1: start here, or why a composer would be moved to write about words & belief

Beliefs shift over time. Theology is the study of their shifting. But I believe their components, our human needs, remain constant. Like a kaleidoscope, where the colored chips are closed within the lens we hold to the light, the collective image may change beyond recognition. With the kaleidoscope, we entertain wonder with pleasure, because the toy fits in the hand, the changes occur quickly within the frame of immediate memory, and the reassurance of a stable closed system is readily verifiable. With beliefs, we are not so comprehending or forgiving, receiving heterodoxy with dismay, or even violent hostility.

The biblical words of the sage Qohelet in his book Ecclesiastes, have been read many different ways. The enigma he himself embedded over two millennia ago persists provocatively. Each time the interpretation says more about the interpreter than the interpreted. Yet each time some new facet of the truth is revealed. Like all his interpreters, I am driven by the conviction, that I’m the one he will choose to reveal himself to, fully.

I am no theologian. I just wanted to set his words to music, as many have done before me. From 2001, before the attack on the World Trade Center, until now, I have been working on ecclesiastes: a modern oratorio, in which I set passages about the divine, inscrutable order of time. The world has changed, my life has changed and my understanding of those words has changed—all three quite dramatically—since I began. Sifting down through the Latin avatar to the Hebrew roots, I’ve come to an intuitive musical understanding, which I explain in an essay burned onto the CD itself, hearing ecclesiastes: expressing Qohelet’s ideas with music. But I continue to question. So in this essay, I explore the beliefs behind the words, as well as the belief systems that have affected various translations and interpretations, mine and others. All in an attempt to come to understand what Qohelet meant in the original written word.

Because I’m a musician, most of my work plays out in the present. Even so, I have always loved trying to imagine the music of the past. How it was made. How it was heard. What people were thinking. The problem is that reliable documentation of music only goes back a century or so in audio, a millennium or so in writing, and before that our guesses get so thick, they may as well be fantasy—we honestly have no idea what music sounded like.

Not so with words.

The words of Ecclesiastes have led me to study the words of the Torah, Tanakh and Talmud, to explore the history of the Jews and the linguistic and cultural influences of a succession of oppressors—Egyptian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek and Roman. And I am coming to understand what role those non-Judaic cultures played in the branching-off of Christianity and its successive Bibles—Septuagint, Vulgate, King James and American Revised—as well as tensions within Judaism: the Houses of Hillel and Shammai, the Sadducees, Pharisees and Essenes.

The words of Ecclesiastes pushed me to examine the words of Jewish wise men, Greek philosophers, Babylonian poets, and Egyptian scribal sages. Also that of emblematic characters like Pythagoras, King Solomon, Sumerian Shuruppak—last king before the flood—and the murdered pharaoh Amenemotep, who had beautiful ideas attributed to them in name like offerings at a shrine. Challenging the premises of originality and ideological ownership. Living ideas. Ideas agelessly relevant to modern life. Sensory pleasure, moral duty, justice, retribution. Afterlife, pantheism. Cycles of time.

The words of Ecclesiastes have motivated me to read the words of generations since. To feel how the thinking around the thinking has moved in whorls of contradiction and interpretation. How my thinking has been affected by precedent events of which I had no direct experience or consciousness. Even my ignorance of the subject when I first began I’ve learned is the product of the stellar pull of past intellectual motion. As well as my growing sense of illumination and understanding of the history of thinking. The birth of cultural anthropology in the late 19th c. Philology before that. The medieval love of system. The desperate drive to preserve knowledge in Europe’s Dark Ages. Christianity’s justification of paganism. Judaism’s self-defense.

The words of Ecclesiastes drew me into words from the ancient Near Eastern world of Wisdom. Older than Ecclesiastes. Older than the Bible. Older than Greek philosophy. Roots of our thoughts, five thousand years deep. Treasured advice for living. Richly set like verbal gemstones in poetry, riddle, proverb, rhythmic enumeration, melodic allegory, riveting biographies of the long dead alive with sex, murder, gold and personal shame. Sage and scribe as witnesses, portraitists and prophets. Their craft well-practiced and well-paid. Thank god(s) for the vanity of those who paid them—for their desire to live beyond death—in words.

~ by Kitty Brazelton on March 13, 2010.

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