Friday, December 7, 2007

Always Reaching

Reaching for the End of Time
by Ann McCutchan
The Best American Spiritual Writing 2007

A beloved church friend who likes to read really cool stuff recently gave me this book from the "Best American" series. It is a collection of essays taken from magazines and other venues that represent the nebulous subject of spiritual writing. There is a lot of good stuff in this book, no doubt you will hear from me about it again. I am not reading it in my usual "start on page one and read straight through until the end" style. I flip around until I find something that jives with my mood or with something I am curious about.

This essay put me in mind of the post I wrote a few weeks ago about the Christian Century article on the theology found in music. This is an essay that movingly describes music's spiritual power. Ann McCutchan is a professional clarinetist who was unable to continue that career because she developed carpal tunnel syndrome from all the practicing. She returned to school for another degree and now has combined writing and music and teaching. She teaches music theory and writing, currently at North Texas State University. She also is the prose editor of the American Literary Review.

McCutchan's essay is about the power that one piece of music had over her life. As a graduate student at Florida State University in 1971, she found French composer Olivier Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time on an obscure shelf in the music library. It had not been checked out for years, but she thought it looked interesting, especially when she saw that the third movement was for solo clarinet. As she describes it, it is an intense piece - Messiaen's musical articulation of the imagery laid out in Revelation. Messiaen took much of his inspiration from the natural world, and the clarinet solo movement, titled "Abyss of the Birds" imitates the calls of many birds that Messiaen had taken the trouble to record (and later transcribe) when he was on hikes and otherwise out in nature.

Evidently this is a really physically demanding piece that takes almost an hour to play. McCutchan performed the solo movement in a recital but felt compelled to perform the entire quartet, with all the instrumentation participating. She created opportunities to do this three times between the years of 1972 and 1983. The piece had such a hold on her that over the years McCutchan learned everything she could about Messiaen and traveled extensively to hear live performances of his music. She explored the religious symbolism and technical devices present in the music.

Three interesting things about Messiaen: 1) He was an amateur ornithologist, which is what gave him the knowledge to transcribe bird songs. 2) He had a condition called synesthesia, which meant that when he heard a sound it produced a color in his mind's eye, and vice versa. He maintained that it was helpful to his composing to have this rare condition. 3). He wrote at least part of the Quartet for the End of Time while he was in prison during World War II. He once said that "During my captivity it was colored dreams that gave birth to the chords and rhythms of my quartet."

This essay intrigued me because of the passion the Quartet inspired in McCutchan. Messiaen used music to express a story, a vision articulated in the Bible, that most people find opaque and even scary. Somehow it spoke to Ann McCutchan so clearly that she devoted hours and hours of her life to learning it, playing it, and writing about it. What a gift to be able to make music so powerful that it alters the way people choose to live. I cannot imagine how people can say that the arts are not relevant to life or faith. Anything that keeps us reaching, seeking, and trying to discern truth is not only relevant but transformative.

Does anyone out there have a recording of Quartet for the End of Time? I am really curious to listen to it.

Reverent Reader


At 12/9/07, 8:14 AM , Anonymous Pam said...

Girl - interesting! Go to iTunes and you can hear clips of it or buy it if you want.

At 12/9/07, 9:37 AM , Blogger Reverent Reader said...

Hey girlfriend - I did go to iTunes first thing, but the clips are so short it is hard to get a sense of what motivated this woman so much about this particular piece. I may just bite the bullet and download the whole thing.


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