This coming week is the premiere of a very exciting art song. Kathleen Baudendistel, Derrick Hahn and I have been working very hard to present this piece on Thursday and to start the anticipation, I thought I would give you all the program notes right here.
When I was in Lebanon, I was confronted with many different speculations as to what it means to follow God. I lived in a village with a very religious family, and there was an array of theological interpretations regarding all different aspects of life. I was there to visit my family, but I was also on a spiritual journey. My community here in this country takes a radically different approach to theology than the same Abrahamic religions I explored this past summer. My freshman year of college was marked by the realization of just how many people here are spiritually lost. Not to say that they just don’t know what they’re doing, but lost in the sense that their institutions have failed them to the point where they can’t get the spiritual fulfilment they desire by remaining in the system. This has led to the identity of being “spiritual but not religious”, and that is an aspect I explore in this piece, taking from my own personal journeys these past couple years. This is not a theological treatise, but a personal inflection on the issues of modern faith.
The piece is in five movements. Sacrilege, Heirophany, Reconciliation, Credo, and Crucifixus. It takes a journey from the deepest pits of hell and keeps ascending upward, attempting to reach a higher truth. If it ends with truth, and the first movement is Sacrilege, one can guess that the piece starts off with a lie. Indeed it does, it begins with my own interpretation of a commandment that, from what I’ve witnessed, has caused some confusion. The first movement is an example of using the lord’s name in vain. In this case, it’s calling for the annihilation of those of a different faith simply because they are a different faith. I have never worked harder to make music sound raunchier, more dissonant, and emblematic of those most gruesome sin. Being from the Middle East, living in a Christian town going to a liberal arts college, I’ve heard a lot in the name for and against various religions, and it is because of this manipulation of the faith to fulfill a political goal that we have an increasing disparity between those of faith and those without, and some of us end up getting caught in the middle, and do not have a community that can provide the safe space they need. Which is why, at the very end, I stick in a quote translated from the Qu’ran itself which clearly states an openness to people of all faiths, so long as there’s faith and they work righteousness (atheists, don’t worry I’ll get to you in a minute)
The three middle movements are a journey moving on from the chaotic beginning. The second, Heirophony, is just that, we take the human voice as a reference to humanity and its many different struggles with what may be beyond, and I use the piano at certain points to represent that beyond, as if that movement is a divine intervention for what came before and an opportunity for our sinner to repent. After that, the reconciliation comes with the “heaven” motif playing in the piano, but also deep octaves and a painful Db. The feeling I was trying to capture was that of a sinner atoning for their sin. Some people like to think that one can commit a crime, repent, and things would be better, but it’s actually a process. Should one person apologize to another for something horrible they did, it would take time for that pain to heal, and that’s what’s happening in this movement. It becomes lighter and more confident, and after going through a sequence (a literal sequence) of reaffirming their faith, not in God but in bettering them-self, only then are they washed off the their past.
But then comes doubt. The questions of what is moral, what is ethical, what is sin and what is not? All are infinitely complicated and I haven’t been able to answer them. Then there’s also the existential dread of the fact that we could just be doing this all for nothing. Sometimes one may want to cry out to the void in hopes of an answer to the question “why don’t you reveal yourself?!” and that only brings up the question of free will. There is no divine intervention in this movement, it is only for voice, and mixed speaking and singing at that. The scene has changed now, to that from Dostoevsky’s “Grand Inquisitor” which is a chapter in his novel Brothers Karamazov. [the rest of this paragraph is spoilers, skip to the next paragraph if you don’t want to know] In this scene, Jesus Christ comes back during the inquisition, and is captured by a grand inquisitor. While the lord is chained, the inquisitor states why he captured him, and revealed that he believes that the lord has done wrong in granting them free will. He mentions how people want to be slaves, that they don’t want to wonder for themselves, they just want to know for sure. In other words, if the lord won’t grant them security in abandoning their free will, the church will.
Then I do something odd. The singer, knowing well that she is a soprano and doesn’t fit the classic descriptions of Jesus Christ becomes the Messiah reborn. For the first time in this piece, I attempt to actually reach the divine, and seriously ask the question “what would Jesus do?” Slander goes around all corners of the globe over the prophet yet few have the same view I do. God to most resembles a father, but to me, I have seen more of it in my mother. I’m not here to tell the story of the rapture, I wanted to create that moment when I pray, when I’m with my mother in Lebanon, inside the temple, when I feel I’m with the divine. Sometimes we forget that there is a spiritual element to faith, and some people have it and other don’t, to everyone its different.
So the last movement is really timeless, yet stuff happens. She starts by going down the last 7 words of Jesus Christ, going back in bible translation, a reminder that we must remember to look at scriptures at the root as well as in the modern era. Before the last words, she quotes the Qu’ran. There is so much animosity between the two major religions that we tend to forget that Jesus is a prophet in both religions. Here is the message that I believe Jesus Christ would bring to the world should she arrive today. “Indeed those who have faith and do righteous deeds. The all beneficent will endear them. Indeed we have made it simple in your language. So that you may give good news to the God-weary.” (Qu’ran Book of Mary, translation by Ali Quri Qu’rai) Same message from before, but now it’s just faith, not faith in God, and I do believe the two are different (the Qu’ran may say something else but I’m actually referring more to a personal statement here). I believe faith can come in many forms to many things. Some of us concentrate it into a god, but sometimes faith in yourself can be enough, and if you do righteous deeds, then you’re already God-weary. After that she is crucified again, and I’ll let you play out why we ourselves would kill the Messiah again. The piece then ends with a prayer, which i will actually not talk about and just let you witness for yourself.
There are a couple stories which really shaped this piece. One being my reaction to Eid al-Fitr, the last day of Ramadan. We were huddled around a small TV in the front porch that evening and they were broadcasting the “celebrations” of this holiday from many different Imams, Priests, and Sheikhs, and I was frustrated at all of them. I was furious because instead of actually paying attention to the purpose of the holiday, they made the decision to take the opportunity to rally against everyone that’s not them. They called for the blood of their enemies both in the East and South, and spoke with a tone that’s deep with anger, and devoid of spirit.
At the time, I was also reading the Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky, and it was life changing. It taught me about the nature of doubt, why we desire a divine force to lead us, along with exploring the idea of free will. Of course, I am talking about the Grand Inquisitor, which I suggest you read in full, but it is quoted in the piece.
Most importantly however, was my own faith journey which I took with my mother the entire time. I am grateful to have her in my life, and willing to join me on any spiritual path I wish to explore and always willing to sit down and explain the stories of past prophets and preachers. It is through her I learned the story of Moses, Jesus, Rabi’a, Joseph, and Abraham. She always put them from the aspect of our religion, but I was curious about how all these prophets related to each of the Abrahamic religions, what are the similarities and differences? I’d ask her and we’d read the scripture together, and go through each individual line, and with the understanding of how much weight each word carried, we made the most universal interpretation as much we could. It is through these moments I have come to the opinion that the Abrahamic religions are much more similar than we think, and in many ways, almost the same.
So, in case you didn’t get it, there is a lot in this art song. It’s very dear to me and contains everything I learned through my journeys of faith. As always, my views are my views, and I’m not here to preach, but I am here to share. Art can do so much good, and there has been so much music in my life that has reshaped what I thought about people, about God, about history. The only one that has been more helpful in teaching me about the world was my mother, which is why I’m dedicating this piece to her (hi Mom!).
See you Thursday, 8pm Harper Hall, Lawrence University! (yes, of course there will be a recording)
UPDATE: The concert happened and it was absolutely amazing. Thank you Kathleen Baudendistel and Derrick Hahn for your incredibly hard work on this piece! You both are the best!
And here’s a recording