The Music of Elizabeth Alexander

Kindling: Small Reflections on a Limitless Faith

An ecstatic and introspective cantata on the things that inspire, challenge and nourish our religious lives

Words by Elizabeth Alexander

An ecstatic and introspective cantata that revels in the experiences, stories and discoveries which shape our religious lives. Both intimate and universal, Kindling unabashedly embraces the infinite variety, challenges and beauty of both individual and shared faiths. Based on Unitarian Universalism’s “Six Sources of Religion,” this expansive work lifts up all people’s never-ending search for what is sacred, eternal and true.

Note: The same choral score is used when performing with this work with piano accompaniment or with a chamber ensemble. The individual movements Pages, Chosen People, So Much Radiance, Strong Braid and The Chalice of Our Hearts may be performed as standalone pieces.

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Composer Notes

Composer Notes

“Some commissions call me to grow spiritually, forcing me to grapple with questions I wouldn’t necessarily have chosen for myself. Kindling was definitely one of those commissions. Although I had set no fewer than 14 liberal religious texts to music – from Transylvania’s 16th century “Edict of Torda” to Emerson’s “Oversoul” – I had never thought of Unitarian Universalism’s Six Sources as terrifically inspiring. But when conductor Jason Oby handed me the ambitious goal of composing a cantata based on these universal sources of inspiration and guidance, I knew I couldn’t say no. How compelling!

And…um….how intimidating. Unitarian Universalists don’t celebrate their faith with the ecstatic abandon of Sufis or the rich mysticism of the Eastern Orthodox. They lean more towards rational thought – but geez, I didn’t want to compose a treatise, or a dissertation, or a polemic. (What is a polemic, anyway?)

During long walks with my husband I waved my arms dramatically, lamenting: “The Six Sources? Who are they kidding? A song about humanism? Good grief, I might as well set the IRS tax code to music.” But over time, as I asked myself what the essential nature of each source was, a rhapsodic kernel within each one gradually emerged – yes, even within humanism.

Thus, Kindling is not a manifesto, no grand statement containing ultimate truths and universal revelations. It is a collection of small reflections on how experience, heritage and inspiration can cultivate a faith of integrity, service and joy.

By the way, I found out what a polemic was, because I just looked it up. It is an argument that completely refutes other points of view. As it turns out, that’s exactly what Kindling is not. But I guess that shouldn’t really be a surprise, since that’s also exactly what Unitarian Universalism is not.”

Text

Kindling

I. First Touch
The first touch brings astonishment, then delight:
Water, kitten belly, hydrangea blossom, warm mud.
New ears learn to decipher footsteps and music.
While watching a fuzzy caterpillar, small hearts lean towards God.

II. Pages
On the pages of the morning paper,
People rebuild shattered schools and restore lifeless lakes,
Knit reconciliation out of promise and pain,
And sing to the deathly ill and the newly born.
Constitutions are still being written,
And slaves freed, and truces forged.
We finish our breakfasts and roll up our own sleeves.

III. Chosen People
As children we are enchanted by the apple, the ark, the whale,
The boy with the slingshot, the baby in the barn.
Later we grapple with forgiveness, resurrection and compassion.
Chosen people are everywhere now — in the market, under the bridge.
The next chapters are ours to imagine.

IV. So Much Radiance
Once we set forth in the dark empty hours of the night,
In search of a Presence wondrous and unseen,
Guided only by a voice still and small.
Our outstretched hands soon encountered
The brass and grain of Cross and Menorah,
And our fingers traced their contours with reverence and joy.
Only now, as the rising sun illuminates
Wheel and Lotus, Yin and Yang, Star and Crescent, Eagle and Drum,
We begin to behold the Limitless:
So much Radiance within our reach — even more beyond.

V. Strong Braid
Aloft in the heady air of faith,
Our senses heightened by incense and ether,
We may from time to time become ecstatic paper kites.
We dive and keel and rocket,
Riding each wayward gust with abandon,
Recklessly aspiring to Auroral heights —
Yet knowing all the while that we are safe,
Tethered to the ground by a strong braid, a steady hand,
And a mind that appraises the wind.

VI. Where Belief Begins
It comes down to this, in the end.
And in the beginning and middle as well:
Earth, generous and visceral,
Manifested in mountains and hidden within clouds,
Familiar to rhizomes and young knees.
Air and Water, faithful channels of change,
Whose currents and cycles nudge germination
All the way through to rot and back again.
What’s more, there’s Fire, dazzling and improbable,
Not only in the cores of planets and stars
But also in the hollow where belief begins.

Epilogue: The Chalice of Our Hearts
Our search for kindling takes us far beyond our selves —
There we gather Truth and Mystery.
We return in joy to tend the chalice of our hearts.

Elizabeth Alexander
© 2015 by Elizabeth Alexander

Performers

Performers

SATB, flute, horn, string quartet
Premiere: First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston / Jason Oby (Houston, TX)
Choir of Arlington Street Church / Mark Buckles (Boston, MA)
Choir of Mount Diablo Unitarian Universalist Church / Mark Tuning (Walnut Creek, CA)
Choir of Unitarian Universalist Church of Atlanta / Donald Milton III (Atlanta, GA)
St Luke Presbyterian Church / David Lohman (St. Louis Park, MN)

SATB, piano
Choir of First Unitarian Universalist Church of Rochester, MN / Joseph Mish