Open your hands

I was part of something that might not have been an overwhelming success in terms of bringing attention to a wide audience.

But I was part of something magnificent this Sunday.

Merlijn Twaalfhoven is a Dutch composer and he founded a project that was called the 24 hour Resonance where, for 24 hours vocal musicians gathered in a location in Amsterdam (Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ) and created music.  The digital flyer for the project read:

We will make a statement with hundreds of singers against noise, and we will create a listening ear for silence.  Our motto: Experience the power of music.

We are asking for more space for active musicking.  We will let the meaning of active partaking in music be heard for 24 hours.  We offer, thus, a powerful alternative to the obsessive perfectionism, the glossy flyers and the sickening competition of our current musical lives.  In this respect, we wish to allow music to return to what it always was: a personal and sincere expression of your unique place in the world, and your respectful relationships with those around you.

Why this project?

Music has become a commodity.

We stream an endless flood of notes and sound.

It goes in one ear and out the other.

Playing and singing for ourselves has been moved to the background.

I want to call you to take part in a counter-movement, and to expand the space and time for active creation and performance of music.

That’s a lot to think about, and it’s specially a lot to think about for someone with my background.  There is truth in what the flyer said, and yet there are words of danger there for me.

Music, for one thing, has not always been respectful.  In fact, it seldom is.  It’s a powerful medium that world powers have used and abused for centuries to control their populations, to spread ideology and to create barriers to cultures.  In this way music is incredibly exclusionary.

Our portion of that concert yesterday was all music from the European Renaissance and my husband laughed later and said, “Well there weren’t a lot of themes in that were there?”  I smilingly rejoined, “You mean Deo, Deo, Deo, Deo, Gratia, Magnificat, Solus Altissimus et in Excelsis Deo isn’t varied?”  I knew what he meant.  While that’s a gross characterization of an entire period’s music, the fact remains that every piece we performed yesterday came from the Western European church tradition of Renaissance music.  Did we offend every atheist who came to listen?  No.  Definitely not, but it’s an interesting move to program only religious music from the Renaissance when there was a large body of secular songs as well.  We went after some of the most famous and well-beloved in the singing tradition and that was clearly the goal, but that choice in and of itself is exclusionary.  Great music? Maybe.  It belongs to a specific canon, no doubt, but it also challenges anyone hearing because that’s only one God they’re singing about.  This wasn’t maliciously done, but this is the lazy way that music creates barriers just by following a canon and drawing on a body of literature without exploring the reasons that literature belongs to the canon in the first place.

But about the endless stream of notes, and about the listening ear for silence, I found much to rejoice in.  In fact, for me, the greater portion of the goal of this program is a beautiful objective: to make musicking a practice that people go back to without turning to an electronic device: to dethrone the gods of Talent and Perfection so that people can go back to singing and musicking without fear of being mocked.  I too wish that musicking was a natural practice.  I really abhor the way we create specific space, specific times for music, the way we put it up on some dais and start worshiping at the feet of people who can perform, when really I think that by doing so we deprive ourselves (as humans) of a skill we have used collectively to express ideas that cannot otherwise be conveyed.  Music has enough vagary built into it to shelter the person from being accused of believing or saying things while it has enough emotive power at the same time to relieve the performer of tensions.  Music in this sense acts as both cloak and inclusive agent.  Those listening, who find something worth hearing are welcomed in.  Those participating who joy in musicking create a listening space.  The hearers and the makers are not sharing concrete ideas, but they are inhabiting a sonic reality, a shared reality, and they might not otherwise have entered that space together.

I often don’t know the first thing about the people I wind up singing with much less their names, but I know I can make beautiful music with them.  It is in this means that musicking can build community and open the heart to the people around you.

During the two hour block of Renaissance Deo Gloria I saw something stunning happen which became moving, but in a peaceful way which was no less powerful for its silence.

Listening is a conscious act.  It requires vulnerability and self-surrender.  It is a choice we make, and it is a skill all truly good musicians learn.  It is also a skill all truly sincere people learn.

While we were performing a group of people entered the foyer with mats and blankets.  They took up seats on their mats in the sunlight in a semi circle.  They closed their eyes in the sunshine, turned their palms upwards, and meditated while we sang.  I put the second gesture there in bold because it is a physical gesture I was taught in meditation for healing as a means of combating my anxiety problems years and years ago, and I was deeply moved to see a group of people doing this together.

Something else that humans have often forgotten to be mindful of in this endlessly streaming world we live in is their body language and how body language can create a habitus of perceiving realities that we’re not even aware of.  When you listen to someone with your arms folded defensively across your chest, you don’t want to hear what they have to say, and you are shutting your mind to their words before they can speak.  That’s not simply from reading your body, but you are saying with your body what your mind and spirit feel.  If you have to hear words you are afraid of, if you have to be real with another human whom you want to connect with, but with whom you are fearing confrontation, try sitting with your palms facing upwards.  It opens the mind and it takes real will-power to go on holding the hands facing upwards like that.  The physical gesture of surrender communicates that willingness to the mind, and so mind and body open themselves as one to the experience of the other person.

To see all these souls: unique, unknown to me, sitting there with their palms up in the sunshine while we sang to them bound us all together for an hour in one community.  They were the listeners and their job was as sacred as mine as a musicker, they needed to be vulnerable to the sound and to honor it with their silence.  My job was to honor their silence with my song.

If there was one thing I missed yesterday it was that there was no opportunity for those listening to become the musickers and for me to become the listener to them.  But one step at a time.  I hope there will be more opportunities like this in Amsterdam, and I hope that the word will spread about 24 hour Resonance and projects like it.  This was an inspiring several weeks, a lot of beautiful music and it ended for me in a beautiful and moving way.


~ by Rebecca Erickson on October 12, 2015.

One Response to “Open your hands”

  1. What a beautiful idea (24 Hour Resonance) and I hope more conductors and singers, all musicians really, will be open to more of these “gloss-less” performances. I also like your idea of then becoming the audience’s listener. Thanks for sharing.

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