This short piece was inspired by an invitation to give a reading at the Summertime Musical Vespers at St. Margaret of Scotland Anglican Church on August 1st. I feel honoured to have been asked and gratefully accepted, though I knew nothing about vespers. It will probably be over by the time you read this but it happens every year on Galiano and I thought some readers would like to know about it.
My understanding is that it's a celebratory service of thanksgiving and gratitude in music and words honouring our connection with all life. Here's a quote from the program of two years ago when Thomi Glover was Associate Priest. “Thank you, O Holy Spirit, for your welcome in this space of grace. Fill us with the melodies, harmonies, and rhythms of your love of life. Open us to the movement and message of this music and readings. Surprise us with the craft and creativity of these improvisations. Inspire us by the passion and mastery of these musicians and authors”. In Sarah Tweedale's words: “The focus of the Summer Vespers at St. Margaret's is the delight and wonder of creation. Our hope is the readings and music point us to the wonder of the world that we're part of: Its beauty, delicacy, vulnerability and grandeur. And our responsibility to care for the earth as part of our human calling. We live amidst such astonishing beauty, surrounded by creatures large and small, each contributing its own uniqueness to the mix. We could (and I hope will) celebrate the diversity, beauty and wonder of it all through music, readings and gathering together.”
Vespers simply means evening prayer. Some well known composers wrote music for vespers – Monteverdi, Vivaldi, Mozart and Bruckner. Rachmaninov’s 'Vespers' is a setting of the Eastern Orthodox all-night vigil. An early name for vespers is lucernarium, literally, 'lamp lighting time' in Latin, referring to the candles lit for the service when it was held in the early evening.
This year Brad Prevedoros and Philip Buller are playing music. Philip, artist and musician says, “When I was a boy my sister showed me some chords on the guitar. In my room I played for hours. I sang words from a tattered green book of poems by Robert Frost. I didn't really know what the poems meant. But I knew that there was something beyond the meaning of the words that formed with the sounds of the guitar and my voice. I still call out a longing. Music seems to clear a path to the heart.”
We hear music all around us in living things, though not everyone considers animal song or the sound of the wind in the trees to be music. But the interpretation of these sounds as music, long rooted in Indigenous thinking and ancient myths, has led to an interdisciplinary field of study called zoomusicology and according to one of my favourite books, 'Our Wild Calling' by Richard Louv, researchers have found that elephants may be as musically inclined as people; when neuroscientists studied music played by the Tai Elephant Orchestra which had been assembled by a conservationist, they found that pachyderms keep better time on drums than humans do.
Some composers have performed with non-human animals; for instance David Rothenberg is a musician who has created music with humpback whales. Many composers have evoked or imitated animal sounds: Alan Hovhaness's 'And God Created Great Whales' (1970); George Crumb's 'Vox Beleanae / Voice of the Whale' (1971) – and there are many more.
Apparently recent research shows that the brains of birds and humans show some similarities when listening to music; fish react differently to different human composers and we've heard that cows produce more milk when listening to soothing classical music.
And yes, music can open our hearts. Have you encountered the bioacoustician, Bernie Kraus? He's a leader in the recent field of 'sound-scape ecology'. When he speaks at schools, he reminds students that “in the places where you ride your bikes, there might once have been the sounds of bison, deer, elk, moose, foxes, bobcats, mountain lions, dozens of kinds of birds and thousands of insects; all singing together in a kind of collective chorus”. He believes that localised biophonies seeded and shaped the development of human music, from the songs of Indigenous peoples to Mozart to Billie Holiday and influenced the creation of our instruments from the fifty-three thousand year old hominid flute made of bear bone, to a four thousand year old French vulture bone flute to George Harrison's crimson Les Paul guitar. According to Kraus, some Indigenous people, when playing their music, use the forest as a back-up band. Kraus found that the music of people living in South American rainforests had probably been influenced by the musician wren. “This little bird whistles a repeated melodic tune that is really quite striking and surprisingly beautiful . . . a tune that sounds like a flute playing the blues.”