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Part 1: Journeying to the Song and Gesture

Part 1: Journeying to the Song and Gesture

by Donald Schell

Headwaters are places of beginning and ongoing generation. Headwaters can be huge like the Blue Nile Falls, where the Blue Nile begins in a wild rush of falling water a rising cloud of spray that make a lush riverbank in the arid Ethiopia of our first human ancestors. Or headwaters may be tiny and look insignificant like the divided rivulets flowing off ridges in the high Rockies, half flowing east into the Missouri and on to the Gulf of Mexico and half south and west into the Colorado and down though the Grand Canyon where dams and viaducts divert it from the sea to Los Angeles and Las Vegas.

In 2004 and 2005, not yet knowing I’d begun searching for headwaters, I was obsessively asking musicians and composers what they knew of traditional, pre-literate music-making. Did they know of anyone composing music in the old forms? I was looking for liturgical music including chants and new hymns that our congregation could sing together in dim candlelight. Working to problem-solve for that service prompted me to wonder what we might learn from the ways people sang together in evenings not just before electric lights, but before printed music and texts. Spirituals, work songs, world music, summer camp music, ancient liturgical music fell into this category. What about Russian and South African choral folk traditions? What was happening with rhythm and melody? How did these forms find energy in dissonance and resolution in harmony without notes on the page? What basic underlying forms made it easy to learn by ear and join in? Repetition obviously, but more than that; What intuitive strategies for making musical and textual variety kept structure evident to people so they they could sing tune and words moment to moment?

In 2005 Yale School of Sacred Music sent Emily Scott to All Saints Company for a summer internship. By then I had found a dozen and a half composers around the country for her to interview by phone, people who were interested in the questions of traditional forms or for other reasons were asking similar questions to mine – what kinds of singing would draw everyone in and what beauties we might find in old ways of singing?

Emily and I talked at length and developed a series of observations and questions to ask the church composers we hoped would help us. Emily took extensive notes from the rich conversations and distilled from them an initial description of the old way of singing. Then she called the composers back to describe what she was hearing, and found eight composers whose enthusiasm for the conversation told us they wanted to join in creating something new, robustly congregational and musically satisfying from these inherited forms – simple melody, call and echo, call and response, layered, and rounds.

In late spring of 2006, All Saints Company gathered those eight composers for a working retreat at St. Dorothy’s Rest, an Episcopal Retreat Center, in the redwoods north of San Francisco. There I scrambled to edit and re-edit words from scripture, from mystics and poets so the composers could find new music in or for the words. Together we reflected on their fresh work, sang it together in workshop as it was born, tried it different ways, and offered impressions and ideas, all the time shaping our thinking about the forms. By the end of the retreat we had about fifty short new pieces of music, and with that core of a book, Marilyn Haskel joined Emily in soliciting more music adding about a dozen more contributors from around the country, and from the core work and further compilation, in 2008 Church Publishing published Music by Heart, Paperless Songs for Evening Worship.

At the composers’ retreat, Ben Allaway, made the astute observation that litereate people buying a book of pre-literate formed music would still be tied to the page – without coaching, they’d photocopy to leaflets or project the music on a screen when we knew a skilled leader could teach it by ear and in the moment. So with Music By Heart still on the press, we held our first Music that Makes Community Workshop Intensives, three days of teaching participants the practices of leading what we were calling “paperless music.” As of this March, we’ve had sixteen more of these three day workshops around the country and our ten or so leaders/teachers have continued to discover as much as the seventeen workshops’ four hundred seventy-five participants about music and leadership and group dynamics and the creativity of the Spirit. Our Eighteenth workshop will be this June in St. Mary’s City, Maryland.

The workshops and this way of singing drew on theological and process discoveries we’d made in forty years of mostly unaccompanied congregational singing in a college chaplaincy, a small town congregation and in founding St. Gregory of Nyssa, San Francisco. We mirror the leader, as St. Paul says, ‘imitate me as I imitate Christ.’ Singing together is a crucible for our undeclared collaboration in learning – a practice in which we discover that ‘we have the mind of Christ.’ Dynamically and literally, singing forms us. We breathe one Spirit together in common in-spiration. We listen to one another. We negotiate and discern leadership. We practice forgiveness. We create together. We ride the sparkling currents of consonance and music-energizing dissonance. And all singing, but particularly the old way of singing, shapes minds and bodies in community. Singing is a practice of reconciliation and at-onement. It also births individual freedom as we learn together to trust the voices God gave us.

The challenge of finding composers to make new music for a candlelit evening liturgy plunged us into startling discoveries of how it felt to learn music relationally, how a leader modeled the music and gave it away, and how people singing claimed the music as their own and lived into their own authority as music-makers. I felt and saw this in people’s faces and bodies. In singing together, something powerful emerged in embodied relationship and a common mind. Singing emerged and grew in face to face embodied relationship. Even with years of sung liturgy behind us, this felt like a discovery – not better music, not always even different music, but a musical path that had taken us into the forests of humanity’s earliest days. We’d stumbled on to the fresh, cold spring of human embodied consciousness and community, the gushing headwaters of the great river of our liturgy and shared meaning.

Through these last seven years of gathering shared leadership teams from a dozen or so wonderful musicians to lead seventeen Music that Makes Community Workshop Intensives, I’ve become a hungry reader of neuroscientific and anthropological studies that point to music and gesture at our beginning.

What made human community, speech, and articulate thought possible for our first human ancestors? How did we form groups that could hunt stronger and more dangerous prey? How did we care for our slow maturing babies? What made it possible for us to work and think together? How are freedom and individual thought and imagination possible when we’re so dependent on groups for our survival? We can touch this holy genesis in singing.

In secular neuroscientific research, primatology and studies of other mirror-neuron- equipped mammals, music research, therapies for stroke damaged brains, and more; we’re making daily new discoveries about human formation that inescapably inform our best understanding of Christian formation.

Any regular listener to NPR or reader of The New York Times or any viewer of TED talks will hear, read or see countless leads to new books sharing discoveries of the workings of our minds and consciousness. Learnings are coming to us from human and primate behavior, from neurology (especially in our new capabilities to monitor blood flow and electric impulses in our living, working brain) from watching how brains recover from strokes, from new understandings of the unique workings of differing kinds of human minds and differing ways we learn.

In the two essays that follow, I’ll offer additional hints that finding a common mind points to an antidote to the heresy of individual salvation in the theological truth that communities birth individual people (more truly and deeply than complete individuals aggregate to make a collective whole). And then I’ll offer a quick tour of some accessible books on neuroscience research, hoping I’m not the only complete natural theology geek who reads the Episcopal Café.

The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is President of All Saints Company.


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