Well, friends, it's been a long time. Let me catch you up quickly on this and that.
January - April have been spent on musical adventures. I spent several excellent days working with Brett Nolan at the Soundry recording studio in Chattanooga, which I'll write more about shortly. I spent a lovely few days in Oklahoma City with some of my fellow Kodály teachers studying music education, folk traditions, and so on. Then came the absolute best of the best. I traveled to Hawley, Massachusetts with one of my favorite compositional friends, Ethan McGrath, where we met up with two other students to do a three day fellowship with Alice Parker, American arranger, composer, conductor, and all around fantastic human being. On our way to the airport at the end of our adventure we were able to stop and tour Emily Dickinson's family home, which was uniquely meaningful in light of all we'd been discussing. Emily Dickinson, who wrote variants on her own poems (as a folk song is expressed in terms of variation), and who didn't desire to be defined by those around her . . . who did her writing in a quiet, nameless way . . . this Emily seemed to speak profoundly to my spirit on the journey home.
In the midst of all of the above I couldn't bring myself to write much - how could I explain any of it? All of it was connected; there was too much synchronicity to keep track of. Each moment of discovery sent a string of understanding to whatever came next.
By the way, the idea of the string isn't mine. It belongs to Alice, who describes her work with community singing and with choirs this way: the leader tosses a string to the crowd in the form of song or story . . . and the string is energetic. The crowd catches the string, which is stretching over a great chasm. The crowd throws back an answering string, and on and on it goes until a bridge has been built and all meet in the middle. I found myself using this very image to discuss the use of the grand staff with my student teacher just last week. He was asking how to get a sight singing activity to be more flexible and fun for the kids. I responded, "The notation is flat and motionless on its own. So when you go to the board with the children you've got to turn this flat thing into a lump of clay to be played with. It's no longer a stationary object. You mold it into something and toss it to the kids and they mold it into something and toss it back. You go back and forth until you've built something together." Later on I caught myself in a similar conversation about how to teach a song from scratch - I couldn't help it, I had to bring up the chasm and the string and the building of a bridge.
It's necessary for us to build bridges and make meaning out of nothingness in this human life, whether we work in music education or not. All of our relationships are built on the sharing of ideas, of energy, of affection, of truth, of respect, of love . . . the best we see and do comes from sharing.
Music theory and music notation are abstract concepts. We have to take a long journey to intellectualize something made entirely of sound. I recall Dr. William Lee looking over his glasses at me during graduate school and saying, "Tullock, you have to help them build nests for these concepts in their minds. You can't talk in abstractions. They have to DO MUSIC. They have to MAKE MUSIC. You will have to embody music for them every single day for any real learning to take place." He was absolutely right, of course, and I see the truth of his words at work in my classroom each day. Music is actually a nameless gift. We give it names to help us discuss it with each other, which isn't wrong, but we sometimes forget: music is a part of our humanity old enough to be honored as an uncreated thing . . . it's more than a textbook or a set of rules. When we reduce it to rules and lists it's almost unteachable in a whole sense. The rules and lists have their place . . . but their place is not an altar.
When I was just a little girl I had a song in my heart. It didn't have a name and I could sing it anytime I wanted to. In fact, I did sing it anytime I wanted to. I remember distinctly the first time a grownup person asked me to name my song. "What song is that? Try to use your voice a little better." - poof! My song was gone. My song was gone for years and years. I realize now that part of my work with the children I teach has been the recovery of my own inner child and the song she used to sing, which nobody can ever name.
Recently one of my very best friends wrote to me, "To define something is often to box it in, to limit it." We'd been going back and forth about names that seek to define what something is or isn't - names that carry with them conceptual weight. Just a few days after that exchange I read these beautiful words of Father Bede Griffiths:
There is nothing higher than this, than if one says, 'not this, not this,' This is negative theology. We cannot name Brahman. It is 'Not this, not this.' Whatever word we use, whatever image, whatever concept, we have always to go beyond . . . One cannot stop with any name of God . . . We are seeking that inexpressible mystery beyond, and that is Brahman, which is neti, neti, 'Not this, not this."
Alice Parker describes the source of creative thought as "the swamp" - a messy, green, ever turning place wherein a song might be born. I'd read this in her writing, but when I heard her say it in person on our first day of class my entire self smiled - from the inside out. It was just like Meister Eckhart's ancient talk of "the ground of all being," which was often his description of God's dwelling place . . . under the soil of our souls, in the dark, in the mysterious secret, eternally being born.
A little over a year ago two stories took over my creative space - Anne of Green Gables and the historical mystery surrounding the friendship of Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms. Anne's story is from my childhood. I fell in love with Clara Schumann as a sort of archetype in my early twenties . . . her true story spoke to me. These two items of interest seemed wholly unconnected at first, but quickly married themselves in my mind by way of the phrase "kindred spirits." Kindred Spirits are loved ones we can't define. We do our best to name them, but the closest we ever get is, "Not this, not that, not the other." The phrase "soul mate" has been hijacked by the world of romantic prose, but seems to have its roots in the same wheelhouse as the "kindred spirit." This is an unnamable gift - an abstract concept we can't actually work with other than to experience it. We try to write about it. We can't. We try to list it's qualities definitively. We can't. These ideas so fascinated me that I simply had to write a short song cycle and record it . . . which I did. The work was done in January here in Chattanooga. Brett Nolan, who I trust with all of my recorded work, is finishing them up this month. I took a long time to let them settle in my mind after we'd finished the recording process, in part because of this nameless quality - for the first time I'd put together a recording not related to a strictly religious purpose. It made me nervous, to step outside a box I'd built around my work, and to let go of names I'd chosen for myself.
As I sent off the final list of edit points and requests, truly handing the reigns over to Brett, I reflected on Father Griffiths' words about "not this, not this," and on the idea of Kindred Spirits, Soul Mates, the swamp, the ground of all being, and God. I love God most in the nameless spaces between grief and joy, suffering and healing. These are blind spaces. They have no names to define them. They have no images to express them. I loved Anne's story and Clara's story for these reasons. These are stories full of holy blind spots.
Dear Ones, I have sometimes wished for a simpler inner life, but that wish is gone almost as soon as it comes to mind. The nameless places, which seem to complicate and perplex, are also the places most clearly inhabited by the Uncreated Creator.
I leave you now with one of Emily's poems:
The Outer - from the Inner / Derives its Magnitude - / 'Tis Duke, or Dwarf, according / As is the Central Mood - / / The fine - unvarying Axis / That regulates the Wheel - / Though Spokes - spin - more conspicuous / And fling a dust - the while. / / The Inner - paints the Outer - / The Brush without the Hand - / Its Picture publishes - precise - / As is the inner Brand - / / On fine - Arterial Canvas - / A Cheek - perchance a Brow - / The Star's whole Secret - in the Lake - ' Eyes were not meant to know.
Preach it, Emily. I type all of this as I sit on my back porch in the dark, looking up at one lonely star, whose secrets I cannot know, whose substance my eyes truly cannot see. I sit here with a heart full of unnamable wonder . . . "not this, not this." Music has always met me in that space (that space where God is), and I hope music will do as much for my students.
I am so grateful to be on such a synchronous journey, which seems to have no clear start or finish. I'm even more grateful to link arms and hold hands with other pilgrims on the way - kindred spirits, looking for the same things. Wise people go before us. Wise people follow close behind. We can tolerate mystery when we trust namelessness. My first and best song was nameless. At age 30 I think I'm ready to trust it and move forward.