Monday, May 2, 2016

Improv Living

The preludes and postludes offered by Breton Abbondanzio, organist at St. Theresa of Lisieux in South Hadley, MA, are often improvisations on the entrance and exit hymns. That is, Breton artfully plays with and embellishes the hymn-tunes to present beautiful musical offerings. His creative compositions help me prepare to worship and to reenter the world once I’ve encountered our Lord Jesus Christ.

When I asked Breton about his skill, he responded that he has been improvising for a long time, first on the piano and then, more recently, on the organ. He combines the talents God gave him, the skills he learned from his teachers, and the practice he has engaged in over the years to present musical offerings for our enrichment and for the glory of God.

Breton’s work on the organ reminds me that each of us can improvise in our daily lives. We can creatively play with the themes that arise by cultivating an improvisational mindset. That’s the message of the book titled Improv Wisdom: Don’t Prepare, Just Show Up

Now the subtitle might be off-putting, as though those who improvise aren’t mindful. But author Patricia Ryan Madson, head of the undergraduate acting program at Stanford University, uses the subtitle to introduce two of thirteen maxims that help students become skilled improv actors. Her adages can help us live unscripted lives, for as she points out, “life is an improvisation.” 

Each chapter is a short, real-world explanation of one of her maxims. The author’s point with “don’t prepare” is that experienced improvisers pay attention to the drama around them rather than prepare their own parts. For example, in a group-setting most of us can’t remember the names of those who introduce themselves just before or just after we do. We’re preoccupied with our own presentation. But we’re apt to give a better performance if we focus on other people, allowing our own material to flow spontaneously.

“Just show up” is an imperative for those who have trouble getting in gear. Madson says that it’s as simple as moving our bodies toward our dreams. And she offers three pointers to pull it off: Use rituals, show up for others, and change locations. Of the three, I find the section on rituals most fascinating. Madson’s practice of making the bed each morning gets her started. I need to turn on the classical music station, take a shower, and drink some coffee to begin my daily writing routine.

Improv Wisdom is a pleasure to read whether or not one becomes an improv artist. Madson’s writing is crisp and practical. She offers at least two “try this” projects per chapter; and a list of bullet points summarizes every adage.

Few of us will become improv organists like Breton, but his arrangements will continue to inspire me. They may even serve as a reminder to practice Madson’s maxims toward a more spontaneous life.

© Stan Bohall
May 2, 2016

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Praise for the Hope

Poetry makes me stumble; its obstructions impede my path:
What is the poem’s context? When was it written? What is the poet’s perspective?
Am I left to explore on my own?
Please, point me in the right direction. Give me a running start.

Absolute music makes sense to me:
Mozart’s piano concertos, for example, mean nothing more,
But surely nothing less, than the beauty of his heaven-sent strains:
Clear as crystal in recognizable forms, they flow in consorts via tongue-tied instruments.

Abstract poetry, I suppose, is the equivalent:
Words chosen for their sounds
Rather than their sense or meaning.
Do make-believe words come in to play?

The extreme makes my point.
Sad to say, for me most poetry is abstract.
Like the Ethiopian Eunuch, I don’t grasp what I’m reading.
Will no one come alongside to help?

At last, I’ve been given a guide:
Poet-priest Malcolm Guite walks me thru two collections:
Waiting on the Word, a poem a day for Advent, Christmas and Epiphany,
The Word in the Wilderness, verses for Lent and Easter.

Some selections are his own;
Most are by others—past, recent-past, and present.
His reflections, short and beautifully insightful, are works of art too.
They orient me. They give me an appropriate push.

And they issue silent invitations to explore the artists, one by one.
Holly Ordway’s offering “Maps” yielded a side-trip into Not God’s Type
A striking pilgrimage from atheism to Christianity.
Other outings may come in pursuance of George Herbert, G. M. Hopkins or Christina Rossetti.

Praise for the hope that poetry’s rough places may be made plain.
  
© Stan Bohall
April 2, 2016

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Our Song

No one wants a generic wedding. Couples enjoy expressing the unique flavor of their relationship on that all-important day. The spice in Judi’s and my wedding was music. We were blessed to book our ceremony in a beautiful church that housed a sonorous pipe organ. The talented and capable church organist agreed to perform an all-Bach prelude that included the “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor,” “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” and “Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor.” What a lineup!

The crowning glory would be the performance of Cantata #140 by J. S. Bach (1685-1750) titled “Sleepers, Awake!” I recall the first time I listened to that cantata. It was assigned by my college music history professor. As I listened alone in a designated room in the library, I was enthralled. It remains one of my treasured glimpses of glory. Experiencing music like that was one reason I chose music education as my major.

The cantata is based on an Advent hymn by the sixteenth-century Lutheran priest, Philipp Nicolai. Movements one, four, and seven of this seven-movement feast convey Nicolai’s three-verse hymn inspired by Jesus’ parable of the ten virgins recorded in Matthew 25:1-13. The cantata is a sermon prompting us to anticipate Jesus’ return. It reveals Bach’s genius and, no doubt, his own desire to see the Savior.

It’s the fourth movement that repeatedly calls Judi and me back to the cantata. The melody, which surrounds and accompanies the hymn-tune, rivals “Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring” for popularity. To this day, forty-two years into our marriage, Judi and I agree that the fourth movement is “our song.” We hear it at least once a year during the season of Advent.

Our song features a chorus of tenors singing the second verse of Nicolai’s hymn in unison. I especially like this English adaptation of the German text:

Zion hears the watchmen singing,
The heart all filled with joy is springing,
They rise and haste to greet their Lord.
See, He comes, the Lord victorious,
Almighty, noble, true, and glorious,
In Heaven supreme, on earth adored.
Come now, thou Holy One,
Lord Jesus, Son of God – Alleluia!
We follow all the joyful call
To join him in the Banquet Hall.[1]

Yet not everyone was enthusiastic about my plan to present “Sleepers, Awake!” at our wedding. When I announced the good news to my music history professor, he was unimpressed. “That’s an Advent cantata,” he said dismissively. I was committing a liturgical faux pas! Then, the four vocalists I had enlisted to sing the cantata, fellow music majors all, came ill-prepared. I was dismayed that talented musicians, who took pride in their own recitals, would seem so cavalier about our special day. What’s more, our guests didn’t seem to relish our musical feast.

With all those wet blankets, you’d think Judi and I wouldn’t reminisce. But when we heard our melody once again this year, Judi remarked, “That brings back such good memories.” Her joy reawakened my desire for the cantata.

What’s so glorious about this work? For starters, the composition exudes expectation. It even lacks Jesus’ warning that the doors will close on the unprepared. Perhaps it’s Bach’s justification-by-faith optimism that keeps the cantata so positive.

The first movement rouses us with energetic rhythm, flowing orchestral accompaniment, and a quick tempo. The sopranos have the melody for this initial verse of Nicolai’s hymn, ornamented by overlapping alto, tenor, and bass lines in typical Baroque many-voiced (polyphonic) style. The message: Wake up! Prepare! The bridegroom comes!

Movements two and five are short narrative tenor and bass solos (recitatives) that keep us in touch with the parable’s plot-line.

Movements three and six are amorous duets sung by Christ and the church. Both long to consummate their relationship. In the third movement, the soprano pleads for Christ to come. The bass responds, “I’m coming soon!” By contrast, in the sixth movement the bride confidently declares, “Thy love is mine.” Her groom replies, “And I am thine.” Bach beautifully ornaments the scant lines of both movements with rich polyphonic accompaniments eliciting desire within the listener.

The cantata concludes with the whole choir singing the final stanza of the original hymn in four-part harmony. The groom has returned; the banquet has begun. All desires are being fulfilled. So the vocalists intone,

“‘Gloria’ sing all our voices,
With Angels all mankind rejoices
With harps and strings in sweetest tone . . . .”[2]

Was my decision to feature “Sleepers, Awake!” at our wedding misguided? Perhaps, but I wanted our wedding to have a unique flavor. I thought music about a bride and groom would be appropriate. I assumed the vocalists would polish their parts. And I hoped our guests would enjoy it.

Fortunately a few of my dreams did come true. Our organist played superbly, Judi and I relished the music, and the experience made the cantata special for us. What’s more, its message foreshadowed our relationship: We long for Christ to come again. “Happy are those called to the supper of the Lamb.” And we give thanks that our marriage is a profound mystery and, we trust, an ever-increasing reflection of Christ and the church.

© Stan Bohall
The Fifth Day of Christmas 2015



[1] Go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dTVKqBtXJYM for a four-minute harpsicord performance. The English adaptation included with that video is reproduced here.

[2] J. S. Bach Choral Works, G. Schirmer, Inc, New York, English Version by Henry S. Drinker. A performance of the whole cantata is available at http://www.timbuckland.id.au/2014/07/19/a-brief-guide-to-cantata-140-wachet-auf-by-bach/, second video.