‘to kneel in the heart of a storm’ was commissioned by Psappha as part of their Youth Music Scheme in 2020-2021. It was performed in a workshop setting in April.
I first set out to write this piece at the end of yet another summer of devastating wildfires. In that season, over 4 million acres of trees were lost in California alone, including many redwoods, which stand among the tallest and most ancient tweetreesthe world. With this tragedy in mind, I initially hoped to create a work which explored the experience of ecological grief. Yet the sense of loss was vast and fathomless, and I felt paralysed and numbed. I thought of Joanna Macy’s teaching that, ‘The heart that breaks open can hold the whole universe; it really is that large.’ I hoped that if I could let myself break open, music might grow in the cracks and fissures. But I did not have the strength to break, and in the end I left the composition of this work aside.
When I returned to it a few months later, I was interested in exploring a different, though not unrelated starting-point. Rainer Maria Rilke’s image of wrestling with an angel, or more precisely, of surrendering to the angel’s wrestling, strikes me as a slightly different expression of Macy’s teaching. Like the image of holding the universe in a broken heart, Rilke’s image emphasises a kenotic surrender, an opening to something greater than oneself. This in turn brings to mind for me the Buddhist practice of taking refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, (the Buddha’s teachings) and the sangha, (the community of Buddhist practitioners.) The way I sense refuge is not so much as a place to take shelter from the storm, although this can be part of what is offered. Rather, I think of refuge as a place where we can gather strength to go back out and kneel in the still and silent heart of the storm. It was from this image of a deep, visceral connection with nature, and of deepening, entangled global and personal crises, that the piece eventually emerged.