A Findhorn Foundation special event 30 March – 5 April 2013
In traditional Findhorn manner, we start our event with a moment’s silence, and as I am to discover it will be one of the few moments of silence as we embark on this enticing journey of joyful singing, creating a harmonic temple together. Peter Vallance, our host and conference focaliser, carries out another Findhorn tradition of lighting a centre candle while he recites an age old Celtic prayer from the Carmina Gadelica – Smooring the Fire:
I will build the hearth,
As Mary would build it.
The encompassment of Bride and of Mary,
Guarding the hearth, guarding the floor,
Guarding the household all…
Peter invites whoever feels drawn to do so to fulfill one more Findhorn tradition – that of choosing an angelic quality to oversee our gathering – and guided by the Angel of SYNTHESIS we greet each other by sounding our names into the space. Some gentle voices, some strong, a real mix of ages and genders and nationalities – a precursor to our voices sounding much more strongly together.
Our visiting presenters, Ali Burns, Frank Kane, Fionntulach and Kathy Bullock (Michael Stillwater and Karine Polwart will arrive later), then introduce themselves with a brief description of what music represents for them, and what they will be sharing with us. To set the tone, Findhorn Community member Barbara Swetina leads us in one of the Songs of Universal Peace.
Only an hour or two into this gathering and already it’s becoming evident that the group energy is building, harmonics rising, voices blending… I don’t count myself a singer but I can feel the bonding and am one of those with a broad smile on my face as we break for tea.
The rest of the afternoon is devoted to the home groups, conference participants gathering in smaller, more intimate groups that will form support and sharing spaces for the rest of the week.
Tonight an air of expectancy fills the Universal Hall as we take our seats for an evening of performances by several local community choirs. Taught by Findhorn Community members Kate O'Connell, Bill Henderson, David Harrison and Vera Bohlen, these choirs represent all that is inclusive about community choirs — no auditions are necessary and there is no need to read music as all the songs are taught by ear. Everyone who enjoys singing is welcome.
We are treated to a wonderfully rich and varied soundscape of male and female voices — together in large groups, small groups, all male, all female, highs, lows and everything in between.
The Forres Big Choir, now in its 10th year, is up first. Of the three songs they sing, the one that touches something deep inside me is This is My Song. Written in the 1930s by Lloyd Stone and Georgia Harkness, and set to the music of Finlandia composed by Jean Sibelius, it is a vision of a more positive future created by "proclaiming peace together in one song…."
Exploring different ways of tuning to each other is the impulse behind The Wee Big Choir, an offshoot of the Forres Big Choir. One of their offerings tonight is Traveller's Prayer, a song introduced to Kate many years ago by another community member. Written by John Renbourn after he researched the ancient songs found in the Carmina Gadelica, this prayer is an example of the beautiful merging of Pagan and Christian beliefs as lived by the early Gaels of this land.
The Georgian Choir takes us to another land where secular and religious existed alongside each other. Alternating between Easter songs that would traditionally be sung in the church, and ones that would be sung going from house to house in the villages, we are given a glimpse into a culture that has developed a powerful way to use their voices to build community.
Lest we think that tonight is for listening only, next comes the first of two opportunities for audience participation. Bill leads us in a six-part Gospel call and response during which we proclaim our willingness to turn away from war, "laying our guns down by the riverside". It is my hope that the energy of our song reaches every part of the world where people still suffer, bringing the possibility of change.
I’ve mentioned all male and all female and the next performances are by the Sounds Deep Men's Choir, led by Bill and David, and by Kate's two women's groups. Hearing men on their own, I am able to really appreciate the range of the masculine voice, the strength and the tenderness that can be expressed. This group of men sing a love song from Croatia with such feeling that the two lovers in the song become visible in the mind's eye. The two women's groups do a selection of songs, including one about transitions, written by Ali Burns and titled Evening Will Come.
To round our evening off, Bill and Kate lead us in a version of Amazing Grace as sung at the Natural Voice Camps. Very simple, very upbeat and a lovely way to end. Peter bids us goodnight, and using words that also come from the prayer Smooring the Fire, asks for the blessing of The Sacred Three – to save, to shield, to surround – to be with us all.
Easter morning dawns bright, the sun caressing the crocuses that dare to unfurl their delicate, yet vibrant petals despite the crisp cold temperatures we are still having here in northeast Scotland. The Hall, adorned with a Celtic cross made from branches, greenery and flowering gorse and an altar of lilies, tulips, candles and bread, is packed this morning. Barbara Swetina, Ian Turnbull, Fionntulach and friends on flute, guitar and cello lead this special Sunday Taizé.
From the nature spirits we know that at midday on Good Friday all the natural world goes into mourning until sunrise on Easter, at which time there is celebration. In the Celtic Christian tradition, the chant of 'Christ is risen from the womb of the earth' is sung from the hilltops while all manner of noise is made. At our disposal this morning are tambourines, rattles, bells and our own voices. With Fionntulach singing the chant to the east, south, west and north, we all add a drone and our chosen noisemaker. The feeling in the Hall when we stop is one of deep peace and joy.
Two opportunities to sing, dance and greet each other follow. How beautiful to have the space to be in stillness and in movement together, with ourselves and with one another. We then sit in our voice parts for several Taizé songs. One of them moves me to tears and for a moment I have to stop, eventually finding my voice again. Our community poet, Auriol de Smidt shares a poem in which the innocence, wisdom and compassion of a child caught up in the horrors of the Holocaust shines a light in the darkness. And we break and share bread together, affirming that our connection to Spirit will feed our hunger and quench our thirst.
Then a delightful surprise! Iona Leigh, herself once a child growing up here at Findhorn, enters the Hall leading a procession of parents with their young children. With them is Anna Barton, a Sacred Dance teacher within the community for many years. Young, and the young at heart, come together to each shine our little light, never hiding it under a bushel and never letting it go out. After singing together, the children go round with their baskets, offering the adults yummy chocolate Easter eggs.
Sunday afternoon is taster sessions in the Universal Hall with four of the presenters. After yesterday’s brief introductions I’m curious to see more… or should that be hear more.
She then introduces us to a new song of hers as a teaser – we will be exploring all the offerings of the presenters more deeply in their workshops during the week. Again I am amazed and delighted to be part of this brief lesson in singing coaching.
I love it! I want more. And I’m about to get it!
After a short break Frank Kane has us all back on the floor of the Hall. There is no sitting back and spectating here! He suggests we “turn down the ears” for hearing and “turn up the body” as a receptor. Traditional Georgian singing, something that Frank has been exploring for 30 years, has a lot to do with how it feels, he says. Using some simple vocal exercises of mmm and aaah he invites us to feel into various parts of our body to feel the sound moving within us. His workshops during the week will give us an opportunity to explore this more deeply as well. I sense the problem of what to choose coming up.
After another short break, Fionntulach invites us into the world of Gaelic spiritual chanting and song, explaining that like any traditional music, it grows out of the land and resonates in the body. She leads us in an enchanting Gaelic chant – Caim agus curach – and invites us to see what imagery it invokes before she explains what the words mean. It is a chant that has its birth in the Celtic myth of people being put to sea in a coracle and left to drift, and is medicine for when we feel adrift in life, being a statement of intent that 'I am empowered'. These sacred chants, she shares, are to connect us with our spiritual life.
Kathy then gives us a potted history and definition of what African-American music is, which segues into us singing and adding West African rhythms. The slavery movement, which was rife between West Africa and USA, birthed a genre of music, she explains, that grew out of people's connection to the inner God. Singing is life giving and, in some circles, saying 'I don't sing' is like saying 'I'm not alive'. And so we find ourselves again swaying and singing together, deeply immersed in Walking In The Light attributed to the Georgia Mass Choir.
Tired but exhilarated, I leave the Universal Hall with Kathy's last song, Be Blessed, floating through my head. I do indeed feel blessed that I have experienced these four performers, teachers and way-showers this afternoon. For one not enthused about singing before, I think I have found my voice.