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Lux Aeterna (or, Some Thoughts on Dawn-Watching) June 29, 2010

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in Iranelection, Music, Nature, Saving the World.
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…The promised sequel to “Luminous Piano Music“, with a bonus: some reflections written last September and reposted here.

My cat Rumi woke me up at dawn this morning, as he generally does, demanding food in piercing tones and grabbing my ankle in his teeth upon my utterly inexcusable delay to wash a spoon (upon which I shrieked and flung a handful of water in his general direction). Either it was the ankle bite, or the early morning light and scent of the cool air drifting through my window, but I simply could not get back to sleep after having plopped the food in his dish and staggered back to bed.

Instead I began remembering last September, where I’d woken up before dawn each morning to eat a hurried meal before sunrise as part of the #iranelection Ramadan solidarity fast. This involved not eating (or, for the truly hardcore participants, which I was not, drinking) between the hours of sunrise and sunset. I was surprised at how much less difficult this was than I’d feared, though I won’t say it was exactly fun…

One of the truly wonderful aspects of the experience, though, was being able to watch the sun rise each day. Often I would put on my favorite piece of “luminous” music, Morten Lauridsen’s Lux Aeterna, as the pure, translucent light of early morning streamed into my room.

*******

Lux Aeterna is one of my favorite pieces of “classical” music of all time. Though written fairly recently it recalls the intricate choral writing of the late Renaissance (particularly Palestrina) in its intricate use of counterpoint paired with a transparent, pure harmonic texture. (I happened to pick up the CD as a library discard one day; if it were not for this stroke of fortune, I would probably never have heard this beautiful but still little-known piece, and my musical life would be significantly poorer for it.) The work is in five movements, all of which I love. Though my all-time favorite is the fourth movement (which will get its own post later, I promise), the opening of the first is to me the most vivid depiction in sound of the gentle light just before sunrise. Here it is, together with some of the thoughts that came to me during that month of dawn-watching.


(Performed by Los Angeles Master Chorale and Sinfonia Orchestra with Paul Salamunovich, Conductor- thank you so much for releasing the first good public-domain performance of this piece I’ve been able to find!🙂 )

*******

September 2009

One of the aspects of Ramadan I’ve truly enjoyed has been the opportunity to watch the sun rise each morning. When I was quite young I used to wake up automatically at sunrise each day, but over the years have gotten out of the habit. In some ways it’s my favorite time of day: the cool, fresh, calm air, the light breeze on my cheeks, the birds that wheel and soar in the pale light. I have an excellent view of the eastern sky from my sixth-floor apartment, and over the past few weeks have had a great deal of pleasure watching from my dining room table as I eat my morning meal.

A few times the show has been magnificent, a brilliant sunrise in the conventional sense: massed clouds glowing a sinister dark red, gradually changing to fluffy “cotton candy” tinted by pastels, light pink and orange against the pale blue sky. But the cloudless sunrise of most days is actually my favorite: simply a slow, calm, gradual illumination of the sky with light — blue, pale green, yellow, orange and finally the red of the sun’s rising disk.

The whole sky fills gradually up with this light. Against it, the buildings of the city seem to fade into irrelevance, faint silhouettes against a glow that is far more real and substantial than they are. My eye is drawn inexorably out, past the swoops of the wheeling birds, past the buildings, to the immense arc of the sky and down to the horizon.

The world suddenly seems like both a larger and a smaller place. Larger, because I realize anew how little my own corner of it is: such a tiny piece of the whole. Smaller, because at the same time I sense that I am connected to the world in its entirety, as immense as it might be. Somewhere far over that horizon where I am gazing, over the curve of the world, are my friends in Iran, and the same sun rose over them eight hours ago that is now rising over me. I feel that I could almost lean out and wave to them, if I tried hard enough.

At the same time I am struck by a sense of the beauty of the world – and of responsibility. I strongly believe that our world was made by a being (call him/her/it what you will) who loves it, and who loves us, and who has done us the immense honor of placing its future and well-being into our hands. And since my corner of the world is connected to every other part, my own responsibility extends far beyond my own city or country – rather, it encompasses the entire world.

In some ways it is an infinite challenge. There is nothing about which we can shrug and say “Not in my backyard”, no atrocity or conflict or violence against our own Earth which we can dismiss as being far-away and unimportant to us personally. Any John McCain or Ann Coulter who calls lightly for bombing Iran or another nation – who thinks that war is an acceptable solution for international relations and that violence against another people doesn’t matter if they live far enough away – should be forced to get up before dawn for a month and stare out at that sky.

Many times this month as I’ve watched the sun rise, I’ve been reminded of a quote by the English mystic Julian of Norwich. She writes about a vision in which:

“[God] showed me something small, about the size of a hazelnut, that seemed to lie in the palm of my hand as round as a tiny ball. I tried to understand the sight of it, wondering what it could possibly mean. The answer came: ‘This is all that is made.’ I felt that it was so small that it could easily fade to nothing; but again I was told, ‘This lasts and will go on lasting forever because God loves it. And so it is with every being that God loves.’”

I couldn’t do better than end with that.

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