Revisiting One Body for Today
“And I speak of the goddess
I speak of the goddess
I speak of the beautiful goddess
O tell them what I would say…”
The One Body of Gaia
When my piece One Body premiered in 1998, I hoped that it would have societal resonance then, and I hope that even more so today. These were the program notes for its premiere on the Interpretations Series at Merkin Hall in New York:
“In recent years, the work of ecobiologists such as James Lovelock have helped foster a view of the Earth as a single living entity, Gaia, ‘self-regulating and endowed with faculties and powers far beyond those of its constituent parts’. This scientific point of view complements the spiritual perspectives from many cultures and times, and offers the possibility of reinvigorating in contemporary culture a sacramental view of life. As one who shares this sensibility, I sought with One Body to express not only the spiritual dimensions of this notion, but also to address conflicting cultural conditioning, such as stereotypes of gender, division by species, and the fallacy of ‘race’. I also wanted to unite a collection of texts by multiple authors, a modern liturgy of secular humanism which joins spirituality with intellectual freedom. The five movements of One Body are connected without break. Within these movements are instrumental interludes which serve as reflections or prayers: a viola solo (speaking to difference and ambiguity), cello solo (to the soul, anima), percussion duo (to the Earth), violin duo (to the great mysteries), and string quartet (to love and the ancestors).”
Two decades later, I am heartened to see the Gaian perspective circulate more widely, and to see it so brilliantly evoked in books such as Richard Powers’ Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Overstory. And the three socio-cultural default narratives which I hoped could begin to be dismantled – the gender binary, the construct of race-ism, and the othering of fellow living creatures and animals – are all now primary topics of cultural discourse. And there is a method to the “libretto” as well, in bringing together the words of multiple authors as “one body”, representing a collective body of thought. A body of humanity whose interconnectedness has been profoundly underscored by the COVID-19 pandemic.
I continue to believe that the Gaian viewpoint of our interconnectivity is a means to address the climate change crisis and the human relationship with Earth, as well as the divisive racial constructs which are the root of social inequality and division. I continue to assert that it takes a leap of spiritual fortitude that surpasses both religion and secular modernist constructs of social alliance, to activate a perspective that is foundational to a human revolution built upon generosity and interdependence.
After the One Body premiere, my composer friends in attendance (who I did not write it for) had almost nothing to say, apart from a cautious critique of the musical technique. If I used diatonic harmony as visual art minimalists used primary colors, as a means to focus listeners on something beyond or within rich saturation, isn’t that a technique? Isn’t it obvious that the use of one singer, the marvelous Bruce Rameker (and more recently in 2019, the amazing interpretation by Timur in Los Angeles), using both baritone and countertenor voices, is not a musical effect, but is an invocation of shapeshifting? When I write “the common visage of animals”, can it be seen that animals (and the fishes, and the insects, with variation!) have a common face – with two eyes, a nose with two nostrils, a mouth, and two ears? Are we really so different? Might we hear the words of Joy Harjo, who in Eagle Poem describes opening our ourselves to all of life: “And know there is more, that you can’t see, can’t hear, can’t know…”?
In the last 100 years, we have wildly developed every technical parameter of music. I am interested in how those technical developments can be positioned to refocus ourselves on the emotional parameter of music. Values, like art, can be created. I believe in the social function of music, and in music whose experimental integrity, either explicitly or abstractly, is directed to audiences of all kinds, rather than a subculture of fellow practitioners. John Cage liked to say (borrowing from Ananda Coomaraswammy), ‘It is the responsibility of the artist to imitate nature in its manner of operation.’ Well, nature’s generosity serves us all, and shouldn’t art strive the same way?
Maybe it is a feckless assumption on my part to intend music as having a message. But the Earth messages us in everything it does (and she is now yelling pretty vociferously), and to me, making music this way is my attempt to amplify the creativity of the natural world, as well as human collective consciousness. So if you don’t know this piece, I hope that One Body will resonate with you in 2022. It owes whatever value it might hold to the beautiful poems and words that express reverence for our connectedness, and it was my intent to write music that offered a conduit for the seemingly endangered ideas in these beautiful words. Though it is one body, all of the movements and instrumental interludes can be performed by themselves.
Thank you for listening.
“Sometimes in the course of human events, something so extraordinary happens that you want life to stop – just for an instant, while you savor the moment. At Spoleto’s Music in Time series Monday night, a Recital Hall full of people had to be reminded to continue breathing as John Kennedy presented his ‘One Body’… Amidst all the sound and light and movement of Spoleto, this ‘One Body’ is what I want to hold in my head and heart until next year. Or maybe the year after that...Kennedy has crafted a work of truth and beauty more lasting than even he knows.”
– Charleston Post and Courier, 2000