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“The answer to those who would kill the human spirit is to revenge with beauty,” says one of the musicians with Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble, as found in this inspiring documentary (2016), directed by Morgan Neville. Another musician from Tehran asks, “Does my playing the clarinet stop a bullet?” Such comments speak of an evolving form of music, never before heard or even imagined that enlivens spirit.

How did this ensemble come about? The impetus came from the Chinese-American world-acclaimed cellist, Yo-Yo Ma, and his need to distance himself from the traditional music he had mastered for decades and to plunge into the shadowy void of his unconscious in search for something new.

In 2000 Yo-Yo Ma scoured countries near the Silk Road, the ancient network of trade routes joining the East with the West, looking for one-of-a-kind musicians, composers, and artists, many of whom had been scarred from revolutions in their countries. That summer he brought these strangers with their native instruments (a pipa, a duduk, a Shakuhachi, a morimn khuur, a Mongolian horse head fiddle, and many others) to the Tanglewood Music Center in Lenox, Massachusetts. Months of painstaking listening, of playing “natural, from the heart,” and of interweaving harmonies from differing cultures, eventually transformed them into the new sound Yo-Yo Ma sought. Their end-of-the-summer-concert evoked in inexpressible AH! from the audience.

It was the 9/11 disaster, however, that convinced the ensemble to continue working together and to share their ever-new evolving voice all over the world; it speaks of peace, of harmonious living—the antidote to the killing spirit intent upon the division and mayhem infecting the globe.

 

 

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It was a women’s afternoon, balmy, fragrant. Four-part harmonies of sacred hymns hovered within the curlicue of stone arches rounding the circumference of the monastery church, St. Anselm’s. Listeners upon wooden pews grew still as intricate harmonies wove our hearts within the ineffable.

Nineteen members of the Missouri Women’s Chorus, inconspicuous in their black attire, gave full voice to eight Latin selections, recently discovered by musicologist Craig Monson (Nuns Behaving Badly – Tales of Music, Magic, and Arson in the Convents of Italy, 2010). Organ and cello enhanced the sonorous tones of the singers.

It felt like being in a time warp, suddenly enveloped in sixteenth-and-seventeenth- century Bologna and Milan, in the company of gifted nun-composers who chose cloister walls to better live out their consecrated lives. Such passion for the Sacred found expression in their hymns. But their singular voice angered the Vatican’s Sacred Congregation of Bishops and Regulars, created in 1572, lest they lose authority over the masses. Despite restrictions upon the cloistered choirs, the nuns kept composing motets and the townspeople kept filling their chapels, over ninety-four of them in Bologna. The Sacred Feminine would not be silenced. Its expression saturated thirsty souls and evoked deep communion. This, indeed, was life.

Then, as well as now, such sacred harmonies restore wholeness, rejuvenate psyches, and enlarge faith in the unseen beauty that permeates all creation. Humbly, we seek its presence and thrive.

 

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I stir in my chair, let my pen fall to my lap. I listen. Can it be? Yes! A hymnody of chirps enlivens the early morning stillness still trapped in February’s bite. Outside my study window a mess of sparrows and finches flit among thickets of Missouri honeysuckle brambles, their transitional home in the universe. Transfixed, I watch. Minutes pass. Joy seasons my soul like fresh herbs in a savory stew.

Again in my chair, I reflect upon the epiphany of this new sound, a harbinger of seasonal change; on its heels, pristine greening will split tight buds on trees and bushes and stir hoary grasses on lawns and fields.

Then I reflect upon the tight places in my spirit, still congealed within winter’s dark, inert forms to which I’d grown accustomed. A sapling begins to emerge that mandates tending. It wasn’t there before the birds’ song.

I offer thanks …

 

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