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Tag: Bach

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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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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