"Today, like every other day, we wake up empty and frightened," wrote the perceptive 13th-century Persian Sufi mystic Jalal al-Din Rumi. His wise advice to counter such existential angst: "Don't open the door to the study and begin reading. Take down a musical instrument. Let the beauty we love be what we do. There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground."
More than 800 years later, Rumi's poem resonates strongly with the vision behind Lincoln Center's inaugural White Light Festival. Curated by Vice President for Programming and White Light Festival Director Jane Moss, this three-week series, running October 28 to November 18, is meant as an antidote to our collective experience of harried and relentlessly pressured 21st-century life in New York City. With a fascinating and mind-bending roster of introspective artists, White Light is both an event and a call not to action, but to stillness and contemplation. "Our lives have gotten so unmanageable," laments Moss. "It's not that I'm anti-technology; I embrace technology as a tool. But there are unintended consequences. Though designed as labor-saving, the net result of technology is an explosion of busy-ness and a feeling of never catching up, especially in New York. The first words out of everyone's mouth are that they have no time. Staying on top of email has become a fulltime, 24/7 occupation. It has also made everyone move relentlessly outwards in orientation: almost eliminating the relationship to our interior lives. We're all waiting for the next text message or email, moving everyone dramatically away from fully experiencing the present moment.
"However, I don't think this exterior approach to life is proving to be fulfilling," Moss continues. "One senses that people are searching for greater depth than our current lifestyle offers, yet are uncertain of how to find it. To use a very old-fashioned idea, I think people miss the experience of their own souls. I feel strongly that time and space: especially for an interior life that gives depth to feeling: are precisely what we lack today.
"So the idea for White Light was to reframe the purpose of our curatorial choices. Curation has traditionally been about the 'best' artists and the 'best' repertoire," Moss continues. "Selection comes from an exclusively aesthetic point of view. In White Light that is the case too, of course, but we're making curatorial choices that also create a larger message about music's power to take us to the deepest part of ourselves, to enable us to transcend our narrowly defined egos, to offer: if only for the course of a performance: a sense of connection to the larger human collective. I always had those feelings about music's power before, but didn't have the courage to overtly express them," Moss admits. "Yet the circumstances of our lives today make the larger resonance of music's power deeply relevant and necessary. Simply put, it's the right time for the voices of the White Light Festival."
The Festival's opening night: which is completely free to the public: begins with the debut of Janet Cardiff's The Forty-Part Motet, an art installation mounted in Frederick P. Rose Hall. Inspired by one of the most glorious and profound choral works of all time, Thomas Tallis' Spem in alium (written circa 1570), Cardiff recontextualizes this tremendous piece by assigning each vocal line to a separate loudspeaker, and encourages visitors to walk between them: immersing the listener literally in the middle of the music-making, and creating an experience that combines an aural journey with something akin to the labyrinths found at such sacred spaces as the cathedral at Chartres, Siena's Duomo in Italy, and San Francisco's Grace Cathedral.
Naturally enough, the human voice, which has been so integral to the expressions of yearning for the divine and for creating communal experience since the dawn of civilization, plays a central role in White Light's reach towards transcendence. A number of Festival artists will explore the deep connection between human sound and spirit, including Meredith Monk's four-decade-long exploration of primal sound in The Soul's Messenger (Oct. 28) Brahms' moving German Requiem led by Daniel Harding (Oct. 31); a performance of Bruckner and Brahms by Philippe Herreweghe and his superb Collegium Vocale Gent Choir (Nov. 2); and the wonderful vocal ensemble the Tallis Scholars, singing music by Estonian composer Arvo P‹rt as well as Palestrina, Byrd, Tallis, and Praetorius (Nov. 7). P‹rt's music is also an integral part of a concert by Têµnu Kaljuste and the Latvian National Choir (Nov. 13), while on the preceding evening the Choir makes its U.S. debut in a late-night concert of Frank Martin, P‹rt, and contemporary Estonian composer Veljo Tormis (Nov. 12).
White Light embraces music beyond the vocal as well. On November 11, the violinist Gidon Kremer and his Kremerata Baltica bring a program of Beethoven's profound String Quartet in C-sharp minor, Op. 131 to Lincoln Center paired with New York premieres of works by Giya Kancheli and Gina Auerbach. In intimate late-night performances, pianist Alexei Lubimov explores introspective solo works by C.P.E. Bach, Chopin, and Liszt along with those of John Cage, Tigran Mansurian, Galina Ustvolskaya, Arvo P‹rt, and Valentin Silvestrov (Nov. 11); two evenings later, he presents the complete Schubert Impromptus (Nov. 13).
Other White Light programs explore the intersection of "secular" culture with expressions of religious devotion, including Katarina LivljaniÔäc 's intriguing, semi-staged presentation of Renaissance-era songs from Croatia that recount the biblical tale of Judith (Nov. 3, 5, and 6). Bach's astounding Clavier-ê–bung III, played by organist Paul Jacobs on Alice Tully Hall's newly restored Kuhn organ, is given fresh context in a performance with the Clarion Choir and conductor Steven Fox singing the chorales that Bach's contemporary fellow Lutherans knew so intimately from their weekly worship (Nov. 16).
White Light also provides a meeting ground for artists breaking traditional genre boundaries. The Hilliard Ensemble and saxophonist Jan Garbarek reunite for another ethereally beautiful collaboration, Officium Novum (Nov. 12 at St. Ignatius Loyola). On Nov. 15, in an evening titled Credo, the Hilliard Ensemble and the Latvian National Choir join members of the iconic Icelandic indie band Sigur R‹s and New York's Wordless Music Orchestra conducted by Jeffrey Milarsky to play music by Sigur R‹s' Kjartan Sveinsson and J‹nsi Birgisson as well as visual artist/musician Alex Somers.
The Festival is also offering more theatrical presentations. Antony and the Johnsons join the Orchestra of St. Luke's for a powerful evening that includes a projection of Chiaki Nagano's film Mr. O's Book of the Dead (Oct. 30). Another highlight is Sutra by director and choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui (Nov. 2 _4), a piece done in collaboration with athletic and graceful Shaolin monks from China that also embraces elements of hip-hop and modern dance. A form of cross-cultural ecstasy arrives via the intriguing Manganiyar Seduction, a work by Indian director Roysten Abel, who grafts exhilarating Muslim devotional music from northwestern India's Manganiyar community onto a brightly lit staging (Nov. 17 _18).
Even before a single note of the inaugural edition of White Light has been played, many of the world's top artists are clamoring to add their voices to this unique and invigorating vision.
"We've already have an impressive number of artists lined up for the 2011 edition of the Festival," observes, Moss, "all of them hugely enthusiastic about the concept and eager to be part of it."