Bach: From Bad to Best

I’ve been applying to some things lately, which has kept me all too busy.  (More on this later.)  Tonight, I wrote a reflective essay that I thought might be fun to share!  Here it is:

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Discuss your encounters with a composer of your choice and the impact his/her music has had on your development.

I have always felt that my experience of many composers is different from conducting colleagues. For several of my friends, they fell in love with choral music in high school and began looking up well-known pieces, getting an early start on the repertoire we have now come to know as a basis for our field of study. But for me, I was first introduced to composers through piano lessons. Beethoven, Schumann, Mozart, Chopin, Debussy. I worked my way through the greats and fell in love with music from the Romantic period. And then there was Bach.

I will always remember the first prelude and fugue I played. The prelude was dramatic and short, which drew me in, but the fugue was long and complex and especially hard to memorize. My teacher kept trying to have me bring out the various entries of the subject and it was just too much to keep track of. I wanted the piece to be yet another outlet for me to display my teenage emotion, yet it seemed mathematical and calculated. I couldn’t connect. So when my parents, who are both musicians, got on my nerves one night at dinner, I knew just what to say: Bach is a terrible composer. His music isn’t even any good. I was sent straight to my room.

I’m not sure I entirely believed what I said, but the emotion was real, and as I look back on that time – over a decade later – I understand that my nascent musicality was not ready for Bach’s complexity. I needed time and experience, and that is exactly what I received. The next time I recall encountering Bach was on the long drive from North Carolina to Iowa for college. My dad was with me, and he played the entire Mass in B Minor as we drove, remarking at the start of the Sanctus, “Ah, this is my favorite part.” Little did I know I would develop a relationship with that piece many years later.

While studying choral conducting at Yale University, it was an unusual day if Bach was not somehow mentioned or sung or listened to. I still recognize his music as complex, like before, though at this stage in my life, performing it is a challenge – a musical playground. It is as if I can actively feel parts of my brain lighting up, and not just that, but my heart also. It is the first music that went through my brain to get to my heart.

In the final days of my graduate degree, I performed Bach’s Mass in B Minor on tour in Japan and Singapore under maestro Masaaki Suzuki, an experience unlike any other. I tell the story of the time I was sent to my room for bashing Bach, and I laugh at my immaturity and ignorance. And yet, I hold onto the understanding that my feelings at that time were legitimate. There are certain times in our lives when we are opened up and ready for a new level of learning. With the gift of hindsight, I can only be thankful that the Bach level was finally unlocked, and I can say with true eagerness that I cannot wait to see which level comes next.

Born and Raised

FullSizeRender (8)Sometimes, I like to say I was born and raised in Decorah, Iowa, though this is only partially true.  I was born there, in Winneshiek Hospital on November 24, 1986 and lived with my family on Jefferson St. until I was 2 years old.  The only memory I have from that time is walking along some stone wall and eating cookies from our neighbor.  (Who wouldn’t remember that?)  I returned to Decorah to attend Luther College when I was 17, making my total number of years in Iowa a grand 6.  But I lived 7 years in Pennsylvania, and 7 years in North Carolina, so why does Iowa win?  I’ll tell you, but first! a story or two.

When I was a prospective student, I spent the night at Luther in the freshmen dorm.  I was nervous about this because I had no interest in partying and wasn’t sure what kinds of things I might be pressured into.  There was no reason to fear.  My host students didn’t pressure me to party… in fact, I’m pretty sure what we did was just about the opposite.  They offered to take me on a scenic drive, which we did.  It was beautiful, and the air was so fresh!  We pulled over at a goat farm and got out of the car to make noises at the goats.  I remember thinking those students were crazy.  They found out I had never had lefse or cheese curds, so we made the necessary stops to eat those foods.  Then we went to McDonalds and Walmart because, well, what else do you do in Decorah in the late night hours?  As I write this, I’m thinking that my reaction should’ve been, This place is lame!  But instead, my 16-year-old self, a young traveler and cultural fiend, was fascinated by this new place, its traditions, and its spirit of community.  I never felt 100% sure that it was the right college for me to attend, but in retrospect, I can see it no other way.

It became clear to me shortly after moving out to Decorah, that one of the things that drew me there was that, while it was far away from home (just as I wanted!), I was, in a sense, returning home.  There were (and still are) many folks in Decorah who remember my parents from the 80s and remember me as a little toddling kid.  Even my godparents are there!  I can regularly walk past the house of my birth and the church of my baptism.  They’re steps my parents have walked before.  Something about the place feels familiar, or at least it’s what I tell myself, and I lived there with the pride of a young adult, all settled in their first new apartment.

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Composition students!

I learned so much at Luther, though I feel as if I’m uncovering it all now.  College is such a fascinating time!  So many of the ways in which you grow and the opinions you make aren’t always so easy to articulate.  It’s often not until later, in the 20/20 of hindsight, that you can look back and truly understand and name what it was that changed you.  This past weekend, I had the joy of attending Homecoming (my 6th reunion!), and this is exactly what I felt.  So many lightbulb moments: Ah, this was a lesson I learned during my time at Luther.  I felt oddly reflective over the weekend, perhaps because I had the opportunity to catch up with so many friends, faculty, and mentors.  And I had the blessing to conduct a piece I wrote for the 10th anniversary of my composition teacher’s time at Luther, which allowed me to connect with current students.  It was a fantastic, dreamlike weekend… a bit like visiting Narnia.  Decorah still has the enticement it has always had for me, goats and all.

They say 0-2 are the most formative years of your life.  Add that to college, which we all know is hugely formative.  And there you have it – my time born and raised in Decorah, Iowa, one of the greatest places on earth!  I’m so thankful for all the reuniting I did this past weekend (to both people and places), and hope it’s not so long before it happens again.  <3

Sacred Space, Amazing Grace

The labyrinth is complete!  Let’s compare.  Here’s the old MLR labyrinth built by my friend Mary and me in 2005 (photo taken after years of use):

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And here it is now, finished and blessed on Friday, July 11, 2014:

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What a second week I had at camp!  I learned many things, two of which have really stuck with me as I’m now home recovering:

1) having a best friend is amazing
2) I have more physical endurance than I thought

July 4 ended my first week at camp, and I was fortunate to spend the evening hanging out with one of my former campers.  Her family came up to watch fireworks from the ridge, including her 7-year-old niece, Gillian.  After about 30 minutes hanging out with Gillian, she happily proclaimed, “Welp, guess you’re my best friend!”  I smiled and said, “Guess so!”  I thought her excitement would pass, but she was up to MLR for mini-camp the next week, and boy was she excited to see me.

always dirty

always dirty

Every chance she got, she’d run away from her group to give me a hug.  She didn’t care that I was covered from head to toe in dirt.  She would walk by the labyrinth almost daily while I was working and would yell across the way, “Amanda!  Amanda!  It’s looking good, Amanda!  It’s looking good!” with two thumbs up.  The whole thing was hilarious, but I have to admit: I felt so supported as I toiled away!  Approval from a 7-year-old is just as valid as from anyone else.  At the end of the mini-camp, Gillian saved me a seat for dinner.  I asked her what her favorite part of the week was, and she said, “Seeing you.”  That can’t possibly be the case.  I mean, seriously, these kids have pool time every day!  Not to mention all the games and songs and snacks!  Still, I felt loved.

I needed that kind of encouragement during my second week!  The labyrinth took incredible amounts of physical and mental endurance, and there was a time when I was almost sure I wouldn’t be able to finish by my deadline.  Most mornings, I tried to get in 30-45 minutes of work before our 8am breakfast, then worked from 9-noon, then towards the end began skipping dinner so I could use all of the hours of sunlight I could get, working from 1-8:30 or so.  Then I’d head off the mountain to run errands at Home Depot or Michael’s or Target and grab a cheap bite to eat.  I can’t even believe I was able to do physical labor so many hours a day!  Me, one of the most out of shape people I know!  I was always horrible at running the mile when I was younger, and even still, I’ve never been able to run over 5K (though it seems all my friends are somehow running marathons).  When my body starts to ache, I say to myself, Amanda, you’re not having any fun, and you don’t have to do this.  Then I stop.  What kind of stamina is that?!  But I learned in this project that if I’m truly passionate about something, I do have it in me to persevere.  I’ve seen that in myself both mentally and emotionally, but what a relief to see it physically as well.

14642388426_6e0ba8d63e_oTowards the end of week 2, I began to see that it was possible to truly finish all I had hoped, though I’d have to work hard till the end.  It would not have happened if it weren’t for little angels that were sent to me when I most needed them!  I’d be working all alone on my hands and knees when Perti, or Katie, or Dylan, or the pastor of the week would show up and ask if I needed help.  Former campers of mine kept randomly visiting, wanting to get their hands dirty.  Bill and Basil (the camp handymen) filled every request I made, and usually within a number of minutes… even cutting down a dead tree that was hanging over the labyrinth!  Financial gifts came from surprising places (you can still donate to help cover costs!).  Friends unexpectedly stayed up with me until 1am those last few nights while I finished art projects (or in some cases, they did art projects for me!).  Two babies even came to visit!  The final push to finish mulching the labyrinth and put on final touches came from the SITs (staff in training), which could not have been a more appropriate and full circle way of ending my time at camp.  My last summer as a counselor was in 2008, training the oldest kids to be campers.  And this summer, one of the kids I trained is training the next generation.  They were the ones to complete the labyrinth and were even the first ones to build a fire in the firepit and gather in the sacred space.

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In the end, the labyrinth includes these elements:

  • approximately 700 bricks, 35 of which are engraved with words such as love, faith, anger, hope, guilt, peace
  • colored bricks that discretely form the shape of a cross
  • an inner circle made of tree stumps
  • a firepit at the center, made of bricks
  • a baptismal font made from a planter that sits atop the tree stump of the dead tree that was cut down (the giving tree?)
  • two quotes from scripture – one as you enter, and one as you depart
  • lanterns made from Mason jars and tealights that hang around the perimeter of the labyrinth
  • a welcome sign with info about the history and how to of labyrinths
  • a sending sign with the classic prayer, “O God, you have called your servants to ventures…”

The easiest way to see all this (other than my million pictures), is to watch this video:

My final evening at camp, I had the honor of planning a worship service for the staff members at the labyrinth.  It was such a beautiful gathering, as we started outside of the space, had an affirmation of baptism, entered while singing, surrounded the labyrinth, and blessed it.  I have experienced yet another time of mutual hospitality: I was invited to rebuild the labyrinth and to give of my gifts to camp, but in the end, I’m pretty sure I received far more than I could have ever given.  That night, as I celebrated with staff, I realized I had not actually had a chance to walk the completed labyrinth.  So even though the night was far too short, I walked it at 6am the next morning before driving back to CT.  Amazing grace.

6am photo shoot

6am photo shoot

I hope this is the first of many labyrinths I build in my lifetime!  (Interested in commissioning one?  Let’s talk!)  I’m thrilled to cross this hilarious goal off my bucket list!  And it’s all official now, too.  You can find the MLR Labyrinth on the World-Wide Labyrinth Locator website!  I sincerely hope you get a chance to visit and walk the labyrinth at Mar-Lu.  After all, we all need a bit of ordering in our steps!

 

 

Finding Center

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Dragonflies, butterflies, and fireflies abound, whizzing and wandering by. Must be at camp! Oh the creatures I’ve seen this week while working on the labyrinth! All of creation seems to be stopping by to check on things. I’ve been greeted by deer, rabbits, groundhogs, squirrels, caterpillars, spiders, gnats, and bugs of all shapes and sizes – none of which I’m able to name. Pretty incredible to imagine that God named them ALL, knowing the ins and outs of each infinite variety of insect. Wow. Then, of course, there are the birds, who sing above me as I work. On multiple occasions, I have thought to myself, I should really play some music while I work, only to become aware of how incredible the nature soundtrack is if I just pay attention to it.  I’ve been thinking a lot about St. Francis while doing this work (how could you not?!), and I find myself talking to all these creatures to break up the monotony of digging.

This week has been man(da) vs. nature, and nature seems to be winning in a really big way!  I can’t make it a foot around the labyrinth digging trenches without coming up against a root or rock.  I have grown very close to my spade, clippers, and pickax, and can only imagine how bittersweet it will be to say goodbye to them in a week.  One week…yikes!  I have a lot to do and am rapidly running out of time.  Things I am not running out of include: bug bites, bricks, and shampoo.

I began the past week the only way I knew how – by finding center.  Finding the center of the labyrinth seemed like the best way to start.  Everything I’m doing needs to revolve around the center – both literally and metaphorically.  So my friend Elliott and I hammered a stake at the center point, and from there, I’ve essentially made a giant compass with which to draw 8 concentric circles.  From there, each circle becomes a trench, where I gradually place bricks to outline the labyrinth.  The circles will connect (obviously) to form a unicursal path, though for now, I’m just closing each of the circles until they are all complete.  The digging is strenuous and dirty; with my short hair, I’m convinced I’d be perfect for the role of Oliver – poor street rat.

To accompany the physical workout, I’ve been reading a wonderful book that my dad gave me ages ago, entitled “The Maze and the Warrior: Symbols in Architecture, Theology, and Music” by Craig Wright.  It’s wonderful to learn more about the history of the labyrinth while creating one.  I felt a sense of relief today when I read that labyrinths were usually drawn with the aid of a compass.  I guess my giant homemade compass is right on par!  The book goes on to say that “in the Middle Ages the compass and the circle it produced were signs of unity and divine perfection, for the circle knows no beginning or end.  God, the architect of the world, worked with a compass.”  Pretty cool.

There’s always more to say, but I’m in dire need of rest.  Know that I’m having an amazing time (as expected), admiring the work of my former campers-turned counselors, building calluses on my hands from playing guitar once again, and developing some incredible arm muscles.  Tomorrow morning, I worship at my home church (Luther Place Church in Washington, DC)!  Then it’s back to camp for another week.  I could really use your support in the form of prayers/good thoughts, financial donations towards the labyrinth, or help digging (if you live in the area)!

I leave you with a song!  I wrote this the week before I came up to camp.  I was supposed to be writing a choral piece with this text (which I did, eventually), but this came to me first.  The text paraphrases Romans 5, and then also uses some Emily Dickinson and St. Julian of Norwich.

Click here to listen! 

Here are the words… enjoy!

By faith God has given us peace,
By faith God has given us grace.
Though trials may come we rejoice because
Through Jesus’ death we’ve been saved!
Trial will teach perseverance,
Perseverance builds character,
And character waters the flower of hope
Which blossoms and blossoms again!
And hope is the thing which sits in the soul
And sings without words and won’t stop at all.
All will be well.

 

Summer Projects

photo (1)One thing I DO love about teaching is maintaining this school schedule that my body is so accustomed to at this point in my life!  Summers off, wahoo!  Our school’s graduation was June 19, but I was finished about a week before that.  I have been keeping myself busy, however, with summer projects, of which there seem to be an abundance.  Some of those projects are small personal ones, like filing and databasing all of the choral music I own, organizing my Flickr photos, and updating all of my websites.  But others are much bigger, like organizing the music library at my church job, choosing repertoire for school for the fall, and completing a painting project for a friend.  One of my favorite yearly summer projects is the Congregations Project, which is a weeklong seminar hosted by the Yale Institute of Sacred Music.  Each year, they bring together around 7 teams from congregations all over the US to share project ideas with one another and thing, talk, act, and pray around a particular topic.

Since embodiment was the theme, this happened.

Since embodiment was the theme, this happened.

This year’s topic was “embodiment”, so as you can imagine, lots of congregations offered projects dealing with the individual body and/or what it means to be in community with others as the body of Christ.  Here are some random quotes/paraphrases from the week that inspired me.  (I’ve tried to cite the speaker in most cases, but could not always remember who said what!):

“Every congregation holds deep in their bones the knowledge that FLESH MATTERS.  But how do they matter, and for what?” – Dorothy Bass

“You can’t separate the theology of the church from the body.  Who matters here?  Who takes up the space?  What does healing mean when you can’t ‘fix it’?” – Cheryl Cornish

On the topic of evangelism: “It doesn’t really help to keep answering questions people aren’t asking.” – Cheryl Cornish

“If you are comfortable with every part of our worship service, we’re not doing it right.  Because part of worship needs to be taking 10 minutes to step aside for someone else.” – Cheryl Cornish

“What do you need to die to so you will stop ‘help, save, comfort, and defend’-ing yourself?” – Paul Palumbo

“Jesus is known by his wounds, even in his resurrection.” – Paul Palumbo

“A lot of times, compassion in a church is treated like a fixed commodity.” – Cheryl Cornish

“The liturgical tradition is on our side if we dare to appropriate it in a robust way.” – Rita Ferrone

“We already have received the very best gifts [from God] …in an effort to enhance our worships, we dare not cover up the best things.” – Kim Long

How do you look at things around you without assuming you already know what they’re all about? – Kim Long

“God has a more profound agenda than the amusement of a congregation.” – Kim Long

“What difference would it make in our preaching if we considered ourselves ‘God-bearers’?  …Our preaching is profoundly embodied…” – Kim Long

“We don’t go to church as much as we flow through it.” – Kim Long

“The history of Christian faith is the history of a body – the body suffering, the body feasting, the body lamenting, the body resurrected…” – Don Saliers

“Too often we thing about things; we need to think with them.” – Don Saliers

“Christian liturgy is an art, but not a work of art.  Liturgy is a performative, artful, symbolic action.  It originates in the body; Jesus comes speaking and doing things.” – Don Saliers

“If liturgy doesn’t take tension into account, well the hell with it!  Tensions are the very stuff of artistic creativity.” – Don Saliers

“We will not always be able-bodied, and that’s a permanent tension, because liturgy takes time.” – Don Saliers

“Sometimes, the subcultures we’re surrounded by take away the depth of the language we use.  So we need to undomesticate, uncaptivate the language.  Other times, the culture itself may offer us insight.  There can be great tension in this.” – Don Saliers

“We are called upon to bring the wholeness of knowing to the love of God.” – Tom Troeger

“What happens [when you pay attention to the multiple intelligences of the body] is it becomes all of us for all of God.” – Tom Troeger

“God calls us to some of these conversions [theistic, Christic, ecclesial, moral, affective, intellectual], but rarely all at once.  So we think of ongoing conversion – we turn to the Lord more and more with our whole being over a lifetime.  God isn’t finished with us yet!” – Rita Ferrone

It was an incredible week together.  I’m always amazed at how quickly a sense of community can be formed.  We shared so many things with one another, and I’m so glad for this third opportunity to be a part of this annual seminar.  Here’s hoping for another go at it next year!

And now, last but not least!  My current summer project is building a labyrinth at Mar-Lu-Ridge, a Lutheran summer camp in Jefferson, MD.  I have so many things to say about this and will continue blogging to share the details over the course of the next two weeks!

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Triduum Triptych

A Thursday Poem

Gathered round the table as we often are, friends abounding.
Familiar faces filled with joy and anxiety,
words of welcome and wait while we join in a simple, yet filling meal.
The community feeds us as much as the bread – hearts full.
And yet, hearts heavy.
Words of wisdom and wilting from our teacher as skies turn dark.
An age old adage is presented as a new, resounding lesson:
Love one another.
It seems so obvious, but in the thick of this night,
with the clink of dishware
and smacking of lips,
our shifting eyes and twitching ears awake with newborn sense.
Love.
What is this word and what could it mean?
Is it a person? a place? a thing?
Is it something I must do or feel or be?
Shall I fear it or embrace it?
Like a good teacher with a dense flock, you lead with an example.
You are the example, though we do not yet understand.
We practice love together that night,
eating, drinking, praying.
Our hearts surge with deep unknowing.
What is this lesson you so desire us to learn?

A Friday Poem

Emptiness.
An infinitely deep hole,
filled to overflowing with despair.
And what of love?
Is there a lesson even in the darkness of death?
I feel nothing but numb.
The birds are chirping -
or are they crying? -
in a world that feels far away.
Why did you go
and what have I done?
There was much more to learn,
but you served us and left us before we could understand.
How will we know what it means to love?
I feel trapped inside my limbs;
lament is my song.

A Sunday Poem

photo (33)Plentiful sunshine,
buds bursting open,
Love is alive
and victory is won!
Dying gives way to rising -
the lesson is learned.
Questions are answered
but the doubting is just begun.
Flesh turned to spirit,
the stone rolled away,
Love is the story
and strength in our song.
I see with new eyes
and sing with new voice;
my hands will to work,
and I breathe –
Freshness filling my weary soul,
heart on fire to love as I’ve been shown.