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November 13th, 1999, the Ritual Month of Maimakterion, Thiasos Olympikos 10


The Dromena called Maimakteria has just concluded and the God tells me it is time to begin the project of this Journal. How a God tells you things is often a roundabout business, and sometimes it is not at all apparent that a God is communicating; but eventually, if you open your eyes and ears, you will know. (It was none other than Yeshua ben Yoseph who said: "Look, him who has eyes. Listen, him who has ears.")

We have a neighbor who, for the past ten years, has been exemplary. This year that neighbor has begun to provide music for the whole neighborhood, without even being asked for this boon. Out in the morning, on comes the radio, and though I am fully a quarter mile across the lot, I can hear each and every commercial with remarkable clarity. The music between the commercials is fine, though I could stand a little more rock and roll and a little less country; and Mozart now and then would be really nice.

However, when one is conducting dromena, it is a little difficult to concentrate when someone is bemoaning the loss of her or his baby in the most melodious and lugubrious terms. We have resorted to taking our little boom box down and playing Hellenic dance music to help us focus. Sometimes the neighbor notices and turns down the volumn. Sometimes the dance music acts as a filter.

When I came in after the ritual it occurred to me that I wanted some music, and no commercials. Into my brain popped a CD containing music mostly written for the Modern Olympics; which means, Music in Honor of Zeus. It appeared to my hand a couple of years ago when I was going through the used CD section in a media store.

For the record (no pub intended), the CD is titled Summon the Heroes, and features John Williams and the Boston Pops Orchestra. It is (and I quote) "The Official Licensed Classical Record of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games, Inc." --Don't let that disturb you, it is worth tracking down. The number on it is SK 62592, if that helps.

There are some familiar cuts on the disc; Orff's "Oh Fortuna," for instance, and the Vangelis "Chariots of Fire" theme. You may also recognize Williams' familiar theme music for the Olympic telecasts. But you are nowhere else likely to find Leonard Bernsteins's Olympic Hymn or the Ode to Zeus by Mikis Theodorakis. And Javelin by Michael Torke is a splendid treat indeed!

Oh! Some months after writing this I suddenly realized that the CD (or tape) might still be in print, so I looked at Amazon, and there it is! If you get the urge to buy it, click here:

Order Summon the Heroes Today!

It is really uplifting, positive, downright heroic music; and that is the circuitous route by which I find myself coming to the point of this little essay, which is really just a footnote on the nature of music connected with the religious experience.

To most people in today's world the mention of religious music conjurs up an aural image so tediously respectful and slow that Eternal Sleep seems to be the goal of its performance. Sacred music is either meditative in nature, like Gregorian Chant, or akin to pop music; but with a sanctimonius set. In the Pagan community as a whole the repertoire is even more limited, with most composition coming from a neo-folk music background; or worse, just old New England hymn tunes with Goddess lyrics.

Even the few scraps of truly Ancient Music we have are given the slow, mournful kind of reading that is at variance not only with the content of the lyrics, but with the whole history of modal performance.

I think the source of this view is the confluence of musical development with the dominance of monotheistic religious thinking.

The Western view of the Christian Mystery reaches its finest musical interpretation in the archetectrual masterpieces of Bach and the lesser Baroque masters. And though ecstatically beautiful, this music is basically very dark under all the light. Later composers lavished their attention on the Reqium! I mean, despite the joy of Poulenc, most religous music of the past couple of centuries has been Death Music., The Ressureaction is little depicted: it is the horror of the Crucifixion that has held artistic fascination.

Couple that with the tendency of musicians to slow down the tempi more and more, and you are heading for Somnolance As A Way of Worship.

That fits well enough with a religious paradigm concerned with Sin rather than Joy. But it is a pretty dark path down which to tread. The cental Mystery of Western Christianity has become the torture and murder of Jesus, and the central experience Guilt. --I suspect that Jesus would have been horrified.

What is at issue here is 'What Is Being Celebrated?'

In the Hellenic forms of Pagan practice, death is just a fact of life: the end of the play, and inevitable. What is celebrated is Victory, Triumph, Accomplishment: in short, those things which make life better rather than worse. A good harvest, the birthday of a God, a marriage, a birth; even death is held to be an occasion for Games and contests to honor the dead. The joy of life is central, rather than the fear of death.

And this is reflected in the music which our Gods inspire, even in the hearts of those who do not believe in Them.. Music written for Pagan Gods seems always to be positive, joyous, uplifting and ecstatic. --I have constantly marveled that Saint-Saens, in his opera Samson et Delilah, wrote beautiful but grim music for the God of Israel, and gave Dagon some really great party music.

I suppose what I am trying to get at is this: the music both reflects and inspires the experience. The Hellenic experience of the Gods is noble, uplifting, ecstatic, joyous, and for the most part positive. There are dark things to be had, if one looks for them: but the Hellenic mind set does not look for trouble, knowing full well that it will find one unsought. Thus the music for our rituals can be all those things which we seek and find, and not confined by the recent past's prejudices about what should, or should not be, held appropriate for divine worship.

And, having written all of the above, the God now laughs and causes me to remember exceptions to every example.

Oh well. The point of writing it was not to teach anything in particular, but to inspire people to think about the way they put music and ritual together, and maybe suggest some different approaches. Thunka-Thunka in A-Minor with a guitar is all very well and good: but where is our Bach?

Hmmm. Anybody here ever hear of Sir Michael Tippet?





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