaped by household objects in tract houses—or, at the very least, by the activities and things of our every day.

The ordinary enables us to get through life in the face of death. If every day was Wagnerian, life would be impossible.
Still, I always thought poetry was supposed to free us from the humdrum, to enable us to experience what is amazing. None of his verses did that for me.

Not long after, sitting in the waiting room of my optometrist, I discovered an article in the August Smithsonian. (The magazine was so full of things I wanted to know about, and the glasses so expensive, I actually,and with barely a qualm, stole it.) The story was about photographer William Eggleston’s 1970 picture of a tricycle in the suburbs. “Perfectly banal,” said critic Hilton Kramer. “Perfectly boring.”

William Eggelston, Untitled, Tricycle and Memphis, 1970.

The photograph, and the MOMA show where it first saw the light of day represented a turn to color. An odd choice of subjects, perhaps, to employ color. Kramer complained that the show was made up of “dismal figures inhabiting a commonplace world of little visual interest.”

It wasn’t that homely objects hadn’t been photographed before—but they were generally beautifully wrought: hand tools, pottery, food…. Many people, like the writer, Eudora Welty, found Eggleston’s choice of objects more challenging. “The extraordinary, compelling, honest, beautiful and unsparing photographs all have to do with the quality of our lives in the ongoing world: they succeed in showing us the grain of the present, like the cross-section of a tree…. They focus on the mundane world. But no subject is fuller of implications than the mundane world.”

Says Mark Feeney, the author of the Smithsonian article: “for Eggleston, the profane is what’s sacred. Has anyone ever evoked the enchantment of the banal quite so well?  “I am at war with the obvious,” he has said.

I’ve looked at the tricycle again. Perhaps it is more than obvious. But the poet….? I’m still missing something, I guess.

I’m back….

It’s been a few months now since I stopped blogging. I don’t know that I’m refreshed or afire with ideas for new posts, but I still seem to have things to say. I keep thinking that I should have something new and exciting to contribute in light of what’s been happening in the world while I’ve not been here. But, look around! Really. The confusion, the eeriness, the world gone mad!

Every day I find my e-mail full of political and economic description and analysis, so much of it important, even vital, and still I don’t really understand what’s happening to the world. Surely, somewhere in all those words there must be an answer to my bewilderment. Where did these so-called Tea Party people come from? These odd people who are so certain government is the enemy that they’ll do anything to bring it down? Why didn’t I know they were out there in these numbers?

Anyway, more on that another time.

While I’ve been away, summer has come and gone, and given way to brilliant color and beautiful light. Late summer brought flooding to Vermont and I felt proud of this little state. No doubt about it, it’s a gutsy place. Summer droughts hurt millions of other people. The floods and drought may have to do with global warming. Probably. Still, the people who want less government won’t agree to try to do something about it. They’d rather let corporations make it worse. Hard to take in.

Despite all, things are looking up with “Occupy” which, for me, is all about hope.

I finished writing a book, a light entertainment that I’ll push on this blog in a few weeks time. Don’t worry. I’ll try not to be obnoxious about it.

I played my rather tenuous piano with Tom and Genna, he on the viola da gamba, she on the recorder. If Handel could have heard us, if  Telemann had tuned in—oh, the pity of it!  Oh, well. Maybe later.

I spent some time in California which meant hikes to the sea and Picasso.

Pablo Picasso. Two Women Running on the Beach.

The Picasso show at San Francisco’s De Young Museum was an exhibit of work that the artist never sold. On his death, it was placed in the Picasso Museum in Paris. The Museum is being renovated this year, hence the traveling exhibit. It was an exuberant and passionate look at the twentieth century and its art.

In the meantime, Doris, in New York City, sent back a book she borrowed from me thirty-something years ago. I had no idea where it had got to. The pages of the little gray paperback are yellowing, the binding is coming apart. Entitled “The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge,” it’s full of powerful words from the young Rainier Maria Rilke.

Over the years, on occasional rambles through used book stores, I’ve looked for another copy, but to no avail. Now I can look again at what moved me so deeply when I was young. And see if it still does.