The Sound of Stillness

Christopher Theofanidis

. . . . “Burnt Norton” explores the contrast between time and eternity, often contemplating how past and future are apprehended in the present moment. “At the still point of the turning world,” Eliot writes, “ . . . there the dance is . . .”

In his composition Theofanidis (photo) tries to capture this paradox, this blend of stasis and energy. For Eliot this was a moment when there is “neither arrest nor movement.” It is a moment beyond time. Classical music critic Ted Libby, a commentator for National Public Radio and the New York Times, describes Teofanidis's efforts to create an elongated still point in music by taking a single violin note and “attenuating it to the point” where it is “barely audible and sustaining it.” That, Libby claims, creates a “marvelous effect,” as “your ear is completely captured and you are waiting for what is going to happen next," usually a new motif on piano or cello. Winner of multiple prizes—such as Guggenheim, Ives, Fulbright, and Tanglewood awards—Theofanidis has worked with prestigious orchestras around the world, earning a Grammy nomination for an orchestral work based on the poetry of Rumi. But Libby argues that "At the Still Point" brings the composer to “an entirely different level” and a “new plateau of coherence.”

At times, Eliot thought of poetry as melodic, although he rejected “sonatas” as a title for his poetic sequence since it was “too musical.” Four Quartets is, in many ways, a collage of parts seeking coherence. Written in 1939, “Burnt Norton” was not originally conceived as part of a poetic series, but rather grew out of some of the lines that Eliot cut from his verse play Murder in the Cathedral. The title refers to an English manor house in the Cotswolds, previously damaged by fire. The gardens at the estate—evoking nature, childhood wonder, and tranquility—contrast the technological furor and haste of urban London. In 1944, Eliot blended “Burnt Norton” with three other poems, full of further meditations on time and redemption, echoing both childhood memories and the reverberations of World War II. Theofanidis uses a passage from each of the quartets as a preface to the next movement of his piece. (Along with Theofanidis's work, the musicians will perform Olivier Messiaen's "Quator pour la Fin du Temps.")

Autumn QU4RTETSThe two painters featured in the exhibit—Makoto Fujimura and Bruce Herman—also emphasize Eliot’s “still point.” According to the artists, Eliot’s vision “all hinges upon the ‘still point’ where the human experience of time evokes wonder, fear and longing for continuance and redemption, and where Christ's presence is the pivotal point for the entire Creation.” Those themes of time and redemption are discussed in Through Your Eyes: Dialogues on the Paintings of Bruce Herman, a new book by Westmont trustee Walter Hansen. For instance, Hansen sees the interplay between human time and the eternal in Herman's painting "Autumn" (left). The canvas, which responds to Eliot's third quartet, brings to mind Eliot's lines about the "sullen, untamed and intractable" Mississippi that often flooded its banks during the poet's childhood in Missouri, even as it conveys Herman's response to his own natural environs on Cape Ann. According to Hansen, the clothing on the woman implies a "river within"—a single human moment—surrounded by a flood of time. The leafless tree is barren and motionless, an image of permanence that paradoxically suggests the passing of a single season. It is a glimpse of peace and vulnerability, of faith and longing.

Herman and Fujimura will discuss their artistic responses to Eliot’s Four Quartets during chapel on Wednesday, October 23, with Herman speaking the next day at Faculty Forum. Hansen and Herman will sign copies of Through Your Eyes on Friday, October 25, from 11:00-11:30 in the Museum.

The English Department has planned other events to complement the exhibit, including a marathon reading of Eliot’s poetry on November 2, which will cover not only Four Quartets but also The Waste Land, Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, and several other selections. And on November 6 at 4:00 pm in the Museum, Randy VanderMey and Kathryn Artuso will offer some scholarly papers on Four Quartets.