Encores & Curtain Calls: 'Songs of Divine Chemistry'
All day long a little burro labors, sometimes
with heavy loads on her back and sometimes just with worries
about things that bother only
Once in a while a kind monk comes
to her stable and brings
a pear, but more
he looks into the burro’s eyes and touches her ears
and for a few seconds the burro is free
and even seems to laugh,
because love does
The yawning abyss between head and heart — the age-old human dichotomy of human consciousness — provides the inspiration for Vermont composer Paul Dedell’s “Songs of Divine Chemistry,” an exploration of the mysterious and elusive interface between the supposedly secular and sacred, and one that just may have the capacity to jog us out of Beleaguered Mind and back into Beginner’s Mind, the indispensable starting point for a new birth. It is at this rare juncture that the heart has its rare chance to open, and to open as wide as all creation.
Dedell has both assembled the libretto and composed the music for the piece, encompassing some 18 movements, and performed through the auspices of vocal soloist Matt Hensrud, tenor, Winged Voices, the Jubilee Girls Choir and The Limbic System Percussion Ensemble. The concert takes place Feb. 16, 4 p.m. at Brattleboro Centre Congregational Church, 193 Main St., Brattleboro, Vt. Susan Dedell, conductor of the Brattleboro Concert Choir, will direct the proceedings.
There will be a related presentation, “The Divine Biology of Love: Best Self Practices” by Dr. Lesley Fishelman, a psychiatrist with neuro-biological insights into the realm of human behavior, Feb. 8, from 1 to 3 p. m. at the Brattleboro Retreat, 1 Anna Marsh Lane, Brattleboro, Vt.
For millennia, mystics have been endlessly fond of telling us that we are not who we think we are, effectively pulling the rug of cocksureness out from under our compulsively certainty-seeking brains. This counter-intuitive revelation has the effect of stunning us with the paradox that the thoughts that rush in to fill the void raised by the question ‘Who am I?’ are terribly inaccurate, woefully insufficient stopgaps arising out of a too-shallow pool of information.
Either all of these self-appointed mystics are a bunch of hair-brained eccentrics or, just possibly, we ordinary mortals have missed the boat somewhere along the line: we’re already there, at the center of being, we’ve already “got it,” whatever ‘It’ may be, but somehow we don’t quite know or believe it. What a sad state of affairs!
A recent chat with both Paul and Susan Dedell follows; for Paul, imagine an articulate, mild-mannered artist and philosopher and for Susan, imagine someone impish and preternaturally alert:
JM: May I ask how the idea struck your soul to do this?
PD: I’d written a choral piece for Susan and the Concert Choir years before this and I’d been reading quite a lot of mystical poetry because part of the work that I do with (my Montessori School) students is an exploration of spirit in our lives. So, I was going into the (book by Daniel) Ledinsky and reading it to the students. So I thought, wouldn’t it be fun to take these poems and set some to music. And at the same time, I was reading Norman Dr. Doidge’s book, “How the Brain Changes Itself.”
JM: I get the impression, from past readings about your work, that you have a fascination for the interface between neurology, psychology and spirituality ...
PD: Well, I don’t know if I can say that, I think I’ve kind of moved around a lot throughout my life.
SD (Susan): Actually, if I may interrupt, when I first met Paul, his fascination was with the dark side!
JM: Did you come up (musically) through traditional classical training?
PD:No training to speak of; so, no. I came up much more through the theatrical realm.
JM: As a keyboardist?
PD: Untrained, again ...
JM: Reveal all! (laughter)
SD: He plays very well ... better than most of the pianists on the stage ...
JM: What was your path?
PD: Well, my path was multi-parted; on the stage, in the theatrical realm, I was a lighting designer major and then I was a production manager in Cambridge in a political theater. And, at the same time, I was writing musicals that were being produced.
JM: How did you do it, without an instrument?
PD: I kind of learned as I went and more and more went to pure composition.
JM: Coming back to your piece ...
PD: Yes, so, I was looking at mystics and looking at brain science at the same time, and so one day I was down on the back porch, putting a lot of bookmarks in, creating a libretto, you know, just thinking and Susan comes downstairs and she’s got my Dr. Doidge book and she had just opened it upstairs and there’s a great story about prairie voles and oxytocin and .... love ...
JM: What was that first phrase?
PD: Prairie voles. Yes. And, so, she says, ‘This prairie vole story is amazing! And it’s just like, what you’re reading! ... And you really have to ... combine them ...
JM: (laughter) And being your partner, you couldn’t say no.
PD: Yeah, exactly! And so I said, uhh, well! And I said, OK, gimme the book and I start underlining things and putting in bookmarks and building the libretto.
JM: But why all the neurotechnology? It must be a concern of yours ...
PD: Well, first off, what I was learning about neuroscience did fill me with wonder, the same kind of wonder (I feel) when (mystical poet) Hafiz is talking about the beloved, in the sense of what love is.
JM: Do you have a definition of love?
PD: I would not ... say I do. But the realm of what I’m thinking is all in there.
SD: But that’s what I mean when I say he (Paul) doesn’t think and that’s what I like, that he doesn’t prescribe this is what I mean by love. He’ll find a variety of ways to express it through music, which is a better language.
An author and composer, columnist Joseph Marcello of Northfield focuses on music and theater. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.