Friday, 27 March 2009

Eugene Peterson, Under the Unpredictable Plant

I'm posting today at Hopeful Imagination on Eugene Peterson's, Under the Unpredictable Plant. This is another one of those books that for me has been significant and formative.

Monday, 23 March 2009

Music for Lent

On Sunday evening, I spoke at an event which was part of Marshalswick, St Albans, Churches Together Lent series exploring the arts.  My task was 'Lent through the eyes of musicians'. Initially I was excited by the prospect, but when I came to realise that, historically, instrumental music is forbidden in many church traditions during Lent, it became more of a challenge. Intentionally I didn't encroach on Holy Week as this would have presented the opposite challenge of being spoiled by choice.

So, instead of limiting myself strictly to music composed for Lent, I treated the evening a bit more imaginatively and considered music that I associate with Lent. That is, with the exception of one piece with which I began.

My play-list for the evening was:
Allegri, Miserere
Mozart, Marriage of Figaro
John Cage, 4'33"
Arvo Pärt, Festina Lente
Stravinsky, Kyrie from Mass for chorus and wind instruments
Bach, Kyrie from B minor Mass

With each of these pieces I made some theological connections, so with the Allegri, Miserere, I explored penitence, the Marriage of Figaro, forgiveness, John Cage, the desert, Arvo Pärt, less is more, and the Stravinsky and Bach, mercy.

I played the pieces either in their entirety or as substantial extracts, including the Cage, which consists of silence, or rather creates the space to listen to silence, which is found to be surprisingly noisy! And whether or not people appreciated the music, or my reflections, they certainly appreciated my Bose Sound dock, through which I play my iPod. Frequently I encounter skepticism that that this small device will deliver, and always it does, very loudly and with amazing sound quality!

Friday, 13 March 2009

Jeremy Begbie, Resounding Truth: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music

I'm posting on 'Hopeful Imagination' today. This is part of a Lent series in which contributors are invited to choose a book which has impacted their life and thinking. I've chosen Jeremy Begbie's Resounding Truth: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music.

Saturday, 7 March 2009


Thanks to Bishop Alan for introducing Spotify. Spotify is a Sweden-based proprietary music streaming program, which allows instant listening to specific tracks or albums with almost no buffering delay. Apparently, the price you pay is an advert at the end of a track, but not for the music I've listened to so far. The library is immense, several million tracks. I tested it out with Steve Reich, Schoenberg Five Orchestral Pieces, Mahler Ruckert Songs, Carla Bley. U2's latest album was out a week before it was released. But what's not available is The Beatles, AC/DC, Metallica or Pink Floyd. And I am assured that this is all legal because you can't download it. It's a very good way of getting a taster for something that you haven't heard. Highly recommended! 

Friday, 6 March 2009

The Rest is Noise

'The Rest is Noise', by Alex Ross, music critic of the New Yorker, has just come out in paperback. It's described as 'an accessible, illuminating narrative of classical music in the twentieth century'. I received it in hardback as a Christmas present. And in short, it's brilliant! 

Cazz, my wife, reflected that it seemed a bit heavy for a Christmas present, and it is a substantial book, 600 pages. But it's scholarship with a light touch, combining an in-depth knowledge of music, wider culture, and history with a highly readable and entertaining style. It was one of those books that I regretted finishing. It won the Guardian First Book Award, and the Guardian describes it as 'A sound drenched masterpiece'. 

The book isn't limited to 'classical' music and explores different genres, often making connections between influences. A bonus of the paper-back is an extended listening and reading list. And just to cap it all, if you go to the website, 'The Rest is Noise', Alex Ross has extensive musical illustrations to listen to that correspond to those referred to in the book. At £7.79 at Amazon, it's a steal! The only downside is that it encourages the purchase of new discoveries on CD, but is that really a downside?

Fertile Inactivity

My friend and colleague, Nigel Coles, kindly blogged on a phrase I used as I prayed for him in relation to his forthcoming sabbatical. The phrase was 'fertile inactivity', in the sense that his sabbatical would have at least a dimension which wouldn't be frenetic in activity, but have something of the fallow about it, which from my understanding of agriculture, produces ultimate fruitfulness. 

Actually, the trigger came from a fascinating programme on Radio 3, presented by Rowan Williams, on silence, in which he interacted with the deaf virtuoso percussionist, Evelyn Glennie, the author Sara Maitland, and the Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sachs, and others.

Evelyn Glennie acknowledged, ‘While the body is resonating, beating, breathing, blinking, there is no such thing as silence. Any movement in nature creates noise.’ And one of the profound comments that Rowan Williams made was, 'When people long for silence, they don’t long for absence, a void, but another sense of being.' There was the recognition that silence could be a fertile silence, and this was the connection with my prayer for Nigel. By contrast the silence of Aushwitz, where Rowan Williams interviewed Jonathan Sachs, a moving part of the programme, was 'a silence which is like a black hole' and one that was not affirming or nurturing.

John Cage, the twentieth century composer, explored silence in a radical way, making a similar point to Evelyn Glennie, that actually there is no such thing as silence. But in a broader sense it's the silence in music that makes sense of the notes, its the rests that give the music the space to breathe. And we're back to fertile inactivity.