The White Light Festival

By Deirdre Good

When the applause died down and the lights went up, I sat in my seat at the center of the front row spellbound by the performance of Judith I had just seen. I’d heard her anxiety, her prayers, and her courage. I’d heard the words of the dying Holofernes. But how? The biblical text doesn’t record them. So what was it I’d heard? Was it opera combining biblical text with midrash? Medieval passion play? Hagiography? Literary epic? Political manifesto? All of the above?

To unpack layers doesn’t convey the piece’s dynamism. But it’s a place to start. Rhymes of the Croatian poet Marko Marulic sung as improvised chant retell the ancient story as one of Croatian liberation. The top layer includes interpolations of the performer Katarina Livljanic as thoughts of Judith and Holofernes. A conversation between mind and spirit is put on Judith’s lips just before she kills Holofernes and another in Holofernes’ mind as he lies dying. Ms Livljanic found the words of a 16th Century Croatian manuscript in a Harvard Library written by a priest-peasant.

The interpolations are for her the nucleus of the story. They give the piece psychological heft. Judith asks, “Why are you sad, my soul, and why are you confusing me?” Her prayer for courage becomes the voice of oppressed people everywhere. And the dying Holofernes says something like lines from Borges’ sonnets quoted in the program:

How many things,

Files, doorsills, atlases, wineglasses, nails,

Serve us like slaves who never say a word,

Blind and so mysteriously reserved.

They will endure beyond our vanishing;

And they will never know that we have gone.

Ms Livljanic explains the interpolations: “I think this is really entering the interior universe of the two characters, when we can see their soul and mind or soul and body speaking…So I find this festival a very natural frame for this story,” she adds.

People I spoke with after the Judith performance found it extraordinary and some said it was the best part of the festival so far. For me, the musical performance and visual enactment enhances a reading of Judith’s interior life. She vacillates between doubts and despair. Faced with a dead drunk Holofernes, she crouches down in anguish and dejection (“My soul, you are not helping me”); she kneels in supplication for courage; she takes her sword and decapitates Holofernes and finally, she sings in wonderment at her triumph (“Behold, the head that threatened to destroy us!”). The people respond (“the incense spread, the priest chanted and the walls echoed back, and the people knelt before the Lord”). This is a gripping musical rendition of a woman’s terror transformed by courage through religious faith.

But what is the festival of which it is a part? Built around the theme of spirituality, it “seeks to offer remarkable and transcendent musical experiences” so as “to expand our interior lives…to help us feel the strength offered by our connection to our larger selves and to our community of fellow listeners,” Jane Moss, Vice President for programming at Lincoln center and the White Light Festival explains. The name for the festival comes from a quote by the composer Arvo Pärt, which says that music is transformed from white light into color through the prism of the listener. “To me the ultimate success, I suppose, would be that you, the listener, fall in love the way I do every day of my life,” she said. “If I were able to give that to people — that, ‘Oh my God, this music makes me feel whole,’ for maybe only two hours — that would feel good to be able to do that.”

The festival abounds with listening opportunities. It opened with free presentations of unmediated music. Janet Cardiff’s sound installation “The Forty-Part Motet,” located at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City, presents the16th century English composer Thomas Tallis’ “Spem in Alium” (“I have hope in none other than Thee, O Lord”) by recording each voice on a separate channel. More diverse than any surround sound, listeners wander between the freestanding speakers to hear each individual voice and then the whole motet. They encounter “a piece of music as a changing construct,” Cardiff explains. “I am interested in how sound may physically construct a space in a sculptural way and how a viewer may choose a path through this physical yet virtual space.” Giving direct access to one of the most sublime pieces of music ever written is a unique sound experience for me.

I attended a concert given by Philippe Herreweghe conducting the Collegium Vocale Ghent and I Solisti del Vento (woodwind and brass) singing music by Brahms and Cornelius. But the highlight was a performance of Anton Bruckner’s Mass in E Minor. The beautiful Collegium voices were well balanced by the musicians while warm acoustics of Alice Tully Hall bathed us in pristine sound. The piece was composed for the dedication of the Votive Chapel in Linz Cathedral. Although there are moments of intensity in the Credo, for example, Bruckner’s use of traditional polyphony (apparently the Bishop was fond of the style of Palestrina) and counterpoint conveys a transcendent sense of peace and joy, which is presumably an expression of his faith. Here are more listening opportunities

After every festival event, audience and musicians gather over complimentary sparkling water or prosecco to converse and reflect on what we’d seen. On this occasion, I met my wife who’d come from a performance of Sutra, the only dance at the festival. She was enraptured. Sutra was an hour-long piece by 17 monks from the Shaolin Temple in China. They danced to music performed live by a Polish composer Szymon Brzoska on piano, percussion and strings. Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui choreographed Sutra.

The Shaolin monks are disciplined in the arts of person-to-person conflict and they see this as their path to achieve union with heaven. The conflict encompasses Chinese bare fist fighting, and other martial arts. The set, which consisted of about 24 oblong wooden boxes about the size of a human but with one wall open, was an integral part of the performance. As the stage opens, the boxes form a solid block in the center of the stage and over to the left a man and a child sit at opposite ends of what appears to be a metal table, and on the table between the child and the man is a wooden block in small scale. The dance progresses with a series of movements in which it is hard to determine, as the massive block breaks up, whether a pattern of individual monks causes or mirrors the movement of the large blocks. Watching the whole calls to mind the life of heaven in the Hebrew Scriptures where what is happening on earth images and echoes what is happening in heaven. The monks use the realms of the miniature blocks as a patterning framework and props. The world of the man and child and the tiny blocks interpenetrates the world of the Shaolin monks and the worlds mingle with dance-like martial movements as we wonder about the correlation between them. Gradually the two worlds separate and the child moves the blocks to which the world of the monks conforms.

Antony Gormley contributed the visual design, consisting primarily of 21 coffin-like wooden boxes.

Sublime and ordinary: there were more than two hours of white light transformed into color by our listening every night. After all, as Meredith Monk, a festival performer says, “Drinking a cup of coffee is spiritual, if you’re in the moment.” Thank you, Jane Moss. Looking forward to the next White Light Festival.

Dr. Deirdre Good is professor of New Testament at The General Theological Seminary, specializing in the Synoptic Gospels, Christian Origins, Noncanonical writings and biblical languages. An American citizen, she grew up in Kenya and keeps the blog On Not Being a Sausage.

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