Category Archives: Music

The Music of the Spheres: a poetic adventure resumes

The Music of the Spheres

A number of years ago I was given an interesting poetic commission.

I had come to know the composer Marty O’Donnell, who is famous, amongst other things, for having composed the music for Halo, and for Destiny, two major games for the computer game company Bungie. When he was working on the music which would help to frame the game Destiny, a game whose narrative and architecture draws on the classical and mediaeval idea of the heavenly spheres, each with its own character and distinct music, he composed a beautiful new suite of music called ‘The Music of the Spheres’, and as we had talked together about the ‘seven heavens’ of the mediaeval world-view he asked me if I would compose a suite of poems to go with the music.

I came up with a sequence called ‘Seven Heavens, Seven Hells’. It consists of fourteen poems, arranged in seven pairs, which I composed in direct response to Marty’s music but also drawing inspiration, as we both did, from the mediaeval ‘seven heavens’, the crystalline spheres of the planets with their different characteristics and influences.

The whole approach, both to the poetry and the music, which Marty and I discussed early was a response to the idea, based in mediaeval astrology of ‘opposing pairs’. Each of the seven spheres has a certain cluster of associations and influences, Venus with Love, Mars with war and martial valour, the Sun with gold, but also poetry and inspiration etc. But equally it is possible for each of these celestial influences to become corrupted and malign, for, as St. Augustine says, good is primal and evil is always a corruption of some original good. Astrologically this is expressed in the idea that there is a diurnal, or good and light-filled aspect of each sphere, but also a nocturnal or dark aspect. Michael Ward, whose work Marty and I both admire, draws this out brilliantly in Planet Narnia, his account of the Seven Heavens in the thought and writing of CS Lewis.

A group of enthusiasts for Marty’s music, have, with his and Bungie’s blessing made a series of videos incorporating both the music and my poems. a while ago I posted a link to the first of these for the moon

I’m happy to say that the complete suite has now been posted. These poems will also appear in print in October as part of my next collection with Canterbury Press which will be called ‘After Prayer’. You can click on This Link, to go straight to a page which has links to all eight videos in what they are calling the Golden Age Anthology. Or you can scroll down and enjoy each of the videos embedded here:

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Ode to St. Cecilia

cecilia-4The 22nd of November is the feast day of St. Cecilia, Christian Martyr and Patron Saint of music. A few years ago I was commissioned by JAC Redford the LA-based composer and orchestrater, to write an Ode to St. Cecilia for a new piece of music he has in turn been commissioned to write, which had its premiere in LA in 2013.

I published the Ode myself this year in my new collection Parable and Paradox and here, for this year’s St. Cecilia’s day is the text of my ode and a recording of my reading of it. In the recording I also talk a little about the inspiration and how it came to be written. I hope you enjoy it. Margot Krebs Neale has contributed the beautiful image which follows the poem As usual you can hear the poem by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button.


Ode to St. Cecilia

You rested briefly here Cecilia

In this good ground, the Roman catacomb:

Its rounded vaults are rich with sudden sound

As pilgrims hymn you through the darkened air.

For you made music in your martyrdom,

Transposed the passion of your wedding night

To angel-given garlands, wreathed in light.

In all your three days dying you made room

For beautiful abundance, gifts and giving,

Your death was blessing and your passing praise,

As you gave way to grace,

Like music that still lives within its dying

And gives in giving place.

 

Cecilia, give way to grace again,

Transmute it into music for us all:

Music to stir and call the sleeping soul,

And set a counterpoint to all our pain,

To bless our senses in their very essence

And undergird our sorrow in good ground.

Music to summon undeserved abundance,

Unlooked for overbrimming, rich and strong,

The unexpected plenitude of sound

Becoming song.

Image by Margot Krebs Neale

Image by Margot Krebs Neale

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A Rondeau for Leonard Cohen

You chant again the telling charm

You chant again the telling charm

Today, on the anniversary of Leonard Cohen’s death I am reposting the poem I composed for him last year.

King David is the archetypal sacred singer, the psalmist in whom and through whom every passion can be lifted into poetry, and lifted through that poetry to God. His psalms sound Praise and Lament together, the wounds and glories of Eros and the wounds and glories of  Agape. It has often seemed to me that Leonard Cohen was a latter day David, as he too addressed the Lord and said

‘From this broken hill,

all your praises they shall ring

if it be your will

to let me sing.

I composed this poem about his passing in the mediaeval Rondeau form. The Rondeau is also the form used in the poem In Flanders Field and it seems a fitting form for this occasion. As always you can hear me read the poem by clicking on the title or the play button.

This poem, originally posted on this blog last year, was published in February of this year in The Christian Century.

A Rondeau for Leonard Cohen

 

Like David’s psalm you named our pain,

And left us. But the songs remain

To search our wounds and bring us balm,

Till every song becomes a psalm,

And your restraint is our refrain;

 

Between the stained-glass and the stain,

The dark heart and the open vein,

Between the heart-storm and the harm,

Like David’s psalm.

 

I see you by the windowpane,

Alive within your own domain,

The light is strong, the seas are calm,

You chant again the telling charm,

That names, and naming, heals our pain,

Like David’s psalm.

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A Christmas Invitation: new Christmas Music and Poetry

PLU Choir and Orchestra performing 'A Christmas Invitation'

PLU Choir and Orchestra performing ‘A Christmas Invitation’

I am pleased to say that a three-movement suite of Christmas Music composed by Jac Redford, for which he commissioned me to write new poetry, is being broadcast this month on a series of television stations across the United States. Broadcasts start on the 8th December in Texas and continue across the United States up to and including Christmas day itself. The full list and timings of these broadcasts can be found On This Page. You can also download the full concert program Here. And there is a DVD of the performance available Here.

The whole piece is a return to, and commentary upon, Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’, starting on fairly traditional ground with Fezziwig’s Ball, but then moving, with Christmas Present, and Future, into some contemporary concerns. The music is being performed by the choir and orchestra of the Pacific Lutheran University and here is how they introduce it in the programme:

A Christmas Invitation

Composed for Richard Nance and the Choirs & Orchestra of Pacific Lutheran University

MUSIC BY J.A.C. REDFORD/TEXT BY MALCOLM GUITE

A Christmas Invitation is a three-movement work for mixed chorus, soloists and orchestra. I have chosen Dickens’ A Christmas Carol
as inspiration, although the texts are original poems by Cambridge poet Malcolm Guite. The setting is not intended as a literal tableaux. Rather, because of the metaphoric value of the story’s spirits, Christmas Past, Present, and Future, I hope a variety of responses from convivial joy to thoughtful re ection will be invoked.

The first movement (Fezziwig’s Ball) revels in the nostalgia and merriment of our Victorian Christmas traditions, with music full of rhythm and vitality. As the movement closes, both text and music cast a shadow of loneliness over this beautiful scene, leading into a sober second movement (Look! Look! O man, look at the world you make) which re ects on Dickens’ surprising revelation of Ignorance and Want under the robe of the spirit of Christmas Present. The third movement (Christmas is the Lord’s own day, Rejoice!) proclaims hope for the future in the sort of redemption that was offered to Ebenezer Scrooge, while at the same time acknowledging that

there are significant choices still before us. I hope this new holiday composition will be memorable and enjoyable for all!

Here are the poems as they are sung in each of the three movements, I hope you enjoy them both as poems in themselves and in the musical setting for which they were written:

I – Fezziwig’s Ball

 

“Trim the lamps,” says Fezziwig,

“Tonight it’s Christmas Eve!”

And every lad is clearing space

And rolling up his sleeve,

 

And now we’ll have the shutters up,

And clear the desks aside

And make the warehouse snug and bright

To dance at Christmastide

 

Here’s porter for the fiddler,

And brandy for the guests,

And sweets and cakes and comfits

In richly laden chests.

 

And children rush around the feast

And gaze with shining eyes

On roast meat and cold meat

And minced meat and pies

 

(The holly berries glisten,

The ivy holds the light,

A blaze leaps up the chimney

To warm the winter’s night)

 

Here’s music for the couples

And dancing to the tune

As we all weave around and back

Beneath a Christmas moon

 

And here the young and and hearty

Cut capers at the ball

With their old host and hostess

As nimble as them all

 

But silent in the corner

Invisible to all,

An old man and a spirit

Who cannot join the ball.

 

His long life on the outside

Is looking in at last

And longing for the chance he missed

In every Christmas past.

 

The power to make men happy

Had once been in his hands

If he could just release it now

That he might make amends!

 

And will he bloom or wither,

That long-excluded shade,

Who leaves a ghostly Christmas Past

And hears the music fade?

 

 

II – Look! Look! O man, look at the world you make!

 

We close the shutters up to make our feast

To share our plenty only with our own

But who is this? A stranger, not a guest,

Who calls us now to take the shutters down?

 

Look! Look! O man, look at the world you make!

These are your children, Ignorance and Want!

Look at the ones who suffer for your sake;

Pinched in their poverty, withered and gaunt,

Sewing the clothes and shoes you throw away,

Assembling every shiny new device.

You wrap the goods they make for Christmas Day,

Your children get the gifts –these pay the price.

 

But you can change, for change is in the air,

Want is a child who might yet find relief.

Loosen your love, release your heart and share,

O dare to be a patron, not a thief!

Let all your love for family and friends

Be widened by His Love, and make amends.

 

Rise from your table, throw the window wide

Take down the shutters and unbar the door

Welcome the stranger, call him to your side,

That he might teach you what this feast is for!

 

 

III – Christmas is the Lord’s own day, Rejoice

 

Christmas is the Lord’s own day, Rejoice!

Rise and recover while you have the choice!

This is the day to loosen and release

The day to hear again His living voice.

 

 

“On Christmas day I come to be with you,

Today I take your nature for my own,

Today I offer you a heart of flesh,

Or will you choose again a heart of stone?

 

 

This Christmas choose between true life and death,

This Christmas choose between the good and ill,

This day I breathe in you my living breath,

This day you may do any good you will!

 

 

Oh come with me and I will come with you

And show you how to love my world with me

To bring your best to Ignorance and Want,

To be and bear the gift that makes them free.”

 

 

Christmas is the Lord’s new day, Rejoice!

Rise and recover, you still have the choice!

This is the day to loosen and release

The day to hear again His living voice.

 

 

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A Rondeau for Leonard Cohen

You chant again the telling charm

You chant again the telling charm

King David is the archetypal sacred singer, the psalmist in whom and through whom every passion can be lifted into poetry, and lifted through that poetry to God. His psalms sound Praise and Lament together, the wounds and glories of Eros and the wounds and glories of  Agape. It has often seemed to me that Leonard Cohen was a latter day David, as he too addressed the Lord and said

‘From this broken hill,

all your praises they shall ring

if it be your will

to let me sing.

Today I composed this poem about his passing in the mediaeval Rondeau form. The Rondeau is also the form used in the poem In Flanders Field and it seems a fitting form for this occasion. As always you can hear me read the poem by clicking on the title or the play button

A Rondeau for Leonard Cohen

 

Like David’s psalm you named our pain,

And left us. But the songs remain

To search our wounds and bring us balm,

Till every song becomes a psalm,

And your restraint is our refrain;

 

Between the stained-glass and the stain,

The dark heart and the open vein,

Between the heart-storm and the harm,

Like David’s psalm.

 

I see you by the windowpane,

Alive within your own domain,

The light is strong, the seas are calm,

You chant again the telling charm,

That names, and naming, heals our pain,

Like David’s psalm.

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Ode to St. Cecilia

cecilia-4The 22nd of November is the feast day of St. Cecilia, Christian Martyr and Patron Saint of music. A few years ago I was commissioned by JAC Redford the LA-based composer and orchestrater, to write an Ode to St. Cecilia for a new piece of music he has in turn been commissioned to write, which had its premiere in LA in 2013.

I published the Ode myself this year in my new collection Songs and Sonnets and here, for this year’s St. Cecilia’s day is the text of my ode and a recording of my reading of it. In the recording I also talk a little about the inspiration and how it came to be written. I hope you enjoy it. Margot Krebs Neale has contributed the beautiful image which follows the poem As usual you can hear the poem by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button.


Ode to St. Cecilia

You rested briefly here Cecilia

In this good ground, the Roman catacomb:

Its rounded vaults are rich with sudden sound

As pilgrims hymn you through the darkened air.

For you made music in your martyrdom,

Transposed the passion of your wedding night

To angel-given garlands, wreathed in light.

In all your three days dying you made room

For beautiful abundance, gifts and giving,

Your death was blessing and your passing praise,

As you gave way to grace,

Like music that still lives within its dying

And gives in giving place.

 

Cecilia, give way to grace again,

Transmute it into music for us all:

Music to stir and call the sleeping soul,

And set a counterpoint to all our pain,

To bless our senses in their very essence

And undergird our sorrow in good ground.

Music to summon undeserved abundance,

Unlooked for overbrimming, rich and strong,

The unexpected plenitude of sound

Becoming song.

Image by Margot Krebs Neale

Image by Margot Krebs Neale

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Everything Holds Together: The Feast of Christ the King

christ-the-king-constantinopleToday is the Feast of Christ the King, and one of the readings set this year is Colossians 1:11-20 a passage containing the beautiful Hymn to Christ, the core verses of which are these: 15-17:

He is the image of the unseen God, the first-born of all creation, for in him were created all things in heaven and on earth: everything visible and everything invisible, thrones, ruling forces, sovereignties, powers — all things were created through him and for him. He exists before all things and in him all things hold together.

So here is a poem I wrote about those verses, it is taken from my book Parable and Paradox, but this poem also appears on a wonderful album by Alana Levandoski , Behold I Make All Things New,

Here is the poem. the Greek phrase in the poem ‘Eikon tou theou, means image of God and is taken directly from the Greek text of Paul’s letter

Everything Holds Together

 

Everything holds together, everything,

From stars that pierce the dark like living sparks,

To secret seeds that open every spring,

From spanning galaxies to spinning quarks,

Everything holds together and coheres,

Unfolding from the center whence it came.

And now that hidden heart of things appears,

The first-born of creation takes a name.

 

And shall I see the one through whom I am?

Shall I behold the one for whom I’m made,

The light in light, the flame within the flame,

Eikon tou theou, image of my God?

He comes, a little child, to bless my sight,

That I might come to him for life and light.

As usual you can hear me read it by clicking on the title or play button, but better still you can hear it with Alana’s music, hear the other three poems that are woven in with it and see the beautiful paintings by Julie Ann Stevens that go with the Album. You can check out Alana’s website here.

 

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