Themes and Variations (GIA 2020), a new collection by Don E. Saliers, collects pieces originally published in The American Organist magazine. Susan Sink had a chance to talk to Don about the new book and life during the pandemic.
Themes and Variations collects columns from The American Organist magazine, but I know the columns are not about organ playing. Looking over the columns as you collected them, what are the driving ideas?
The book emerged from writing short essays for musicians and music lovers over a period of several years. I noticed how I kept returning to central themes and basic questions. How does music give us the “feel” of our experiences of God, self, and the world? Why does music take us to the edge of transcendence or at least to the mystery of being human? How does music of various kinds shape and express emotions—perhaps especially what may be called the “deep affections”: joy and sorrow, gratitude and hope, lament and praise? As I wrote it became increasingly clear that I was seeing, and returning to, analogies between music and our moral/religious imagination. Specific composers and contexts of listening punctuate these matters, from Bach, to Spirituals, to jazz, and from liturgical assemblies, to concerts, to personal “life soundtracks”—music that comes to define a time, place, or event in individual lives.
At the same time one thinks of sound and silence, life and death, of the sensual and the intellectual dimensions of poetry and music. I’m always looking for “interanimations” of language and music and how we imagine the worlds in which we live.
Why does music take us to the edge of transcendence or at least to the mystery of being human?
Would you call giving us “the feel of our experiences of God” a form of what the traditions call mystagogy—the exploration of personal spiritual experiences to interpret mysteries?
The book consists of discrete little chapters, extended meditations. A small group could read and use the book as a way to expand and understand their own religious and musical experiences. The whole book invites readers to find the analogies in their own lives, or their community’s life, to what they’re seeing or hearing. In this context, mystagogical reflection on the question of God would be, for example, meditating on a Spiritual like “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child” and reading the reflection in the book. Through that meditation, you might come to realize that you’ve had an experience of God through singing, or hearing a Spiritual, or through the kind of suffering the song addresses. Several chapters take up the question of death and dying in relationship to music. Another theme is the role of silence in music and the experience of silence in our lives. Psalms saturate the whole book. The pieces can be used as a guide into reflections on these experiences and themes or individual psalms.
You speak of connecting with the Psalms through the monastic practice of Liturgy of the Hours. What is it about the psalms, do you think, that makes this ongoing cycle of praying and singing them so meaningful?
I have three things to say about the psalms. First, there is something about singing our prayer that is crucial. It’s an embodied form that requires breath and space, and brings out the musicality of the text that wouldn’t occur to you if you weren’t chanting on a tone.
Second, during Liturgy of the Hours, the psalms are always being inter-animated with the readings and the prayers, always cycling through seasons — of life and year. Certain psalms come up singing or chanting them together in poignant, surprising, and revealing ways. The psalms lie in wait for us. We don’t understand them until we live with them long enough that the community’s life begins to cycle through with them: joys and suffering and life and death and birth. Chanting them releases their way of understanding life—in chanting, the Psalm’s potential becomes real in our lives. With chant, breath, body, and soul converge.
Third, the 150 psalms open every single theme in Scripture: creation, history, grief, paranoia, comfort, blessing, fear, self-righteousness. The whole of life is in there and you have to experience them over time. Participating in the Liturgy of the Hours is like joining a continuing and repeating series of episodes about the most important things in life. When I have spent time praying with the monks of Saint John’s Abbey, the constant interaction of the psalms with readings led me to write in my journal: “tune in tomorrow and see.”
The psalms lie in wait for us.
I remember especially attending Sunday vespers at the Abbey, which used genius settings by Jerome Coller and Bryan Henry Hayes. Bryan Henry was from Tennessee, and that filtered into all of his musical settings (that upland Appalachian sound). Sunday vespers became a kind of interesting touchstone point, beginning the week and also summing up the week before, drawing our attention to what came up during the week and revealing that there is even more in these psalms. The eccentricity of the day’s readings and of those prayers was a wonder—the sounds of those monks’ voices reading the prayers fused in my consciousness with the praying of the psalms.
What role did the Collegeville Institute and Saint John’s School of Theology and Abbey play in your thinking about liturgical music?
I have been privileged and blessed with a nearly fifty-years association with Saint John’s Abbey as an Oblate. I have been in residence as a fellow at the Collegeville Institute four times, once with my whole family. Our four daughters were deeply influenced by our time there and their school years in Saint Cloud and Saint Joseph. Emily [of the Indigo Girls] made an early singing debut at a political rally in Saint Cloud. The social singing at the Collegeville Institute was especially lively that year, when I think 10 children were in residence!
I especially appreciate the genius of the Benedictine ordering of the psalms. You never know what is going to work on you in your prayer life. The rhythm of the dailiness is so important. That made Sunday evening vespers richer— a quartet of monks would sing and some of the psalms were elaborated. I can still hear their voices. My heart is still there. When I’m in a tight spot, I can go to Saint John’s and Saint Ben’s through the psalms. The sound of the psalms chanted by the women of Saint Benedict’s Monastery is very different from the choir at Saint John’s, and I’ve always loved the depth of that soprano/alto sound.
Praying the psalms in community, both at Saint John’s Abbey and Saint Benedict’s Monastery, shaped my love for psalmody. Friendships with musicians in both communities have been great gifts: Sr. Delores Dufner, Fr. Robert Koopman, Fr. Henry Bryan Hayes, Fr. Jerome Coller, Fr. Anthony Ruff, and others. In the several years when I was teaching at the School of Theology during the summer, I often visited Sr. Dolores Schuh and occasionally played golf with Fr. Wilfred Theisen. The intellectual and social life of the Collegeville Institute is a rare gift, and I continue to treasure all my associations stretching back to Paul Minear, Bob Bilheimer, Patrick Henry, and especially to Fr. Kilian McDonnell.
I always say that if I didn’t go to church, I’d never get to sing! Singing is not a part of everyday life for those of us who aren’t musicians. Right now, congregational singing is not allowed in our diocese to stop the spread of Covid-19. What effect do you think this has on worship and our relationship to church and God?
For any congregation and local parish who love singing the liturgy or simply gathering to sing, this pandemic has been difficult. This is an unintentional musical fast. And like any fast, it generates anticipation for the wonderful “taste” and nourishment of return. Yet it has always taught us something of the precious gift of sung prayer and the joy of shared song.
I have been connecting by Zoom with many choirs and church groups who want to discuss their love of music. I keep returning to the observations that “music is the language of the soul made audible.” But more, even when people think of themselves as not musical (“can’t carry a tune in a bucket”), it is still true that we are made for singing. The whole creation continues to praise God musically, even if we aren’t consciously participating! Yet we know that some music leads to transcendence, or at least to the expression of the deepest things we experience in life: joy and sorrow, delight and hope, lamentation and ecstatic praise. In my recent book, I try to sketch why music is so crucial to our faith and to our common humanity.
This is an unintentional musical fast. And like any fast, it generates anticipation for the wonderful “taste” and nourishment of return.
There is such a difference between music on Zoom and “live”! There is an odd sense in which we can “hide” behind techniques and electronic production. I prefer the “contingencies” of the assembly physically present. I long for the time when we are in spaces with the physical “feel” of the acoustics, the kinetic sense of music and musicians, and of the “synesthetic” experience of embodied liturgy. And contemplative silences between the notes!
What are you listening to and playing these days?
Lately I’ve been back practicing on the keyboard doing a lot of relearning the Beethoven sonatas. I’ve been memorizing Bach’s 2- and 3-part inventions, to keep my brain active. I’ve been listening and going to pieces that have enough musical gravity to resonate with the current state of the world: Mahler, Paderewski, Bach. My meat and drink is reattuning myself to what Beethoven and Bach have to say but also what Mahler and these larger works have to say. Gorecki’s Symphony Number 3 which has lots from the Holocaust embedded in the musical vocabulary. That is my serious stuff. Chick Corea and Wynton Marsalis when I can. Also the Indigo Girls! Some of their recent stuff is just fantastic.
I approach the keyboard saying, “Hello, old friend, teach me some new things I didn’t hear before in your music.” The relationship between music and transcendence comes in. Sometimes I think, “Oh my God, if the world understood what was in this passage it would be different.” I try to communicate that sense in the new book as well.
Few people listen to Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children). It has special resonance for me since losing my daughter Carrie and my wife Jane, and I think of children being torn from parents at the border and dying senselessly around the world. The music encodes deep suffering and grief that has to be part of the difficulty of Christian spirituality. You have to have a tough mind to be a Christian. I’m tired of ultra-bright Christianity. You just can’t sing “Out of the depths, I cry to you” in C major in waltz time.
Being able to explore those diverse but equally true experiences of transcendence and God in the world through music is part of the impact Benedictine life and Collegeville has had on me. Soli Deo Gratia.
You have to have a tough mind to be a Christian.