Back in 2008 I made a pilgrimage to Iona. Among the books I read in preparation was J. Philip Newell’s The Book of Creation: An Introduction to Celtic Spirituality—still one of my favorites of Newell’s many good books. The trip and the book inspired me to write a cycle of compositions, one for each day of the seven-day creation story. At this point I’ve only finished two of them: Day One and Day Five.
About the Cycle as a Whole
I am trying to compose in a suitable style for each day, and I think this will give me a pretty wide range of musical styles. (Days One and Five are already quite different from each other!) Other aspects of the music lend some underlying unity to the cycle. They are all choral compositions in four parts, a capella. They all open with a common musical tag: a crunchy chord with a suspended fourth. (This is heard in the second measure of Day One, and in the third measure of Day Five.) The lyrics and music are all mine, so although I have attempted to write them in different styles, at a deeper level they speak with the same voice. And they are all written in the first person, as if from God’s perspective in the act of creation.
About “One Needful Thing (Creation, Day One)”
In The Book of Creation, Newell writes:
To say that light is created on the first day is to say that light is at the heart of life. It is the beginning of creation in the sense that it is the essence or centre from which life proceeds. At the heart of all that has life is the light of God. This is a fundamental belief of the Celtic tradition.
St John the Evangelist’s way of putting it is to speak of this light as ‘the light of life’ or ‘the light that enlightens everyone coming into the world’. Nothing has life apart from this light. It dapples through the whole of creation.
The lyric of my composition “One Needful Thing (Creation, Day One)” emphasizes this sense of light at the core of creation.
One Needful Thing (Creation, Day One)
Nothing to see,
Neither light nor darkness,
And no eye seeking.
Nothing to hear,
Neither sound nor silence,
And no voice speaking.
Nothing to taste,
Neither sharp nor mild,
No mouth enfolding.
Nothing to feel,
No sense of touch or absence,
And no hand holding.
One needful thing: let there be light.
I make the light,
I am the light:
Every atom softly shimmering.
One needful thing: let there be feeling.
I hold with love,
I am the loving embrace:
Every atom touching tenderly.
One needful thing: let there be flavor,
I make the flavor,
I am the flavor:
Every atom sweetly savoring.
One needful thing: let there be sound.
I speak the word,
I am the word:
Every atom ever echoing.
All who see, will see me,
All who touch, will touch me,
All who taste, will taste me,
All who hear, will hear me.
I am the light, every one enlightening.
In this lyric, the light isn’t (just) a physical light: visible radiation by itself is irrelevant in a world that, as yet, contains no sun and moon, no objects to reflect light, and no eyes to see it. It seemed to me that light in this part of the creation story is a metaphor, and could as well be sound, or taste, or touch. The “light” suggests all those doors of perception that will connect the as-yet-uncreated creatures to the as-yet-uncreated things they will perceive. As I wrote, I had in mind two blind members of my congregation: I wanted to express the creation of “light” in a way that would be equally accessible to them.
I also wanted to emphasize God’s immanence: God both makes the light, and is the Light. God both creates each door of perception, and is the Door. Thus, to perceive is to perceive God. I wove in additional scriptural allusions with a Celtic focus: not just “Let there be light,” (Gen. 1:3) but also “The Word was God” (John 1:1) and “The true light, which enlightens everyone” (John 1:9). The title and repeated phrase “one needful thing” is also a scriptural allusion (Luke 10:42, in the language of the King James Version).
About “Come To Me (Creation, Day Five)”
In The Book of Creation, Newell writes this reflection on the creatureliness of God:
In the Celtic tradition there is the conviction, as we have noted, that our deepest desire is for the Love that is at the heart of life. It is a desire to see, to hear, to smell, to taste and to touch the One whom we desire. While the essence of God is beyond anything that can be seen or handled, creation is the expression of God. It is the divine embodiment that we may sense and touch in love.
The lyric of my composition “Come To Me (Creation, Day Five)” emphasizes this sensual and God-desiring nature of animal creation:
Come To Me (Creation, Day Five)
I am ready now.
I have set my heart on this.
I summon you:
Come to me!
Bird of the air, I summon thee:
Flap your wings and come to me!
Beast of the earth, I summon thee:
Stomp your feet and come to me!
Fish of the sea, I summon thee:
Shake your fins and come to me!
I shine my light and draw you like a moth to a flame,
I sing the song and send the sound of saying your name.
I pull you to the edge and then I pull a little more,
I light the fuse and spread the news and open up your hidden door.
Now come to me!
I open up a path that you won’t find on the map,
I light the dark and make a spark that bridges your gap.
I dance before my altar and you feel the earth shake,
I touch you and your sun comes up and tells you that you’re wide awake.
Now come to me!
Fly me, whale me, stork me, quail me, hare me, snail me, come to me!
Bear me, bee me, mare me, flea me, manatee me, come to me!
Louse me, mouse me, goat me, stoat me, tick me, chick me, come to me!
Bat me, gnat me, frog me, rat me, dog me, cat me, come to me!
Come to me!
The lyric and the music are in a flamboyant style. I picture God as calling the animals, both into existence and toward God’s self simultaneously. This call is a deep enchantment, a longing that is part of our incarnational being, a magnetism that draws us Godward. Although the idiom of the song is modern, I think it reflects an essentially Celtic understanding of creation: one that it does not equate sensuality with sinfulness.
Here’s sheet music for these two songs. I’ve never recorded them, nor heard them performed. If you perform them, please let me know! I’m making these two available with a free license for non-commercial copying and performance. (See the license information at the bottom of this post.)
I still have only notes for the other five days of creation—and I’m afraid they’re on the back burner now. (But if anyone would like to commission them, by all means give me a call!)
One Needful Thing (Creation, Day One) and Come To Me (Creation, Day Five) by Adam Brooks Webber are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.)