Thursday, May 10, 2007

Musica animae (Music of the Soul)

Musica animae (Music of the Soul) – Steven Sametz

On Friday evening, April 27, I heard a choral concert of the Lehigh University Choral Arts in the Zoellner Arts Center, Bethlehem, PA. This was a few days after the tragedy at Virginia Tech. It featured Musica animae, by the Choral Arts director, Steven Sametz; the Stravinsky Symphony of Psalms; and concluded with the Faure Requiem, dedicated to the students, faculty, administration and families of Virginia Tech. Obviously conceived as a program long before the events of April 2007, altogether there could not have been a more fitting musical offering for the lives lost and disturbed by the campus shootings earlier that week. The surprise of the evening was Musica animae, a work that in its performance finds ways to embody our search for and experience of The Holy.

Musica animae was commissioned in 2006 by The Princeton Singers. It is scored for multiple choirs, low strings, handbells, harp,tuned crystal water glasses, and vibraphone. It is based upon two texts of wonder: a saying of Jesus from the Gospel of Thomas, and the words of the 5th century writer, Ambrosius Theodosius. There is a companion piece, Bedazzled, for electronic violin and orchestra.

Paraphase of Logion II from the Gnostic Gospel to Thomas: “Let him seek and cease not ‘til he finds, and when he finds he will be troubled, and when he has been troubled, he will marvel and he will reign over the All.”

From Commentrium Insomnium Scipionis (Commentary on Cicero’s “the Dream of Scipio”), Lib. II, 3, Ambrosius Theodosius Macrobius: Thus it is that in this life every soul is seized by musical sounds. For the soul carries into the body the memory of music which it knew in heaven and thus the soul is captured by musical charms. So it is that no human heart may be so cruel, so bitter that it not be held by the affections of the Source of all delight.

“The combination of these texts,” writes Sametz, “seems to me to hold the certainty that life is to be lived in concert with the Divine, even when we must search through trouble to discover what was there all along.”

The multiple choirs are massed on stage, in the rear balcony, and lining the outside aisles of the entire concert hall. The handbells were stationed throughout the concert hall, with the remaining instruments in front of the stage in the orchestra pit. The effect for those sitting in the auditorium seats is that of 360 degree antiphonal-surround sound. The vocalizations combined with the orchestrations created a total atmosphere of the mystery of and honor for the Divine. It could be imagined that this very well may be what music sounds like in Heaven. The listener is transported outside of oneself into a realm of pure musicality and spirit.

Talking with some of the performers afterwards, it immediately became evident that from their positions onstage it sounded like random notes and sounds. I assured them that from the audience’s perspective, the total effect was powerfully transcendent and sounded freely intentional without force or pretense. It was simply and humbly beautiful.

It was then that I was struck by the power of the musical metaphor vis a vis the texts themselves. Indeed, I am informed by a Jesuit sensibility that says we come from Love, we return to Love, and Love is all around. Musica animae communicates this and then some. But isn’t it true that the search for the Divine is often so distracted that we do not see the part we play in the expression of the Divine? That is, each performer was faithfully doing their part in communicating Musica animae to a sold-out auditorium, but had difficulty sensing how it made a harmonic whole. Isn’t this in itself a sort of metaphor for our participation in the expression of the Divine in this world? Often when doing our part faithfully and well we labor under the mistaken idea that it just is not coming together the way things ought to. Yet, it is so important for us to carry on despite not necessarily being able to see or hear how all the parts come together to make the music of the soul. It is in just this way that Musica animae can bring to the listener a deepened sense of hope that the Divine, The Holy, is indeed all around. We have only to listen with the ear of our heart to find ourselves “held by the affections of the Source of all delight.”

Musica animae, by Steven Sametz, both in its performance and in its hearing manages to present the listener and performer a sense of our participation in the Divine's eternal presence.

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