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Tamsin Smith

Tamsin Smith

Posted: May 18, 2010 08:23 PM

Sound Effects: An Episcopatheist Hears the Song of Angels

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I sat in a church pew for the first time in a long while this Saturday evening. I heard angels singing, each to each - and, they sang for me. This is notable.

I used to joke that I was an "Episcopatheist," largely because it sounded witty, but also because I've honestly never felt genuine proximity to a higher presence, neither while reading scripture nor while listening to a sermon. I have tried. Yet to me, the Bible has always been more a work of literature than a sacred text, and the closest thing I've ever felt to holy ground is the shifting memory of weather that appears (and disappears) as an ocean wave.

But Saturday was different. I was moved by what can most purely be described as Love. I could use other words like grace and radiance, and others still, which don't rightly belong together, such as joy and stillness; but, fundamentally, the experience was one of profoundly, magically, and beautifully revealed love. What I heard and saw and felt was to me, the greatest expression of what we humans can render here on earth: a gift that transcends space and time, and opens the heart and mind to the possibilities of what we can share with one another in the here and now.

In this human realm, our mystics and mysteries herald from the Elysian fields of Science and Art. In the world of Art, voyeurs like me can deconstruct the tools of creative industry, but only a true artist can produce a work that inspires unearthly wonder. I have felt this wonder in reading certain poems, and in sharing them aloud with others. There is a tremendous power in this kind of acoustic intimacy. But, this weekend, that same wondrous sensation went "electric."

Electric may seem a very odd way of describing the concert that I heard on Saturday at St. Mark's Lutheran Church in San Francisco, but it was in fact electrifying. If you have never heard the Volti vocal ensemble perform, heal thyself and explore Volti. What the brilliant artistic director Bob Geary and these professional vocalists achieve in sound is to the ear what Auguste Rodin's sculpture is to the eye. Whether the best metaphor is clay or bronze or just notes on a page, there's no question that it was the material with which they had to work, which lifted their voices and their audience out of this world.

The concert began with pieces by three outstanding contemporary composers. These were extraordinary, yet I was there for the culminating performance of Morten Lauridsen's O Magnum Mysterium and Nocturnes choral cycle. Mr. Lauridsen, playing piano, accompanied the Nocturnes movements, each of which reveals the works of different poets: Rainer Maria Rilke; Pablo Neruda; and James Agee.

I'd been introduced to Mr. Lauridsen's work and to the composer himself by a great friend, who is himself a blessing, the poet Dana Gioia. Connections like this certainly heighten appreciation, but I suspect there wasn't a soul in that church, who didn't feel transformed by the music. It shone through the faces of the singers themselves and of all those listening. It was love - the simplest and purest expression of the need to touch the lives of others -- that shone forth. And so, I write this in the hope that I can touch one more person by sharing the love that Mr. Lauridsen's music brings. Listen. Move the sound around.