31 December 2010

Review of "Dawn Treader"

My full review of "The Voyage of the Dawn Treader" has appeared in Curator magazine. Please read it here and then come back to comment. I am interested to know what you think.

27 December 2010

On Vacation

The "Where Are We Now?" Interview Series is on Christmas vacation until January. Please enjoy some interviews from the archives until then. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

25 December 2010

Christmas poem

Fear Not

I never saw an angel,
but I have seen the stars so terribly bright
I covered my ears to shield them from the piercing song;
the moon hurt my eyes with its white and awful face—
and knew if these came flaming down
the first chord that they sang
in hydrostatic harmony
would have to be: “Be not afraid”
and even so, the sidereal stab of joy
might kill me just like fear.
And that’s a death that I would love to die
each Christmastime.

17 December 2010

Rage against The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

I am reviewing the new "The Voyage of the Dawn Treader" film for Curator, so I can't run a proper review here. However, I can tell you that it was just awful. And I will list some of the reasons as I get warmed up for my real review. Other viewers, please feel free to add to this list or to counter it with a list (or discussion) of positives. I'll link my actual review on this blog after it appears.

Here are the problems, in no specific order. Spoiler alert; I don't recommend you see the film, so I won't hold back from discussing the ending or other plot give-aways.

1. Reepicheep sails AWAY from Aslan over the wave; the entire point of his journey to the end of the world was to MEET Aslan.
2. I have already griped about the casting of Ben Barnes as Caspian (and about a lot of other things) in my Prince Caspian review. But it is especially irksome, in this "Solar" story all about the sun, the dawn, and gold, that he should not be a blond Apollo.
3. Will the White Witch never die?
4. There are three blue, glowing swords that have to be all stuck into the right slot so you can pull the lever for the magical jackpot
5. There's a green mist that represents "all evil" -- but it will poof! and all evil will disappear from the world when the seven magical swords are set in place
6. Lucy laughs and says scornfully to Reepicheep: "Do you really believe there's such a place" as Aslan's country (!)
7. The sea serpent isn't real; it's just the shape the evil green mist takes on because Edmund just happened to think of a sea serpent
8. The sea serpent morphs into, apparently, an eviscerated crayfish?
9. Aslan only appears in dreams and at the end of the world and never intervenes in life
10. Lucy steals the spell to make herself beautiful -- she tears it out of the Book! -- and actually says the spell. This turns her into Susan, but then it turns out it was all a dream.
11. The whole movie is preaching, not Christianity, but the Disney Gospel about believing in yourself so you can be a hero.
12. Lucy and several other characters talk about earning and deserving Aslan's country, as if we can work our way into Heaven.
13. Reepicheep replies "We have nothing if not belief" -- as if belief itself means anything if you're not believing in the right One!
14. The series continues to be called "Epic"; the stories are not epics, they are fairy tales.
15. "We can be the kings and queens of anything if we believe" -- ditto
16. There's a screenplay. Why do you need a screenplay for a well-written book? Why not simply cut the existing text down to a length suitable for the film, as actors and stage directors do with book adaptations for the stage? Lewis's writing is better than that of Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely, and Michael Petroni--theirs is fairly cheesy--and I staunchly believe contemporary children could readily adapt to the slightly old-fashioned tone of Lewis's kids.
17. The Dufflepuds weren't funny.
18. Lord Burn was a senile old prisoner.
19. The movie is pretty much just all about Eustace's sudden transformation into a silly Disney physical hero, rather than about the slow and difficult process of sanctification.
20. As if superstitious swords and green mist weren't important enough reasons for a quest, we also had to rescue somebody's Mum who was -- get this -- offered as a sacrifice to the green mist, sucked through the water, and then apparently sat in a boat without moving for months while her hubby and stow-away little girl added sentimentality and pathos to our voyage.
21. Lucy easily slips the bracelet off of the dragon's foreleg as soon as she meets him. Well, after his big attack on the ship, that is.

Well, I guess that's all I will post now. I've got to finish off my "real" review, which will be far more balanced and intelligible!

Quick little post

W. David O. Taylor is a great guy in the faith-and-arts dialogue right now. Here's a short video with his recommendations of a novelist and a film for pastors and layleaders to better understand Art.

14 December 2010

Interview with Tania Runyan, poet

This is the thirty-seventh interview in the “Where are we now?” series. Please take a moment to peruse the INTRODUCTION AND INDEX to this series.

Interview with Tania Runyan, poet
Via email
5 & 30 November 2010

IA: Please tell us about your poetry. For those who haven’t read it yet, how would you describe it?

TR: The closest I can get to describing my poetry, at least what I’m doing these days, is spiritual reflection. For the past few years, I have focused almost all my poetry on scripture, either directly or indirectly. I definitely don’t want to box myself in or write for a narrow audience. When a non-Bible reader responds positively to my poetry, I count that as a victory.

IA: Some of your poetry responds to current events, especially to tragedies such as school shootings or natural disasters. Do you believe that poets need to spend time with the newspaper, learning to be a voice for their times?

TR: Not just poets, but all people, should engage with the world’s events as a way to develop compassion and learn how to best meet the world’s needs. That being said, we can lose perspective if we spend too much time with the headlines. For every 100 people who die in a plane crash, 30,000 die of hunger and preventable diseases. But we don’t hear about the slow, daily suffering of many in the world; that information just doesn’t rake in the dough.

IA: Many of your poems do not shy away from violence, grief, despair. You seem to have found a niche, perhaps, speaking for anguished people, especially women. Have you always written this way, or has there been a change in your work? Was this an intentional choice, or do such topics choose you?

TR: For many years I wrote narrative autobiographical poems until I finally just got sick of myself! As an anxiety-prone person, I think I was afraid of going toward the violence and anguish in the world that haunted me and chose to stay with the “safer” themes of my childhood and adolescence. But these other topics did indeed call me just the same. The poem about the man torturing his dog was hard to write, and has even made people angry, but I couldn’t leave it. The same with my poem about the Amish school shooting. I couldn’t go on until I “visited the scene” through a poem.

IA: What other topics tend to recur in your poetry?

TR: Lots of scripture. My new collection, Simple Weight, is heavily informed by the Beatitudes, and my second collection, coming out from WordFarm in 2011, is based on women in the Bible. Currently I am working on a collection of poems based on Paul’s writings. Again, some hard stuff there. Jesus is just a lot more fun to be with, and Paul has both perplexed and frustrated me. Getting to know him through poetry, though, has helped me understand him, and, even more, myself.

IA: Congratulations on your recent NEA grant. Can you tell us a little about the process of applying for the grant, what its purpose is, and how you intend to use it?

TR: The purpose of the NEA grant is to provide writers with the means to produce more work. For some, that means travel and research. For others, it means opening up more time to write. For me, it's all about the time. I am a stay-at-home mom most days, working about 15 hours per week as a private tutor. It's hard to find quiet, sustained periods of time to write. The grant will allow me to pay for some childcare that will open up maybe an extra ten hours per week to write. This is huge. Now we're talking 15 hours a week to concentrate on poetry, rather than the paltry 3-5 I've been doing! Since my current manuscript project revolves around the Apostle Paul and his writings, there is also a possibility that I may use some of these funds to take a trip to follow his historical footsteps, perhaps to Greece or Turkey. But for now, I am focusing on the time.

IA: What specific techniques do you use? Forms, free verse, rhyme, specific meters, particular recurring figures of speech, certain structuring allusions or repetitions, uses of narrative, uses of time…?

TR: I write in mostly free verse, but it often feels anything but “free”! I agonize over line breaks and stanzas to the point of driving myself crazy.

IA: What theories inform your work? Do you think these topics, techniques, and theories are typical of those working in your genre? Do you think of yourself as belonging to any particular ‘school’ or ‘movement’?

TR: I don’t think I adhere to any theories, at least consciously, and I honestly don’t feel very “up” on schools or movements (the result, I imagine, of residing in a house with three small kids rather than in academia). I do hope I can count myself among those who write honestly and provocatively about matters of faith, namely Christian faith. Writers who publish in journals like Image, The Christian Century, Ruminate, and Rock & Sling, for example, approach matters of faith honestly, even with a lot of doubt. Contrary to what some would want you to believe, a life of faith is not about easy answers.

IA: Congratulations on having your chapbook, Delicious Air from Finishing Line Press, named 2007 Book-of-the-Year from the Conference on Christianity and Literature! What do you think this award says about the kind of Christian poetry that works? What doesn’t work in contemporary Christian verse?

TR: Many of the poems in Delicious Air do grapple with doubt, as I mentioned before. They don’t necessarily adhere to the world of sparkly angels and smiling, down-home Sunday morning choirs. However, I want to make it clear that I don’t think struggle and doubt are more fashionable in Christian poetry; there is nothing wrong with joy! I just think it’s a lot harder to write about it. I often find myself focusing on doubt and despair, even if the poem didn’t start that way. Sometimes I wonder if a part of me still really needs to go to those places or if I go to those places because subconsciously I know it’s “easier.” One of my goals is to actually learn how to “do joy” in my writing in an original and provocative way. Some people may read my work and think that I am hanging onto God by a thread, when I really don’t see my life that way. Some writers of faith, like Paul Willis and Barbara Crooker, for example, do a wonderful job of revealing the joyous parts of life in their work.

IA: Can you comment on the differences between sacred and secular poetry as they are currently practiced?

TR: I don’t think there is a distinct line. Many of my poems come directly out of my own biblical reflection, but that is not always clear to secular readers. If the poem can touch them just the same, on a different level, I have succeeded, although I would love for readers who have given up on faith or who been hurt by the church to see God in a new, even healing, way. On the other hand, poems that would be considered “secular” by most often bring me closer to God. God works in mysterious ways, as the old cliché says, and so does poetry!

13 December 2010

Go see "The Great Divorce"!

Yesterday I had the distinct pleasure of attending Tony Lawton's performance of The Great Divorce. It was truly excellent: lively, accurate, impassioned, challenging, convicting, and all-around amazing. The Anthony Lawton Festival continues at the Lantern Theater Company until December 19th. Please try to attend!

Between Heaven and Hell: The Anthony Lawton Festival
December 3 – 19, 2010

First-ever festival of the Philadelphia actor and playwright Anthony Lawton

The Festival is at Lantern Theater Company, located at St. Stephen's Theater at 10th & Ludlow Streets in Philadelphia. Tickets are $25-$35; $10 student rush tickets are available 10 minutes before curtain with valid ID; cash only; additional discounts are available for subscribers, seniors, and groups of 10 or more. Tickets are available online at or by calling the Lantern Box Office at (215) 829-0395

Schedule of remaining performances of The Great Divorce:
Thursday, Dec. 16 at 7:00pm
Friday, Dec. 17 at 8:00pm
Saturday, Dec. 18 at 8:00pm
Sunday, Dec. 19 at 2:00pm

Here is the Festival's description of this play:
The Great Divorce
Based on the Novel by C.S. Lewis
Adapted and Performed by Anthony Lawton

C.S. Lewis' own favorite among his works, The Great Divorce tells the satirical and comic story of hapless professor Clive and the motley band of malcontents who join him on a very curious bus ride. Journeying between Heaven and Hell, Clive crosses a wildly inventive landscape filled with dazzling language and surprising insight.

06 December 2010

Interview with Ivan Moody

This is the thirty-seventh interview in the “Where are we now?” series. Please take a moment to peruse the INTRODUCTION AND INDEX to this series. Although this series is focusing specifically on the arts in North America, I couldn’t resist the chance to interview the amazing European composer Ivan Moody. He does comment somewhat on his view of North American arts throughout his answers, and provides a good comparison to what others have said in this series so far. Enjoy.

Interview with Ivan Moody, composer
Via email
29 September and 19 October 2010

IA: Please tell us about yourself. In what media do you create or perform? Do you also teach? Are you also a student? Please talk about yourself as an “artist,” student of the arts, and teacher of the arts.

IM: I am a composer, a conductor and a priest of the Orthodox Church. Of these three activities, I have been a composer the longest – I knew when I was 13 years old that I was to be a composer, and so resolved to study music at university instead of languages, which had been my intention until then. I write music for “conventional” means, that is to say, voices and instruments, rather than electronics, but that is partly happenstance. If I were asked to write a piece involving electronics I would jump at the opportunity.

One of the things that fascinated me when I was studying for my first degree (at Royal Holloway College, University of London) was early music. Like all the other composers, I was eagerly attentive to what was going on in contemporary music, but early music, specifically renaissance music, was just as interesting to me – I was quite as excited at discovering a new recording of an Ockeghem Mass as I was at hearing a new work by Ligeti. Interestingly, nearly all the composers already at RHC were minimalists, or “alternative” composers of some kind: I had been an adept of Boulezian orthodoxy up till that point, and the only minimalist piece I had heard (thanks to the extraordinary broad-mindedness of BBC Radio 3 at that time) was Philip Glass's North Star. So all these people immersed in minimalism were rather a shock to me, though I must also point out that the music I was writing at the time was only trying (and failing) to be like Boulez – I was much more interested in Benjamin Britten, as my many songs from that period show unequivocally!

I came to a still point as a result of this, and my study of early music fed directly into my creative work. In part this was because I wanted to write music of spiritual import (not what is today often described as “spiritual music”!), and had not found a way to do that within the compositional framework to which I had been used until that point; but it was also technical. I began conducting vocal ensembles in concerts of Tallis, Sheppard and so on (in fact, the first professional choir I directed arose from a student group at RHC), but there was also the enormous stimulus of David Hiley, currently professor at the University of Regensburg. In the same year, I took the “Music since 1945” course and “Music before 1300”! The latter was taught by Dr Hiley, and I was the only pupil... Such a thing is unimaginable these days, but I had a whole year to benefit exclusively from his vast knowledge of the entire repertoire of western chant and early polyphony.

At the same time, I began private composition lessons with John Tavener. I had done the first year of composition with Brian Dennis at RHC, and while I admired him very much as a composer – his chamber opera Matsukaze is extraordinary, and his work deserves to be much better known – it was quite clear that our interests were so divergent that there was no point in doing the second year. So I wrote to John Tavener, whose music had impressed me greatly, and sent him some scores. He agreed to take me as a private pupil, and so began a series of informal “lessons” which were more frequently discussions of religious belief, the decadent state of the West, or which were the best dishes to order in a Cretan village! The thing about this period was that Tavener showed me how to make my music much slimmer, not to use so much “impasto”, to throw notes out. I found that I could say more with less. And of course, he was one of the few composers in England at the time seriously interested in writing sacred music.

Everything came together, and I also began conducting his music with my choir – he was not that much performed at the time; nothing like the success of recent years – as well as other Orthodox repertoire, and that was as much a learning experience for me as composition lessons. Then when I left university I worked as much with early as with contemporary music. My doctorate is in composition, however – I did that at York University, which I chose specifically because the American composer William Brooks was teaching there. I'd admired his work since hearing his Madrigals at the BBC Proms while I was still at school, and I realized that he had, amongst other things, an enormous understanding of the human voice, as well as a stylistic vocabulary totally different from my own. This coincided with a period of change in my music – a “re-enrichment” if you like – and I felt that this kind of objective, outside approach was just what I needed.

But the thing that really influenced me more than anything else was performing, once as a double bass player at school and once as a singer at RHC, Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms. That work brought together everything that fascinated me, and was an expression of glory to God. The transcendent final movement, that stasis-in-motion, a kind of inverted musical geometry, like an icon, is something I have tried to attain in practically every piece I have written.

I also took a diploma in Orthodox theology at the University of Joensuu in Finland, with which I have many links, and in 2007 was ordained priest. I'd been singing in Orthodox choirs, and chanting in the Greek parish in Lisbon, for years and years beforehand. Again, the threads seemed to come together.

I teach on an irregular basis; over the years I have head many private composition pupils, and I much enjoy teaching composition; but I have also given seminars in various universities and colleges around the world, not only on composition but on various of my musicological interests. I am also currently a Research Fellow of the CESEM research team at the Universidade Nova in Lisbon.

IA: What topics tend to recur in your work?

IM: I have said elsewhere that the most important thing in history, and therefore what I deal with in my music, is the Resurrection of Christ. This statement tends to shock people at first, especially if they are not themselves believers, but the truth is that my entire philosophy of life is founded on that one fact. How could it not be reflected in my music? Of course, not every work is specifically about that theme, but in apparently “abstract” instrumental works, I aim at a sense of transcendence, of transformation, that is absolutely linked to that idea, to the divine manifesting itself in mankind. Of course, listeners do not need to know this information – the music must stand absolutely by itself.

So there are sub-topics: transfiguration, regeneration, transcendence. There are celebrations, notably recently of birds – my piano concerto Linnunlaulu, which arose from hearing an antiphonal dawn chorus during a white night in Finland, Zefiro con Uccelli, The Bird of Dawning – or references more generally to both Southern and Northern cultures (Pipistrello, Serbian Doves, Arktos, Moons and Suns). But in all of them a sense of transcendence, of being transformed.

IA: What specific techniques do you use?

IM: Long melodic structures, micro-variation, heterophony, chordal superimposition, drones or pedal points, elaborate melodic decoration.

IA: Do you think these topics, techniques, and theories are typical of those working in your genre?

IM: Yes and no. I am not sure what my “genre” is. But I feel many points in common with the so-called “holy minimalists” Tavener, Pärt and Górecki, also with James MacMillan, Sofia Gubaidulina, John Adams, Peter Sculthorpe and others. I am absolutely sure that these topics are common to the first four of these.

IA: Do you think of yourself as belonging to any particular ‘school’ or ‘movement’?

IM: No, though I am sure I must have been labelled by somebody somewhere.

IA: What do you know about the current state of the arts? Please talk specifically about individual musicians/painters/writers/etc. whom you know (or whose work you know), their topics/techniques/theories, and in general about your sense of North American arts right now.

IM: I follow what is happening in the arts (particularly music and painting) with a great deal of interest. I am particularly interested at present in what is happening in the Balkans, in Russia and in Finland and Estonia. This has to do with my interest in what has happened in countries with an Orthodox heritage, and how various manifestations of modernism(s), as well as their distance from what have traditionally been perceived to be the “centres” have defined their cultural discourses.

But on a more personally creative level, I tend to seek out the latest music by composers such as Rautavaara, Lindberg, Pärt, Tüür, Gubaidulina or Adams, whose trajectories have been to one side of that “centre” (and by this I do not just mean the European centre, but any centre – though he is in many senses an establishment figure now, the music of John Adams has come to be what it is very much apart from any conventional route), as well as composers in countries such as Greece and Serbia. In many of the composers who interest me there is a concern with the spiritual element, though that is inevitably expressed in different ways: Gubaidulina's work is absolutely extraordinary from that point of view. But on a technical and sonic level, I find Lindberg, for example, to be really exciting.

I can't comment in very much detail on the arts in North America, though I can certainly tell you the names of the composers who interest me, and they are Adams, Reich and Crumb; however, I do have a sense of an enormous openness, which is both refreshing, because there is an unwillingness to label things too readily, and slightly alarming, because it can be uncritical. But of course, without risks there are no gains...

IA: You have had works performed, and even premiered, in the United States. How have your works been received? Did you get the feeling that you were presenting American audiences with something totally different from the musical vocabularies they usually hear?

IM: Reactions to my music in the United States have been extraordinarily positive, I am delighted to say. I had extremely deeply-felt and moving responses to the two large works I had premiered here, the Akathistos Hymn, a 90-minute work for a capella choir, and the piano quintet Nocturne of Light. I think that I felt in some way a more spontaneous reaction to the spiritual message of both pieces, which is something that doesn't generally happen so readily in Europe (though it does happen – I think that it's just that Americans express their feelings after an artistic event more openly and readily).

I'm not sure that I am presenting them with something totally new, though that of course would depend on the kind of audience we are talking about. Certainly audiences for the kinds of programmes presented by Cappella Romana (based in the Pacific Northwest), one of whose regular guest conductors I am, have come to expect at least one work written by me if I am conducting a programme – the last three times I worked with them I conducted the world premiere of my Te Apostolit, as part of a Finnish programme (I should perhaps explain that the text of my work is in Finnish!), and the North American premieres of Canon for Theophany and Seven Hymns to St Sava. So there's a sense of preparation, of expectation there, not least because Cappella Romana has established an enviable reputation for the excellent performance of very rarefied and very diverse repertories.

With the premiere of Nocturne of Light in New York, I had literally no idea how the audience would react. The piece had been commissioned by the extraordinary pianist Paul Barnes, and he and the amazing Chiara Quartet gave an absolutely outstanding performance. I was hugely moved, and doubly so when I saw the audience's reaction. It's something you can't fake – there's an electricity in the atmosphere that no amount of polite applause can simulate. But in the end, it's always the same: I write the music I have to write. I can't believe that any composer actually thinks of the possible reactions of an audience when he's writing: if you have to write, you have to write. Then you cast the music on the waters, as it were. I'm very gratified to find that for me those waters have, in the United States, been very welcoming.

IA: Can you comment on the differences between sacred and secular arts?

IM: Ideally they should all be one. When I write secular music, it is very frequently quite overtly related to sacred matters (an example being the theology of the Cross which informs my concerto for double bass, The Morning Star). But as I noted before, the audience does not need to know that: this information would only come before them if a programme note is requested, as it so often is. When I write secular music I don't really think that I am writing in a different way; there is a definite continuity. I think there has to be, or my world view would be Manichaean, dualistic. Of course, there are things I would not do in strictly liturgical music, because of the propriety of its use in a ceremony, that I would in secular music, but that's a technical question, not an essential difference.

IA: How do you think the arts (your own or others’) are responding to present and potential world-movements, such as postmodernism, the looming “post-human” phase, and the possible artistic effects of the Eastward orientation of economics and Christianity?

IM: I am not sure; I suppose that all such responses are in the end subconscious, even if one is aware of these movements. I mean, I am aware that I am a Christian composer, but I don't set out consciously to make that a political position, as it were. As for postmodernism, that's the kind of label that others may like to apply to me – while I'm writing I don't think of labels or styles at all. And it is not clear to me that modernism is dead, or that such a thing as postmodernism is not another facet of modernism...

“Posthuman”? There is no posthuman music, or posthuman art of any kind.

IA: How do you think we got to the phase where we are now?

IM: By a series of blunders, intelligent guesses and a deeply inquisitive nature.

IA: Where are we going?

IM: Towards God.

01 December 2010

December Poem of the Month

Here's a little, child-like poem for Advent. Enjoy!

Wish List

I need Christmas trees and Christmas beads
to decorate my house and me;
gingerbread and sugar plums
and draughts of honey mead.

I need glitter made of gold dust,
sweet strings of ruby-fruits,
cider spiced with citrus peel,
and reindeer-fur-lined boots

for scattering about the floor
and looping on the stairs
and sipping with a flock of friends
and tramping through the stars.

I need labyrinths of ribbons
to tie up my many needs;
I need an angel for my treetop—
and a change of heart in me.

Creative Commons License
"Wish List" by Sørina Higgins is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. This means that you can copy and distribute the work if you will not receive any commercial gain; that you can use the work in a new creative way (song lyrics, dramatic production, visual display), again, if you receive no commercial gain; and any other use that does not make you any money--as long as you do not change any of the words of the original text. Also, the author would like to be notified of any uses of her poem. Thank you.