Handel on the Kettle
By Marvin Payne
Some guys wanted to publish a book about “Hallelujah Chorus Moments” in the lives of Mormon Artists. You know, how Handel threw open his upstairs window and angels sang it to him, amid clouds of light and strains of, well, the Hallelujah Chorus. So the aforementioned guys contacted lots of Mormon Artists (if they didn’t contact you, it was only because you don’t have a web site where you offer to write for virtually anyone who’ll agree to publish you ((which is, incidentally, why I have a web site at all – because I have agreed to publish me)) ) and I wrote the following. Only it’s been four years and they haven’t published their book, unless in secret, so here it is. (Because Meridian has agreed to publish me. ((I ought to mention that this Meridian agreement is not “carte blanche,” they’ve sent some things back (((I’m saving them for the “out-takes” reel!))).)).)
Brigham Young is rumored to have said, “If I were placed on a desert island and given the task of civilizing the natives, I would straightway build a theatre for the purpose.” I think people have supposed he meant that fine artists might parachute onto the island, stand on the stage, and spout uplifting and enlightening poetry and song at the savages, thus taming and teaching them. That can work, I think. But having spouted from many stages (some of them savagely primitive), I’m convinced that the most direct way to achieve civilization is to send the fine artists home and put the natives onstage.
When I was a kid, I rode the crest of the folk-music craze of the sixties. I wrote on the blackboards of my high school the slogan “Folksingers rule!” festooned with quick sketches of Martin guitars and Vega banjos. When Bob Dylan (just echoing the forgotten Woody Guthrie) made it okay for folksingers to write their own songs, I jumped in with a passion. It was a kind of music that demanded meaning. You couldn’t just go on writing, “I met you at the dance and our love is gonna last for weeks.” Inherent in the genre was the supposition that you wrote because you had something to say, rather than merely something to sell. To most people in 1963, this was a new idea.
So. What to say? For the first couple of years (ages fifteen and sixteen) what I really had to say was, “I met you at the dance and our love is gonna last for weeks.” But even at seventeen, that sentiment began to thin. My dad solved it for me. My dad, who had a sterling silver character and a wooden ear, whose only musical expression was the continual whistling of whimsical little tunes that never lasted longer than four seconds — my dad, who slept blissfully through numberless high school choral concerts, awaking for my solos — my dad, who would never for a moment consider buying me a surfboard, but who saw a Mexican 12-string guitar in a store window on the way home from work and bought it for me as a surprise — my dad, who sheltered me from all danger and evil, but took me prowling through the dangerous and evil pawn shops around Fifth and Main in L.A. when I wanted a good old banjo, began to notice that there was an indefinable earnestness and power in what I brought to the music I was playing. He said, “Son, why don’t you write songs that will teach the Gospel?” That only sounded dumb to me for about a day and a half, long enough for me to realize that I wasn’t being asked to propagandize for the adult “up with people” establishment so much as to do what I really longed to do: let shine something that I felt flickering inside. (Jeremiah had said, “…his word was in mine heart as a burning fire shut up in my bones.”) The savage was being civilized.
Let’s jump from history to method. To articulate your feelings, you have to go beyond feeling them — you have to observe them. To observe them, you have to go outside them and create a little world around them that will both make sense of them and provide contrast and color and conflict that will bring them into focus for an audience. This is the making of real songs, and it civilizes the maker. He feels compelled to give his gift, his reminder of the feeling, his record of the grace, to others. If he’s noticed that his talent comes from the Lord, he also feels even responsible to share. And any audience that has gathered for higher purposes than to feel the beat and see the lasers will be touched and bonded as these tokens of light are passed back and forth. This is also called teaching. This organization of light and testimony acts out what the composer Igor Stravinsky recognized as “the need that we feel to bring order out of chaos, to extricate the straight line of our operation from the tangle of possibilities and the indecision of vague thoughts.”
This helps make art out of what you’re feeling. Once it’s art, you can invite people to listen without appealing primarily to their kindness and patience or the fact that they’re your family or roommates. If you can manage to add praise of the Lord, and inspire it in your audience, then you’re inviting the Spirit to your performance as well. The Psalmist said, “Thou art holy, O thou that inhabitest the praises of Israel.”
The tricky part, of course, is staying “clear” so the Spirit may use you. In the first days of my career as a “Mormon Troubadour” I wrestled mightily (well, “wrestled mightily” might be a little strong – I may have been merely evaluating a rationalization) with the issue of priestcraft, which is the business of being paid to bear your testimony. Three realizations clarified things a lot for me.
First, it was never my testimony that was for sale. It was the art. If I couldn’t say something in the art, I couldn’t say it from the stage. The mere words, “I feel the Spirit right now, do you?” were not allowed outside a song. “I love you,” yes, but “I feel the Spirit,” no. Afterward by the stage door, maybe – if it was to someone I knew. Art invites audience members to choose how to respond and the artist trusts their responses. Unadorned (artless) testimony demands a very specific kind of “non-artificial” attention and response that’s not at home in the theatre. That’s why artists put their truth into the mouths of characters. (And in concert every song is a play and the singer a character or storyteller.) That “aesthetic distance” is essential to art.
The second realization was that I don’t represent anybody but myself. Especially I don’t represent the Church. I have a little certificate that identifies me in flowing calligraphy as a representative of the Church, signed personally and beautifully by David O. McKay. I cherish that little piece of paper. At the bottom it says, in very unflowing plain type, “Expires October 1969,” when my mission in Australia was finished. And since I don’t represent the Church anymore (outside my Primary class or home teaching families), I can’t borrow authority from it or demand attention because I’m singing about it.
The third realization is that nothing I create can ever be as beautiful as what it’s designed to remind people of, which is the Grace of God. Let me try to capture this idea in a picture. Imagine the artist as a window, through which all those he serves may see into the beauty that lies beyond these dark walls of discouragement and drudgery and even death. To do any good, the artist attends to two things – “framing,” which is the choosing and composition of the spiritual landscape the audience hungers to see, and “polishing the glass,” so that when the audience comes to the window their eyes aren’t distracted by smudges or smears. This polishing is as much an artistic challenge as a moral one, because weak or weird art choices can smear and obscure their view of the “beauty beyond” as badly as if the audience (or the Spirit) discerns that we are hucksters or hypocrites.
Well, people are looking for “Hallelujah Chorus Moments.” The following journal snapshots are as close as I come (and, if the more careful music historians are to be trusted, about as close as Handel came, too). Starting with 7 May 1987 and then jumping all over the place:
- About a dozen years ago, I traded a box of whatever album I’d just released to a record store in Provo for an equivalent number of whatever albums I chose. One was a double album of a live improvised concert in Germany by Keith Jarrett. I didn’t know his music, but when I looked on the back of the cover for all the musician credits, it just said “piano: Keith Jarrett.” I was drawn to that. I never listened much to sides two and three, but the first and last are magnificent. The music flows out of this guy and pulls the listener through a forest of otherwise unutterable feelings. Like other true artists, he makes you say “I feel that, I know that. I just never knew how to say it.” I transferred the record to cassette and played it in the van driving across the country on concert tours. Often I would lay one of my P.A. columns along the back of the bed in the van and plug the stereo into it. My most vivid memory of listening to this music is of driving late at night in the Salt River Valley in Arizona, windows down with the hot breeze blowing by, cascades of piano pouring from that big speaker column across the back of the van. He took me down paths you cannot walk without opening your emotional eyes.
This is because making art is practicing at godhood. Artists who wouldn’t admit or even understand that idea (maybe Jarrett does) are still children of God, and James Talmage said, “There is a filial passion in man that flames toward heaven.” I’ve confessed in this journal to having listened to Bob Dylan. But also an occasional snippet of Rod Stewart, and even that rascal Mozart. When the art in a piece is good, I calm my suspicions and look for the light. Often there’s lots.
At Sundance one recent winter I was part of a five-player Sondheim review that scampered in and out of worldliness like a kid afraid of water chasing sand crabs at the beach. After the show was up and going and the director had returned to the coast, we prayed as a cast before every performance that the Lord would help us find the light in the show. And He did. Empathy, compassion, love, humility, aspiration, and forgiveness characterized that show. I never saw it in London or New York, but in the snowy mountains of Utah it shone. Choosing to be driven by the pursuit of light (rather than by the fear of darkness) may keep us from noticing some of the darker truths an artist may intend, but finding even unintended light is sweeter than any intended darkness we may have missed. The ideal, of course, would be for us to become such masters of empathy and passion and observation and detail and craft, and at the same time so attentive to the Spirit, that the art we make never needs sifting, because there’s no chaff in either the artistry or the message. Then it might be godly.
- One deep winter evening a friend was kind to me (listened to some songs and liked them) and on the way home I pulled over to the side of the road in a blizzard and wrote a song about how glorious it would be to be mere friends in heaven. A neighbor driving by recognized my van through the whipping curtains of snow and stopped to help. I thanked him and sent him away a little confused. How could he have known the Spirit was speaking to my heart and I simply needed both hands to write?
- One summer I worked harder than ever before on a role in Shakespeare’s “King Lear,” and prayed out among the foothills that the Lord would consecrate that preparation to some work of very direct service to the kingdom. A couple of days after opening “Lear” in Park City, the phone rang and I was asked by the Church to play the Man Who Searches For Happiness. I hadn’t even auditioned.
- I learned during a season as Noah in “Celebrating the Light” that a show doesn’t have to be a bright trumpet in every moment from beginning to end. In some moments it can be an honest tin whistle. But the Holy Ghost will pick it up and play it.
- While helping to produce an album of “spiritual” songs for my good friend Debbie Au in the early seventies, I learned that we can be standing at the window listening for the Hallelujah Chorus, when in fact the Lord wants us to be listening for our bishop’s assignment or our Primary kids’ questions. One morning on the way to the studio in L.A. Debbie told me that she’d been praying earnestly the night before about the central focus of her life, which was her album, and the Spirit had answered, “What album?”
- I remember doing “Baby” at Sundance and realizing that these were the passions I had been trying to arouse out on the road in “Saturday’s Warrior.” The Spirit resonated with the truth in “Baby” so strongly that sometimes I’d be reminded of the lyrics while driving and I’d have to pull over because my eyes were full of tears.
- Some of the richest hours of my life I have spent with Roger and Melanie Hoffman and Steve Perry, figuratively holding hands and following the Spirit to the center of some gospel thicket, so we could come out again and tell children about the wonders we’d seen. At moments along the path we often waited, feeling hushed and blessed, for Melanie to clear her eyes and get back control of her voice. And in that circle I have also come to know that laughter is music to the Lord.
- At the first company read-through of “Phantom” (not the rock’n’roll chandelier show, but the penetrating treatment written at the same time by Americans Yeston and Kopit) the Spirit so moved me over the Phantom’s longing for the beauty of heaven and the feeling of Father’s love that I wept, and could only whisper my last scene.
- I once had a close, close friend who needed to be touched, and who could be moved by the language of poetry. Praying hard to be helpful, I felt images roll out of me like they hadn’t since I was a kid, and I wondered if that music may even have been a form of the gift of tongues. Still, the Spirit said, “Here are some feelings, here are some visions, here are some words, and here are some hours and days in which to work thoughtfully until something beautiful has filled this clean half-sheet of paper.”
- The influence of Heaven was always with me when I guided the young lovers through the mystery of death and resurrection as El Gallo, the Narrator in “The Fantasticks.”
- And more. And more…
You simply can’t choose early in your life to take your gifts seriously and then write a few hundred songs and a few dozen scripts and act every year in a couple of plays and several film projects and dutifully say “Yes” to every opportunity your home stake and ward offers you to magnify those gifts without the Holy Ghost steadily and quietly turning on lights in your mind and whispering words in your ear. Maybe that’s what it feels like at Handel’s window.
RATHER IMPORTANT P.S., IF NOT PRECISELY A DISCLAIMER:
Some of the best work is so entirely for others that you hardly even feel it yourself.
After directing an original Book of Mormon play in my stake, I testified to my cast that I felt I had been an instrument in the hand of the Spirit, sometimes cutting cleanly as a scalpel, sometimes striking surely as a hammer, but feeling little more than would these tools. (I love the Lord asking Isaiah, “Shall the axe boast itself against him that heweth therewith? or shall the saw magnify itself against him that shaketh it?”) After singing a solo in church, I never really know how it went, just like after a priesthood blessing when you wonder what you said. And I’m thoroughly convinced that some of the most valuable acting I’ve ever done has been as Job, King Benjamin, or Pioneer John Brown for the primary kids in sharing time.
It may be an inescapable consequence of growing up that the universe of the genuinely unknown yawns wider and deeper with each passing year. But it’s scattered with veils of light and vast wheels of glory. Longing for that light in my work makes me feel like something inside me belongs to that light, and that possibility gives me great joy.
I feel though, with the writer Flaubert, that, “None of us can ever express the exact measure of his needs or his thoughts or his sorrows; and human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap crude rhythms for bears to dance to, while we long to make music that will melt stars …”
Still, I remember that the Light of Christ can melt them – and even make them, tame them and teach them to sing.