24 May 2005

blacksheep choir - water music

Posted by at 8:38 PM

For archival purposes, here are the liner note credits to the unreleased blacksheep choir recording.

blacksheep choir:
theo belledin - saxophones
ebbert m. gepner ii - drums and percussion
john moore - bass (except where noted)
r. león santiago - voice, guitars, cuatro, percussion

1 - heathens - (5:15)
rob fix - bass
peter venti - keys
karen waltuch - viola
6 - (let) X=X - (4:06)
kate russo - violin
karen waltuch - viola
anne bell - flute
2 - spike & the slydog (américan roulette)
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . - (4:29)
peter venti - piano
karen waltuch - viola
7 - reach - (4:36) *
chant peck & scott nowak engineered
ethan newman - bass
peter venti - piano &

3 - man in the water (building a fire) - (3:45)
darell colton - bass
peter venti - keys
8 - the river - (6:17)
peter venti - keys
karen waltuch - viola
paul evans - oboe
4 - on a rainy day - (2:59) *
chant peck & scott nowak engineered
rob fix - bass
dan biederman - piano & wurlitzer
ted belledin - rhodes

9 - summerland - (4:41)
peter venti keys
karen waltuch - viola

5 - the mark of cain (4:55) *
chant peck & scott nowak engineered
darell colton - bass
chris gough - organ
león, ted & chant - noises
10 - magdalen blue - (5:56)
darell colton - bass
peter venti - keys
karen waltuch - Viola

all songs:
words and music by r. león santiago
© 2003

produced by blacksheep choir & chant peck
recorded at MCC, Mesa, AZ with some sessions * at
the Conservatory of Recording Arts & Sciences,
mixed by chant & león


12 May 2005

Robert Bly at Changing Hands

Posted by at 8:49 AM

Yesterday I went to go hear Robert Bly read from two of his recent volumes, one an anthology of his translations (The Winged Energy of Delight) and one a book of his own ghazal verses (My Sentence Was A Thousand Years Of Joy). He wore a colorful ornate silken jacket of asian origin and smiled a lot. Now seventy-eight years old, his head is crowned by a thick mass of white hairs, credentials of his humanity. What a beautiful man.

I'll just let him him speak through his poetry, and simply add that he moved me.

The Night Abraham Called to the Stars

Do you remember the night Abraham first saw
The stars? He cried to Saturn: "You are my Lord!"
How happy he was! When he saw the Dawn Star,

He cried, ""You are my Lord!" How destroyed he was
When he watched them set. Friends, he is like us:
We take as our Lord the stars that go down.

We are faithful companions to the unfaithful stars.
We are diggers, like badgers; we love to feel
The dirt flying out from behind our back claws.

And no one can convince us that mud is not
Beautiful. It is our badger soul that thinks so.
We are ready to spend the rest of our life

Walking with muddy shoes in the wet fields.
We resemble exiles in the kingdom of the serpent.
We stand in the onion fields looking up at the night.

My heart is a calm potato by day, and a weeping
Abandoned woman by night. Friend, tell me what to do,
Since I am a man in love with the setting stars.

He brought along some copies of a slender book of poems against the Iraq war he published called The Insanity of Empire, and gave one to me.

How cool is that?

08 May 2005

¿what's in a name? (a modest proposal)

Posted by at 10:25 AM

I've never seen the Survivor show but I'm a sucker for trivia games so I'm taking part in an online version of it in CC2. The very first question asked in the game brought my attention to a problem which I encountered a few years back in a different setting. Back then I was surfing around one night and came across an apologetic/polemic website whose whole purpose was to catalogue and comment on various apocryphal and extracanonical ancient texts. Early into my exploration of his site, though, I began to notice errors.

For example, he said that the Gospel of Thomas contains some stories in which Jesus is depicted as a spoiled brat of sorts. In these stories, the excitable and capricious boy Jesus, when angered, could become vindictive and even very violent. As punishment for one of his playmates' messing up his fishing pool, for instance, he causes the kid to instantly wither like he did the fig tree on the way to Jerusalem in the synoptic Gospels. After the townspeople complain to Joseph and Mary about it, Jesus restores the kid (although he leaves his hand withered as a warning). Later in the same chapter Jesus makes another kid drop dead for bumping into him in the street and makes all those have a problem with that blind (at which point it is recorded that Joseph pulled Jesus sternly by the ear for his behavior). If one is not familiar with these texts, it will come as a shock that these kind of stories were actually common once upon a time.

These stories do exist and they go way back. The trouble is they don't come from the Gospel of Thomas (GTh) as this guy claimed in his website. When NT scholars refer to the Gospel of Thomas, they mean a very specific text. They are talking about a collection of one hundred-fourteen sayings of Jesus of which a complete copy in Coptic was finally unearthed in 1945 near Nag Hammadi, Egypt. We also have two fragments in Greek which were discovered in 1898 and which are older than the Nag Hammadi copy. The GTh contains nothing at all about the acts of Jesus. There are no signs in this gospel, no wonders, no virgin births, no Josephs, no Maries; it's just a list of sayings spoken by the "living Jesus". The story of a bratty Jesus comes from another book altogether, a book traditionally called The Infancy Gospel of Thomas (or Infancy II -- to distinguish it from the Protevangelion, or Infancy Gospel of James, and there's even another Infancy Gospel, Infancy I, which, curiously enough, is also attributed to Thomas, as if it wasn't confusing enough already). Infancy Thomas probably dates from the third century. Only a fragment of it has been preserved.

¿So why do I bring this up?

well . . . This week, the trivia question was: "What flower is usually associated with St Joseph and why?". Some of my teammates knew the first half of the answer : the white lily which sprang from his staff as a sign of his selection as Mary's husband. But where did this legend come from? None seemed to know. Aha! I was on the case! I figured I'd look at the Protevangelion first. This is usually where miraculous perpetual sanctities regarding Mary are first spoken of but, to my surprise, the story in the Protevangelion speaks of a dove springing from his staff as a sign of his selection as a suitable husband for Mary . . . not a lilly. Hmm . . . So I turned to the infancy gospels next. Nothing there. Oh shit!, don't make me have to read Jerome again! (not my favorite founding father to read . . . laughs). Luckily, it was then that a teammate found the vital link. She found a quote which claimed to be from the "Gospel of Mary" which contained the legend. Great! So I turned to the Gospel of Mary. But . . . . there was nothing there, the quote didn't match . . . .
Wait a minute! . . . . What's going on here? Imagine that someone quoted a saying in Matthew, and when you went and looked for it in Matthew . . . . it wasn't there!

Luckily, she provided chapter and verse numbers which helped me to cross-reference between books and, after a little searching, I finally found it. The source is an ancient text that was attributed to Mathew back then, which is called The Gospel of the Birth of Mary. Most likely a third century work, it was used by Jerome extensively in his writings. Ah! But wait! . . . In some of the secondary sources, this book is refered to as the "Gospel of Mary". Ah! So here's where the rub started! . . . . from an abbreviation!

When modern scholars speak of the Gospel of Mary, though, again, they mean a specific book of which only three fragments have survived into our modern era, two in Greek (its original language) and one (the longest fragment) in Coptic. This work can arguably be dated to the beginning of the second century, which would make it as old as much of the NT. The Mary that is refered to in the title and who is the focus of its text is not Mary the mother of Jesus but Mary of Magdala. This gospel is a fascinating glimpse into some of the conflicts that arose between early variants of the nascent movement when trying to determine and assert apostolic authority. In fact, I think it's in some small part because of its undeniable antiquity and because of the import of its content that Pope John Paul II was moved to proclaim Mary of Magdala the Apostola Apostolorum, the apostle to the apostles.

But all that aside, the Gospel of Mary contains nothing at all on Joseph. . . . is my point.

So what's the big deal?

Well, like in the above GTh example, it's just a bad reference. Bad scholarship.
Now . . . You might be thinking . . . "Everybody's human, though and we all make mistakes, most of which are pretty benign anyway."
Sure. . . okay. . . but. . . if you believe that . . . . then ask yourself how you feel about things like the Da Vinci Code. Should we just let that slide? That seems to me the perfect example of conjecture and erroneous information being passed off as "history" to a welcoming public raised on controversy. The following two responses are certain:

1 -- Those who are pious and strong in their faith will trust their priests and pastors on their word as to the worth of the conjectures and the questions raised by them.

2 -- Those who know that David Brown is trying to pass off wild speculations and conjectures as factually verifiable, because they have taken the time to read and critically examine the germane texts, will simply find him amusing.

But what of the everyday people (mostpeople) who take their quasi-faith solely on faith, those to whom these things are far-off academic matters, those who have more pressing things to do in their living than check on the historicity of things? Either they succumb to their reptilian need for gossip and scandal, and thus buy into spurious claims like those in Brown's novel, . . . or else their incertitude leads them to a kind of cynical position in which the baby (honest historical research) is thrown out with the bathwater (Da Vinci Code-like misrepresentations) without further thought. It's not hard to imagine that, upon hearing that the Gospel of Thomas contains stories of a mean young Jesus who kills children who piss him off . . . . . . well . . . a person might easily dismiss that out of hand, and then close his or her mind off to even looking at the GTh (a turnoff from the git go is seldom overcome -- an example from recent politics: Senator Kerry couldn't rebound from false accusations of treason and suchlike -- the last presidential campaign was a shameful affair in this respect, but I'll save that for another post) even though it's simply not true that there are any such stories in this text. That's what worries me about these historical fabrications, that ordinary people will not be able to distinguish between honest methodical work and sensationalist musing or reactionary rhetoric.

The curent Da Vinci Code mass credulity kinda reminds me of the movie Amadeus. In that enormously popular oscar-winning film, the court composer Antonio Salieri was portrayed as an envious contemporary who was moved by this envy to calculate and then bring about Mozart's death.
Great story. . . . ¿Right?
Yeah, except it's almost certainly not factual. Such fanciful rumors of the mysterious circumstances surrounding the death of famous historical figures like Mozart abound in our histories:

Akhenaten's murder
Robert Johnson poisoned by a jealous husband
Warren G Harding's wife suspected of having had him killed
Tiberius' exit vs Gaius' entrance
Pope John Paul I rubbed out for his liberal views
Courtney Love vs Kurt Cobain
the Kennedys

. . . . the list is long

In this particular case, though, investigations were conducted in the nineteenth century and the resulting reports (most notably Edward Holmes' in 1845) dismissed the rumors as untrue and even "shameful".
But . . . nevertheless . . . ours is a generation that will go to its grave believing that Salieri killed Mozart, all because of one very popular re-telling of the story. Think about it. Poor Salieri might not have been the same caliber of composer that Mozart was, but he was most certainly no murderer! That's a bum rap.

See my point?

Or take Lizzie Borden, of macabre nursery rhyme fame, as an example. It turns out she was taken into custody, tried, and released after it was determined she had nothing to do with what she is now famous for.

Anyway, before I digress further, my proposal is this:
Let's be as conscious of these careless abbreviations as we can and be clear about what references we are using. There might be disagreements on who actually is an authority on the things contained within these texts and what these things might ultimately mean, but at a more basic level we must at least strive to call things what they are called.
A standard rule of nomenclature, is that a lot to ask for?
To insist that a book be called by its proper name is not a theological argument, it's just a simple request for courtesy. For clarity.


03 May 2005

the artist and the word

Posted by at 5:56 PM

. . . . . . . (or why I love the innocence mission)

Let me first say that I can't stand "christian" music. It makes me wince. I've tried to not involuntarily respond to it like this, that is, to not kneejerk -- to no avail; I just can't stand it, no matter how hard I try. Now, mind you, that's not to say that I have anything against musicians who are christians by faith; that's not what I'm saying at all, lord knows I don't care what religion one holds in one's heart of hearts, as long as one is honest to oneself and to others. God is Truth is Love is Beauty, and everybody knows that beauty wears many different liturgical robes, so I guess what I really object to is the category of "christian music." I don't mean gospel music by this, incidentally. Mahalia Jackson, James Cleveland, Pops Staples, for example, are all fine artists within that genre, and have kept the tradition going. I have nothing against this christian music. No ... by "Christian Music" (X-stian, henceforth to denote the difference) I mean the genre that has established itself in the last couple of decades as an alternative to "secular" pop and rock and hip hop music. Evangelical and other zealous types figured they could adopt our modern dance forms, change their lyrical content and use them as tools for evangelization. We now have new & improved, cleancut nutrasweet versions of our pop musics, replete with inoffensive language and good old-fashioned edifying moral values. This is all very well-meaning and even a good idea, until one realizes that that which makes our modern popular forms so special is precisely that which makes them dangerous and subversive. A sense of daring. Take that away and all you have left is empty posturing. A mere facsimile of art. (and this is just the lyrics . . don't get me started on the music)

Put another way: Most X-stian music makes me feel like I accidentally walked into a national convention of Elvis impersonators.

By contrast, let me now say that I love the music of the innocence mission, a family of musicians from Lancaster, PA. who by their own admission are unashamedly good christian people (Roman Catholic, in fact). I have met them and can attest to their kindness and their mildness of manner and style, their grace and their undeniable deep rooted sense of spirituality. I have been a great admirer of their work for more than a decade and have always felt a certain kinship with their music. The truly amazing thing to me (and the crux of this post -- why I bring it up) is that, until they devoted a whole cd to their favorite hymns and devotional songs a few years back ("Christ Is My Hope" -- a benefit recording they made to raise money for a local catholic charity), they had used the word "Jesus" only once in all their previous releases. Yet I hear in their music a depth of spirituality that makes the formulaic platitudes of most X-stian music sound as inspired as the scripted spiel of a used car salesman. Their outlook (i.m.'s) is unmistakably christian, but it's expressed in soft washes of humility and grace and wonder. Easy on the preaching, theirs is a music that celebrates the world by taking delight in the simplicity of moments, a music that somehow manages to simultaneously evoke both joy and melancholy.

"In this story
we sit down on Luna Bridge,
and catch snow in our cupped hands
and music is coming from the houses,
or it sits inside me . . . "
"You go outside.
You see the holy spirit
burning in your trees
and walk on,
glowing with the same glow
. . . And the birds of all your yellow teacups sing,
and you know this hymn . . . "

I find solace in music that challenges one to think about what it means to be a spirit-filled being in these post-post-modern times. Now as ever, joy comes to us in little packets like these each and every day. In our homes and in the faces of our friends and families. You can miss these tiny miracles if you are not paying attention.

In our living -- this is where spirit resides.

I don't think they consider themselves an X-stian band. I think they've even consciously avoided such a limiting categorization and I applaud their integrity. I'm certain that they would find a ready-made market just ripe for the picking if they ever decided to walk such a disingenuous path. I certainly wouldn't fault them; money talks loudly. I'm glad they haven't succumbed, though. The narrow market perspective that demands the same devotional catchphrases, the same aphorisms, the same old same-oldisms, keeps performers churning out the same song over and over again. It's refreshing to see an artist daring to do elsehow . . . taking the "road less taken", as Robert Frost once called it.

The other day I found the following paragraph in the introduction to the "Oxford History of Christianity." Reading it made me think about the interrelation between art and the spirit.

"Christianity is a religion of the word -- the 'Word made Flesh', the word preached, the word written to record the story of God's intervention in history. Every story needs a picture. Pope Gregory the Great defined the role of the artist thus: 'painting can do for the illiterate what writing does for those who can read'. Augustine had gone further in praise of music: written words are in themselves inadequate -- 'language is too poor to speak of God . . . yet you do not like to be silent. What is left for you but to sing in jubilation'. The visual artist as well as the musician is entitled to the benefit of the Augustinian argument. Words constitute a record exerting a long-term pressure: a work of art has an instantaneous impact. It bridges the gap between cultures with a simple gesture with an immediacy denied to translations of the record. Whatever the culture from which it derives, a great work of art is a potential source of spiritual insight, falling short of words in the power of syllogistic argument and even in the ability to suggest the content of the imagination's inward eye, but far superior in the evocative power to haunt and illuminate. Wassily Kandinsky, the pioneer of abstract painting, who published a study of The Spiritual in Art in 1912, spoke of art as resembling religion in taking what is known and transforming it, showing it 'in new perspectives and in a blinding light'. Some of the masterpieces of painting and sculpture in the Christian tradition have been produced by artists whose status as believers is doubtful. In Kandinsky's view of the breakthrough to spiritual perception, this is no paradox. 'It is safer to turn to geniuses without faith than to believers without talent' (my emphasis), said the French Dominican Marie-Alain Couturier -- an aphorism which he tested by persuading Matisse, Braque, Chagall, and other great names of the day to do work for the church of Assy in the French Alps. Couturier was not subordinating religious considerations to élitism; to him, 'all great art is spiritual since the genius of the artist lies in the depths, the secret inner being from whence faith also springs'. Jacques Maritain has drawn out a further implication of the supposition of the unity of all spiritual experience. To the Christian who wishes his art to reflect his religious convictions he says: keep this desire out of the forefront of the mind, and simply 'strive to make a work of beauty in which your entire heart lies.'. (my emphasis)"

Amen to that . . .

The X-stian music category is full of "artists" who seem to only want to express devotion to their chosen faith. They just praise, as if that is solely what worship consisted of. They sing, "O, lord how I love thee", over and over and over again, and say little else, unfortunately. This to me seems like a wasted opportunity. It's as if they think that their good intentions are enough to safeguard the quality of their artistic expression.

I think that an artist's task, be he faithful or be she not, is, first, to observe and participate in the various ways in which this love (and life's other mysteries) is manifested in realtime, and subsequently to attempt to describe the experience the best he or she can, using metaphor, irony, alliteration, symbolism -- a whole arsenal of poetic devices is at our disposal . . . thus opening the door to a potential true communion, one resulting not from sycophantic commemorations, but from a spirit of exploration and wonder.

There's the difference..



p.s. . . . This is just a personal rant against bad art. I only used the aforementioned band as an example of a contemporary group of artists whose temerity I admire, who I think expresses their faith in a genuine and beautiful way.
In no way are my comments to be read as the band's own opinions.
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