Review & Conversation: Songs of Day & Night

Mary Vanhoozer, Songs of Day and Night (album, 2015) [1]


‘What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.
No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.
No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night.
No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance.
No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began.
A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.’

— William Henry Davies, ‘Leisure’

 

‘We live in a culture that doesn’t take time to “sit and stare.” We rarely carve out down time in our busy schedules, and now with our smart phones and high-speed internet, even when we’re physically alone, we have an infinite possibility of distractions at our fingertips – literally. Songs of Day and Night is my attempt at offering an alternative to the distracted way of life: one in which we take time to explore life’s great and little mysteries, and respond in joyful thanksgiving’.

–Mary Vanhoozer, October 2017

 

The enduring impression left by this album as I have listened to it on repeat over the past few days – if I were to search for a key word – would be its ‘therapeutic’ quality. [2] Through its ten brief, yet eloquent poetry settings, it covers one of the shorter intervals of time, the few hours experienced by each of us as a day waxes and wanes from its opening to its closing, which repeat so frequently as to often slip from our attention.

In the regularity of the songs and their potential to afford comfort, listening to them a few times over is like listening attentively to the even breathing of somebody asleep. John Donne wrote, in one of his Devotions, how the heart can be ‘asleep’, at rest, even in a body which needs, through wellness or illness, to be awake; and perhaps the same might be said about the possible effects of Mary Vanhoozer’s album. [3]

The quality which permits such a ‘sleep’ is, it could be argued, peace – a state of being which is invoked explicitly in the most directly prayerful song in the collection, ‘Dona Nobis Pacem’. This is an arrangement of a traditional melody which, the musician explains, was phrased to express the ‘plaintive quality’ and sense of ‘yearning’ which she saw in the words ‘give us peace, Lord’.

The album draws on the genre of folk music, which, with its tendency to dwell upon the virtues, traditions and comforts of the natural world, serves as an ideal vessel for these musical meditations. The collection starts with a dignified, fanfare-like melody in ‘Uphill’, an awakening call by immaculate vocals, which are defined by a pleasing combination of impact and softness. Some of the word settings skip along, adding to the percussive quality of the dance-like rhythms of the music (‘Bed in Summer’), and in others the music slows down to magnify the poetry.

Particularly notable in this latter category is Vanhoozer’s rendering of Emily Dickinson’s ‘I Shall Not Live In Vain’, where the final words of some lines are repeated and harmonised as if to reflect the empathy that the song esteems – ‘If I can stop one heart from breaking, breaking’. There is a gravity and seriousness to the setting that stops the idea of ‘help[ing] one fainting robin/ Onto his nest again’ from being saccharine or moralistic; in fact, an earnest tone befits this brief little poem, which deals with the brevity of a person’s life and, perhaps, the painful awareness that living may well be ‘in vain’.

Another highlight of the album is ‘Who Has Seen the Wind’ by Christina Rossetti, one of the few songs to contain a light drum beat and bass accompaniment, and one that revels in repetition, call and response. After the singing is done, the music takes over – a vigorous, harmonised violin dance that might reflect the ludic passage of the wind that cannot be seen but is so often and so forcefully sensed. This delightful instrumentation is probably a reflection of Vanhoozer’s other professed influence in French, German and Spanish Renaissance music.

Though Vanhoozer is a concert pianist, there is a refreshing lightness of use in this instrument, which is so often overused in word settings and art songs; string instruments are allowed to shine and, at times, even to upstage the more foundational parts.

As theologians may know, the wind is also used as a metaphor for the workings of the Holy Spirit in John 3.8; perhaps Vanhoozer, the daughter of a theologian, had this in mind as she set this poem.

The presence of faith in the album is like the wind, too; it is never explicitly recognised, and the album has a wide appeal beyond the category of ‘religious music’, but throughout there is an enchanting sense of ‘something more’ that might catch the ear at times.

Vanhoozer herself writes, ‘Art is born in the imagination – in the realm of things not seen’. It is her aim ‘to be the kind of musician that leaves listeners with a sense of hope – and perhaps point them (as only a lesser light can) to the good news of the Gospel’.

Her definition of theology, ‘a lens’, is interesting for the (rightly) broad amount that it encompasses: not only God, but ‘God, creation, and what it means to be human’. In such a light, this album could be viewed as an enlightening piece of practical theology, with its musical ability ‘to transform ordinary things into special things – the mundane into the extraordinary’, and the question that guided Vanhoozer in its conception: ‘how can we participate in these [quotidian, mundane, chore-like] activities with a renewed perspective of their significance, even of their beauty and mystery’? The question is, of course, a weighty one, which has been pondered for generations and throughout careers; it is, moreover, one for which we must continually be finding new answers.

‘Songs of Day and Night’ is one joyous source of such answers, perhaps for the space of a dawn, a dusk, or a week. One has the feeling that, for years to come, the work of Mary Vanhoozer has the promise to provide many more such treasures.

 


[1] Vanhoozer’s album may be purchased at:  https://store.cdbaby.com/cd/maryvanhoozer
[2] Quotations from Mary Vanhoozer come from a brief e-mail exchange with the composer
[3] John Donne, Devotions XV, Expostulation.

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