In my first 7R blog I wrote about the value of noticing the suffering of others; this idea was seminal in the evolution of Seven Responses as a project, exploring a 17th-century response to suffering and responding to that (specifically, Buxtehude’s Membra Jesu Nostri) from a contemporary perspective – seven composers and their ideas on the topic. My intention today was to continue to look at the individual artists involved, following on Lew Spratlan’s contribution last week. But, life has a way of presenting us with detours that bring us back to the baser topics of our existence – detours that, in fact, help us focus.
The Crossing lost another close friend this week; Jeff Manns, who has sung tenor with us for a number of years and was just heard in our performances of Bonhoeffer, passed away suddenly on Monday at age 40. Jeff and I worked intimately together, but we were not close friends; he had numerous communities with rich, close relationships far beyond our work together. Yet, there is no cliché in saying this is a shock to our community of The Crossing, and the grief has significantly deeper impact coming so soon after the passing of Jeff Dinsmore in April 2014: the two beautiful men shared a name and voice part, were good friends and close colleagues, they were very young and their passing was completely unexpected, they leave behind families and communities that adore them.
I’ve spent my adult life working with large numbers of people (in university choral settings, symphonic choirs, opera companies, and the large community we call The Crossing) and observed early on that, in those communities, life is ever being transformed; at any given time someone is losing a parent, having a baby, marrying, buying a house, divorcing, moving far way, taking a lover or losing one, celebrating a professional triumph or succumbing to crushing depression. These life transitions are experienced from one degree of separation; we don’t live all of these experiences daily ourselves, we observe them empathetically in each other – in fellow musicians we care about – as they go through these joys and sorrows. This, I think, is why the passing of a young person from within the community is so strange and confusing; it’s experienced by all of us equally. Sorrow (and anger and fear and chaos) is happening within each of us individually; the degree of separation is gone, but the isolation of grief is very real and the need for community is strangely offset by the inability of the community to adequately answer that which afflicts the individual. We want to do something, but there is nothing to do but feel. As the poet of Membra Jesu Nostri writes, we are “languishing through the wound of love."
Why is so much art about grieving? My father used to ask this when he would observe that much of the music I conduct is “morose." I would explain that I don’t see it that way; that, to attempt to describe our world in art allows us to better understand – to better define – our emotional lives. (I will admit that I usually lost my father’s attention at “describe our world.") To explore sadness and grief, whether it be over death or over love or even an inexplicable, ancient source, is to give some structure to otherwise overwhelming emotions – emotions springing from these life transitions I find so confusing – the deaths, the divorces, the bad decisions, the births, the graduations, the loves.
The detour of Jeff Manns’ passing – this brutal interruption – reminds me of the opportunity, the value, to contemplate the suffering of others daily, as I recognize it in myself. And, it reinforces my turning to art, in projects like 7R, to give my otherwise confusing, often meaningless, life trajectory a direction – if only to better understand myself and my friends: how we cling to each other, how we experience time – and therefore the idea of ‘our lives,’ what exactly is loss, or joy, and why.
I embrace you
and, lamenting, I delight in you.
- Ad Manus (To the Hands), Membra Jesu Nostri (1680),
from the Medieval poem, Salve mundi, salutare
Next week: a more joyful topic, as we explore the Seven Responses artwork of Elizabeth Haidle.