Printer Friendly

Pay attention.

"Retirement" has become rather a misnomer for my current station in life. I seem to be, in fact, a RINO, except that in this case it is not a politically charged acronym, but one that rather tamely denotes "Retired in Name Only." Although I am no longer employed at Carthage College, I continue as Editor in Chief of Journal of Singing, a position whose responsibilities have considerably expanded over the past decade; I teach a few voice students in my home studio; I conduct a local German male chorus, as well as my church's Adult Choir; and I lead adult education study classes at my church. It results in a busy life, but, as diverse as they may be, these all are activities that I find both challenging and rewarding.

It was in preparation for the last responsibility that I recently read a lot of the writings of Frederick Buechner. His Whistling in the Dark, intriguingly subtitled a "Doubter's Dictionary," is a particularly provocative book, an alphabetically organized lexicon of the spiritual landscape of everyday language. (1) The entry for "Art," which I found especially fascinating, begins with a poem.

An old silent pond.
Into the pond a frog jumps.
Splash! Silence again.

Composed by Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), arguably the most famous master of the genre, It is perhaps the most well known of all haiku, and, without message, meaning, or metaphor, it frames a moment that invites our attention.

What art asks us to do, says Buechner, is to pay attention.

Literature, painting, music--the most basic lesson that all art teaches
us is to stop, look, and listen to life on this planet, including our
own lives, as a vastly richer, deeper, more mysterious business than
most of the time it ever occurs to us to suspect as we bumble along from
day to day on automatic pilot. (2)

Buechner uses a poem as his specific point of reference, and, of course, one thinks of myriad other examples. I have in my study, for instance, a print of Rembrandt's painting The Return of the Prodigal Son, which frames the moment that the old father lays hands of blessing and forgiveness on the kneeling prodigal, as a thoroughly offended elder brother looks on disapprovingly, together with other difficult to identify background figures. Michelangelo sculpted in Pieta the moment when Mary the mother of Jesus cradles in her arms her dead son following his crucifixion. Music is a slightly different matter in that it doesn't freeze a moment in time, but rather demands a more linear application of our attention.

What does it mean to "pay attention"? I appreciate the choice of verb for this idiom, because, in a strict application, there is cost involved: to listen, to observe, to consider, to contemplate, to give deep thought. Buechner writes from the perspective of an art consumer, but the matter of paying attention is equally important for those who communicate art, in our case, singers, singing teachers, (3) and collaborative pianists. And of course for us it all has origin in text. (See Margo Garrett's insightful essay on text in this edition of "Collab Corner," p. 379.)

Always begin with the word, and peer deeply into that frame. Art song, in fact, involves three frames, is a three-dimensional phenomenon, if you will: the poet has isolated a moment in time that the composer has framed in his/her musical rendition, which a performer sets yet again in a frame of one's own background, experience, artistry, and interpretation.

Please allow me to cite a single example.

Uber allen Gipfeln
Ist Ruh,
In allen Wipfeln
Spurest du
Kaum einen Hauch;
Die Voglein schweigen im Walde.
Warte nur, balde
Ruhest du auch. (4)

In this familiar poem, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe frames nightfall by a woods and a profound silence. A number of composers have set these words (Schumann, Loewe, Liszt, among others), but none matches the expressive power of Schubert's "death rhythm" and longing for peace. (5) Along with poet and composer, the singer contemplates his/her own mortality as the day and the earth fall to rest. One must be drawn into that moment, and, in exquisite reframing, draw the listener into that moment as well.

To engage at this level is a journey of self-discovery. In sum, pay
attention to the world and all that dwells therein and thereby learn
at last to pay attention to yourself and all that dwells therein. (6)

Thomas Merton, Trappist monk and an important Christian thinker, writer, and apologist, wrote that art is "supposed to form and spiritualize [one's] consciousness." (7) Not an end in itself, art

... introduces the soul into a higher spiritual order, which it
expresses and in some sense explains. Music and art and painting attune
the soul to God because they induce a kind of contact with the Creator
and Ruler of the Universe. (8)

Take that to studio and stage.


(1.) Frederick Buechner, Whistling in the Dark (New York: HarperCollins, 1993).

(2.) Ibid., 16.

(3.) It long has been my custom to use the phrase "singing teachers" to designate not only teachers of singing, but teachers who actively sing.

(4.) Erich Trunz, ed., Goethe Gedichte (Mnchen: Verlag C. H. Beck, 1981), 142. Because it was preceded in the collection by "Wandrers Nachtlied" ("Der du von dem Himmel bist ..."), Goethe actually entitled this poem "Ein Gleiches," It has become customary to identify the former "Wandrers Nachtlied I" and the latter "Wandrers Nachtlied II."

(5.) Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Schubert's Songs (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978), 187.

(6.) Buechner, 15.

(7.) Thomas Merton, No Man Is an Island (New York: Harcourt, Inc., 1983), 35.

(8.) Ibid., 36.
COPYRIGHT 2016 National Association of Teachers of Singing
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2016 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:art song; Editor's Commentary
Author:Sjoerdsma, Richard Dale
Publication:Journal of Singing
Article Type:Editorial
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2016
Previous Article:NATS and ethics - the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Next Article:"Yes, it's a brilliant tune": quotation in contemporary American art song.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2021 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |