Notes for an Evening of Contemplative Piano Music

Spoken notes for a piano presentation 6/4/2011:

The Western world for the last several centuries has been dominated by very left-brain thinking, in which everything has to be ‘figured out’ and put into its proper pigeon-hole, whether that be our world, each other, God, or even ourselves. But as useful as the left-brain and its simplistic categories can be, it isn’t the only way to approach Life. The Contemplative/Mystical tradition of all religions reminds us that there is also a compassionate, holistic, non-judgmental Path as well.

Consider this flower. Right away I’ve already categorized it: it’s a “flower”. Maybe it’s even a “pink flower”. And I could stop there and hurry home to the next episode of “Dancing with the Stars”. But consider: in all the universe, for all time, there will never be another flower exactly like this one. I play a note on the piano—and there will never be another exactly like it again.

And in all the universe, for all time, there will never be another you, or me, or anyone else.

It gets better! Everything comes into being, is here for a time, and then passes away. Like notes of music. Even the cells in your body are replaced about every seven years—we are all literally different people than we were seven years ago. The Greek Philosopher Heraclitus said “You can’t step into the same river twice.” But it’s much worse than that: you can’t even put the same foot into the same river twice!

Everything—every creature, every rock, every planet sun and star—like a piece of music—arises then passes away. Even this moment, this next breath—arises then passes away. [Take a big breath.]

So the Contemplative person takes time—makes time!—to remember the preciousness of each fleeting moment and everything and everyone in it. From that point of view it is natural to approach the world with compassion, with a kind of openness and vulnerability to the miracle of being alive in this magical universe.

That’s what we’re trying to do tonight. A lot of Art comes from this Contemplative Heart, hence the music I’ve chosen for this evening

Finally, please please please no applause! This is NOT “the William show!” I want us all to go on a journey, and applause will absolutely break the magic spell. So as each piece ends, let it reverberate in our psyches for a moment, before I take another breath, and begin the next.

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The Love of God

The love of God is infinite for every human soul, because every human soul is unique; no other can satisfy the same need in God.

–W.B.Yeats

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The Names of the Seven Archangels

Near as I can determine, the oldest list of the names of the seven archangels is to be found in the Book of Enoch, written around 300 BCE. This book is regarded as canonical by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and Eritrean Orthodox Church, but no other Christian group. It is however, quoted in the New Testament (Jude 1:14-15).

Angels aren’t named very often in the Hebrew Bible: Lucifer is mentioned in Isaiah 14:3-5, Isaiah 14:12-15. Michael (Daniel 10:13) and Gabriel (Daniel 8:15-17) are mentioned in passages in which Daniel is having a vision and sees someone ‘like a man’ (doesn’t say “angels”, but what else?).

In the New Testament only Michael is mentioned by name:

“When the archangel Michael, contending with the devil, was disputing about the body of Moses, he did not presume to pronounce a blasphemous judgment, but said, ‘The Lord rebuke you’” (Jude 1:9)

Chapter 20 of the Book of Enoch consists of a straightforward list of their names:

1. And these are the names of the holy angels who watch.
2. Uriel, one of the holy angels, who is over the world and over Tartarus.
3. Raphael, one of the holy angels, who is over the spirits of men.
4. Raguel, one of the holy angels who takes vengeance on the world of the luminaries.
5. Michael, one of the holy angels, to wit, he that is set over the best part of mankind and over chaos.
6. Saraqael, one of the holy angels, who is set over the spirits, who sin in the spirit.
7. Gabriel, one of the holy angels, who is over Paradise and the serpents and the Cherubim.
8. Remiel, one of the holy angels, whom God set over those who rise.

Scholars are divided whether the Book of Enoch was originally written in Ethiopic or in Aramaic. We have complete copies of it in Ethiopic, but only fragments of it in Aramaic. None of the Aramaic fragments covers chapter 20 (as far as I am able to determine).

So it looks like the Ethiopic names from Enoch chapter 20 are as old a complete list as we are going to find. Here is chapter 20 from two different editions:


(Flemming, Johannes (ed.). Das Buch Henoch, äthiopischer Text. Leipzig, 1902)



From these sources we can determine the archangelic names in Ethiopic and their Ethiopic gematria values:

Ethiopic Name Transliterated / (English-ized) Ethiopic Gematria Value Base 7
ኡርኤል ’uRe’ee-eL (Uriel) 232 4517
ሩፉኤል RuFu’ee-eL (Raphel) 311 6237
ራጉኤል RaaGu’ee-el (Raguel) 234 4537
ሚካኤል MiKaa’ee-el (Michael) 91 1607
ሰራቃኤል SaRaaQaa’ee-el (Saraqael) 391 10667
ገብርኤል GaBeRe’ee-el (Gabriel) 236 4557
ርምኤል ReMe’ee-el (Remiel) 271 5357

Which, by musical gematria, gives us the following musical gestures for the archangelic names:

The musical gestures for the archangelic names


See:

Mercer, Samuel: Ethiopic Grammer, Oxford 1920 (at Amazon)

Chaine, Marius: Grammaire Éthiopienne, Beyrouth 1907 (at Amazon)

Posted in Musical Gematria & Numerology | 6,513 Comments

Bach & ‘Musical Numerology’

I just read that in Bach’s Magnificat (Mary’s song when she is told she’s pregnant), that the movement Omnes Generationes (“All Generations [Will Call Me Blessed]“) has 41 statements of that. BTW, in Matt 1 there are 41 generations from Abraham to Jesus (don’t count David twice!).

I just verified that there are indeed 41 statements in the Magnificat.

Coincidence? (Hint: Bach does this sort of thing all the time.)

Posted in Musical Gematria & Numerology | 8,042 Comments

A Paraphrase of the 23rd Psalm

The Lord is ineffable, I shall never presume to comprehend Her at all.

He shows me Unfathomable Shining Mysteries. In every moment for all time
She sings Her Great Omni-Fecund Silence—and all that Is springs anew,
transformed and renewed again and again, eternally.

I have no soul apart from Him.

She leads me, and all of humanity, in our lurching, staggering first
baby steps toward the Greatness for which He created us in Her image.

Yea though I be crushed by Fierce Graces* beyond enduring, I know that
His Love will ultimately triumph in ways I may not live to see. Her
chastening, and His embrace—-they both sustain me through each day.

In my Darkest Night, You are the dim, sputtering candlelight that
nevertheless never fails. You anoint my broken heart with Your Own
tears. My puny cup and I are simply lost, carried away by the mighty
currents of Your Great Ocean.

Surely Love, Awe and Forgiveness shall enfold me all the days of my
fleeting life, and I bow down with gratitude beyond expression to have
been even a forgotten whimsy in the Heart of God forever.

—-

*Tragedies that turn out to [spiritually] benefit us in the long run.

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The Limits of Machines, Progress & Education

Every society and culture has its set of assumptions & myths (in the good sense of that word—that is, a deeply and largely unspoken set of beliefs) that make that society work. And, like everything else that human beings touch, these assumptions & myths have both a good and a dark side.

One of the defining myths of our modern Western culture is our obsession with Machines. Now, machines have done a lot for us—I shudder to think what life would be like without flush toilets and washing machines. But, of course, we make the typical human mistake of assuming that if some is good, more must be better. So, if machines work well in some areas, they must work equally well in all domains!

And what is a machine? I’d say it is a non-human device that replaces human labor.

For example, I suggest that a corporation (if it is functioning properly) is a profit generating ‘machine’. But a dirty little secret of corporations is that human beings are ultimately unnecessary. And, in fact, corporations replace human beings with machines at every opportunity. At present some work is off-shored to poor souls in distant lands who are willing to live in toxic waste and work for $1 a day, but as their standards of living slowly rise, the corporations will ultimately replace them with machines as well. (Might the slow but steady replacement of humans with machines explain in part our persistently high unemployment?)

This same Machine approach is currently being applied to education. For all practical purposes, educators are currently being reduced to ‘Teaching Units’ and students to ‘Learning Units’. And having reduced teachers and students to machine-like Teaching Units and Learning Units, we can apply corporate & manufacturing style “process improvement” methodologies to all the Teaching Units, who will in turn apply them to their Learning Units, and the Learning Units will respond equally. (Well, a few might be identified as malfunctioning and given Special Recalibration—I mean Special Education.)

Another defining myth of our modern Western culture is our obsession with Progress. Now, one way of describing Progress is our drive to improve ourselves and our environment, and that is one of the great defining characteristics of Humanity. But, another way of describing ‘growth without limit’ is ‘cancer’. We can all remember when it was ‘common knowledge’ that there was no limit to how high housing prices would go. Oh really? Will the average house ever sell for a trillion dollars? Of course not! And now in hindsight we can bitterly see the folly of the idea of ‘no limit to house price growth’.

The Progress myth is tricky, because it can be hard to know what the limits of growth really are in a particular situation. There was a time when it was considered impossible to run the mile in faster than 4 minutes. Then Roger Bannister broke that ‘barrier’ in 1954, and very quickly other athletes broke the 4-minute mile ‘barrier’ as well. The next goal is the 3-minute mile (the current record is 3:43). But I would suggest there is definitely a limit: I don’t see how a human being will ever be able to run a mile in one second.

I would submit that Progress is another myth over-applied to Education. “Test scores have to go up every year.” Oh really? Like housing prices? What happens when 100% of the students get perfect scores on the CAHSEE? “That can’t ever happen,” you say, and of course you are right—that is my point. The human population always has been, and always will be a bell curve—a few on the high end, a few on the low end, most in the middle. So we can never achieve 100% graduation rates, 100% proficiency, 100% of anything unless the measures are dumbed-down to the point of meaninglessness.

I humbly suggest that there is really only one ‘pedagogical approach’ that works, and that is A Skilled Teacher Who Cares. A human being teacher who knows all the methodologies, and applies and adapts them to each of his/her unique human being students.

Much is made of the vaunted ‘Socratic Method’. I would argue that it is NOT about asking questions—any computer can spew a series of irrelevant questions. Instead, what the Socratic Method really boils down to is a wise teacher asking a leading question, and responding to the student’s answer. No boilerplates. No canned responses. One older and wiser human being guiding and interacting with the younger.

Now of course we can’t have one-on-one teaching. (Well, we COULD if that were a cultural priority, but it just isn’t.) So allowance has to be made for one teacher and many students, and even Socrates (by all accounts) had many students at a time.

But I would suggest that if the intent is to enact a set of policies that will drive Good Teachers out of the profession, then the current set of policies could hardly do a better job.

In short, isn’t it obvious that the way to improve education is to attract and keep Good Teachers, and give them the (minimal) support they need to do their jobs?

Good teachers don’t need much. Socrates just needed a space to teach. Archimedes’ math teachers needed sand and a stick for their geometric drawings. Now by all means there are modern conveniences that make teaching easier—overhead projectors and such. And computer-aided learning can definitely support a Good Teacher. But machines can never replace a Good Teacher, nor can the latest unilaterally imposed ‘methodology/technology of the week’.

And while merit pay for superior teachers is fine in concept—there is certainly nothing wrong with the idea of paying Good Teachers more—yet I would submit that Good Teachers don’t go into the profession—or better, the ‘Calling’—because of money.

Want to improve education in America? Reduce the federal Department of Education by 100%, the state Department of Education by at least 80%, and district staff by at least 50%. Use all the money saved to reduce class size, increase teacher salaries, and screen the applicants like crazy. (Let the Good Teachers do the interviewing!) Talk to the current Good Teachers—what do they need to do their jobs better? Many (most?) of those things are cheap and easy.

Teachers and students are not Machines. And they are not capable of infinite Progress. Machines and Progress have their place, but what ultimately accomplishes education is Good Teachers. There are no silver bullets. And as for the “Methodologies of the Week”? The Good Teachers already know them all.

As long as we continue to drive Good Teachers out of the field, instead of cultivating and supporting them, and treat teachers and students like Teaching Units and Learning Units, then education will continue its steady march into the tar pits—where the dinosaurs died.

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The Mystical ‘Orchard’ of Music

In studying the Torah, Judaism identifies four ways of approaching their Sacred Text. The first three apply nicely to ANY text (sacred and otherwise). Suppose we take the soliloquy “Friends, Romans and countrymen, lend me your ears…”

(BTW, in Hebrew, the accent is almost always on the last syllable.)

  • Peshat (פְּשָׁט) — “plain” (“simple”) or the direct meaning. At this level you need to know what a ‘Roman’ is, etc. It’s the face value meaning of the text.
  • Remez (רֶמֶז) — “hints” or the deeper (allegoric, metaphorical or symbolic) meaning beyond just the literal sense. In other words, one observes that you can’t literally lend someone your physical ears, so this must be a metaphor. I suppose ‘remez’ would also include knowledge of the cultural context (without which the soliloquy makes little sense).
  • Derash (דְּרַשׁ) — from Hebrew darash: “inquire” (“seek”) — what does this soliloquy of Shakespeare’s say about Life in general? Political theory? With the Bible (or Koran, etc.), this would be the level of generating sermons.
  • Sod (סוֹד) (pronounced with a long O as in ‘bone’) — “secret” (“mystery”) or the mystical meaning. I don’t know how this would apply to Shakespeare or secular literature in general. Maybe this is the only level one can successfully read James Joyce! (Just kidding!)

The four letters PaRDeS form an acronym in Hebrew that spells/means ‘orchard’, so working with all four levels of a Text is referred to as ‘working the orchard’. This set of categories apparently was articulated c.12th century.

Not all literature uses—or needs—all four levels. Consider:

  • Peshat (פְּשָׁט) — “plain”: this is the level on which you want user manuals to function.
  • Remez (רֶמֶז) — “hints”: this is the level on which you want more sophisticated factual literature to function, e.g. news articles.
  • Derash (דְּרַשׁ) — “inquire”: this is the level on which real Literature functions.
  • Sod (סוֹד) — “secret” (“mystery”) or the mystical meaning. Very little literature belongs to this category.

Perhaps these four levels of understanding apply to music:

  • Peshat (פְּשָׁט) — “plain”: you can follow the melody and rhythm of the piece.
  • Remez (רֶמֶז) — “hints”: the piece makes musical sense to you. With ethnic music (of bygone days of other cultures) I grasp the ‘peshat’—I can identify the melodies and so forth but have difficulty really wrapping my mind around the piece.
  • Derash (דְּרַשׁ) — “inquire” (“seek”) I don’t just mentally grasp the piece—it emotionally takes me somewhere
  • Sod (סוֹד) — “secret” (“mystery”) or the mystical meaning…

Ah, the ‘mystical meaning’ of music. What might that be?

Perhaps one essential characteristic of a ‘mystical’ experience is that it fundamentally changes you for the better. Thus, a piece that works on a ‘mystical’ level would be one that changes you for the better on a soul/spiritual level.

I have experienced music like that. When I was a teenager, and my younger brother had committed suicide, overwhelmed with grief and confusion I would sit down and play Bach for hours. No stranger to tragedy himself, Bach’s music nevertheless has a quality of “God is in His heaven, so all must be right with the world” and I played that musical message to myself over and over for hours. Bach got me through some very dark times (without Thorazine, I might add!). And there is certainly plenty of other music that has this kind of healing/nourishing effect on the soul & spirit.

Maybe as we face the challenging days and years ahead, we might think about marshaling all the allies that we can, including music that goes beyond just amusing us—music that actually strengthens us and reinforces the virtues we need to address the challenges we face.

Posted in Sacred Music Theory | 8,117 Comments

“Turtles All The Way Down”

There’s an ancient cosmology that goes something like this:

An ancient teacher taught that the earth rested on the back of a huge turtle. “But teacher”, a student asked, “what holds up the turtle?” “Ah”, he said, “that’s easy. He is standing on the back of another turtle.” “Oh, I see”, said the student. But what holds up the second turtle?” “My son”, said the teacher, “It’s turtles-turtles-turtles, all the way down.”

This cosmology is actually apocryphal, but it illustrates an important point.

We begin by noting that although this cosmology sounds silly, it still contains a certain grain of truth—that the universe is infinite.

Our understanding of the universe has come a long way in the past few millenia. Our cosmology today accounts for vastly more of the universe than ancient cosmologies did. Nevertheless ancient cosmologies were an important first step, and accounted for what they were able to observe about the cosmos in their time.

Similarly, ancient theologians had ideas about God that seem silly to us now, but were nevertheless a step forward for their day.

Some ancient theologies are still followed today. Some folks argue that since elements of those theologies are silly (e.g. “old man on a throne in the sky”), therefore all theology is silly and there is no God. That’s a bit like arguing that since ancient cosmologies are silly, therefore cosmology itself is silly and there is no cosmos.

Let’s consider for a moment the positivist/physics view of the cosmos—that only what can be observed and tested is to be believed. Yet, consider some features of their view:

  • The Laws of Nature were the same in the past and will behave the same in the future. That is an unprovable/untestable assumption. An article of faith, in fact.
  • The Laws of Nature are the same everywhere in our infinite universe. That is an unprovable/untestable assumption. An article of faith, in fact.
  • The Laws of Nature are ultimately comprehensible by the human mind. That is an unprovable/untestable assumption. An article of faith, in fact.
  • The idea that there are “Laws of Nature” is itself something that cannot be observed or tested. The “Laws of Nature” is eerily close to Plato’s Ideals, or to a “God” that doesn’t have consciousness per se (a common enough idea in Eastern religions).

So I would argue that the debate is not whether there is a God or not, but the nature of ‘God’. And I would heartily agree that many current ‘standard theologies’ (elements of current major religions) are long overdue for revision. So let’s get to work!

Posted in Meta Music | 7,934 Comments

Who Seeks Whom?

One of the main points of the “Good News” is that it is God who seeks us, and not the other way around. We are incapable of approaching the Infinity of Infinities in any meaningful way—how could we? A worm may as well tackle Quantum Physics.

That is one of the main points of the Christmas story. The Infinity of Infinities shrinks Himself down to a little worm in order to reach out to us worms. And it would be incredible enough if He shrank Himself down to ‘chief worm’ or ‘king of the worms’, but that wasn’t far enough: He shrank Himself all the way down to the very bottom of the manure heap. The Infinite ”emptied’ Herself—infinitely, completely, utterly, for Love. (See Phil. 2:5-8)

God does all the work, but one thing is required of Mary: to acquiesce. “Be it done to me according to your word.” (Lk.1:38) And then she must accept where the wind and the waves of God’s Great Ocean carry her. We only have a little rudder on our tiny boat amidst the infinite winds, waves and currents of God’s Great Ocean.

I have this imagination: I make one sincere but tiny faltering little baby-step towards God, and He crosses the Vastness of Interstellar Space to catch me.

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NEW PIECE: “Eternally Starlit Sandstone”

Earlier I did a simple ‘test’ piece using musical numerology, but this is my first substantive piece putting it to use. It was a commission by Don Dudley—a 60th birthday present for his wife Earleen. The title refers to a particularly magical trip they took by train through the desert.

In the score diamond note heads indicate where the ‘numerological theme’ appears.

Here is the mp3 (8:05)

And here is the score (pdf)

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