Notes heard above The Noise of Time

The Noise of TimeI don’t read that much but every now and then I come across something that takes my breath away. Julian Barnes, through his book The Noise of Time, has me intrigued with the noise of time. This is a poetic book that is well crafted and beautifully composed. It tells us the time and the time is telling. It is a short book in which a lot of time is told in a short time. It is a time of terror.

I read this book for the first time at the end of Holy Week, through the three days known as the TriDuum, Maundy Thursday through till Holy Saturday – the short time it took to tell so much of time. I was attentive to the noises of that other time told through three days: the crushing noise of religious and political authority almost overpowering a more faithful and resilient strain.

There are three main characters in The Noise of Time. There’s the “author” who is the one who remembers. There’s Shostakovich, who is the one who hears. And there is the one less than human, Power deformed. Arguably there is a cast of three in the Triduum. There’s the one who remembers (the witnesses), the one who hears (on the cross) and the ones Power deformed (who know not what they do).

Running through my mind while I read this book were lines from a poem by Anna Lightart called The Second Music:

Now I understand that there are two melodies playing,
one below the other, one easier to hear, the other

lower, steady, perhaps more faithful for being less heard
yet always present.

The Noise of Time is a book full of threes – if you like, there are three hands: an hour hand, minute hand and second hand. The three chapters measure three movements: On the LandingOn the Plane and In the Car. 

There are three brands of cigarettes (Kazbeks, Belamors, Herzegovinas). There are three vodka glasses for three vodka drinkers (the perfect number for vodka drinking). There are three wives (Nina, Margarita and Irina). There are three ways to destroy your soul: “by what others did to you, by what others made you do to yourself, and by what you voluntarily chose to do to yourself”. (p.181)

There are three Conversations with Power and there are three leap years twelve years apart from each other (1936, 1948 and 1960). This is the time frame of a crushing history. It is a history which crushes the human spirit and twists arts and artists to the ends of empire, turning them into cowards – which threatened to be a life’s work (being a coward, just to survive).

“It was not easy being a coward. Being a hero was much easier than being a coward. To be a hero, you only had to be brave for a moment – when you took out the gun, threw the bomb, pressed the detonator, did away with the tyrant, and with yourself as well. To be a coward was to embark on a career that lasted a lifetime. You couldn’t ever relax. You had to anticipate the next occasion when you would have to make excuses for yourself, dither, cringe, reacquaint yourself with the taste of rubber boots and the state of your fallen, abject character. Being a coward required pertinacity, persistence, a refusal to change – which made it, in a way, a kind of courage. He smiled to himself and lit another cigarette. The pleasures of irony had not yet deserted him.” (p.171)

Dimitiri Shostakovich was one of the major composers of the twentieth century. I’m no musician but I do know that there are usually four movements to a symphony. That is music’s shape. In his threes, is Barnes describing the way in which totalitarianism deforms truth and beauty? There is the hint of a fourth movement in the opening and closing of the book in epigraph and coda. In these there are the three characters on stage (it’s a station platform). There’s one who remembers, there’s one who hears and there’s one who is a vulgar “half man” (reduced by the noise of time to being less than himself, a mere “technique of survival”. The one who remembered, remembers the vodka and remembers how the one who heard pricked up his ears as he heard the notes of the clinking vodka glasses.

This is what was remembered:

“They were in the middle of Russia, in the middle of a war, in the middle of all kinds of suffering within that war. There was a long station platform, on which the sun had just come up. There was a man, half a man really, wheeling himself along on a trolley, attached to it by a rope threaded through the top of his trousers. The two passengers had a bottle of vodka. They descended from the train. The beggar stopped singing his filthy song. Dimitri Dmitrievich held the bottle, he the glasses. Dimitri Dmitrievich poured vodka into each glass …

He was no barman, and the level of vodka in each glass was slightly different …

But Dimitri Dmitrievich was listening , and hearing as he always did. So when the three glasses with their different levels came together in a single chink, he had smiled, and put his head on one side so that the sunlight flashed briefly off his spectacles, and murmured, “A triad”.

And that was what the one who remembered had remembered. War, fear, poverty, typhus and filth, yet in the middle of it, above it and beneath it and through it all, Dimitri Dmitrievich had heard a perfect triad… a triad put together by three not very clean vodka glasses and their contents was a sound that rang clear of the noise of time, and would outlive everyone and everything. And perhaps, finally, this was all that mattered.” (p.196)

So the tragedy is told in The Noise of Time. There is a lot of time told in a short time. In one moment there is a note of beauty, a sound of music ringing above the noise of time, testimony to the human spirit, crushed, humiliated for so much of the time. There is the sounding of hope.

“Art belongs to everybody and nobody. Art belongs to all time and no time. Art belongs to those who create it and those who savour it. Art no more belongs to the People and the Party than it once belonged to the aristocracy and the patron. Art is the whisper of history, heard above the noise of time.” (p.97)

Playmaking leadership in the eyes and hands of great conductors

Itay Talgam uses the faces of conductors to talk through different leadership styles. On one extreme is the face of Riccardo Muti. He is shown as very commanding and competent. He has the expression of one who is responsible for Mozart. He wants the music to be played his way, the proper way. As competent as he was, 700 music employees of La Scala wrote to him (2005) asking him to resign because, they felt, he was using them as instruments.

Talgam uses the expressions of Herbert von Karajan, Leonard Bernstein and Carlos Kleiber to explore other ways of leading without commanding. In those expressions there is the encouragement for the orchestra to exercise their own responsibility, to express themselves, to add interpretation, to become storytellers themselves. They are expressions that energise their fellow professionals. Kleiber is shown as rejoicing in the play, joining with the orchestra in spreading happiness. Great conductors and leaders are playmakers. Just watch from 19:27 to see leaderful joy.

This happy and blessed state is the product of hard work. There are hours of meticulous practice as the music gets under the skin of the musicians. They are led and lead each other to this ecstasy through the practice of the community, by listening to one another, by responding to each other, by loving each other. They all know their place in the social system and play their responsible part in it, with their abilities, goals and wills, according to the boundaries of the organisation. It’s hard work that works magic.

Conducting has often been used as a metaphor for leadership. The metaphor raises the importance of listening and negotiating the parts we want to play, the level which we want to work together and practice together. It shows the possibilities of engagement and empowerment which dissolves organisational boundaries as play pleases, drawing others in pleasure.

Social capital & a man in a hat

Parker J Palmer (worth following) shared this link from the public square of Sadabell in Spain. Turn the sound up, watch, enjoy.

It made me think ……

Public gathering, public square, ode to joy and delight
brings life to creases in old faces
Hands wring pleasure.
Young hands wielding innocent batons
conduct the mood of the moment
Public gathering background noise
Baby face smiles first music to the ear
Girl scales lamppost entranced
public square
ode to joy. Heaven.

>So beautiful …. so what

>Yesterday’s Fathers’ Day brought new sounds. Laura Marling’s I speak because I can, and Paul Simon’s latest album.

Paul Simon poses the interesting question about life. It can be “so beautiful”, or it can be “so what”. And that is the title of the album. Life is what you make it.

I’m just a rainbow in a bucket a coin dropped in a slot 
I am an empty house on Weed Street
across the road from the vacant lot
You know life is what you make of it
so beautiful or so what.
Ain’t it strange the way we’re ignorant
how we seek out bad advice
how we jigger it and figure it
mistaking value for the price
and play a game with time and love
like a pair of rolling dice.

Elvis Costello has done a review at Huffington Post. It’s all well worth a listen – with great surprises throughout, including Paul singing through excerpts from the Golden Gate Gospel Train recorded in 1938 on the beautiful Love and Blessings, and a sermon from Revd J M Gates (including call and response) from 1941 in Getting Ready for Christmas Day.

Thanks lads. Now for the concert.



Interesting discussion on supervision at yesterday’s training session for those who are going to be “supervising ministers” for newly ordained clergy.

Peter Chantry offered insights from his experience as he looks forward to welcoming a new curate to his Nantwich parish. They safeguard space each week for a supervision session. One hour every Thursday morning. That is impressive. One of the impressive aspects of his presentation – besides his low-tech mind-map handout – was his emphasis on the quality of the relationship and the way that he is obviously facilitating a collaborative/community approach to formation. There is evidently a care-full building of trust for the relationship “centred on loyalty and commitment, characterised by gentleness and honesty, sharing humanity, respecting confidentiality, meeting & praying regularly.” Good stuff.

It begged the question from friend Julian of what supervision is for. Or, what does successful supervision look like?

I wonder. We spend so much time talking about supervision, insisting that it is a good thing – but what is it for? Is it about “seeing things for ourselves”, “seeing through things” (where there were blind spots), and “seeing things through” (sustainability)?

I have been reading John Hull‘s incredibly moving and honest account of the onset of his blindness, Touching the Rock. He refers to the “thousands of tiny accidental happenings” which led him along the path to blindness. According to Hull faith transforms such accidental happenings into the “signs of our destiny”, by “retrovidence” rather than “providence”.

He describes his stumbling on the altar at Iona Abbey during his stay there in 1986, through which he became a WBS a “whole-body-seer”. Here he sees things for himself, sees through his blindness, and discovers how he can see things through. His seeing is full of feeling and emotion as he touches the rock.

Altar at the Iona abbey
Altar at Iona
photo by Calypso Orchid

“After several nights, I discovered the main altar. I had been told about this, and I easily recognised it from the description. It was a single block of marble. Finding one corner, I ran my fingers along the edge, only to find that I could not reach the other. I worked my way along the front and was amazed at its size. The front was carved with hard, cold letters. They stood out baldly, but I could not be bothered reading. The top was as smooth as silk, but how far back did it go? I stretched my arms out over it but could not reach the back. This was incredible. It must have a back somewhere. Pushing myself upon to it, my feet hanging out over the front, I could reach the back. I did this again and again, measuring it with my body, till at last I began to have some idea of its proportions. It was bigger than me and much older. There were several places on the polished surface which were marked with a long, rather irregular indentations, not cracks, but imperfections of some kind. Could it have been dropped? These marks felt like the result of impact. The contrast between the rough depressions and the huge polished areas was extra ordinary. Here was the work of people, grinding this thing, smoothing it to an almost greasy, slightly dusty finish which went slippery when I licked it. Here were these abrasions, something more primitive, the naked heart of the rock.” (P 163).

As a post-script, he writes: “God is many and yet one, and in God there are many worlds yet one. God does not abolish darkness; God is the Lord of both light and darkness. If in God’s light we see light, then in God’s darkness we see darkness. If a journey into light is a journey into God, then a journey into darkness is a journey into God. That is why I go on journeying, not through, but into.” (p165)

PS Simon Marsh has a different slant on this and has an interesting post on teaching the world to listen – with a video of profoundly deaf musician Dame Evelyn Glennie.

Blackbirds and Hock

I am back with Dee Hock this month as I reread his book ‘Birth of the Chaordic Age‘. What a treat that is for me. Dee Hock has spent his life considering these important questions:

  1. Why are organisations, everywhere, whether political, commercial, or social, increasingly unable to manage their affairs?
  2. Why are individuals, everywhere, increasingly in conflict with and alienated from the organisations of which they are part?
  3. Why are society and the biosphere increasingly in disarray?

He contrasts the ways of nature with the ways of institutions. He describes his own childhood discovery of the lack of generosity and respect within institutions by telling the story of a disastrous event in church in which he was scapegoated for the spilling of the communion (and he was not guilty!) He writes:

What is this chasm between how institutions profess to function and how they actually do; between what they claim to do for people and what they actually do to them? What makes people behave in the name of institutions in ways they would never behave in their own name? Church, school, government, business – all the same…. Nothing in nature feels like church or school. There’s no ‘principal’ blackbird pecking away at the rest of the flock. There’s no Super frog telling the others how to croak. There’s no teacher tree lining up the saplings and telling them how to grow….

 Nothing in the early years prepared me for the shock of institutions. With school and church came crushing confinement and unrelenting boredom … It was as though everyone began to shed wholeness and humanity at the door, along with coats and overshoes, and, one by one, to cut the threads of connection to the inner spirit, the world of nature and the humanity of others.

Hock’s response was the creation of VISA for which he is renowned and from which he turned to work on land savaged by over-cropping from a culture of command and control. He translates his learning from nature into his thinking about organisation, and the “birth of the chaordic age”.

Tyranny is tyranny no matter how petty, how well rationalised, how unconscious, or how well intended. It is that to which we have persuaded ourselves for centuries, in thousands of subtle ways, day after day, month after month, year after year. It need not be so, ever. It need not be so now. It cannot be for ever. (p24)

Tyranny’s culture is reversed, nature is respected and chaordic organisation is celebrated as Hock reports that “soil is building as thousands of gophers, mice and moles work assiduously carrying grass underground and dirt to the surface. Beneath us, billions of worms, ants, beetles, and other creatures till the soil round the clock. Trillions of microscopic creatures live, eat, excrete and die beneath my feet, fulfilling their destiny and mine as well, just as surely I fulfil theirs.” (p21)

Slow is Beautiful


John Cage wrote a piece of music called “As Slow as Possible” in 1985. He didn’t give instructions about how long it should ask but envisaged it lasting 30 minutes. It is being played on a church organ in Halberstadt, Germany – and the piece is lasting 639 years! The concert began in 2001 and will end in 2640. The note changed last week and the next change is on July 5th 2010. Several people have made noted in their diary to remind themselves to be there for this notable change.

This is a fascinating project. It depends on orchestrating the different generations. In a world shaped by Jeremy Clarkson, speed and power – at a time when the desire to earn a fast buck has undermined our financial systems like never before – the concert invites us to entertain the idea that “slow is beautiful”. We’re used to thinking about colour setting the tone for a room – but here a note is setting the tone for 18 months at a time. What if it’s a discord? What if it’s spooky? What will that do to the room? Here’s the score and today’s sound!

I’m coming to the end of a chapter of my life before beginning something new. After 15 years in one place means a change of note, or a change of key is long overdue. But it makes me think – maybe I’ve added one note, or two notes to the symphony lived by our parish community. There has been the odd discord and the occasional harmonising, and in the long course of history that recognises us as a grain of sand, one note is perhaps enough to raise the tone.


Everyone seems very excited about the prospect of Hallelujah being the Christmas number 1 – with X Factor winner Alexandra – or is Hallelujah going to be number 1 and 2. It is if the campaign of the facebook Jeff Buckley for Xmas No 1 (backed by Edith Bowman and Colin Murray) works.

It is indeed a beautiful song. Opinion seems to be going with John Cale’s version and Jeff Buckley’s being the best, but I like Allison Crowe’s as well. Leonard’s own version too is brilliant but has taken on a life of its own.

What is not clear is what the song means. For me, it’s definitely not a straight “praise” song inspite of all the “Hallelujahs”. That it seemed such an appropriate end to the X Factor series – and an appropriate “victory song” for Alexandra to sing back up what I see Leonard Cohen alluding to. Using Old Testament references to David, Bathsehba and Delilah, Cohen puts the praise response of Hallelujah on the lips and loin of pleasure – as well the hearts and minds of worship, and that when we come face to face with God we will have to trust that he will accept our “broken hallelujahs”.

Here are the lyrics anyway – see what you think.


>Today’s a day to think about those people in Zimbabwe who can envisage a far better future than anything on offer from Mugabe – in other words – the majority. The fresh vision of Freshlyground’s song struck home powerfully this morning –
as did these words from Desmond Tutu:

“There is no neutrality in a situation of injustice and oppression. If you say you are neutral, you are a liar, for you have already taken sides with the powerful. Our God is not a neutral God. We have a God who does take sides. . . who will not let us forget the widow and the orphan.”