SPIRITUALITY & CONTEMPORARY ART

MgA. Peter Machajdík - skladatel /SK/

How does contemporary art address the idea of spirituality? How do artists working today reveal and question commonly held assumptions about faith, belief, meditation, and religious symbols?
“Spirituality is such a vibrant and integral part of our lives that even our changing times and all the apparent obstacles have not stifled the powerful partnership of spirituality and art in the modern era,” writes Lynn M. Herbert in her essay for the Companion Book to the Art:21 series. “The realm of the spiritual is mysterious and inviting,” writes Herbert, “It is a place where we are encouraged to explore the unknown.”

As a composer of contemporary music, mostly spiritually oriented contemporary music, I have always been interested in searching the spiritual path in the work of my colleagues.

I have recently read an article about Arvo Pärt, whom I often visited in Berlin, where I have lived since 1992.

In that article, there is a dialog between the composer and the conductor, rehearsing Pärt's The Beatitudes.

Pärt tried to explain the conductor, that „The silence must be longer,“ and that „This music is about the silence. The sounds are there to surround the silence.“ But the conductor looked skeptical. He sought a rational analysis. „Exactly how many beats?“ he demanded. „What do you do during the silence?“ „You don't do anything,“ Pärt said, „you wait. God does it.“

The slightly perplexed looks on the faces of the performers reflected the feeling many people have on first hearing of a new style taking its roots in the classical music world. Often also called 'holy minimalism', the music of three composers - John Tavener of England, Arvo Pärt of Estonia, and Henryk Mikolaj Górecki of Poland - has found an enormously receptive audience in the last 30 years, filling concert halls and generating best-selling CDs by reuniting classical music with, of all things, contemplative spirituality.

This music, including popular works like Górecki's Symphony No. 3, Pärt's Tabula Rasa, and Tavener's The Protecting Veil, often resonates even with people who never before listened to classical music and who do not live spiritually at all. Górecki is the first living classical music composer whose music topped the Billboard charts; his Symphony No. 3 from 1976 has sold over a million copies. One hospice worker cited the cult status of Pärt's Tabula Rasa among terminally ill patients who called it 'angel music' and asked to hear it as they died. John Tavener, already beloved by choirs worldwide for his beautiful, meditative music, burst into international public awareness in 1997, when the ecstatically soaring Song for Athene was performed at the funeral of Princess Diana as her coffin was carried from Westminster Abbey. Awestruck, audiences asked, 'What was that song? ' and CDs of Tavener's music flew off shelves.

The popularity of Tavener, Pärt and Górecki is interesting because they reject values typically associated with contemporary classical music. 'Holy minimalism' is to music what contemplative spirituality is to prayer. To most of us, prayer involves addressing our words to God; but to the contemplative, prayer means listening in receptive silence. Whereas in traditional classical music you expect to hear development of musical ideas moving forward to a climactic conclusion, this music seems to go nowhere - and that is intentional. The purpose is contemplation. The music is meditative, hypnotic, and gently repetitive, as in the Christian tradition of centering prayer one might continuously repeat a word or two from Scripture to be drawn deeper into prayer. This tradition is, of course, known also from Buddhism, Hinduism and other religions. The gentle repetition gives the music a feeling of stasis, of being suspended in time. „Time and timelessness are connected, „ wrote Pärt. „This instant and eternity are struggling within us. And this is the cause of all our contradictions, our obstinacy, our narrow-mindedness, our faith and our grief.“

Characteristic of 'holy minimalism' are lengthy silences, confusing traditional musicians for whom silence is just an absence of music. Górecki, asked to comment on the phenomenal success of his Symphony No. 3, responded, „Let's be quiet.“ The piece repeats through three movements, all in lento, evoking a universe of anguish. Though simple, the music contains many subtleties of variation and orchestration through color and stillness. Then there are women's voices, stretching into the piece as if from a cloud's balcony. In the first movement, it's the voice of a fifteenth-century Mary, lamenting the death of her son. We then move on to a prayer as written on the wall of a Gestapo prison. In the third movement, Górecki presents a plangent folk tune from the Opole region. The piece was originally commissioned in 1967 for the opening of a memorial at Auschwitz. Górecki, too involved with its genesis, never finished it for the occasion. Upon its completion nine years later, this piece catapulted him to international recognition.

Why, in a time of increasing atheism, does his music resonate with us? Why, when it employs many indigenous aspects of Poland, does it speak to the world over? Perhaps the answer lies in its mysticism. While looking back to Europe's long tradition of religious music, Górecki also moves beyond, presenting an architectural scale that reflects our very contemporary spiritual landscape.

Arvo Pärt, who spent eight years in contemplative silence before developing this new way of composing, says, „The most important things that happen between people who are very close to each other are not stated, are not even possible to express. One doesn't need to and shouldn't say anything.“ Conductor Paul Hillier, a leading interpreter of Pärt's work, explains further. „All music emerges from silence, to which sooner or later it must return,“ he writes. „How we live depends on our relationship with death; how we make music depends on our relationship with silence.“

Although deeply human, the music of those three composer it is not theatrically emotional; Tavener compares his music to the icons of the Orthodox tradition, which do not impose their own emotions on the viewer, but open, through prayer, as spiritual windows to the Holy. In the same way, Tavener, Pärt and Górecki do not preach, they do not impose their own experience on the listener. In their transparency, they seek only to open a window, allowing the listener to connect with the Holy.

And yet the music of Tavener, Pärt and Górecki continues to perplex many listeners, performers and critics. 'We are living in an age that does not believe that sound is capable of putting us in touch with higher levels of reality, ' writes John Tavener. 'So I am out on a limb. '

Tavener, Pärt and Górecki sought to rediscover a sacred nature to music, deeper than intellectual understanding. Their biographies are curiously parallel. Each of them initially began composing in accepted modern idioms, emulating Stravinsky and Schoenberg. Despite initial critical approval, all of them felt something essential was missing; all turned to spirituality for answers. Tavener and Pärt experienced a spiritual reawakening through the Russian Orthodox church, Górecki in the Catholic church in Poland. Within this spiritual context, each composer then turned for inspiration to ancient musical forms that pre-dated the super-rational Enlightenment: Gregorian and Byzantine chant, medieval polyphony, and sacred music of non-European cultures.

Those three composers – but not only they – would never say that they are creating anything new; all turned to the distant past in search of renewal. 'It is totally, totally impossible for man to write anything that is new, ' insists John Tavener. 'The only person who can make things new is Christ. ' Tavener devalues innovation and human fabrication. He believes that 'all music already exists. When God created the world he created everything. It's up to us as artists to find that music. ' This he does through prayer. Photographs show his composing studio (like Pärt's) filled with icons and candles, looking more like a chapel than an office. 'Music, for me, is a process of re-finding God, ' says Tavener. 'I believe that chant is the nearest we can get to the music that was breathed into man when God created the world. '

Further I would like to mention composers who are not called Holy Minimalists but whose work is also very spiritually oriented.

One of them is Sofia Gubaidulina, born in the Tartar Republic in 1931. In the late 1980s she began to gather acclaim in the West, and has since received commissions from a number of leading international orchestras and other organisations. Gubaidulina now lives in Germany, her country of residence since 1992.

Gubaidulina's self-acknowledged preoccupation with themes of a religious or mystical nature - evident also in her characteristically religious titles - has resulted in a bibliography centred on programmatic concerns, aimed at exposing in her music symbols of her diverse national and religious heritage. Although many of these observations are pertinent, the significance of such phenomena in Gubaidulina's music derives from their function as building blocks of the entire formal strategy.

The spiritual abundance of Gubaidulina's music can be partially accounted for by her childhood influences. A scan of her family's religious beliefs, going back as far as her Grandparents' generation, reveals a diverse collection of faiths, including Judaism, Islam, Russian Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism. Although she herself is Russian Orthodox, Gubaidulina does not appear to believe in the exclusive right of this faith to spiritual truth. Strongly influenced by the Russian mystical philosophers Vladimir Solovyev and Nikolai Berdyaev, Gubaidulina demonstrates a keen interest in the religious subject-matter of a variety of faiths and creeds, a preoccupation which pervades the titles and the content of most of her compositional output.

Gubaidulina even goes so far as to prescribe the general necessity for spiritual presence in composition:
"Composition does not come easily to me. In order to write music, one needs not only spiritual power, but also a great deal of soulful power."

At the same time, a distinctly objective and constructional element is manifest in Gubaidulina's music, one which runs alongside her subjective persuasions, and "prevents them from degenerating into private speculations." According to Gubaidulina's description of her general compositional strategy, elements of objective constructivity combine with psychological or spiritual considerations to form a reciprocal relationship in which form takes precedence.

Another important composer from the former Soviet State is Giya Kancheli, whose music has been compared to cinematography: discrete and atmospheric, fragmentary but logical, and infused with the aesthetic ideals of Eastern Christian spirituality. His finding of a ‘lost harmony’ has earned him a wide following and breathed life into the musical activity of his native Georgia, whilst his success abroad has made him the country’s most significant cultural export. Another Step poses a powerful soundscape in which delicate, unpresumptuous music rubs shoulders with a litany of silences and intriguingly shifting orchestral tectonics.

Vladimir Godár, who was born in the same city as me, has recently written seven pieces, collectively called Mater, scored for female voice, chorus and Baroque string orchestra. There are hints of Arvo Pärt's devotional minimalism here, with Gorecki and Monteverdi not far behind, but the decidedly Slavic tinge to the music makes it unique. Working with the archtypes of "mother" and "woman," sometimes specifically the Virgin Mary, more often not, these are reflections on life, death and resurrection, sometimes in the textual forms of the well-known "Magnificat," "Stabat Mater" and "Regina coeli," but adding to them a Yiddish song, a poem by James Joyce, and a pair of Slovak lullabies. There are repeated melodies and instrumental motifs, and the music has great character; it is immensely moving. Vladimir Godar's Mater is a moving cantata, a meditation on the circle of human life united under the archetypes of "woman" and "mother": protecting, consoling, mourning, but also as objects of praise and adoration.

Finally, I would like to mention my favorite visual artist Anish Kapoor who was born in 1954 in Bombay (Mumbai), India, but he has lived in London since the early 1970s and quickly rose to prominence in the 1980s. Best known for his explorations of “the void,” and for his use of color and scale, he has redefined contemporary sculpture since then.

In his earliest sculptures already, Kapoor created a widely varied ouvre of different materials such as stone, steel and glass. Since 2000, the artist has intensively explored the possibilities of wax as an art material, which is produced especially for him. He adds pigments to the wax to achieve his typical object coloring.

Anish Kapoor's abstract-poetical work is impressive because of its inherent spirituality and transcendence, which have their roots in the Indian background of the now London-based artist. Since the 1980s, his work has been shown in exhibitions worldwide, including the 1990 Venice Biennale and the 1992 documenta IX.

I have recently had possibility to see Anish Kapoor’s work Memory (2008) at the Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin. Using Cor-Ten steel for the first time, Memory (2008) represents a new milestone in Kapoor’s career. Memory is positioned tightly within the compound of its gallery space. Its thin steel skin, only eight millimeters thick, suggests a form that is ephemeral and unmonumental. The sculpture appears to defy gravity as it gently glances up against the peripheries of the gallery walls and ceiling, and down again to the floor. Its inaccessibility forces viewers to negotiate the work at a remove and to contemplate its ensuing fragmentation by attempting to piece together the images retained in their memories. As such, they are required to exert more effort in the act of seeing. Kapoor describes this process as creating "mental sculpture." As participants rather than as mere spectators of Memory, they become hyperconscious of their own positions in space.

Memory’s color properties relate this commission back to Kapoor’s early pigment pieces from the 1980s. Rather than necessitating a coat of paint to smooth the interior curvature, the sculpture’s seamless steel tiles, perfectly manufactured to prevent any light from seeping through, read as one continuous form. These steel tiles create the necessary conditions for darkness and boundlessness within—the void, viewable through a two-meter square aperture or window. Furthermore, Kapoor’s sculptures elicit a certain confrontation. At a weight of twenty-four tons, Memory’s raw, ineffable, and industrial exterior is absolutely foreboding.




MgA. Peter Machajdík - skladatel /SK/

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