I teach RE at a Catholic high school for girls. On Friday 11 March 2022, during period 1, my Year 8 students were to create a storyboard of key events from Holy Week and Easter. To centre the students in prayer before beginning their work, I introduced the Taizé chant “Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom”. We sang the chant twice in a ‘call and response’ fashion. I wrote this poem during quiet reflection that evening.
Through the communal mingling of voices, the great Spirit moves among twenty-one young women, kindling to fire their hopes for a new world. In the quickening of call and slowing of response, these singers become carriers of joy, heralds of freedom. This is the truth being met, here are the people of God. Look at them call out in unison see them glance at each other hear their enjoined words and how can you not be moved? In awe, open your eyes, lift up your ears. These are the witnesses to faith, these are the first responders to suffering, these are the students whose lives are to rebuild all things.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
For three years now I have listened to No Reasonfeaturing 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.
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.”
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.