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Friday, November 02, 2007

Singing Truth to Power

This week I attended my first Sinead O’Connor concert, which made me grateful that Quakers got over their historic aversion to music. It reinforced my belief that a good song can help us feel our connection to God and to other people. The fact that O’Connor’s new album is called Theology didn’t hurt, though I think her passionate voice touched my soul as much as the scripture-inspired lyrics.

One song that has stayed with me is called “If You Had a Vineyard,” (which you can listen to for free here). It is based on the story from Isaiah 5 where God compares his people to a vineyard that is producing bad grapes. The most haunting lines, whispered at the end, are God saying, “Oh that my eyes were a fountain of tears that I might weep for my poor people.” Sinead introduced the song by suggesting that God doesn’t like war.

Another song she sang began, “Margaret Thatcher on TV, Shocked by the deaths that took place in Beijing. It seems strange that she should be offended. The same orders are given by her.” Even written here it’s not quite the same as hearing those words sung. It’s the sort of simple truth that rarely appears on op-ed pages, or if it does, it’s buried in a few hundred words and loses the power to surprise. I guess sometimes it’s easier to express a difficult or challenging truth through music. We’re touched in our guts, not just our heads. It reminds me of the role of music in the liberation struggle of South Africa, which pianist Abdullah Ibrahim described as “a revolution in four-part harmony” because songs were such an integral part of politically empowering people.

In fact the same day I went to the concert, I met two South African singers who use their music to touch people through a group called The Peace Train. The leader, Sharon Katz, told me how she was commissioned during South Africa’s first free election in 1994 to write and perform songs in Zulu explaining to people how to vote. It leaves me thinking that we could use some songs about voting in this country, as well as some new peace songs.

Of course I still believe in the power of books and blogs to reach people, but this week I’m appreciating the power of music. Sinead’s ability to belt out a passionate sentiment left me feeling emboldened, wanting to be fearless in the expression of my own voice.

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Blogger Philip Jones said...

I second that emotion, as the song says. My chorus presents a concert this evening of works all conveying the idea of grief: a setting of the Stabat Mater by Karol Szymanowski, from the 1920s; a work the chorus commissioned in 1997 from a composer at Penn, James Primosch, who took as texts two poems by Denise Levertov, the first about the people of Vietnam, and the second about remembrance; and On the Transmigration of Souls by John Adams, his 2003 commission commemorating the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center.

It's an emotionally very heavy program, and chorus members have wondered how appealing it will be to potential audience members. What I've finally realized, though, is that if we can't work on grief through music, then we are (or at least I am) in deep trouble. I just hope that people join us to do this work.

9:33 AM  
Blogger Philip Jones said...

Update: Our audience was quite ample, moreso than many of us in the chorus expected. Many people came to hear the Adams piece, I think. The others went well, but the Adams left the audience (and our conductor) stunned and silent. There was not a sound until the conductor started to leave the stage, and I heard from audience members later that they were deeply moved by the piece. My wife, who usually doesn't like "new" music, found it very compelling.

I should add that the Adams piece, though commemorating September 11, 2001, speaks only of the grief of those left behind, and makes no comment on the causes or results of the events of that day. Maybe that's where music can do the most good.

9:42 PM  
Blogger Eileen Flanagan said...

Thanks for sharing your experience, Phil. Sorry I missed it.

7:08 AM  

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