Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Natkirken reaches out to unchurched 'seekers' in Copenhagen: 'We shall be shepherds to cats'

Lask week when Debi and I were in Copenhagen, we were able to attend Natkirken (Night Church) services at Helligaandskirken (Church of the Holy Spirit) on the Strøget and briefly look in on the service briefly at Vor Frue (Our Lady) cathedral in the old university quarter downtown.

The Friday night services we saw were simple, refreshing and sometimes moving, even though we didn't know the language. They have has spread from Denmark, where they originated, to Greyfriars Kirk in Edinburgh, and they could be a useful model for mainline churches in North America that want to do something about declining membership.

Natkirken is a "liturgical laboratory" of the Diocese of Copenhagen. It was initiated by the estabished Church of Denmark in 1999 at Vor Frue and other city parishes in order to reach non-churchgoers in one of Europe's most secular societies. Night church services in the 12 parishes vary from one to the other, but typically they are loosely structured, combining music, prayer and silent meditation. "Many of our visitors can be characterized as 'seekers' ... we must meet them on their own terms," concluded an initial diocesean program evaluation. Judging by what I saw, they do.

In all, it's a significant outreach in a nation where 80 percent of the population claims membership in the Lutheran church but only 2 to 3 percent attend Sunday services. On Friday nights, Night Church proclaims a very old Christian message in the heart of one of Europe’s most cosmopolitan, secular cities. And Helligaandskirken amplifies that message with CDs and social media like Facebook and YouTube.

"While the Sunday service puts the emphasis on the forgiveness of sins, we try at Night Church to preach God’s presence at the center of each human life," night church pastor Mikkel Vale told the diocesan magazine Kirken i København (the church in Copenhagen). "This is partly done by an emphasis on personal prayer in worship. It is important for us Christians to learn that God is alive and present. … God goes with us. Always. I hope we can help to convey that to people, so they too can feel it when they leave the church again."

In another Kirken i København article, Vale uses a striking metaphor. He says, "we postmodern people are both misguided sheep and independent cats" and suggests a new role for the church: "We shall be shepherds to cats."

What we experienced last Friday night in Copenhagen left this cat purring. Why wasn't anybody doing services like this when I was in my 20s and 30s?

Natkirken at Helligaandskirken begins at 7 p.m. with international evensong conducted in English and lasts till midnight, blending musical traditions ranging from Gregorian chant and the Lutheran chorale to the prayerful but very singable meditations of the contemporary Taizé and Iona communities. Last week's evensong was followed by congregational singing of familiar Danish hymns; a recital of medieval chant by Hildegard von Bingen, sung by mezzosoprano Elisabeth Ørsnes; and a lysandagt, or candlelight communion, followed by singing and prayer in the style of the Taizé community in France and a midnight service.

Part of the appeal of Night Church is that worshippers can come and go freely, and at least for us, that was part of the evenin's charm. Outside on the Strøget, a group of busking street musicians played Strauss waltzes and other light classics in the lengthening summer twilight (see picture at left). At times it almost seemed like the scene outside was playing in a kind of counterpoint with the sacred music within the church.

And I thought the contrast, the interplay between what was going on in the church and outside in the city, was utterly charming. The Scandinavians have a word for it -- hyggelig. It's pronounced sort of like "HOOG-ley," and it's usually translated as "cozy" or "comfortable" or "nice," but that doesn't begin to cover all of its meanings. Anyway, it was all hyggelig and I could have stayed there forever.

Inside the church, it seemed like there was a little something for everybody. The congregational singing was attended by 15 or 20 people, mostly middle-aged or older, while the candlelight service attracted a younger crowd. With faint echoes of the street band playing waltzes outside in the background, the celebrants and half the congregation walked down the nave of the church, holding candles and singing a processional hymn in Danish to the Irish tune we recognize in America as "Be Thou My Vision." The Danish words, I found out later, are by Pastor Vale.

The communion service followed, and the ebb, flow and cadence of the liturgy was wholly familiar even though we didn't speak the language.

(We had a service booklet, too, so we were able to follow along in Danish. We noticed parishoners were asked to hold their candles over the service booklet so they wouldn't drip on the floor. Another good idea to take back to North America!)

In all, it was moving and the familiar liturgy felt inclusive. There's something about candlelight, too, that transcends time, place and language. I wasn't about to pop a flash during the service, but the screen shot at right from Helligaandskirken's YouTube channel shows the same service and conveys some of the atmosphere.

(For another impression, link here to read San Francisco blogger "Mystic Seeker's" account in the early spring of 2007 ... and the comment below it by a hiker who was invited to take part in a communion service in Iceland without knowing the Islandic language.)

"God is a DJ" at Vor Frue. After the light service at Helligaandskirken, we headed back to our hotel on Vesterbrogade by way of Vor Frue. It's in the old university district, just a few blocks from the Strøget, and it has a different approach to Night Church. Vor Frue goes more into poetry, jazz, electronica and other contemporary forms. Taizé meditaion, for example, must take on an added dimension in what a cathedral bulletin describes as "Taizéimprovisationer." I wish I could have heard it. Jazz improv seems a perfect match for Taizé.

According to the bulletin we picked up at the door, Friday night's meditation at Vor Frue was a standing feature called "God is a DJ." It relies on recorded music, and according to the Copenhagen newspaper Politiken, the Friday-night DJ sessions appeal to an inner-city cross-section "from 20-something hipsters to lonely bag ladies."

We weren't there long enough to form a coherent impression, but the part we saw featured a light show to the soundtrack of what we gradually realized was a new age-y cover of "I Wanna Be Sedated" by punk rock icons the Ramones -- the selection wasn't announced, but it was sung in English, and it was probably by the Los Angeles electronica/trance band Superhumanoids. The interplay of lights, music and lyrics was mesmerizing.

Some Danish hymns on the Strøget. During the singing at Helligeaandskirken, which reminded me of the old-fashioned "hymn sings" in small-town American churches when I was growing up, a gentleman in the congregation realized the Americans in the third pew weren't following the numbers as they were called out in Den Danske Salmebog, the words-only hymnal they were using. So as each selection was called out, he came back and whispered the number to us in English.

With his help, I was able to follow the hymn singing fairly well even though most of the hymns -- salmer in Danish -- were new to me. They were Danish, mostly from the 19th and 20th centuries, although a couple of them were recognizable as variants of the old Lutheran chorales. A list follows:

  • DDS 441. Alle mine kilder skal være hos dig. Text: N.F.S. Grundtvig 1856-60. Mel. Thomas Laub 1922. Click here for a pop version by Danish artist Peter Belli.
  • 292. Kærligheds og sandheds Ånd. Text: Adam af St. Victor 12th c., N.F.S. Grundtvig 1837. Mel.: Christian Barnekow 1868 [same melody as Kom, Gud Helligånd, kom brat].
  • 330. Du, som ud af intet skabte. Text: Jens Rosendal 1973. Mel.: Peter Møller 1974
  • 11. Nu takker alle Gud. Text: Martin Rinckart [in German] ca. 1630. Danish 1740. 1885. 1889. 1890. Mel.: Johann Crüger 1647 [this is the Reformation chorale Now Thank We All Our God]
  • 582, At tro er at komme. Text not available on line. Mel.: Bendt Astrup 1993 [Same as Dig rummer ej himle]
  • 785. Tunge, mørke natteskyer. Text: Jakob Knudsen 1890. Mel.: Carl Nielsen 1917
  • 612. Den store mester kommer. Mel.: J.P.E. Hartmann 1873, Caspar Chr. Hoffman 1878 and Rued Langgaard 1924.
  • 787. Du, som har tændt millioner af stjerner. Text not available on line. Mel.: Erik Sommer 1981
  • 217. Min Jesus, lad mit hjerte få. Text: Biørn Christian Lund 1764, Bearbejdet 1778, N.F.S. Grundtvig 1846. Mel.: Carl Nielsen 1914 [Same as Dybt hælder året i sin gang]
Nikolaj Grundtvig, a prolific writer and educator some of whose work appears in American hymnals (and whose theories are behind the John C. Campbell Folk School in North Carolina), was well represented. As was early 20th-century Danish composer Carl Nielsen. I'm familiar with Nielsen's symphonies, but if I knew before that he wrote hymns, it slipped my mind. But write hymns, he did. I was told by people at Helligaandskirken that his contributions to Danish hymnody are especially beloved, and judging by the two I heard I can understand why.

Here are YouTube video clips of Neilsen's "Tunge, mørke natteskyer" (heavy, dark night clouds) as sung by the Danish Girls Choir of Copenhagen and (embedded below), by Den Danske Salmeduo in concert in 2011:

And an audio clip of the former pop/Christian contemporary band STOEW and a video (embedded below) of the Cantica Ungdomskor (Youth Choir) from Vor Frelsers (Our Savior's) Kirke, in Horsens, Jutland, singing "Min Jesus lad mit hjerte få" (my Jesus, let my heart receive), directed by Kevin Laplante

Finally, here's the official video of the Ramones' original of "I Wanna Be Sedated." I know it's heresy to say this, but I like the cover I heard at Vor Frue's "God is a DJ" meditation better!

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Springsteen, in Oslo for 'Wrecking Ball' tour, joins memorial to Norway's terror victims

OSLO -- Our trip to Norway at the end of July coincided with Bruce Springsteen's "Wrecking Ball" tour of Europe and the one-year anniversary of the terrorist attack in Norway on July 22, 2011. It was the occasion, I think, for one of Springsteen's best moments.

Imprompteau memorial, at right, in grounds of Oslo's Domkirke [cathedral] to victims of terrorist attack July 22, 2011.

We had our downtown hotel room windows open for ventilation, and Saturday night we heard Springsteen's concert at Valle Hovin stadium in the outskirts of Oslo. The concert was halfway across town, and the sound was indistinct but loud and energetic -- and all of it pure Springsteen. If nothing else, it made me want to buy the CD.

What I'll remember most of Springsteen's weekend in Oslo, however, is his appearance the following night at a national memorial concert in front of Oslo's iconic city hall, or Rådhus, for the 77 people who were murdered in the terrorist attack. He simply sang and played "We Shall Overcome" on acoustic guitar backed by Steven Van Zandt. It was understated, passionate and wrenching, as the whole weekend of memorials was understated -- this was Norway, after all -- but passionate and wrenching.

And I thought it was one of Springsteen's finest moments in a stage career that spans 40 years.

Oslo was full of memorials to the terror victims. that Sunday's began at 9:30 a.m. with a wreath-laying ceremony at the downtown government buildings, where the July 22 atrocity had begun with a bomb blast, and continued with a religious service at Oslo's Domkirke. It was attended by the king and queen of Norway, the prime minister and enough ordinary Norwegians to fill the 1,500-seat cathedral with dozens more standing along the walls. And throughout the weekend one of those imprompteau memorials grew on the cathedral grounds, as people left roses and little Norwegian flags beneath a red balloon inscribed with the verse from 1st Corinthians "...og storst av alt er kjærligheten / ... and the greatest of all is love."

Springsteen's appearance at the memorial concert that night wasn't announced till the last minute. Reportedly, it was feared an international celebrity artist would overshadow the Norwegians.

But in the event, that wasn't a problem.

Nobody was upstaged, and Springsteen's delivery of "We Shall Overcome" was as intense as anything I've heard him sing, emotional but understated, and the mostly acoustic guitar supporting his voice was bright and intricate -- but understated, too, and perfectly suited to the song and the occasion.

Springsteen and the E Street Band were already scheduled to be in Oslo over the weekend, as part of their world tour to promote the "Wrecking Ball" album. The CD, which came out in February, got good reviews. David Fricke of Rolling Stone called it "the most despairing, confrontational and musically turbulent album Bruce Springsteen has ever made." Sales have been respectable, but it hasn't been a blockbuster, especially in America. Fricke says Springsteen is "angry and accusing in these songs, to the point of exhaustion, with grave reason. The America here is a scorched earth: razed by profiteers, and suffering a shameful erosion in truly democratic values and national charity."

Is it too angry and accusing? Do we really want to hear this? Especially in a edgy, polarizing, acrimonious political season?

Maybe, maybe not.


I'll leave that to the critics to sort that one out.

But the "Wrecking Ball" tour has been a blowout in Europe.

Certainly Springsteen's July 21 concert at the stadium in Oslo was a blowout. All day Saturday fans were pouring into Oslo. The crowds along Karl Johann Street, the city's downtown pedestrian mall, were liberally sprinkled with people wearing "Wrecking Ball" T-shirts, and throngs of mostly young people were already hoofing it out to the stadium by mid-afternoon.

Springsteen has his fans in Norway, and so does Van Zandt. He's starring in a Norwegian TV series called "Lillyhammer," in which he plays a New Jersey mobster in a witness protection program in the rather bucolic Norwegian town of Lillehammer.

In any event, speculation began early that Springsteen might appear at Sunday's memorial concert in the Rådhusplassen, or city hall plaza, on Oslo's waterfront. Not only does he have the fan base in Scandinavia, but the working-class values of his songs align closely with those of Norway's governing Arbeiterparti (labor party), so many of whose youthful members were murdered in last year's atrocity.

Previously scheduled by Norway's state broadcasting service NRK (the acronym for Norsk rikskringkasting) for the anniversary date, the national memorial concert [nasjonal minnekonsert] featured the Norwegian Radio Orchestra (universally known as KORK, for Kringkastingsorkestret) and a lineup of Norwegian artists, as well as an arrangement in which KORK and a carillon in the City Hall towers played a call-and-response arrangement of the Norwegian anthem "Til Ungdommen" (to youth), the bells echoing the orchestra. It was raining, and we watched the concert on TV in our hotel room, and it was stunning TV (especially with the bells also echoing outside our window, again open for ventilation).

Background on the song and the production --

Music by the Danish composer and conductor Otto Mortensen (1907-1986) to a poem by the Norwegian author, playwright, poet and journalist Nordahl Grieg (1902-1943). The song became a kind of anthem for several international peace marches in Europe in 1981-82 and later. After the terror attack on 22.7.11, it has become one of the most used songs in memorial ceremonies. The title means "To the youth" or "To the young ones". Here played on the carillon in Oslo City Hall by Vegar Sandholt, with Kringkastingsorkestret (the Norwegian Radio Orchestra) conducted by Christian Eggen, arranged by Håkon Berge. From the National Memorial Concert 22.7.12 in the City Hall Square of Oslo, July 22nd, 2012, one year after the terror attack. 50-60.000 people were there.

A version of "Til ungdommen" with song [performed by Norwegian pop and crossover artist Sissel Kyrkjebø at 2011 memorial] can be heard here: http://youtu.be/gKZa6hNFouw

A footnote. It all suggested to me that Americans who think the Scandinavian folk churches are dying because attendance at Sunday services is lower than in the U.S., might want to find a metric better suited to the facts of the case. Whatever else may be going on, the churches aren't dying.

In more ways than I could count, the Church of Norway was one of the key focal points of the weekend's observances, and -- I believe -- its teachings helped set the tone, for instance when Bishop Helga Haugland Byfuglien said at the Domkirke, "The light shines in the darkness; darkness hasn't been able to overcome it." Presiding bishop of the Norwegian church, she has sounded the same note on other occasions.

For his part, Prime Minister Jens Stollenberg sounded more like a pastor than a politician as he told survivors at the wreath-laying, "We will not forget you when the long days of summer give way to autumn darkness. Reach out. Show that you care. A chat about everyday things could help someone regain their will to live." It all had the sound, entirely appropriate under the circumstances, of pastoral grief counseling for a nation of 5 million.

How much of Norway's extraordinary response to terrorism is due to its Lutheran heritage and culture? I'll leave the theories and the pronouncements to others, but I had a sense that it's embedded deeply, even in one of Europe's most secular societies.

Another footnote. The July 30 issue of the New Yorker has a very thoughtful and well-researched profile of Springsteen by editor David Remnick. In the article, Remnick quotes Springsteen on how his parents' working-class struggles influenced his music:

... "Those wounds stay with you [he told Remnick in an interview during a rehearsal in New Jersey], and you turn them into a language and a purpose." Gesturing toward the band onstage, he said, "We're repairmen -- repairmen with a toolbox. If I repair a little of myself, I'll repair a little of you. That's the job."
The context was different, of course, but I couldn't help feeling Springsteen was doing something like that when he and Van Zandt performed "We Shall Overcome" in Oslo.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Planxty Madam Maxwell - Turloch O'Carolan

Heard on a CD in the car while Debi and I were running errands and posted here so I don't forget it while we're on vaction in Europe next week ...

A lively tune that sounds playable on the hammered dulcimer ... maybe even on Appalachian dulcimer. O'Neill's (Chicago: Lyon & Healy, 1903) has it in D, per the Frayed Knot Arts transcription at http://www.oldmusicproject.com/OneilsOcarolans.html. Says Grainne Yeats in the liner notes:

Madam Maxwell was probably Judith Barry of Newtown Barry, County Wexford, who married John Maxwell of County Cavan. Bunting collected the tune several times, and the version played here is based on that gien him by Huagh Higgens. Higgins was a "gentleman harper" who played for pleasure, and who gave many tunes to Bunting.
Here it is on YouTube user Vivian Jacobs' Celtic Harp channel:

And here with John Wynne and John Mc Evoy on fiddle and flute. Full set consists of: Madame Maxwell / The Whinny Hills of Leitrim/ The Leitrim Bucks

Monday, July 16, 2012

'Til Ungdommen' [To Youth], a song by Norwegian poet Nordahl Grieg that became an unofficial anthem in the aftermath of Utøya

Also known by the words of the first line "Kringsatt av fiender" (Surrounded by enemies), by Norwegian poet Nordahl Grieg. Written in 1936 during the runup to World War II and set to music in 1952 by the Danish composer Otto Mortensen. (Wikipedia) adds, "After the terror attacks of 22 July 2011, it was used in many memorial gatherings and services." The first verse makes clear why so many people found it appropriate in the aftermath of Utøya:
Kringsatt av fiender, gå
inn i din tid!
Under en blodig storm –
vi deg til strid!
In English translation, by Rod Sinclair:
Faced by your enemies
On every hand
Battle is menacing,
Now make your stand
During memorial service __ July 2011 in Oslo Cathedral. Clip from Norwegian National Broadcasting (NRK) of the service in the capital city's cathedral (Domkirken) the Sunday after the terrorist attack. Title says, "King and queen cry during song in cathedral" Original on nrk.no website.

Herborg Kråkevik in concert on Rådhusplassen in Oslo. Clip from NRK coverage 25 July 2011. Kråkevik is a crossover folk/pop singer who recorded the song in 2000, which was rereleased and topped the charts again last year after Utøya. An estimated 200,000 attended the concert in the square in front of Oslo's city hall (Rådhus).

Chords, in Norwegian, at http://nortabs.net/tab/3029/ and on English-language website tabs.ultimate-guitar.com. Song is in A minor (although the copy of the Dansk Skolesangbog I got last year in Copenhagen has it with chords and standard notation in E minor). Below is a very nice finger-style guitar arrangement by YouTube user loooovelyy, 20, of Norway, who says she "looked at the chords on ultimate-guitar and figured out the rest by ear."

Also in Denmark. Expressions of solidarity from across Europe, ranging from a moment of silence at football matches to religious services attended by heads of church and state, were posted to YouTube. Here a segment of TV news coverage of Danish Queen Margrethe, Crown Prince Frederik and Crown Princess Mary as they participate in a memorial service at Denmark's Vor Frue (Our Lady) cathedral in Copenhagen. Video clip of choir singing "Til Ungdommen" begins at 8:34 and lasts 10 or 15 seconds.

Sunday, July 08, 2012

'Singing and Praying Bands' bring African American tradition to Common Ground on the Hill

Some of the deepest roots of American music came alive at McDaniel College last week as "Singing and Praying Bands" from Maryland's Eastern Shore brought a time-honored African American style of worship to the Common Ground on the Hill summer music camp. Their art, a regional form descended from the "ring shout" of 19th-century black hymnody, was a reminder of the deep African influence on all of our music, from Leonard Bernstein and Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess" to jazz, blues, hip hop and almost all of our popular music.

Their appearance also affirmed a long-standing relationship with McDaniel (formerly Western Maryland College). Walt Michael, executive director of Common Ground, said it was in McDaniel's Alumni Hall, where the concert was held, that local Methodist and AME conferences voted to merge in the 1960s.

"Consider this is your church here," he said. "We invite you back any time you want to come."

The Singing and Praying Bands grew out of Methodist camp meetings of the 19th and 20th centuries, according to the Rev. Jerry Colbert of John Wesley United Methodist Church of Annapolis. Like so many traditions, they are losing ground with the younger generation, and members of several churches in tidewater Eastern Maryland and Delaware decided to demonstrate it to wider audiences in the hope that it won't die out altogether.

So about 35 or 40 older black men and women, dressed in white, filed onto the stage in McDaniel's Alumni Hall singing "Am I a Soldier of the Cross" in call-and-response style. They circled around a mourner's bench - a row of chairs set up in the middle of the stage - praying and singing over the people seated there. The singing was repetitive, and it was mesmerizing in much the same way as a Taize meditation, but it also sounded like the Sea Island spirituals collected during the 1960s in South Carolina, and it carried you away as it got more insistent.

In all, it was a privilege to be able to hear it.

In a very fine, nuanced story that ran June 14 in The Washington Post, reporter Chris Richards gives a lot of background. Richards said the decision to take its art to a wider audience wasn't easy: "This isn’t just music. It’s their ministry. This isn’t entertainment. It’s their faith."

(There's an audio clip and slideshow with Richards' story. Definitely worth a listen.)

There's more background on the Maryland Traditions 2012 website of the Maryland Arts Council. Citing folklorist Jonathan David, independent scholar of Philadelphia and author of "Together Let us Sweetly Live, it explains:

... these groups are a regional variation of the larger ring shout tradition. Many scholars consider this to have been the most important religious service of enslaved Africans and their African-American descendants in North America in the 19th century.

The bands of Maryland grew out of Methodist prayer meetings. In some areas, these groups had their start in antebellum times in brush arbors where the enslaved held secret religious services. At camp meetings, prayer groups from many neighboring churches--referring to themselves as "Singing and Praying Bands"-- met and sang and prayed.

Ina the Washington Post story, Chris Richards said taking a religious tradition to secular venues can be "an ethical tightrope" because the tradition changes:
It’s delicate business. Intervention efforts in the 1960s helped rescue Louisiana Cajun music from extinction. But some say that intervention can change the actual nature of music, pointing to strands of gospel, bluegrass, the blues and other genres that have been professionalized, commercialized and taken far from their roots.
The ethical dilemma is real. Something like it has happened with the Sacred Harp, but somehow the shape note singers have managed to hold onto their spiritual core of their art. For what it's worth, after seeing them at Common Ground, I'm not too worried about the Singing and Praying Bands of eastern Maryland. I think they'll do the same.