Friday, 23 October 2009

Anish Kapoor and The Sacred Made Real

I spent Friday in London and visited firstly The Royal Academy to see the exhibition by Anish Kapoor. It's been described as 'a succession of physical and psychological experiences to draw us into his search for a poetic sculptural language that seems to reach beyond the object.'

It consists of a number of exhibits in wonderful shapes, colours, different materials and textures, and the overall effect is dramatic, sensual, playful and allusive. The photo of the amazing sculpture in the Courtyard, 'Tall Tree and the Eye', doesn't do justice to the effect of the reflections in each sphere.

I heard a children's guide ask repeatedly, 'How does this make you feel?' and this tellingly reinforced that this is not a head-thing!

I then went to the National Gallery for The Sacred Made Real. This consisted of hyper realistic sculptures and devotional paintings from seventeenth and eighteenth century Spain, depicting Christ in his sufferings, as well as the saints and the Virgin Mary. This art is 'stark, austere and often gory, with the intention of shocking the senses and stirring the soul'. While my soul wasn't greatly stirred, the paintings, which are clearly influenced by the sculptures, and the sculptures, carved in wood and then polychromed by another artist, are masterpieces. A nice touch is that on the audio-guide, incidental music to the exhibition has been composed by the pianist, Stephen Hough.

Of the two, the sacred was made more real by the Anish Kapoor, than by The Sacred Made Real!

Tuesday, 20 October 2009


Last week, at our Ministers' Conference, Roy Searle began the Communion with the theme music from 'Cheers', an Eighties American sitcom, making the point that in Celtic spirituality there is no sacred/secular divide. This became the theme song of a church Roy pastored in a challenging area of Stockton on Tees, back in the Eighties.

It's called, 'Where Everybody Knows Your Name'.

Making your way in the world today takes everything you've got.
Taking a break from all your worries,
sure would help a lot.
Wouldn't you like to get away?
Sometimes you want to go,
where everybody knows your name,
and they're always glad you came.
You wanna be where you can see,
our troubles are all the same.
You wanna be where everybody knows Your name.
You wanna go where people know,
people are all the same,
You wanna go where everybody knows your name.

It reminded me of a song we sang regularly at the churches where I was the minister, 'Here we are, gathered together as a family'. This said something about the community that we were seeking to be.

Monday, 19 October 2009


For the next week Living Wittily has committed himself to one sentence Blogposts. I read this one sentence yesterday, which I returned to today. It's from Frederick Buechner, Listening to Your Life, in which he is reflecting on the Seven Virtues.

'Hope is the glimmer on the horizon that keeps faith plugging forward, the wings that keep it more or less in the air.'

In a culture, and especially a church culture which veers towards the exaggerated, I appreciated the understatement, the more modest claim, the rootedness, in this description.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Bach's music never stops praying

Alex Ross, who is the music critic for the New Yorker, and author of the sensational book, The Rest is Noise, while retaining his blog with the same name, is now blogging on Unquiet Thoughts. He includes this snippet from a new book on the Hungarian composer, György Kurtág, whom I confess to not having heard of. I found this response to the question, 'Are you a believer?' a fascinating one.

'I do not know. I toy with the idea. Consciously, I am certainly an atheist, but I do not say it out loud, because if I look at Bach, I cannot be an atheist. Then I have to accept the way he believed. His music never stops praying. And how can I get closer if I look at him from the outside? I do not believe in the Gospels in a literal fashion, but a Bach fugue has the Crucifixion in it—as the nails are being driven in. In music, I am always looking for the hammering of the nails…. That is a dual vision. My brain rejects it all. But my brain isn’t worth much.'

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Retreat with Roy Searle - retrospective

We've just had an excellent Ministers' Conference/Retreat with Roy. Roy is one of the founder leaders of the Northumbria Community, and also a Baptist minister. Roy is well known to many of us as a friend, and as I expected, he nourished our souls, informed our minds, and told a lot of memorable stories, some moving, some very funny. And we prayed.

Among many things that were said, he reminded us that pastoral ministry is not about running the church; that Sabbath is a gift that we can give to our Western consumerist society. He asked provocative questions, 'how is it with your soul?' and 'what are you and God working on at the moment?' He talked of the need for Speak Easys, where people can do just that. He encouraged us in a way of being with God where we don't set the agenda. He emphasised the need for integrity and authenticity. He told us of the mission statement of the church where he began in pastoral ministry, 'plodding hopefully in the right direction'. He led us in creative, thoughtful, non-driven worship.

The relaxed between-times at meals, refreshment breaks and at the end of the day, provided ideal conditions for making and nurturing relationships, and the space provided on Tuesday afternoon was particularly renewing. And just to add that the food at King's Park, Northampton was varied, plentiful, and very tasty. Kippers for breakfast, with a poached egg, was a real treat! Thanks Steve, and indeed all the staff who were extremely hospitable. So from my perspective, as well as the feedback I'm receiving, a good time, doing what it was meant to do.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Retreat with Roy Searle

Monday sees the beginning of our three-day Ministers' Conference. And this year we're doing something completely different. I've invited Roy Searle, from the Northumbria Community, to come and lead a retreat. I'm excited about it as well as a little apprehensive, this being the first time, but actually confident that it'll be something like what we're hoping for.

Normally this is a pretty intense three days, hosting, introducing, thanking, leading, participating, but this year there will be less of all this, and maybe even some space for myself -we'll see. I'm particularly looking forward to facilitating a conversation with Roy on Tuesday evening.

I'll post a blog later on in the week.

Friday, 9 October 2009

'Not about conflict and resolution'

I'm listening to a new CD recommended by Gramophone magazine, Not no faceless Angel, by Gabriel Jackson - (angels keep cropping up! see previous post). It is as the review says, 'of special beauty and appeal'. But I'm provoked by the composer's explanation of his music, 'I try to write music that is clean and clear in line, texture and structure; my pieces are made of simple melodies, chords, drones and ostinatos. They are not about conflict and resolution; even when animated, they are essentially contemplative.'

It was the bit, 'not about conflict and resolution'. This would be a similar philosophy to some of the holy minimalists, such as John Taverner. What provokes me is that while I greatly appreciate the experience of 'the sonic cathedral' from time to time, I find it limiting. The essence of music is the way in which a composer sets up conflict, or tension, and then resolves it. This is what makes music so alluring.

Stephen Hough, in his blog, asks the question, 'Can atonal music move you?' And he makes this incisive observation, 'Pure atonality's problem is its lack of reference points. If you take away the compass of tonality you take away tension - the magnetic pull is annulled.' A different issue, but again, the need for tension.

In relation to our world, while conflict, or tension, can be destructive, actually it is an integral part of what it means to be human. Life would be unimaginable without tension? The issue is not to remove it, but to live with it creatively. And when it comes to conflict or tension with others, the question with which we grapple is 'how do we manage our differences'? We need the difference and can't do without it, but it creates tension, or conflict, and that needs to be negotiated.

I find myself pondering what part tension, or even conflict in its creative sense, will play in God's future, new creation. I don't believe that the music of John Taverner, or Gabriel Jackson, however lovely it might be, is an accurate foretaste of that life.

Sort of related is this provocative prayer by Martin Wroe, called Noise:
They say you're available
on certain conditions.
Quiet ones.
That if I can find an air of tranquility
it carries that still small voice.

But I don't do quiet,
I am not tranquil except when I am asleep
and then I am not available
as far as I know.

what's the chance of a still big voice
in the noise,
of hearing you in the roaring traffic,
the screaming meal-time,
the crowded train,
the supermarket queue,
the smoky, throbbing bar?

I know that time you weren't
in the fire,
the storm.
But everyone's different.
Maybe Elijah was better at quiet.

You're usually quiet.
I'm usually wired.
If I try for your silence,
perhaps you could try for my noise.

Your place or mine?
I know they say you're in
the country,
but maybe we could meet in town.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

What music makes you cry?

The brilliant concert pianist, and entertaining blogger, Stephen Hough, asks the question on his blog. He's not necessarily talking about opening the floodgates, but 'What is it that tickles my readers' tear ducts?'

For me, and most recently, it would be the opening of Dichterliebe by Robert Schumann, sung by Ian Bostridge. And the Andantino from Schubert's Piano Sonata in A major, D 644.

Of course, what triggers the tears may not just be the effect of the music, but the association, or a memory, so Acker Bilk, playing 'Stranger on the Shore' does it most times.

The Londonderry Air, in almost any arrangement is another one, but especially when sung by Johnny Cash or played by Martin Taylor.

There's so much Miles Davis but Flamenco Sketches, or It Never Entered My Mind create some moistness.

And as for Mozart, again, where to begin. Undoubtedly, the Adagio from the Clarinet Concerto. But also, the Finale of Act 2 of The Marriage of Figaro. Interestingly, this isn't particularly slow, which is a characteristic of much 'tearful' music. Then there is 'Tamino, Mine' from 'The Magic Flute'.

Mahler, would include the fifth of the Ruckert Songs, which is heart-breakingly beautiful.

I need to draw the line somewhere lest I spend the whole day listing music, and more importantly I can't find a tissue! It would be good to hear from readers, what music makes you cry?