Thoughts about Mary Oliver

My Quaker friend Peter Rutter died at a great age on January 15th 2019. By coincidence it was also on this day that Mary Oliver died. I had never heard of her but received this pœm from an admirer, which perfectly summarised Peter’s life and death. I read it at his memorial Meeting.

When Death Comes
When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse
to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox
when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,
I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?
And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,
and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,
and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,
and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.
When it’s over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

Subsequently I bought Mary Oliver’s Collected Works and have been reading a pœm a  day; but not until I encountered the pœm Praying in mid September did I see one that produced an immediate musical response, to the degree that I had sketched out almost all the melodic narrative spontaneously. Then I tackled Thirst with the same visceral response. A couple of days came the lament Lead – so relevant to the eco-cide which the human species is visiting on our planet. The fourth pœm I set last as I knew it would be the most challenging to achieve the right idiom for a quasi-operatic scena the words demanded. The final Pœm (the spirit) Clancy found in a book about Hildegarde of Bingen by Matthew Fox, who regards both pœts as speaking with one orphic voice. This set made me wondering about creating a light-hearted vocal acappella scherzo à la Manhattan Transfer or King’s Singers, but with words of profound spiritual content.

Stylistically, the closer the performance comes to a barbershop acappella sound the happier I shall be. The words need to be articulated as clearly as possible. However there are some passages, especially in the latter two songs where particular care will be needed to communicate the narrative.

The process of computerising the score is a long slow business, and I often use one of my screen to keep half an eye/ear on other things. Two personal memories stand out. I was working on the tragic poem Lead while watching the parliamentary debate following the Prorogation judgment, and if anything summed up humanity’s blindness to the needs of the environment, natural justice or the bigger picture it was the aggressive factionalism of Johnson’s Conservative Party. The other is that while I was finalising The Fires I watched a beautiful documentary about Leonard Cohen’s muse Marianna and their life (not/) together, the pre-lapsarian existence on the Greek Island of Hydra in the ’60s, and the tragic consequences for its cast of characters as their dreams evaporated and one by one they were overtaken by the destiny they had been escaping.

To me, Mary Oliver’s poems are not merely about such hope, they are about a more profound perennial wisdom and forgiveness found in nature, with which we can align ourselves if we set aside the limitations of the human intellect and embrace the non-dual (without drugs). It must seem a paradox, when the music I have written depends supremely for its realisation on a high level of intellectualised skill – and yet the composition is distilled from the subconscious, the inchoate, and can only be effective if performed in that spirit … the consciousness that returns us to the unconscious – that cycle of perpetual motion where the unknowing gives us the knowing that gives us the unknowing.


When I compose is when I feel the greatest intensity of relationship with my Inner Otherness, therefore I have to trust that what I’m doing has some ultimate meaning  - even when in the ‘real world’ it has neither meaning nor value. I have to believe that the latency of the beauty I am creating has the power to bring into existence a world in which it would make sense. This may of course be a complete delusion but it makes a better basis for living my life than thinking I’m a Nowhere Man making songs for nobody. 

When I look at my life trajectory and see how everything I blindly struggled for has manifested beyond my wildest dreams, I don’t see why that principle would not also apply to my composition. Therefore if I were to take the view that if noone will pay me I won’t do it, as I used to, I deprive myself of my greatest private bliss and make a mockery of the trust mechanism that has generated everything of value that now surrounds me. 

In all of this the one profound grief I have is that I have not been able to learn heuristically by actually hearing what I have composed in the divine sunlight of acoustic sound, for then I think I would’ve been able to escape my own mind. But I cannot change what I cannot change. 

I keep thinking that if I have resolved pretty much all my other issues why can’t I call on the Powers That Be to resolve this one too? But that seems to be the big fat God button I can’t find. I know it’s there somewhere, and I figure that if I keep pressing the buttons in sequence and combo then statistically I’m likely to hit it sooner or later. Or sit on it by accident!

And meanwhile walking in the dark is its own ‘proof of concept’ - ie, faith - and nothing is more agreeable than to have a hypothesis proved correct after a difficult process. And if isn’t? Well then it’s still a pleasanter way to wind toward death than the conviction you’ve wasted your time. I regard myself as a Merlin in his Esplumoir fashioning the Excalibur/s some future Arthur will draw from the rock. My job is only to make the thought-form as perfect as I can (& that’s why concessions to amateurs won’t help). It’s the big one or it’s nothing. 

For me this is a win-win. If I’m busy I’m not spending money (albeit not making it, but I have precious little control over that either! And it seems to work out) :: it doesn’t cost anything, harm anyone or put me within reach of the law. There is only the heartache of each new piece coming off the production line to a deafening silence. But after a lifetime of people not seeing the point of me I’ve come to understand that being understood is not the raison d’être — it’s more pleasant to be sure, but the big game sub specie æternitatis is to listen to the voice and be accurate transcribing it. Did I ever tell you that for my choir school auditions the piece I was given to learn was “I know that my redeemer (/justifer) liveth” ... and at the latter end he shall stand upon the earth? Is more prophetic resonance than this ever offered on the bumpy road to love?

So, madness or faith? Shall we ever know?


Thoughts on recording Bach

I now know why old people get cranky – it’s too much effort to appear normal! As you go under the hill your view of normal changes and you have to consciously reconnect to the ever-evolving normality of younger people encountering the world afresh. 
Ive been thinking this because Ive been gazing intensively at myself while editing the third movement of my Bach Organ Trio Sonata V. It's far&away the hardest piece I’ve tackled in my organ renaissance; and one of the problems I have found in recording it is that my stamina is inexorably withering. I can now only do about 90’ of worthwhile recording at a stretch, the mental effort demanded by acute concentration on the movement of limbs as well as maintaining full consciousness of the ‘recording architecture’ (where there are errors that need to be patched, consistency of tempo, uniformity of phrasing) wears me out sooner than it used to – that means that it’s a fight to get it all right while the window is open.
There is a glib solution: do it right in the first place—as Dan & Kieran did so brilliantly the Dodgson Duo ® last week—but the reality is that in the heightened nervous attention recording demands you actually make mistakes you’ve never made before, and so you have to have a system that handles your own idiocy (like forgetting to turn the camera on, or accidentally deleting files) in order to get across the finishing line by yourself. And trying to look normal on top of all that can be the straw that sends the camel stark staring bonkers!

If you want a definition of the word supererogation it is this: to practise a Bach Trio Sonata for four years alone in a church for two hours a week and then to record it without another living soul ever hearing it. If that is not ‘beyond what is called for’ (since nobody called for it) what is?
So why? For me wrestling the notes of this beautiful but intractably hard piece into my feet and fingers was probably the same reason others climb mountains or do endurance running. In facing your limits and not allowing yourself to be beaten by your incapacities and human frailty you do touch the void that is within /around /beyond us, yet also intimately part of us. 
For some this place beyond language and controlled emotion arouses fear. And in that place lies awe – awe at the coherence of the macrocosmos and microcosmos, awe at the existence of existence, awe at the nature of life and the phenomenon of love; and more than anything awe at how all these elements are held in balance. So doing these ‘weird’ things is just my way of honouring and being present with this ‘presence’. 
Maybe it’s just the mettle from which composers are struck; but I’ve always had a strong sense of this inner Otherness. From its mysterious darkness arises the impulse to make music which is akin to the impulse of a spring to flow or grass to grow. For most of my adult life I’ve endeavoured to configure the shape of my ideas to other people’s expectations; but my return to organ playing after the age of 60 was of no interest to anyone. It was within the ’s-/place’ of solitary organ practice that I was alone with the great glistening peaks of the organ repertoire – as alone with them as a mountaineer grappling with the external elements – yet here it was me against myself. A true definition of idiocy 
Normal people do such things with others and so their world requires no analysis and thought – and if I knew anyone who wanted to the same things Id do it with them, but I dont, so I do  it alone.

Eventually the challenge of a Trio Sonata hove into my sight line. They’re marvellous music, but stinkingly hard because Bach treats the pedals as a third equal manual and, with only one line of music in each part, there is simply nowhere to hide - every aspect of the performance is exposed to scrutiny at all times. 
The inherent difficulty of playing with your feet is mitigated when the pedal part is in contrast to the manuals, because this gives your brain a way of differentiating the action of your lower limbs from your fingers, but when they’re treated as equals, as Bach does in the Trio Sonatas, the nature of the mental complexity parallels and magnifies the physical demands. Anyway, that has been the grist of my organ grinding for the past four years, not exclusively, for I have learnt and recorded a range of other music as my uTube site shows. 
It has been said that Bach is the best argument for the existence of a God; I would prefer to say that the extraordinary /graceful /resourceful order within Bach’s music puts us in touch with a profound wholeness in which it is possible to believe that there is an implicate ordering within the universe that is too consistent to be accidental. 
I have always believed Bach was a savant, which is why he was capable of multidimensional calculation far exceeding the capacity of normal minds. Yet even this doesn’t explain why or how he did what he did; and an explanation for that, it seems to me, must lie in the relationship of his conscious mind to his inner ‘otherness’—his continuous, practiced openness to the wellsprings of Life. Choose your own vocabulary for this. For Bach didn’t just write music ‘the way a sow pisses’ (to quote Mozart) he did it always with conscious intention to express a quality of order that was real to him. He could have got away with the sort slapdash approach to craftsmanship that his great contemporary Handel exhibits, but Bach never does that. Every manuscript is exquisitely finished and all the musical arguments elegantly dovetailed into a perfectly proportioned space. And I believe he did that because he knew he was profoundly ‘heard’; he knew or felt that he was performing the opus dei - paying tribute to source of existence. Tho Bach could never have known of the Indian mystic Kabir’s phrase  The unstruck drum of Eternity is sounded within me - for the ear of the universe is itself the hearer Yet, to me, this offers the most credible explanation for the dedication and devotion that Bach showed in everything that he wrote, and forms one of the greatest free gifts any individual gave to humanity.  

So that’s what I spent 4 years doing while noone was watching!



My live premiere of Incantabulation is now on uTube. It’s not perfect but it gets the general idea across. I may re-record it over Easter.

I don’t know what sort of sense it makes to anyonelse but I feel some satisfaction that over the last six months (actually) I have pursued this particular dragon to its lair, wrestled with its attempts to throw me off and ultimately tamed it. For me capturing these twists and turns of emotion represent the refinement of much despair (at my incapacities /imagination /endurance) into a tangible object, as opposed to so many ‘raids on the inarticulate with inadequate weapons’ that have ended in failure, or resulted in me fastening a very fine sword in a silent stone that awaits some other Arthur to draw it out ... my choral music, which is where my real genius lies. But here in this piece my strengths and weaknesses are on display, and indeed integrated, in a way I'm happy to acknowledge, as an important step towards the elusive inner music I’ve spent my life trying to capture.

Does this matter, and if so to whom? Well, from the deep depressions of my adolescence I’ve been driven by the belief that if I could release this inner music I would not merely make myself whole but provide a template of wholing for others. Right or wrong, the many twists and turns of my life have represented an attempt to pursue the wholing process; yes, selfishly perhaps, but from the feeling that unless I could unify my field of vision (find emotional integrity) I had nothing else to give.

Jung believed that making a mandala was an important part of the healing process of externalising and balancing both one’s light and dark within the integrity of a circumference. So you could view Incantabulation as part of that idea.

We live in dark times and it’s tempting to try to sync with that dark zeitgeist to hitch a free ride, but I have always felt a calling to try to find & express a quality which offers hope or belief in light. This cannot (for me) be discovered simply through prettiness but has to be earnt from the muck and mire of existence. So I have always held to the belief that what I have been shown to express in composition are the sounds which await those who are also working to bring about worthwhile change. And the concept of martyrdom shows that sometimes the most effective way of bringing about change is by ‘losing’, submerging the needs of an individual in the greater goal of bringing a new world into existence. So I have felt my enforced silence was a price worth paying if it is the cost of being true to my principles.

We are all descendants of contradictions, and thus our integration is in and of itself an important resolution that our parents and grandparents need to see played out in this ‘only world of choice’ for them to understand that their lives too were ultimately worthwhile. And so it will be for us when our children take on our dreams and grow them into flourishing realities that we could barely glimpse.


Poem: The Secondhand Book

I am a book, remaindered on a shelf.
  O take me down and dust me off,
    I still can bring delight.
Once I was new and valued for myself,
  My pages bright, my boards of cloth –
    Ah then I brought delight.

Now on the lower shelves the readers browse,
  While I look down and mutely sigh
    I still can bring delight.
There once I welcomed readers to carouse
  With me enthralled and hold me tight,
    For then I brought delight.

I can’t believe it’s over and I must
  Resign myself to indifference
    While still I hold delight?
Tho faded my jacket and on my top sits dust
  If opened up my heart holds sense
    And still can bring delight.

Reflections on poetry hunting to compile a program of Savile poets. March 2019.


Poem: Clouds

I wish I could cherish 
The uncertainty. I wish 
I could float above 
The void like a cloud,
Happily ignorant 
Of the precipices
And chasms, and of 
The beautiful river plains 
As well – just drifting, 
Fulfilling the role 
Assigned to me 
By circumstance.

Looking ahead 
I would know that whatever 
I did was going to 
Turn out OK; not 
Because I knew 
What was coming,
But because I didn’t. 

Looking behind 
I could see no trace
Of where I’d been,
Or what I’d done.
But that wouldn’t matter 
Because I rained 
Or shaded 
Or evaporated
On cue. 

I had a shape on earth
But left no mark. 
I belonged but 
Never over-stayed. 
I made life possible 
For others without 
Colouring their minds. 
I removed myself 
For their celebrations;
Yet enfolded their doubts
With gloomy darkness. 
I had no need of companions
But never traveled alone. 

I was but was not. 
I became without form. 
I made no move but
encircled the earth. 
I was always 
The obedient servant
Of the sun.


Poem: The Big Bang

A long time ago a meteor struck the earth:
    Life is its echo.
A long time ago the paradox of life struck me:
    I am the echo.

Researchers are just beginning to find out about the one –
    I am just beginning to find out about the other.

Both were given shape by forces beyond their conception;
    Forces noone can unwind.

No dream can be undreamt:
    It can only be lived..

What all these things have in common is that we only discover
    Long after the event
    What they really meant.

Written in the night 0530. 5/2/19


Poem: The Trouble with Politics


The problem isn’t politicians, it’s us.
We don’t want to think about things:
We expect to be handed answers on a plate.
We want our whims to be catered for
Without cost. We resent taxes
Yet expect schools and hospitals
To spring up where we need them.

We moan at the state of the world,
Dismiss politicians as useless;
And expect things to get better
Without anyone rolling up their shirt sleeves
Or putting their shoulders to the wheel.

We look to politicians to give us a lead,
Yet we crush the poetry out their souls
And still expect them to sing in our key.
When something frivolous crosses our minds
We expect them to implement it without delay –
The big things we ignore, they’re too hard.
Migration? We’re against it.
Where should the desperate go?
– Answer came there none.
Is child poverty bad? Yes obviously ...
Unless tackling it involves higher taxes.
Is ‘small government’ good? Of course ...
Unless you want new motorways.
The arts? Can’t afford them. Yet casually
We wave through billions on nuclear arms –
which would destroy us if we used them.
Europe? Don’t even go there.

There is no solution to anything
Unless it involves We The People -
Not We The Businesses, not We 
The Tax-avoiding Trans-national,
Not We The Wealthy-who-don’t-use-public-services.
We The People demand that YOU
engage with US. Don’t expect us
To do anything.  It’s not our job.

It doesn’t make a great poetry does it –
Life so raw and lumpy?
        Where nowadays are noble thoughts,
    words that rhyme with climate change?
                       Or sentences that rearrange
              A world disordered, out of sorts?
 They’ve all been used and done no good.
              The simple truths we understood
     Now owned by cynics, whose one aim   
                        Is to make us all the same:
                  Mindless consumers, unaware
        That what we’ve lost is how to share
   The traits which confer on us humanity:
              Compassion, joy and equanimity.