Dedicated to The Westminster Williamson Voices and The Same Stream
© James Jordan
Before I begin, I want to thank my friend and Choral Institute at Oxford conductor Dimitri Arnauts for his posted question as a response to my first blog. So, this blog is an “attempt” at an answer.
“When your Being is Right, the Doing will take care of itself”. Those of us who studied with Elaine Brown heard this phrase frequently as in every day! This is not a blog about the “Doing” end of that phrase but rather about our “Being.” I think we all would agree that our “Being” has endured quite a hit in these days. Things that we took for granted, especially as musicians…the gift of being together and the gift of musical community has been taken away from us. And that is shattering for us, at least for me. For me, being away from my students and our Williamson Voices family has shaken me into this new normal that we find ourselves thrust into by circumstances beyond our control.
In today’s New York Times, there is a photographic essay entitled “The Big Empty” was published where they show photos of great gathering places around the world that are eerily empty and devoid of human beings. While that is photographic essay about places in the world, those images could be transferred in a certain way to each of our “spiritual interiors” as artists. We long for normal but the reality is that the normal we knew is not possible anymore. If music is to grow out of our living, then if we are honest, we must accept everything that come with a “Great Reset.”
We long to be making music with others. And we desperately miss the community that defines what we do as artists.
I spoke with Tom LaVoy this morning about a stunning electronic piece he just wrote. The piece and the poem touched me in my deepest places. If I step back for some perspective, I find it simply remarkable that in this time of scarcity of “live” singing, he created a deeply moving musical statement with the stuff at hand…a computer and a keyboard. And therein lies some lessons for all of us which I hope to tie together a bit later in this essay. But I speak to this because Tom relayed to me a story of an ER nurse supervisor on the front lines, and I believe she told Tom that this experience she called “The Great Reset.” Take a listen and go to pulldown menu and read his poem.
I am not seeking to justify a pandemic, but somehow, someway, we as artists must make spiritual lemonade out of lemons; to make sense of what we have been handed. Our “Being” is not Right and our “Doing” in these days simply will not take care of itself without some very hard self-examination and downward and deep “excavation.” Our doing right now must be to take care of our being. And we must realize and acknowledge, first, that our way of being before this pandemic will be useless when we emerge from this greatest of human and personal challenges unless we do the hard work on our inside self now. We are being changed, and we must allow ourselves to be changed by allowing ourselves to feel what we must feel, to perhaps, love those we love in a newfound view of what it is love and be loved, not only as human beings, but as artists, one to another and human being to human being.
This must be a Reset. Let us take these days in our lives and take this moment of “The Big Empty” and scarcity and transform this time into, as my friend Mako Fujimura speaks of at as a moment of “generativity”. I always believed that I understood what it was and is to be “vulnerable.” But now I realize that the “big reset” for all of us is to re-feel what we are feeling because the bundle of everything we are feeling is human vulnerability in its most raw feeling form and it has been uprooted and scattered within us. These days have drilled though all the layers of our lives into a deeper place than we have ever felt…if we choose to acknowledge what we are feeling. To be sure, the textbook version of vulnerability is feeling a sense of helpless and lack of control…a certain human trust that has been created in us by those feelings. We are living, I feel, in a newly awakened sense of vulnerability.
Well, welcome friends to this new sensation of vulnerability brought upon us by our communal epic human struggle. And if we choose to embrace this new sense of vulnerability brought on by the “great reset” we will be giving ourselves the greatest gift as artists in this time of great uncertainty.
Loss of Center
But if we are really self-aware, we will feel that we have lost our center, our grounding. And then, this must be a period where we acknowledge that our very center has been dislodged and we must do contemplative things daily to re-center ourselves. In studying with Elaine Brown, one of her central philosophies was to make sure we understood as conductors that all we do comes from our awareness of center, and out of THAT emanates all of our most deeply honest music-making. For Elaine, center was that place deep within in us where all the things we deeply believe live within us and are “so.” If we accept that “definition” of feelings and awareness, then, how can we avoid the fact that we have been shaken and that our centers have been knocked out of balance within ourselves?
Acceptance of this fact starts us upon the road to recalibrating ourselves to our new reality…our own “great reset.” Our lives living a pandemic is the “catalytic agent” that EB speaks of below.
It is strange that truth has to be felt as well as thought. One hears the same phrases over and over, and then one day, a new someone says them in a little different twist, couples the saying with some mighty potent doing, and one becomes aware for the first time. A catalytic agent of unexplained origin changes the formula altogether, and one is a potentially different person (P. 224).
Quoting a letter from a Student
MENC Western Division Conference Speech, 1961.
Reader beware. M.C Richards, the author of the classic book “Centering In Poetry, Pottery and The Person” was one of my required textbooks with EB. That single book laid the ground over 60 years ago for the importance of Centering, and how deeply difficult it is to Center, and Re-center through one’s life.
CENTERING, which I discuss in this book, is a severe and thrilling discipline, often acutely unpleasant. In my own efforts, I become weak, discouraged, exhausted, angry, frustrated, unhappy, and confused. But someone within me is resolute, and I try again. Within us lives a merciful being who helps us to our feet however many times we fall (p.8)
Re-centering into Our “Crossing Point”
Elaine Brown constantly talked to her students in the hope of keeping this “crossing point” idea deeply in our awareness as I have said. The above quote that appears in all MC’s books locates the geographic “centering” in us where our want to connect with others (the part of us that is upward and outward energy) and the things that ground us (force that goes downward) meet in that place that we have labeled metaphorically as “center.” I do not believe that while we miss the immediacy of that upward force that makes us yearn for human connection in these days, I believe that we must spend time with ourselves to make sure those human things which ground us are not shaken by this “great reset”. If we do our inside work when we have been given the gift of time with ourselves, then we can regain this human center in ourselves.
One of my closest friends just wrote to me. This person is brilliant and always is always connected. They wrote talking about their own feeling of disconnection and lack of energy to do the academic and other personal things requited day-to-day. That set off an alarm in me because that is symptomatic of a loss of center that all of us probably, if we are honest, are experiencing. These are just two symptoms of a more complex matrix of the need to re-center.
A number of years ago I wrote a book entitled Toward Center with my colleague Nova Thomas. That book tried to drill down on the wrings of MC Richards, and the ideas of Centering and what “the crossing point” needs to be from an artist’s point of view. This is on the suggested reading list for this blog. https://www.giamusic.com/store/resource/toward-center-book-g7661
In that book I offer a “word-smithed” multi-faceted definition to get folks in the door and to realize the importance of Centering.
• Center provides a physical grounding of one’s energies, making them both strong, undiluted and immediately transferable to others.
• Center provides a focal point of one’s energies; with such focus, those energies can be channeled at will to the musical task at hand.
• Having a strong center minimizes or eliminates tension that causes multiple human connection problems for artists.
• Center provides THE most direct line of communication from the artist outward.
• Honest and sincere artistry cannot occur without center
• Center allows for the correct use of the body. Center places one at an anatomical advantage.
• A constant awareness of one’s center becomes an enabler for all things artistic.
• Center has limited effect upon art until it is revealed to others. One may have a centeredness to one, but one must want to both connect and share that center with others. That center can only be revealed if one lives in the “Crossing Point.”
• Center must be projected or propelled. Once one is centered, it takes channeled energy to transmit and share hoinestly the power of that center to others.
• When one is truly centered, and that center is grounded, one usually feels as if one has “lost control.” This feeling of losing control while centered should be the goal for all artists.
So, this is a time for re-centering ourselves because the world has literally shattered our own centers. We feel helpless, but really, are we? We might feel helpless because we do not know how to help ourselves. Well, I believe that Centering as MC Richards described it 70 years ago while she taught at Black Mountain College with John Cage, Merce Cunningham, William DeKooning, Lou Harrison, Buckminster Fuller and Robert Rauschenberg is something that was the center of their artistry and needs to be at our center of thought in these days. If they believed in MC’s metaphor then, that lead to some of the most brilliant artists and human truth tellers of our times, given their combined human and artistic achievements, so shouldn’t we follow?
Author’s Note: In addition to Towards Center recommended above I highly suggest the original source for Centering as a read for everyone reading this blog.