“The king stablished all his knights, and gave them that were of lands not rich, he gave them lands, and charged them never to do outrageousity nor murder, and always to flee treason; also, by no mean to be cruel, but to give mercy unto him that asketh mercy, upon pain of forfeiture of their worship and lordship of King Arthur for evermore; and always to do ladies, damosels, and gentlewomen succor upon pain of death. Also, that no man take no battles in a wrongful quarrel for no law, ne for no world’s goods. Unto this were all the knights sworn of the Table Round, both old and young. And every year were they sworn at the high feast of Pentecost.” (Le Morte d'Arthur, pp 115-116)
Yesterday was Pentecost, a major feast day in the Anglican Church. It falls on the seventh Sunday after Easter, and commemorates the descent of the Holy Spirit on the disciples after Jesus' death. In Greek, Pentecost means "the fiftieth [day]" and originally refered to an ancient, historical Jewish festival commemorating the giving of the Law to Moses on Mt. Sinai. In modern Judaism this festival is called Shavuot.
As had happened with the Jewish festival, in early Christian England, the theological observance of Pentecost was conflated with already-existing pagan ritual of Beltane. In the Arthurian legends, not only did the King have his knights swear their most solemn oaths on the day of Pentecost, he also refused to go into the dining hall until he had seen some miracle or wonder; it's one of the ways that Arthur's other-worldliness and spiritual leadership is shown in the legends, in contrast to Lancelot and Guinevere's adultery, as well as some of the other knight's acts.
In later England, though, Pentecost was more often called Whitsun, or Whitsunday. The Wikipedia has a good entry on the possible etymology of the name "Whitsun", or "White Sunday", in the late Middle Ages, and on the possible conflation of "whit" (white) and "wit" (understanding) :
"The name is a contraction of "White Sunday", attested in "The Holy-Ghost, which thou did send on Whit-Sunday" in the old English homilies, and parallel to the mention of hwitmonedei in the early 13th-century Ancrene Riwle. Walter William Skeat noted that the Anglo-Saxon word also appears in Icelandic hvitasunnu-dagr, but that in English the feast was always called Pentecoste until after the Norman Conquest, when white (hwitte) began to be confused with wit or understanding. According to one interpretation, the name derives from the white garments worn by catechumens, those expecting to be baptised on that Sunday. Moreover, in England, rather than the more usual red, were traditional for the day and its octave. A different tradition is that of the young women of the parish all coming to church or chapel in new white dresses on that day. However, Augustinian canon, John Mirk (c1382 - 1414), of Lilleshall Abbey, Shropshire, had another interpretation:
Good men and wimmen, this day (Dies Penthecostes) is called Wytsonday by cause the holy ghost bought wytte and wisdom into Crists dyscyples, and so by prechying after in all Cristendom and fylled him full of holy WytteThus, he thought the root of the word was "wit" (formerly spelt "wyt" or "wytte") and Pentecost was so-called to signify the outpouring of the wisdom of the Holy Ghost on Christ's disciples."
However, today the liturgical color for Pentecost in our tradition is red: red for the "tongues of flame" that supposedly showed the presence of the Holy Spirit. Lots of parishioners, too, wear red on that day. Yesterday we had a liturgical dance by the kids, carrying trailing "flames" of yellow, orange and gold transparent cloth, three baptisms, and we sang a lot of special music - more about that later. I've never been too keen on the idea that the "Spirit" only appeared in the world at that time, and only to these early Christians, so I was happy that our Dean preached about the Spirit being present to all human beings, of all creeds and none, from the beginning of time. He also made a point of calling it "Her."
For our part, we had two services filled with music, much of it for eight-part double choir. In the morning we sang a terrific unaccompanied contemporary mass setting, the Missa "Cantate," by Bob Chilcott (unfortunately no recordings or videos of this that I could find.) It ends with an Agnus Dei written with aleotoric sections: that's where the singers are some instructions but then asked to improvise or repeat it individually and freely according to certain restrictions: these may be a set of notes or a specific phrase, and a time period. We then "gather" on a specified note at the director's instruction, and move on to the next section, which may be written out conventionally, or proceed to another set of instructions.
The effects created can be absolutely mesmerizing: murmuring sound clusters, voices emerging out of a cloud of sound, repeated words, created musical "atmospheres" in a less defined progression than usual, that invite a different type of listening experience: sometimes meditative and minimalistic, sometimes surprising, sometimes eerie, often emotional. I had never seen scores like this before joining this choir, and was really intimidated when I first had to perform them but quickly became fascinated. It was, as you can perhaps imagine, perfect for Pentecost.
We also performed another aleotoric piece, this one written by our own director, Patrick Wedd, for a Vancouver choral festival, on the Pentecost text (and one of the oldest hymns of the Christian church), Veni Creator Spiritus. Patrick's piece is almost all aleotoric, with certain voice parts singing the hymn, while others improvise on sets of given notes in the key of B-flat major. But in addition to the voices, the piece also includes a score for handbells: in this case, all the bells in the key of B-flat major. We have a beautiful multiple-octave set of Whitechapel handbells at the cathedral, and use them every week for the psalm chants, but not so often as part of other music. I like playing them (being an old instrumentalist at heart) so I had fun trying to coordinate my bell, the hand-written score, and my improvisational vocal part, while keeping an eye on the director and trying to turn pages and not drop anything -- my expensive bell in particular. Maybe one day we'll have a recording of this piece that I can share with you; I think it came off pretty well.
This was the last of three drawings. As you'll see they literally got more relaxed, from a rather clenched beginning! Hands are hard; you just have to draw a lot of them in all different positions. It helps to turn the paper upside down and sideways and look at your work that way too, sometimes you can spot what's wrong more easily, because we're all so used to looking at hands from many different angles.
Elizabeth in her Choir Robe, pencil on colored bond, 7" x 11"
This fast portrait of a choir friend was actually done a couple of weeks ago; we were sitting in the organ loft, separated by the organ itself, listening to the sermon (that's a cord for her glasses you can see in the picture, not headphones!) Elizabeth, who is an Anglican priest as well as a choir singer, had her eyes shut and was sitting very quietly, so she was a tempting subject. I drew this on the back of the music schedule that I had in my folder, where I also always have a pencil for marking my music. It's not a perfect likeless, but pretty close, and it gives you some idea about the voluminous robes we wear, which are becoming very hot these days!
I've never made copies or studies of paintings, but this afternoon has shown me why it's such a valuable exercise: I learned so much doing this study! What interested me most about Rembrandt's painting was not the ascending Christ surrounded by cherubim, but this brilliant grouping of the apostles to the right, watching him leave. You almost don't need the figure of Christ at all: his light is reflected in the blond figure at the center and on the faces and hands. The range of emotions portrayed tells the entire story.
We're having a particularly nice musical day tomorrow, in honor of Ascension Day (which was on Thursday.) It's one of our half-choir Sundays, so a smaller group (12-14 of us, probably) will be singing the following program, much of it by Purcell, for Evensong, which you can hear streamed live at 4:00 p.m. eastern daylight time. (The link is below.) Our organist and choir director, Patrick Wedd, is a leading interpreter of the organ music of Olivier Messiaen. On Thursday he played the entire work, L’Ascension, by Messiaen as a concert. But you can hear two parts of it as the prelude and postlude, during the live broadcast tomorrow.
PROGRAMME: 4:00 pm Evensong
The Cathedral Singers, Christ Church Cathedral, Montreal
(For live streaming via Radio Ville Marie, click here)
Prelude: Majesté du Christ from L’Ascension [Trotter: musicMe], Olivier Messiaen (1908-92)
Introit: O God, the king of glory [text] [Brown: YouTube], Henry Purcell (1659-95)
Preces and Responses: [Westbury: YouTube] Richard Ayleward (1626-69
Psalm: 24 (Bamby)
Canticles: Service in B-flat [Pinnock: YouTube], Henry Purcell
Anthem: Ascendens Christus [text], Jacob Handl (1550-91)
Postlude: Prière du Christ from L’Ascension [Trotter: musicMe], Olivier Messiaen
I'm sorry you won't be able to hear a live performance of Couperin's fantastic "Motet pour le jour de Pâcques" ("Motet for Easter Day") which will be sung tomorrow morning by two of my friends, Cynthia Gates and Meagan Zantingh, both professionals in our choir. However, if you want to hear the piece, here's a YouTube performance of the same work, sung by Emma Kirkby and Judith Nelson with Christopher Hogwood on the organ. (Just ignore the drecky artwork!)
Hope some of you can join us tomorrow. It always makes me happy to think that a few friends are out there listening! Next week is Pentecost, so stay tuned.
(Publishing this one a day early, since I'll be in church all day tomorrow.)
Drawing, slowly, I caress her face as I never did in life, feeling the bones under her fine thin skin. Her birth, 100 years ago, give or take a few; Armenia, Alexandria: implausible route to another birth, the body known like my own.
My mother-in-law's birthday was yesterday, May 8, and I wanted to spend my drawing time with her. Originally I had thought of drawing a still life based on some of her things, or things that remind me of her, but then I looked at some of my husband's beautiful photographs of his beautiful mother, and decided, instead, to try a portrait.
While doing this drawing, I studied her face as I never had in real life, and afterward, I realized I had learned it in a new way. Later, in bed, I looked closely at my husband. What are you doing? he asked. Comparing your face to hers, I said. And there's not much resemblance, really. No, he said, I think I look like her father, my grandfather. Yes, I said, a combination of his face and your own father's, but narrower.
Curiously, both my mother-in-law and father-in-law had those deep set hollows in their cheeks.
She was a wonderful person; I miss her. Because she was a refugee from Armenia as a young girl, there was no birth certificate, and she insisted that she never knew exactly how old she was. But she would have been about a hundred yesterday. I miss her loving presence in our life; her laughter when delighted that made her face look like a little girl; I miss her love of fine handicrafts and color and flowers, her commitment to peace, her intelligence, her fierce caring for her family. And I miss her cooking: the taboulleh and kibbeh and yogurt soups, and especially her sambousek made for all birthday celebrations except her own. She's been gone for about twelve years; I'm glad we were fortunate enough to have her with us for so long.
Tomorrow: further explorations of a face.
It's pretty crazy to sit and draw something like this, but I've been wanting to use these palms as part of a painting or a large drawing, and knew I needed to make a detailed drawing of them first to get their structure in my mind. I've been putting it off, for obvious reasons, but once I got going I enjoyed doing it.
We've had these now-dried braided palms in a brass vase since Palm Sunday a year ago, and I just love them - the original green has faded to a light straw color, and the forms are very pleasing to me. I had never seen this technique before moving to Quebec. I learned how to make them from a friend who has been braiding them since childhood. It's the same basic braiding technique as the plastic four-strand lanyards some of you may have made in summer camp as kids. But it's a different story to draw them! First I sketched in the proportions and placements for the study, and then started with the most detailed cluster, at the top, drawing a light outline of the whole shape and then dividing it into four sections to contain the two top row of curved segments and the two rows on the side. Then I counted the actual number of loops, and drew the basic structure with a very hard pencil, then went back and added the shadow detail with a darker, softer pencil, and finally used the harder one to add the midtones and a more definite, firmer edge. By the time I'd drawn this first cluster, I had "gotten" the structure in my head, and could then draw the others a lot faster without having to constantly refer to the object itself. At the end I added the background detail of the taller palm fronds.
It's that way with a lot of things that occur in nature or have some sort of repetitive pattern - you have to study how the pattern works and then you can reproduce it, but if you don't figure it out you can't see why your drawing isn't working, and then you're just drawing by rote, which is totally exhausting. A pinecone would be a another good example, or the whorl of seeds in the center of a sunflower. It's like solving a little visual enigma.
If I use these palms again I may want to draw them very freely - and that would be impossible -- for me, anyway -- without going through this exercise.
I remember once having a professional job of making business cards and a brochure for a woman who did creative knitting. She wanted a background image of a piece of knitting - mostly straight stockinette stitch - but with some increases and decreases that created curved areas on the flat surface. At the time we had an employee who was quite talented in design. I asked her to draw the image, lifesize, using the knitted sample as her guide. She produced several samples, but they were all wrong -- as it turned out, she couldn't "see" the basic structure of the knit stitch. Even when I explained it and showed her, in a simple sketch, where the thread went and what went over and what wentunder, she couldn't reproduce it. I think that was because she really couldn't "see" it. This was a sobering realization for me, and it made me question some assumptions I'd always made about visual perception and intellectual understanding - perceptions based on how my own mind works, obviously. It was also a lesson for me as an employer -- I had asked her to do something, under a deadline, that she couldn't do easily at all, and she had ended up feeling frustrated and like she had failed, even though I tried really hard to backtrack and not leave her with that impression. I've always felt bad about that, and I know what it feels like: the physical sciences and certain aspects of technology have at times reduced me to tears, and my inability to grasp basic concepts embarrasses me the most when when well-meaning friends who do "get it" are trying to explain the subjects to me. I hate feeling stupid or inept; is it any wonder we avoid the areas where we don't have natural aptitude, and gravitate toward those where we do? Different people's minds are simply different.
I still wonder, though, if it's possible to teach someone to see this way, and how much of the disconnect between hand and eye that makes many of us feel that we "can't draw" is the result of bad experiences of not "doing it right," how much is temperament, and how much is a difference in our brains. No matter how expressive we may want to be, or are encouraged to be, for most people drawing still starts with attempts to reproduce what they see. A good teacher can do a lot, I think, to help overcome the fears and frustrations, and to help the pupil learn to see visual relationships and structures. I've always felt that most people can draw far better than they think, but it does take practice and patience -- and kindness.