Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Seance Concert 1: Walk in Beauty

At the corner of Washington and Lyon Streets, on the cusp of the two wealthy neighborhoods of Pacific Heights and Presidio Heights, stands the Swedenborgian Church and its garden.

The small, beautiful church dates from 1895, according to a brilliant essay by James Lawrence, a former pastor of the church. "Founding pastor Rev. Joseph Worcester sketched the original schema and then brought together in an historic collaboration architects A. Page Brown, A.C. Schweinfurth, and Bernard Maybeck, and artists Bruce Porter and William Keith to produce a new expression in religious architecture."

Along with a number of other people, I spent all of Saturday from 10AM to 11PM, working on a fundraiser for the Other Minds Music Festival. It consisted of three separate classical music concerts, starting at 2PM and ending at 10:30PM, that were billed as a "New Music Seance."

The major bulk of the programs were solo piano pieces being played in a tour-de-force marathon by the local pianist Sarah Cahill. Half of the pieces were by deceased "maverick" composers of the 20th century such as Charles Ives, Henry Cowell, Leo Ornstein, Erik Satie, Ruth Crawford, Alexander Scriabin, Lou Harrison and John Cage, and the other half were by living composers who were being presented as their successors.

The match between the musical program and the Transcendentalist Swedenborgian movement, with its Arts and Crafts Movement church, turned out to be serendipitous and everyone who attended the concert could feel it.

In the program, the pianist Sarah Cahill acknowledged her inspiration for these concerts:
"I would like to send special thanks to Helene Brewer, who attended this Swedenborgian Church in 1910, at the age of three. It was she who suggested we explore this setting for the new music seance. Now 98, Helene Brewer is a scholar of Transcendentalism, and with her passion for Emerson and Ives, her adventurous tastes in new music, and her teachings about Transcendentalist writers, she is a constant inspiration."

Emanuel Swedenborg was a Swedish "scientist, philosopher and mystic" according to Wikipedia (click here for the full article) and lived from 1688-1772. The list of his admirers over the centuries is bizarrely impressive: Emerson, William Blake, Johnny Appleseed, Yeats, Carl Jung, Helen Keller and Jorge Luis Borges, among many others.

From the Lawrence essay:
"A group of Stanford researchers put together a massive data program to see if the computer could reasonably calculate the IQ of history's great minds. The test places three titans in a fuzzy tie for first place: John Stuart Mill, Goethe, and Emanuel Swedenborg...While devoting most of his career to the development of Sweden's mining industry, Swedenborg racked up an amazing list of additional accomplishments. In the natural sciences alone, for example, he formulated an atomic theory of matter, was the first to correctly identify the function of the cerebral cortex and the ductless glands, introduced the first Swedish textbooks on algebra and calculus, founded the science of crystallography, and designed and oversaw the construction of what is still the world's largest drydock. Other more personal accomplishments such as playing the organ and speaking nine languages also clearly point to the prophet's broad intellectual genius."

"Throughout Swedenborg's single-minded quest for knowledge, one consideration overrode all else: his search for God. Moving generally from the world outside to the world inside, Swedenborg was convinced that the Divine could be approached and discovered through a naturalistic scientific process.

After 25 years of this searching, he concentrated all his efforts on one final locus of meaning in the physical universe: the human body. He believed that if human anatomy was analyzed closely enough, the location of the soul could be determined...And he did find the soul, but not quite in the way he expected."

"At this point, he was a middle-aged bachelor scientist, arguably Europe's most brilliant thinker, investing the totality of his creative energy into discovering the actual location of the soul and thereby coming face to face with God. As he pressed further into contemplations upon human anatomy, his inner life erupted with dreams and visions that led him into an intense and meticulous personal introspection.

This year-long process culminated in a Christ vision of such extraordinary power that it changed Swedenborg's life in two dramatic ways. In his outer life, he dropped his former scientific pursuits for the writing and articulation of a spiritual understanding of life. His inner life underwent an unprecedented series of paranormal experiences that left him with an idiomatic capacity of second sight, unique in the annals of psychic phenomena."

"Swedenborg claimed continuous access to the spiritual realm, and in this highly clairvoyant and clairaudient state, he penned thirty volumes in which he explained the nature of life as perceived from his remarkable vantage point.

While traversing new spaces, he retained his careful observational style and scientific focus. Swedenborg retained his sanity during this phase. Although resigned from all duties associated with the mines, he made his most solid civic contributions after intromission into the spiritual realm."

Also in the Lawrence essay is a history of the church based on Swedenborg's writings that is fascinating, particularly the split in North America:
"The core issue in which all splinter issues were rooted involved the authority of Swedenborg. By the time the split was complete in 1890, Swedenborg had been dead for more than a century, and many prominent people in the church were cross-pollinating Swedenborgian ideas with much of the rest of the exciting intellectual climate of the nineteenth century.

Swedenborg wrote with tremendous conviction and spiritual authority; many of his serious students felt the need for strict adherence to his writings. In other words, a battle royal shaped over the infallibility of Swedenborg."

"From the Pennsylvania region, the Academy Movement sounded the call to arms for complete fidelity to Swedenborg. The many Swedenborgians repulsed by this attitude congealed geographically and spiritually around the Boston Swedenborgians. A century later, the Pennsylvania and Boston power centers still exist, and the two movements have experienced a stormy relationship. The two North American sects have since evolved into classical portrayals of the age-old tension in exoteric religion between the purist and eclectic tendencies of the human spirit. As is true in almost all branches of all great world faiths, the conservative movement is today stronger and larger than its liberal step-sibling."

The San Francisco church has a great little website (click here) depicting its history which includes this appreciation for the original pastor who was a close friend of the naturalist John Muir:
"Worcester drew up the plans for the church himself. He "had his notion that the way to the door should lead through a garden in which the grass should be ever green, in which the first roses should bloom, in which the birds should gather to bath[e] at a fountain, in which the vines should start on their clinging course, holding fast to the bricks of the church, as the men and women should hold fast to the Bible. He pictured a church interior in which there should be no pretense, no plaster, no paint. He saw the heavy, timbered roof supported by great trees cut from the forest and the thick walls of concrete." (San Francisco Examiner, September 30, 1895) According to legend, Worcester himself went into the Santa Cruz mountains and selected the eight Madrone trees that support the roof."

"Worcester's architect, Page Brown, reportedly criticized his plans severely, especially perhaps the idea of leaving the bark on the interior beams. He reportedly expostulated to his theological client that, "This is not architecture!"-- to which Worcester made his now legendary reply: "I care nothing for the canons of architecture. The building must teach its lessons." When later told of the incident, Brown's chief architect responded, yes, he knew it was not architecture. It was, moreover, the poetry of architecture. According to Charles Keeler, one of Maybeck's closest friends, the budding young architect was deeply affected by his encounter with the gentle minister's ability to create wonderful feelings in his architectural endeavors and that Maybeck's own ideas were forever changed after seeing Worcester's Piedmont house in the early Eighties."

As it turned out, the small, historic church could not have been any more perfect for a Transcendental Musical Seance.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wow--what a lot of different minds came together to make that church. Next time I'm in San Francisco (I visit once or twice a year) I want to visit it. Bark on the beams--how Muirean!