River Road Unitarian Universalist Congregation

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Music Opens the Door
 A Lay Led Service

River Road Unitarian Church
Sunday, December 10, 2000
Jeanne Tifft, Convener

The first idea for this lay led service was this: The Fugue as a Metaphor for Community. I had an image that came from fugal technique. A fugue deals with a single theme, usually not a long one, clearly stated by one voice, reiterated by other voices, elaborated upon and transformed in various ways, while all working together create a complex and beautiful whole. The pleasure that a fugue can give comes from listening attentively to each voice separately even as we hear the blended whole all sounding at once. The metaphor was interesting to develop, but it felt more and more limiting; more and more unsatisfying. I wondered why, and concluded that what's really important about music in a spiritual context is its power to touch our emotions, to evoke our feelings, to open a door and allow us access to another realm of experience -- a realm that philosophers, musicians, and writers through the centuries -- and many of us here at River Road, too - have called spiritual.

Our group therefore decided that we'd try to create an experience of spiritual community here, using music itself, in music's own terms: with melodies, harmonies, rhythms. We'd like to involve everyone in making music as well as listening to it. Remember the guitarist last week who sang "if you can talk you can sing; if you can walk you can dance?" If you don't want to sing, though, or, maybe, don't want others to hear what you sound like, you can listen. Listen to the musical sounds around you. Let the sounds alone take hold of you and work their will on you.

Is it satisfying to find a perfect unison as we sing a familiar tune together? What does it feel like to be one of the parts in a harmony as we sing a round? How does the pleasure of listening to the other-worldly abstraction of a Palestrina motet differ from the pleasure of responding to the biorhythms of a gospel song?

The 17th century physician, Sir Thomas Browne, commented, wonderingly, in his Religio Medici: "...even that vulgar and tavern music, which makes one man merry and another mad, strikes in me a deep fit of devotion, and a profound contemplation of the First Composer...there is something in it of divinity more than the ear discovers."

Will you now consider melody and harmony each as a set of relationships - relationships between tones - relationships that raise expectations, play on our expectations, and, eventually, resolve them, through sound alone.

(In fact, a recent hypothesis in brain science suggests that it's this ability of music to play on our expectations - which is what evokes our feelings in response.)

Now, let go of all in your lives outside this sanctuary. Give your most exquisite attention here to musical sounds alone. Listen to their relationships. Allow them to open the door to your inner life during the time we have together. Believe that you yourself are the music. T.S. Eliot said that, in his Four Quartets. Let me quote the passage. It's from Dry Selvages:


For most of us, there is only the unattended
Moment, the moment in and out of time,
The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight,
The wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightning
Or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply
That it is not heard at all, but you are the music
While the music lasts.


Music as Spiritual and Human Communication
Rob Northrup

About 3 weeks ago I heard a woman on National Public Radio telling about her mother, who suffered from severe Alzheimer’s disease. The mother was in a far advanced stage of the disease. She didn’t seem to recognize her daughter. She did not respond to conversation, and seemed usually not to even hear words spoken to her. The daughter took her to church, thinking she might find it restful. Curled up tightly like a fetus, she seemed oblivious to what was going on. But when the singing, the hymn singing began, her body relaxed, she became calm, and she actually sang the words and the music, sang words she never could have spoken. Music reached her inner spirit in a way nothing else had been able to.

About a month ago my singing group The Augmented Eight – it’s an acappella mens group, we do close harmony, vocal jazz, show tunes – The Augmented Eight had its 50th reunion, 50 years of singing as a group. Nearly 60 singers came. On Saturday the Library of Congress hosted a workshop for us to discuss what this group and its singing had meant to each of us. One of the most powerful ideas from that session was the realization that something special happens between us as we sing. Blending your voice with the others, matching the group’s pitch, tuning with the others, being utterly open and responsive to each other as one has to be with this kind of singing, brings with it a sense of total communion with each of the others, a kind of shared love, and at the same time brings a sense of becoming part of something greater than just the music. We realized, as we spoke and remembered, how the music penetrates to, opens, our inner spirits to each other in a way no other form of social intercourse can.

As members of the choir here at River Road, that same kind of miracle happens often among us the singers, but with an added dimension – you as the audience. Your listening, your rapt attention when the music is truly reaching you, pulls something from deep inside us, enables us in the choir to give more than we thought cognitively would be possible. We and you are joined by the music, we sanctify it together, as it opens and draws upon our spirituality, on those places in us which are beyond our cognitive reach. Together, we share that sense of surrendering something of ourselves to be part of something greater and not really knowable. In our on-going search for a spiritual connection, our search for that larger vision, music takes us there – without our thinking it – together. Joined by the music, we become a spiritual community.

We hope that the music in this service – maybe the oboe’s mysterious haunting tone, perhaps the purity of unison voices and simple melodies, or the singing of familiar hymns as happened for the woman with Alzheimer’s, maybe the fugue, with its tension followed by resolution, or perhaps the irresistible rhythm of the gospel singing, we hope that some, or all, of this music has cracked that spiritual door for you today.