Writing Spirituality

My last blogs have been about my experience singing Mahler’s Symphony No. 8, the “Symphony of a Thousand,” with the LA Philharmonic and Gustavo Dudamel.  But looking back at the blogs, I was struck how inadequate were my descriptions of what it felt like to learn, rehearse and perform this incredible piece with the full forces desired by Gustav Mahler (there were over 1,000 people on stage).  I realized that writing about a spiritual experience is not just difficult, but almost impossible.

Gustav Mahler

How do you describe a profound, moving, even life-altering spiritual experience?  “It was swell” doesn’t seem, somehow, to fill the bill.  Even turning to authors, like Thomas Merton, who was a talented writer, practiced and experienced in introspection, doesn’t always help.  He may have accurately described his own experiences, but even in his most moving passages, is he describing yours?

Poetry has been held up as more of a road to the sublime than prose.  Repetition and rhyming or alliteration can, done correctly, create a trance state.  See, for instance, Robert McDowell.  Irish bards in pre-Christian Europe were not just honored but feared for their mastery over the language, which enabled them to write and improvise poetry.  Their words could curse, bless and defeat armies.  Much of the liturgy of the world’s religions is in poetry, rhymed or free.  In Classical Greece the Muses of Poetry and Music were the same:  Polyhymnia for sacred poetry/music, Calliope for epic poetry/music, Euterpe for lyric poetry/music, Erato for erotic poetry/music, and Thalia for comedic poetry/music.  For the Greeks the two were intertwined.

But what if you’re not a poet, as I’m not (English as she is spoke)?  Well then, how about the musical side of the Muses?

Felix Mendelssohn

Felix Mendelssohn wrote:  “These [words] seem to me so ambiguous, so vague, so easily misunderstood in comparison to genuine music, which fills the soul with a thousand things better than words.”  And this may be so:  think of the last time you heard a piece of music that made you want to fly, or explode, or weep.  Could you attach words to it?  And yet, you want to tell your friends about it.  Can you accurately describe the first flush of a new love?  Or of discovering the vocation you were created to follow?  What if your experience was religious in nature?  The waters really run deep where spiritual revelations are concerned.

But I’m not a composer.  I can listen to or perform Beethoven’s Ninth, or Mahler’s Eighth, but are my descriptions adequate.  If I walk the tightrope between the banal (“It was swell”) and purple prose (“the profundity of my sensibilities cannot be fathomed…”) I still run the risk of not connecting with you.  Or of accurately conveying my experience.  I could burst into tears, but that’s hard to do in a blog.

So, what passages or writers have moved you, or described something you felt, or at least accurately and adequately (to you) described their own experiences?  Let us know.


Mahler, Gustavo and Me

My first blog!  Welcome.  I’m kicking off with a journal of the rehearsals and performance of Gustav Mahler’s monumental Symphony No. 8, the “Symphony of a Thousand,” with Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra.  This is part of the Mahler Project, which runs during January and February 2012.

The choral forces are drawn from 15 LA-based choirs, including All Saints Church, Pasadena, where I’m in Canterbury Choir.  More on them in a future blog.  Other choirs are the LA Master Chorale, the Pacifica Chorale, the Gay Men’s Chorus, Vox Femina, and the National Children’s Chorus.  Total singers:  826.  There is also a double quartet of soloists.  Total soloists:  eight.  The orchestras are the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Simón Bolivar Orchestra of Venezuela (which used to be the Simón Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela).  Total orchestra:  300+.  There will be over 1,050 performers on the stage of the Shrine Auditorium on February 4, 2012.  It’s one of the few places in town that can accommodate that many people.  After the performance, Dudamel will head back to Caracas with the Bolivars to perform it again, with over 1,600 people!  He’s out of his mind.

Our first rehearsal was at the Great Hall of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, which is the opera house.  It’s my idea of the perfect venue for rehearsals:  rugs on the floor, marble all around and glittering crystal chandeliers overhead.  It was nighttime, but the floor-to-ceiling windows showed a lovely view of the plaza of the Music Center.  There was a camera crew filming a documentary on the making of the performance.

Only Choir 1 was there, that is half of the adults, and we filled the place to capacity; Choir 2 rehearsed the following night.  Our conductor was Grant Gershon, Music Director of the LA Master Chorale, and Choirmaster of the LA Opera.  It’s hard to imagine someone more completely dedicated to his work, and who enjoys it more.  Anyone who doesn’t draw energy just from being around him is dead.  Even though the 60 members of Canterbury Choir who were singing were scattered among the sections—and every section is divided into firsts and seconds and sometimes thirds—I was among friends, new friends in this case:  several ladies of the Philippine Chamber Singers.

The rehearsal was 2½ hours long, and I wouldn’t have believed we could have worked in that much detail and yet gotten through the whole thing.  For those of you familiar with Mahler, you’ll know what that entails.  For those of you who are not—let’s just say he doesn’t just write brief, bright little pieces.  And for those of you who have sung Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, which I have, if you thought the sustained high A for the sopranos in the “Ode to Joy” was hard, Mahler gives us high B-flats, Bs and one long, sustained high C.  Mahler was out of his mind.

By the end of the rehearsal I (a) had all my trouble spots marked (more than I thought, alas); (2) was high from the breathing and the music; and (iii) couldn’t wait for the next rehearsal.  More next time.