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Category: music

How to listen to music: a spirituality of daily life

How do you listen to music? The path into appreciating music is one we all travel on. I began listening more about four years ago, and since then I have thought time and again about the impact of Spotify. I can say with no hesitation that an active music-listening practice each day has enriched my life immensely.

In November 2019, I delivered a session on appreciating music to a group of twenty five people gathered by the ocean an hour south-west of Melbourne. In the session, I gave participants a chance to listen deeply to a number of pieces of music, before I played something on cello.

Please find below a playlist of my selections, along with some brief reflections on those pieces of music.

Bach – Suite number one for unaccompanied cello, as played by Yo-Yo Ma.

In his cello suites, Johann Sebastian Bach brought together musical ideas from across Europe to explore the full human experience. Perhaps this first suite has the buoyant quality of youth: the bouncing enthusiasm; the joyful time of play with friends; the sense of exploring the world with eyes open wide; the seeking after life in all its fullness. Sure, there are places of darkness in the midst of all that light. But finishing with a jig (“gigue”) we are assured that happiness is reachable both in the music and in life. Celebrations are to be had! Life bends towards delight.

Taizé – The Kingdom of God

This Taizé chant is simple and repetitive. Long enough to find words worth saying. Short enough to enter one’s very being.

Philip Glass – Piano Etude Number 15, as played by Víkingur Ólaffson

Exploring depths beneath the surface of modern life, US composer Philip Glass offers a dynamic launching point for reflecting on experience. In this Etude, he draws us in with beautiful repeat phrases which seem to move us towards a wider view. He helps me look around corners, to see what I first missed. With festive enthusiasm he is unafraid of the dark, peering inside before illuminating it. Glass finds meaning in his days, and he presents a light to us in ours.

Arvö Part: Da Pacem Domine, with the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra

With a powerful sense of life as sacred, Arvö Part brings together choral and orchestral music with ease. The prolific Estonian composer loves to thread his way to spiritual and religious places within us. He does this with great hospitality, inviting the wide audience of music into his vision of grace at work in the world. Through hauntingly beautiful music, he invites everyone to a deep appreciation for all that is. This is not without its challenge, however, for the peace he offers in musical form also lays claim on how we live our lives – and that sense of challenge can leave us feeling a little off-balance before being brought back by the closing note.

Ola Gjeilo – Tundra, as sung by Tenebrae

This ethereal music threads its way into our ears with ease, even if we don’t understand the lyrics. Ola Gjeilo is a contemporary Norwegian composer who brings sacred and secular into conversation.

Clara Schumann, Scherzo number two, as played by Isata Kanneh-Mason

This piano piece lifts us to a higher place where we can consider life anew.

Antonio Vivaldi, Concerto for Two Cellos – Largo, as played by Julian and Jiaxin Lloyd Webber

Two cellos harmonising together seamlessly, in this recording the duet are in fact a married couple. My cello teacher told me that Vivaldi was a Catholic priest who would often go beside the altar in the middle of Mass to write down an urgent musical idea that just occurred to him. He soon made composing his life.

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Resonant birdsong in a concert hall of trees

When I sat down in a nearby garden, distant from life,
I listened to resonant birdsong, 
I gazed at the golden edges of cloud,
I admired the yet-to-be-planted ferns,
I watched the tiny spider climb along the soil ridge.

And I heard my soft voice in the depths 
and I experienced my yearning hoping loving hungry self
and I knew a deeper response to my day had arrived.

Then a repeat call of a bird in the tree above
renewed my sense of that place:
A haven for responding peacefully to life,
A home for discovery,
A rest stop to bring awe onto your path.

Meanwhile the sun—kept back by whiteish grey clouds—
meandered its way toward dusk in this place
and sunrise in another; and the cars
on the street below bellowed a solemn blare to the birdlife.
The birds went quiet for a minute or two,
taking in several breaths
listening out for their audience of trees
seeing comrades launching high
feeling the breeze of renewal
experiencing the soft sky
and readying themselves for performance.

But then across the same concert hall of trees
travelled the staccato cry of an infant human
and the non-human world offered an orchestral response
their glorious symphonies returning me to joy.

Finally the sun’s soundless rays spread over this page, 
gently inviting, and my happy pen takes its rest.

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“That Pärt Feeling”: a beautiful film celebrating Arvo Pärt’s music

A beautiful documentary film That Pärt Feeling: The Universe of Arvo Pärt (2019, Paul Hegeman – Vimeo) brings together musicians, conductors and collaborators to celebrate Arvo Pärt’s musical life. Viewers are taken behind the scenes of several rehearsals and performances, and given insights from people whose work has been entwined with Pärt’s. The Estonian composer is the world’s most-performed classical music composer alive.

Arvo Pärt

Each musician commenting on the impact of Pärt’s music speaks with awe, enthusiasm and even love. Estonian conductor Tõnu Kaljuste describes the journey Pärt has been on across decades of creative work together. This is seen best in the changes that occur across the four symphonies. For Kaljuste, Pärt’s music has “distance, which at the same time touches you”.

Tõnu Kaljuste

Classically trained electronic musician Kara-Lis Coverdale credits the composer with returning her to “fundamentals in music”. She points to Pärt’s use of triad chords: they “somehow sound so full, you don’t really need anything else”. Coverdale describes the angles and form in the music as architectural and almost mathematical. Whether listening or playing, she sees clear lines, not images, nor a romantic vision.

Kara-Lis Coverdale

Alain Gomis created a film, Félicité, where Orchestre Kimbanguiste de Kinshasa perfomed “Arvo Pärt digested by the Congo”. They play Antiphones which “represents a kind of beauty that can exist in your heart.” Gomis observes that “[Pärt’s] music influences the way you look… it takes you to a place you don’t know, but which you recognise as a human being.” Indeed, Pärt’s works affirm the significance of our daily experiences. 

Raoul Boesten of the Chamber Choir Kwintessens comments that Pärt’s music “puts you at ease, it relaxes you, it brings you closer to yourself. It’s confrontational, but at the same time comforting.” Boesten retells one of Pärt’s stories of having attended a concert where a dog was present. The music was played beautifully, and at each climax, the dog would howl. “Arvo Pärt loved that the dog was so ecstatic.”

Raoul Boesten

Pärt invites musicians and listeners alike to take a risk and allow his music to impact us. One collaborator comments that playing Pärt’s compositions involves “walking on thin ice – very beautiful but always with some danger.” A story is told of a person in Wales who approached the musicians to describe an emotional catharsis experienced during a concert, where now they want to do life differently. So it is “you have to take his music seriously. He intends something great with his music.”

The composer appears in the film to give guidance to the Cello Octet Amsterdam as they play his music. Pärt moves his body in step with the musical phrases, backwards and forwards, mouth open, and clicking to draw the music to a pause. He affirms that such music, as a communal enterprise, is not about virtuosic individuals, but a union of voices.

The spiritual commitment of Pärt to Christian faith fills his music with scriptural inspiration and a sense of mystery at the centre of things. Take Fratres, for instance, which is “about fraternity and unity” while not shying away from naming “the rupture between people”. The music becomes a prayer for those listening. “What he has to say is so extraordinary – his music takes you on a spiritual journey.”

The attentiveness and care Pärt offers to the cello ensemble inspires them to unite in creating something beautiful. The last lines in the film are Pärt’s: “One always has to dust off the old sounds. It is also important for me when I listen or when I work together with others, to have a creative access. We have to come together and then give new life to work. That’s how it is.”

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Movement at Abbotsford Convent, home to ANAM musicians

The gathered musicians talk with gladness
while standing under a tree, listening well
for the sounds from one another:
here voicing anecdotes and observations,
there responding with humour and light-heartedness.
In this encounter with delight each one is
renewed for the practice that awaits.

Music is a communal celebration of beauty
wherein players are safe to explore
the spirit and emotion of their hearts.
I observe the joy of these student musicians
set free by melody and meaning.
I imagine a culture of apprenticeship
which empowers young soloists
to embrace the boldness that is their own.

Soon these musicians will walk on, their
quaver-feet moving to a syncopated rhythm,
conversation abounding with colour and light.

The Australian National Academy of Music website is here:

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Celebrating a wonderful teacher

At the age of eight I began to learn how to play a small cello. Alex Zivkovic, an accomplished cellist, would be my teacher for 15 years. In meeting the Zivkovic family, musicians through seven generations in Serbia and now Australia, I was to have a connection to living musical history. In their house Beethoven’s spirit came alive.

Alex with me and my two brothers Tom and John on violin

As I went through adolescence, temperamental and unsure of the role of music in my life, Alex met me where I was. Most of all, he gave me permission to be patient with myself. He would never be harsh if I hadn’t practiced – the lesson could be a time to practice together!

He would often say ‘when you really want to play to a high level, we will switch pace’. His awareness of the importance of readiness, and knowing what you want, touched me. He respected the stages and seasons of my life before I did.

Our conversations moved between music and life. In the presence of my teacher, I could be my true self. I saw Alex like the older brother I didn’t have and the mentor I could confide in. Years later I would read John O’Donohue’s book Anam Cara about ‘soul friendship’. What I first experienced with Alex, I would later seek out in all my important friendships – a connection founded in trust which could animate the spirit.

When the time came, Alex allowed me to explore improvisation on piano, expressing myself in musical compositions rich in feeling and adolescent drama. There was a freedom present, the liberating sense that through our lessons I was finding who I was.

Alex became a music therapist. He understood the challenges patients face in coming to terms with serious medical conditions. He knew how to create spaces for music to act as a consoling presence.

We would often talk about the stories behind certain pieces we played. Alex told me the story behind Pablo Casals’ ‘Song of the Birds’. Exiled in France over the border from his native Catalonia, Casals would watch the birds fly towards his homeland, awakening depths of loving nostalgia for the place he so loved. As I play the piece now I am lifted into rising heights. Drawn up into the story behind the notes, I can see the birds floating above everything, blissfully unaware of human concerns.

We would often play a piece by Vivaldi, his ‘Concerto for Two Cellos’. Each cello reaches for the other, calling and responding with signature beauty and energy. Listening to the piece, or playing it, you can almost picture Vivaldi the priest, leaving the altar in the middle of Mass to write the divine melody down.

Remembering playing this piece together with Alex, I consider how in such music we reach for the sublime. With each beat, we can create something beautiful. We can console the listener, bring insight to the despairing, and carry joy to the feasting. We can be musicians in an orchestra of praise.

Years later I read Saint Ignatius of Loyola’s one time image of God as the teacher, meeting us where we are, and leading us through new lessons. Alex for me was one such image of the divine, ever labouring for my good.

This was first published as “A Concerted Effort” in the Autumn 2017 edition of Australian Catholics magazine.

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Bonobo’s ‘No Reason’ featuring Nick Murphy: years of listening

For three years now I have listened to No Reason featuring Nick Murphy by Bonobo. I listen whenever I seek the peace of the familiar. The 2017 track from the Bonobo album Migration features an uplifting rolling beat and ethereal vocals. The track accompanies me in joy and sorrow, laughter and fear.

I feel the lyrics from the opening ‘it’s beautiful’ through the long ‘sunrise’ and to the final ‘we’ve got the time of our lives now’. I am always moved by Murphy’s words ‘when music’s around, stay warm’. This music moves my heart. I emerge buoyant and more aware of hope.

Each play hits me again. I associate the track with a deepening sense of consolation over the years. My experience is of being enveloped in delight.

No Reason gives me a thrill of joy
deep in my bones, as I connect
my spirit soars into the sky.
Nick Murphy's vocals speak to my
life, 'we've got the time ... now' he
sings, calling me to fullness.
Bonobo's melodic beat and big reverb
invite my mind to relish the experience
of this moment, the call of now.
I am staying warm near this track
it fills my life with good tidings
it draws forth hope like water from a spring.
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Piano music of Bach played by Ólaffson: drama, reverence, awe

As Icelandic pianist Víkingur Ólaffson’s hands glide their way over the piano, Bach’s Organ Sonata No. 4 emerges as if out of a dream. The music moves with desire and intent, drawn as if by love, unto completion. We experience great glory in the union of instrument and musician.

Master violinist and Australian Chamber Orchestra Musical Director Richard Tognetti declared last year that “Bach is God to musicians“:

“We’re all disciples of Bach, as cringeworthy as that might sound. You can’t help it. Study any piece of his – and, unlike with anyone else, every piece, every damn piece, is the work of the hands and brains of a genius.”

Richard Tognetti

If Bach is God, Ólafsson here is reverently caring for the creation. The sounds the Icelandic virtuoso draws forth from his piano evoke a calming sense of peace all while telling an evolving drama of the spirit.

The notes tumble as if a stream of water could rise upstream and flow downstream on the direction of the musical master. We feel the intensity and enjoy the revolutions and resolutions entwined in each phrase. This experience is an unfolding and a binding together:

These notes are a discovering
musical phrases tumbling
over the piano like an ever-flowing
stream — sourced from above.
These revolutions are an unfolding
drama with constant movement
and liveliness capturing listeners;
we hang on every resolution.
These sounds are delight for the senses
a reaching toward completion,
a gathering together of the scattered,
a going out and a coming home.
These melodies are a retrieval
the intentions of Bach interpreted for today
like memories gratefully received
like stories heard with reverent awe.
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