Something old and something new

Out with the old

“Black and white movies are boring,” I heard classmates say.

“Shakespeare is boring,” it goes on.

“Poetry is boring,” and on and on.

Oftentimes it isn’t the thing itself that’s boring, it’s the idea that the things that are unfamiliar and old.

Old. Dated. Not trending.

Out with the new?

On one side we have those who will tell us, “In my days, we respected our elders” or “We knew how to talk to people” or “We didn’t have all this trash in the movies” and so on.

The default for some is that the tried and true is the way to go, and it’s all been downhill since the 1960s.

What media do you consume?

Records, radio, CDs, or Spotify? DVDs, cable television or Netflix? Books, magazines, blogs, Audible?

What visual communications do you see?

Oil paintings in museums, oil paintings in galleries, watercolors in antique shops, or calligraphy in pop-up shops? Advertisements on billboards, in newspapers, or on Instagram?

You’re reading this, I venture to guess you lead towards the older media, good ol’ tactile, stain your fingers with freshly printed ink newsprint, or you appreciate the sentiment, so the value of the classics is probably not one that needs arguing for you. Perhaps if I made a case for modern works that will take a bit longer.

I will not say either/or.

Our lives are better with art, music, and reading. But which art? Which music? What type of reading or what genres?

The list of books I want to read is so long, I tend to stick to the ones that earned their good reputation over the decades. But I would miss out if I left it at that.

At the Benedict XVI Institute Lenten Prayer Service, composer-in-residence Frank La Rocca said that modern compositions can complement Renaissance music. I do not know music theory, so I scheduled a phone call with La Rocca to ask him more about what he meant.

He explained that in the evolution of tonality, we moved from one singer to two singers producing different notes, eventually to the Renaissance with polyphony, a multitude of voices. That multitude can sing in harmony, but with the multitude, the composer carefully introduced a little dissonance. That dissonance is, in shorthand, sometimes painted as a bit of darkness, a bit of bad, with the good.

Time went on and there were strict aesthetic standards about how much dissonance was allowed and in what way.

Imagine mapping this idea onto emotion.

A simple life holds simpler emotions. As time goes on, so grows the complexity and our understanding of what we feel. Society allows some emotions like grief, but whether or not the blues are seen as normal is somewhat cultural.

Come the 20th century and La Rocca explained the field broke wide open as to what was musically acceptable. While that led to all kinds of John Cage experimentation, it also meant that those composers looking to the past could bring those ideas of Renaissance music to the present, with the wide open field of dissonance.

Is it better? Were they just blind back then?

No, La Rocca explains.

What we heard as engaging or not particularly startling might have jarred the ears of those Renaissance composers to distraction. But, perhaps, La Rocca proposes, because of what we as a world have experienced, the world wars, the Holocaust, the atomic bomb, and so much more, we moderns may have a different capacity or appetite for the dissonance.

Maybe we’re already carrying the dark emotions of sorrow, grief, or anxiety, and maybe they need an expression. They can do this still within a framework of beauty.

I think back to the artwork by Louisa Benhissen.

Her paintings displayed great technical skill and beauty. The subject, as a social portrait, sought to bring expression to something that might be seen as less beautiful than a Renaissance masterpiece, but then again, part of what she portrays comes from a willingness to see the whole picture, to paint on site, capturing the color, the attitude, and the nuances of what she sees. Maybe this was distasteful at certain times, but maybe it’s what we need to see now.

Something old and something new

There is value in visiting museums to see the old masters or to look at books of classic artwork. And there is value in going to new galleries, meeting the artists, and hearing them speak about their work. The same with the music. The same with books.

It is harder to sort through, undoubtedly, as it would have been in those Renaissance days, but like curating a home, we curate the mind, old with the new, traditional with innovation, for a worldview that is fuller and more complete, and therefore more whole and more beautiful.

Lifting the World up by Beauty

Contemplation through beauty

It was a day of beauty. It was my husband’s birthday. It was the day of the Benedict XVI Institute’s Annual Lenten Prayer Service presided by Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone at Mission Dolores Basilica. It was the day of Philomena Iorn’s first solo concert held at the Mistlin Art Gallery in Modesto.

Prayer services take all different shapes. This one set a choir of twenty singers, called Band of Voices, to one side of the church. Frank La Rocca, the composer in residence, arranged the program, alternating between a Renaissance piece and a modern composition, commissioned by the Institute last year, using the same text.

During a Q&A time at the reception following the prayer service, La Rocca explained that there are qualities of Renaissance and modern music that align and work well together. This allowed the composers, La Rocca, Daniel Knaggs, Mark Nowakowski, and Jeffrey Quick, to deepen and explore their expression of that spiritual text. Nowakowski later explained the challenge of this task because “you have to humble yourself before the text.”

The music was spellbinding.

Without electronic amplification, the Band of Voices led by Alfred Calabrese expanded and contracted, filling the Basilica without accompaniment, moving our hearts with the physicality of music that it is only possible with the human voice or the organ. I often held back tears.

Most moving to me was “Ad Te levavi oculi meus” based on Psalm 123 composed by Nowakowski. “What makes it sound so hopeful?” I asked my husband. I perceived through the music this sense of the darkness, and yet, lifting one’s eyes to the light, through the ashes or through the fog.

“It’s very Polish,” he answered simply.

Speaking with Nowakowski I asked him about this. There is something about the years, the generations of oppression faced by a people. He inherits this cultural blood through the stories, though he grew up in Chicago. But it lives in the personal experience as well, when we meet with suffering. Heritage gives a musical language to it, even if one nation seeks to wipe out the heritage of another. Only with great difficulty could it touch the music. How do you outlaw a note? You cannot outlaw hope.

Mission Dolores Basilica

This was my first experience at the basilica. The grandeur of the church old church moved us with awe as ducked into the side doorway from the rain. It was built in 1918.

“Imagine,” I said to my daughter, “they finished this building at the end of World War I. Imagine the devastation and grief people felt at that time.” The church is dedicated the Mother of Sorrows, not running from grief or avoiding it, but knowing there is a place for grief in the church, in religion. We do not have to hide our tears.

We saw the cemetery on the mission grounds.

The ancient garden and its ancient stones, mark those who have died. It took our breath away as the rain fell softly against the leaves, the drops gathering together and dripping down the vegetation. Silence shielded the enclosure like a fog. It was a sanctuary from the rough world outside the garden walls.

We rushed back inside the basilica as the service began.

Contemplation through nature

On the drive home our windows were animated with splashes of bright yellow wildflowers against the green rolling hills, some pockets filled with bursts of orange California poppies. All were illuminated, as if they produced their own light, against the gray skies. Closer to the valley we call home, the skies opened and clouds created their own land formations, showing us just how vast it all is.

We were home for just one hour before leaving again. The children burst into the backyard and made for the trampoline. The little ones rode scooters and tricycles knowing their time outdoors was diminished in this day of the arts. They laughed and shouted and acted in all the ways children were meant to do.

Philomena and Friends

The hour passed. My husband left to play earthy Celtic music at a corned beef and cabbage dinner. The children and I drove to Modesto to see a young soprano perform heartbreaking ballads from Scotland and the British Isles. Over 100 people packed into the art gallery to hear her, illustrating the power and importance of community to create and support beauty.

She sang with Abner Arias, tenor, and Michael Balerite, baritone. Iorns, Arias and Balerite students in Opera Modesto’s Summer Opera Institute. The concert took place through Modesto Unplugged, an organization focused on supporting live music in Modesto. Their vocal quality and stage presence was only enhanced by the sincerity and earnestness that comes whenever youth commit themselves to a project. Iorns told us of her Scottish grandmother’s homesickness and the day her sons brought  musicians to her home to perform “Danny Boy.” Iorns dedicated that song to her. “You were magnificent,” my daughter told her and I agreed. While we ought to evaluate a performance objectively, it is impossible not to think of these young people, already so accomplished, and how far they’ll go.

I thought back to my brief conversation with the Archbishop as I thanked him for all he does with the Benedict XVI Institute. Humbly, he said,

“We’re just trying to lift the world up with beauty.”

With the darkness, drudgery, isolation and confusion of this world, that sounds like something we all need.

Previously published in the weekly column, “Here’s to the Good Life!” in the Hughson Chronicle & Denair Dispatch.