Roundup: Why Art Matters, “Spirit and Endeavour” exhibition, and more songs in lockdown

VIDEO TALK: “The Breath of Life: Why Art Matters in a Pandemic” by James K.A. Smith: In this half-hour Zoom talk released June 2, Image journal editor in chief Jamie Smith [previously] discusses the ability of the arts to stimulate our cultural imagination in much-needed ways. “The arts matter in a pandemic,” he says, “because they shape us for the work of reshaping and rebuilding society. In other words, we all need artists to continue creating for us so the rest of us can cultivate the imagination we need to re-create our common life, our social bonds.” And again: “The arts train our imagination so that we relearn to see what we need to see. . . . It’s art as imagination therapy, it’s art as an ophthalmology of the soul that we need in order to build and sustain and restore the institutions of a healthy, flourishing society. . . . If we’re going to imagine the world otherwise, we need imaginations that are trained in subtlety, that have been humbled by mystery, and that are infused with infinity.”

At 14:44 Smith introduces three ways in which art matters during and after a pandemic: art helps us (1) attend, (2) transcend, and (3) mend. That is, art helps us attend more carefully to the world and our neighbors, calling sometimes for gratitude, sometimes for grief, often both; art helps us transcend despair, attesting to the “something more” we long for (“the arts enable us to transcend the tragic when they invite us into a joy that forgets nothing”); and art helps us mend our tattered social fabric by helping us to better understand one another and to imagine possibilities. For each of these functions he provides a few concrete examples, including the current Home Alone Together exhibition.

Kitchen
Photo by Yola Monakhov Stockton, May 17, 2020, for the “Home Alone Together” exhibition

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Along these same lines . . . at the end of the Makers & Mystics podcast episode “Art as Healing,” recorded live last year at The Farm House in Charlottesville, Virginia, and released June 5, 2020, host Stephen Roach reads an excerpt from a book he’s writing:

In our present day, it can be easy to conclude from the various crises taking place around the world, all the injustice and political unrest, the rampant poverty and environmental threats, persecution and killings, diseases and displacements, that art and beauty are mere luxury. It could even make some feel that to focus on art and beauty is insensitive or shortsighted. However, I want to suggest that it’s precisely because of these desperate situations that the artist is called upon to beautify the world with art and engage these issues from a vantage point of hope.

The desperate situation in our world calls for the artist to emerge as a prophetic voice for change and to offer heaven’s alternatives. I’m reminded of the example of Iraqi cellist Karim Wasfi, who countered the tragedy of war by playing music at the sites of car-bomb explosions, with smoldering buildings in the background of his concertos. Wasfi said, “The other side chose to turn every element, every aspect of life in Iraq into a battle and into a war zone. I chose to turn every corner of Iraq into a spot for civility, beauty, and compassion.”

This is the call of the artist in collaboration with God: we are called to be the architects of hope and to counter the destruction of life with the opposite spirit in beauty and creativity.

Here’s a video of Wasfi playing an original cello composition in the destroyed buildings of Al Shifa Hospital in Mosul, Iraq, in September 2018, where some two thousand explosive hazards were removed by UNMAS (United Nations Mine Action Service):

It reminds me of a photograph by Julie Adnan that I saw in National Geographic a decade ago and that, of all the extraordinary photos published in that magazine, has stuck with me the most. Its caption reads, “Some 160 miles northeast of Baghdad, in a Sulaymaniyah music hall ravaged by war, looting, and neglect, a violin-playing boy sounds a note of hope. His teacher, Azad Maaruf, lives there, instructing scores of students.”

Boy playing violin
Photo by Julie Adnan, taken in Sulaymaniyah, Iraq, published in the February 2010 issue of National Geographic

The expression “fiddling while Rome burns,” which legend says the emperor Nero did in 64 AD, is used deprecatingly to refer to the doing of something trivial and irresponsible during a crisis. But beauty is not trivial, and its pursuit during times of crisis does not indicate apathy. I love that this little boy wants to play music while bombs sound out around him. Making art can be a daring act of resistance, an assertion of and call to common humanity, a better way. It’s life-affirming. As artist Laura Bon says: “Artists need to create on the same scale that society has the capacity to destroy.”

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NEW SONG: “The Medicine” by Dee Wilson: Dee Wilson of Common Hymnal premiered this song on his YouTube channel on May 27, and then Good Shepherd New York and friends put together a beautiful arrangement for the church’s June 7 virtual worship service. It’s a prayer that God would save us from the virus of racism, which harms and divides. The chorus goes: “We don’t know what to do, so we turn our eyes to you. We’ve run out of words to say. But if you come and have your way, you can save us from ourselves before our wounds hurt someone else. We need you now.” The video features Wilson on lead vocals, Liz Vice on background vocals, Orlando Palmer and Charles Jones on keyboard, Franklin Rankin on guitar, Michael Decena on bass, and Terence F. Clark on drums.

Every Sunday since March 15, Good Shepherd New York (“an interdenominational church helping New Yorkers embody the love of Christ for the good of our neighbors”) has been releasing a worship service video with liturgy, prayer, sermon, open communion—and phenomenal music led by associate pastor David Gungor, which engages current events. The whole services are worth watching/participating in, but here are a few musical highlights I’ve queued up. I especially like the medleys, which blend together excerpts from a range of songs:

  • June 21, instrumental prelude: “Strange Fruit” by Abel Meeropol, arr. Edward W. Hardy
  • June 7: MEDLEY: “What’s Goin’ On?” by Marvin Gaye / “Which Way Are You Goin’?” by Jim Croce / “Will We Ever Rise” by the Brilliance
  • May 31: “Let the Waters” by Michael Gungor (also a standalone video)
  • May 10: MEDLEY: “My Brother, My Sister” by the Brilliance / “Higher Love” by Steve Winwood
  • March 22: MEDLEY: “All Who Are Thirsty” by Brenton Brown and Glenn Roberts / “Take Me to the River” by Leon Bridges / “Amazing Grace” (with traditional English folk tune RISING SUN)
  • March 15: “Until These Tears Are Gone” by Young Oceans

A link to the digital worship guide for each week is provided in the video’s YouTube description field.

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NEW COVER SONGS

“Something Has to Break”Written by Kierra Sheard, Mia Fields, and Jonathan Smith – Performed by Tinika Wyatt, Andy Delos Santos, Julia Carbajal, Eric Lige, and Shawn Halim (members of the Urbana Worship Team) – Premiered at InterVarsity Live! on June 5, 2020 [HT: Global Christian Worship]

“Way Maker” – Written by Sinach (Osinachi Kalu) – Performed by Zanbeni and Benny Prasad – This husband-wife duo [previously] brings a fusion of R&B, jazz, and Indian classical music to this 2015 gospel song.

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EXHIBITION / VIRTUAL ART TOUR: Celebrating 800 Years of Spirit and Endeavour: To celebrate the eight hundredth anniversary of the laying of its first foundation stone, Salisbury Cathedral organized a major exhibition this year, which was three years in the making. After the art was sited and installed both inside the building and outside on the lawns, COVID-19 hit, and the cathedral was forced to close. But the planning team adapted to the setback, developing a virtual tour that uses panorama technology to enable the viewer to enter the cathedral virtually, watch a video introduction, and navigate around the exhibition space by clicking on thumbnail images of the works and links to the corresponding catalog pages.

Curated by Jacquiline Creswell, who has led the cathedral’s visual arts program for the past eleven years, the exhibition features twenty-nine works of art by significant artists of the modern and contemporary eras, including Henry Moore, Elisabeth Frink, Antony Gormley, Mark Wallinger, Shirazeh Houshiary, and Subodh Gupta. Nine of the works are from the cathedral’s permanent collection, while the other twenty were specially brought in, of which two were newly commissioned: the abstract, solar-powered mobile in the nave by Daniel Chadwick, and the light installation in the north porch by Bruce Munro.

The beautifully photographed, ninety-page exhibition catalog is available for free download from the Spirit and Endeavour page of the cathedral website. Besides providing commentary on all the artworks, it also includes an essay by Sandy Nairne that discusses significant art commissions by British churches in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries and the difference between viewing art in a cathedral versus a museum gallery. Another available resource is a guide for kids with questions and activities. While I do hope the interior portion of the exhibition is able to open to visitors soon, I’m grateful that the online resources enable me to “visit” from my living room in the US.

Chadwick, Daniel_Somewhere in the Universe
Daniel Chadwick (British, 1965–), Somewhere in The Universe, 2019–20. Acrylic sheet, stainless steel, solar-powered motor, 1,000 × 1,000 cm. Temporary installation at Salisbury Cathedral. Photo: Ash Mills.
Woodrow, Bill_Clockswarm
Bill Woodrow (British, 1948–), Clockswarm, 2001. Bronze, 25 × 35 × 11 cm. Photo: Ash Mills.
Young, Emily_Angel Gabriel
Emily Young (British, 1951–), Angel Gabriel, 2008. Purbeck stone, 90 cm. Collection of Salisbury Cathedral. Photo: Ash Mills.

View more photos here.

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PSALM 13 SETTINGS FROM INDIA: In November 2015 a group of musicians from Poona Faith Community Church in Pune, India, composed and recorded worship songs in several of the country’s languages. Because Psalm 13 is assigned to today’s lectionary, here are three settings of that lament, in Marathi, Hindi, and Nepali. [HT: Global Christian Worship]

How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I take counsel in my soul
and have sorrow in my heart all the day?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?

Consider and answer me, O LORD my God;
light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death,
lest my enemy say, “I have prevailed over him,”
lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken.

But I have trusted in your steadfast love;
my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
I will sing to the LORD,
because he has dealt bountifully with me.

(This psalm has also been impactfully adapted by Isaac Wardell, as “How Long,” on Bifrost Arts’ 2016 Lamentations album.)

Making Music in Quarantine

Here’s a quick roundup of some of the music videos and songs I’ve really enjoyed that have come about as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“He Will Carry You”: A song by Scott Wesley Brown performed by Zanbeni Prasad on lead vocals, with her husband Benny Prasad on guitar and her sister-in-law Aruni Prasad on backing vocals. [HT: Global Christian Worship]

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“The Sun Will Rise”: One of The Brilliance’s early songs, from their 2010 self-titled album—sung here by Madison Cunningham [previously], Matt Maher, Liz Vice, Jayne Sugg, Tyler Chester, and David Gungor, with multiple contributing instrumentalists (see full list on YouTube).

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“Maren” (Have Mercy on Us): The First Lady of Ethiopia, Zinash Tayachew, sings a new gospel song whose Amharic title, ማረን, transliterated “Maren,” means “Have mercy on us,” a plea addressed to God. “Do not abandon us during this time when the world is terrorized by bad news,” she sings. [HT: Global Christian Worship]

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Apocalyptic Lockdown Blues, a new EP by David Benjamin Blower: One of my favorite singer-songwriters, from Birmingham, England. “Apocalyptic Lockdown Blues is a small oral history of a global pandemic,” Blower writes. “This is folk, rootsy and ambient, with sacred longings, poetry and politics, sung out of windows and accompanied by birdsong.”

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“A Celtic Prayer”: Produced by Jonathan Estabrooks, this video features the choir of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City singing a traditional Celtic blessing set to music by Barry Peters. It begins, “May the Christ who walks on wounded feet walk with you on the road.”

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Virtual May Morning 2020: May Day, May 1, is a public holiday in England, and for the past five hundred-plus years it has been an Oxford tradition to kick off the celebration at dawn by having the Choir of Magdalen College sing unaccompanied in the Renaissance style from the top of the college’s bell tower. Typically a crowd of thousands gathers for May Morning along High Street and on Magdalen Bridge, but this year the event was canceled due to COVID-19. However, Magdalen College pulled off a virtual choir! The boy choristers and lay clerks recorded their parts from home, under the direction of Mark Williams, which were combined in a video that was released online at 6 a.m. local time. [HT: Joy Clarkson]

The choir sings “Hymnus Eucharisticus,” a seventeenth-century Trinitarian hymn, and “Now Is the Month of Maying,” an English ballett (a light, dancelike part song similar to a madrigal) from 1595, about lads and lasses frolicking in the grass. The prayer in the middle is led by the Rev. Dr. Andrew Bowyer, dean of divinity. The actual church bells did ring out the hour like usual, with a celebratory chime following the performance (the chimes in the video were prerecorded).

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“Doxology”: One of the things I miss most about communal (in-person) worship is singing the Doxology together with my church family each week. As part of his “Covers from an Empty House” series, Ben Rector has posted a contemplative rendition at the piano, which captures the sense of both mourning and hope that so characterizes this global moment. [HT: TGC Arts & Culture Newsletter]

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“I Know Who Holds Tomorrow”: This song was written by Ira Stanphill in 1950 following a painful divorce. It’s covered here by The Petersens, a family gospel group from Missouri.

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Scott Avett [previously] has been posting #emptylivingroomconcert videos on Instagram since the beginning of the year—just him and his guitar (or banjo) and a sixty-second time limit. Here are a few. (He’s the writer of all these songs, I’m assuming.)

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#emptylivingroomconcert

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