Thursday, 30 December 2010

Cuts to the Arts

Richard Williamson is a professional musician who coordinates Music Network, which brings together Christians in the music profession. On his blog, Music Ministry, he posts on the effect of cuts to the arts.   Just down the road from where I live, the Central Bedfordshire Council intend to stop funding their music service from 2012. Other Councils intend to do the same or to reduce funding by 50%. The effect will be that the only young people who will get instrumental tuition will be those who can afford to pay for it in full.

Richard writes, 'There is a major short-sightedness in the decisions that are being taken. On the face of it, cutting funding for the arts is an easy road to take. Very few will complain as many see those involved in the arts as elitist and undeserving of Government support. You only have to read comments on various forums on this subject to see that many in this country believe that the arts should be able to "stand on their own feet" and that such elitist groups don't deserve "government handouts".
'However it is my belief that if you remove funding from the arts, there is great danger of ripping the soul out of a nation. The fact is that most arts organisations would be unable to survive without public funding. Britain has a rich cultural heritage and it is that cultural heritage that has defined us as a nation over centuries. If the arts are decimated, we stand in danger of irreparably damaging the heart and soul of the nation. If all we are willing to fund are the utilitarian 'useful' areas of our nation's life, we lose the very thing that makes us who we are.
'If we also remove opportunities for young people to learn to play an instrument, particularly in more deprived areas, we lose a force for good in society. It is a well attested fact that giving young people the opportunity to develop musical skills can begin to turn whole communities round. Look at Venezuela for example with the Simon Bolivar programme - but there are also examples here, such as El Sistema in Scotland and the 'In Harmony' programme currently running in Liverpool and elsewhere, not forgetting all of the wonderful education work done by many of the orchestras in the UK. Those of us who have been involved in such programmes can testify to lives, families and communities being transformed.
'What is most worrying is what we are storing up for the future if young people are not given these opportunities. It will be extremely difficult to stop us becoming a cultural desert if the tide starts rapidly receding from our cultural shoreline, and it will almost certainly have a very damaging impact on the whole fabric of our society.'
I'm with Richard on this.  He goes on to speak of the responsibility of Christian musicians, 'Each of us is called to bring something of the beauty, mystery, creativity and love of God to a world that is increasingly starved of these things. Without these life has little value ... We can share and celebrate beauty, we can help people see beyond the mundane to explore mystery of life, we can as creative people speak of the creator who brought everything into being with such astonishing diversity and we can share the love of God with those who have little hope.'
I'm hugely grateful for the opportunities that I had as a young person, only possible because music in the London Borough of Barking was heavily funded. Without that funding I wouldn't have come remotely close to being a musician. While I recognise this not as a right but a gift, I'm deeply concerned at the effect of withdrawing funding to our society.

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Stile Antico, Vingt Regards and Lauridsen

Musically, Advent moving into Christmas has been a rich experience, beginning with the Advent Carol Service at Christ the Cornerstone in Milton Keynes and concluding with Christmas Eve Holy Communion, also at Cornerstone. Back in the distant summer, a high point was hearing Stile Antico sing as part of the 2010 Proms Season, and so I purchased their new release, Puer Natus Est, a performance of Advent and Christmas music from the Tudor period by Byrd, Sheppard, Tallis and Taverner. This is exquisitely beautiful, sung with precision and purity.

Another new experience has been listening to Vingt Regards sur l'Enfant - Jesus, by Olivier Messiaen.  A work of twenty movements lasting nearly two hours, it's demanding stuff, and I confess to not having listened to it in one stretch.  But there is a transcendent quality to this music, expressed through a sound world which is unique. Messiaen experienced synesthesia, whereby he couldn't help but associate particular colours with musical sounds, so his music is extraordinarily colourful. Two years after completing this work consisting of twenty 'watches' over the infant Jesus, Messiaen said with characteristic modesty, 'I have tried to be a Christian musician and proclaim my faith through song, but without ever succeeding.'

Again this year I've been caught up in a sense of eternity in the hugely popular Lauridsen, O Magnum Mysterium.

The Messiaen, played by Pierre-Laurent Aimard, and the Lauridsen are available on Spotify, though sadly the latter isn't sung by Polyphony, whose performance is sublime.

Saturday, 25 December 2010

Emmanuel, God with us

'Christmas carols try to put into words what is almost impossible to express: that God has come among us as one of us and is on our side. They attempt to explore the mystery of God - in Jesus of Nazareth - opting into the world and not exempting himself from it. We can sing about it for ever, but we also need to dare to think about what it means.

Carols are wonderful attempts to re-tell the familiar story of how God entered our world - not on a war-horse or in a tank, but in a vulnerable baby in occupied territory in a place of weakness. And this is how God decides to be "with us", Emmanuel.'

Nick Baines, Ready, Steady, Slow, 21 December

Friday, 24 December 2010

The Nativity, Mary, and Edwin Muir

Over the past four evenings I've watched The Nativity and thoroughly enjoyed it. I've heard a number of criticisms, some reasonable, but overall I thought it was one of the best tv accounts of a Bible story I've seen.   And there were moments in the final episode that were were stunning.

What I won't forget is the way that it presented the huge cost to Mary, who was prepared to lose everything, and the tortured anguish that Joseph experienced. I thought that the casting of the particular woman to be with Mary through the birth was a touch of brilliance, and the instant when Joseph's hand clasped Mary's as the stars coalesced and the baby was born brought out the tissues!

During the season of Advent I've been especially struck by poems about the Annunciation. From the tradition of which I've been a part, Mary has been someone largely ignored. Over the last few years, through art especially, I've come to a new appreciation of this remarkable woman, which was only enriched by The Nativity. 

I've been reminded of Noel Rowe's Magnificat, and yesterday I read again some of Luci Shaw's wonderful poems in, Accompanied by Angels, Poems of the Incarnation. On the first Sunday of Advent, at the Advent Carol Service at Christ the Cornerstone, we heard Edwin Muir's poem, The Annunciation: 

The angel and the girl are met, 

Earth was the only meeting place, 

For the embodied never yet 

Travelled beyond the shore of space. 

The eternal spirits in freedom go. 



See, they have come together, see, 

While the destroying minutes flow, 

Each reflects the other's face 

Till heaven in hers and earth in his 

Shine steady there. He's come to her 

From far beyond the farthest star, 

Feathered through time.
Immediacy 
of strangest strangeness is the bliss 

That from their limbs all movement takes. 

Yet the increasing rapture brings 

So great a wonder that it makes 

Each feather tremble on his wings. 



Outside the window footsteps fall 

Into the ordinary day 

And with the sun along the wall 

Pursue their unreturning way 

That was ordained in eternity. 

Sound's perpetual roundabout 

Rolls its numbered octaves out 

And hoarsely grinds its battered tune. 



But through the endless afternoon 

These neither speak nor movement make, 

But stare into their deepening trance 

As if their gaze would never break.