The sound of a woman's voice

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By Burns Davis

There are occasions when a voice is heard above the common noise of our lives. Locally there is an artist lifting up her songs for us in the sound of a woman’s voice.

The story told in Connie Backus-Yoder’s oratorio, “The Care of Eagle’s Wings: The Life of Jesus Christ as Seen Through His Mother Mary’s Eyes,” is written from a Christian orientation, yet it contains essences of Judaism, pantheism and Eastern philosophies. The strength of belief that sustains humankind through our efforts to evolve, our desire for continuity in tradition, and the motivation to improve through essential change appear in this composition.

The action of this piece is recounted from a woman’s perspective, and the musical vehicle showcases women’s voices. The musical structure utilizes vocal solos and choruses with flute and organ accompaniment alternating with narratives. Its strength is in the evocative vocal lines written predominantly for women’s voices. The musical construction incorporates traditional western elements with contemporary harmonies and rhythms. The concluding organ solo, “Forgotten Monastery,” mysteriously summarizes the emotions of the story in sound.

The work arose from the rich metaphysical depth within the Lincoln, Neb.’s composer’s imagination. Interviewing Connie Backus-Yoder revealed a musician who bravely offers her personal spiritual experience in music propelled from her by the strength of her beliefs. Music is so important to her that she dares to lay herself open before her listeners in simple clarity. There are no sophisticated devices of technical virtuosity in this work that might impress us as listeners into distraction from the composer’s message. She hides nothing. Although Backus-Yoder is an artist who creates in other artistic forms, the medium of sound was chosen because the composer felt music is the art that best conveys her message.

To achieve the artlessness of this oratorio, the composer spent years studying, digesting her life experiences in probing self-examination. Aspects of her life events relate directly to the oratorio. Her academic background, musical training, divorce and motherhood shape what will be heard in this composition.

Conversation with Backus-Yoder quickly uncovers the felt depth of experience in which she creates. Her imperative need to know her own soul and to find expression of her spirit push her forward, regardless of blocks in the path. The urge to contribute impels her to speak out ,despite any self-doubt or mundane obstacles. Her explanation of what shapes her creations is eagerly articulated by her in excited bursts of words.

Backus-Yoder finished college with degrees in anthropology and religion. In her studies, she searched for common cross-cultural threads of the Eve legend about the son who would be the savior. The son who would reconcile humanity with God. The artist wondered, “Who is this God of revelation? Who cares about humankind? How did s/he [the deity] reveal themselves?”

She found there is an underlying inimical unity across religions and cultures. It appeared to her that there always is a tendency towards humans expressing themselves antagonistically with greed and with opposition. For example, this tendency can be seen as we versus they or power versus no power. However, there also is another force directed toward helping humans move toward spirituality to overcome the negative. Her belief is that likewise in religion, there are forces that want to keep us boxed in. These constrictions oppose other spiritual factors that try to liberate us and lead us toward caring for each other. She looks for examples of these counteracting forces in her own life and the life of Mary.

Persevering through troubles in her life helped the composer to appreciate what Mary of Nazareth might have experienced as the mother of Jesus. Backus-Yoder empathizes with her subject through her grief experienced as a survivor of an abusive marriage and the loss of her first two children. Her Christian faith was renewed when her youngest son was a child. She had a God-given vision of what a mother should be, and she tried to follow that model. Her idea that motherhood is important affects every line of Mary’s narrative in the oratorio. Backus-Yoder’s life and academic experiences connect her to her creation.

The composer’s deep intimacy with her subject in “The Care of Eagle’s Wings” propels the music from the opening to the ethereally evocative close. In its several movements, she dissects womanhood—what it is to be a woman, a mother and a person of faith—to reach the meaning of sustainment through spirituality. The oratorio is a revised look at well-known stories of relationships within ourselves, our families and our communities. To catch listeners’ interest and link with their daily lives, the oratorio narrates Mary’s relationships with God, her son, Sarah her cousin, the community and her family. Mary experienced wonderment in her faith, trust and concept of God. Her reverence of God as her son and in her son collects the listeners as participants in an adventure of sacred awe.

Backus-Yoder feels she taps into the “universal stream of creativity” when she works. In Backus-Yoder’s view, the artist reaches into this stream, pulls down useful elements and brings them onto the physical plane of reality. The theme of the “Stabat Mater,” for example, in “The Care of Eagle’s Wings” comes from this source. On the other hand, in the “Introit,” she worked in another way, asking, “What is my soul trying to say about this subject?”

Creative inspiration, according to Backus-Yoder, also has to do with prophecy. According to her observation, scripture says, “the spirit of prophecy is subject to the prophet.” Therefore, she asks herself what she has to say spiritually. She often discovers this in her journal writing. Backus-Yoder loves journaling, which she describes as “pouring out her heart to God.”

Composing music is a little different. She needs to express herself in music because she must. She describes the need to compose music as a burning in her bones that is painful, and grating. This intense force is relieved by composing music. “It is,” she said, “a mystical process; reaching up to grasp something that was already in existence and making it mine—became mine, yet it isn’t mine.”

In response to a question about how “The Care of Eagle’s Wings” went from a mass for women, the “Literan,” that she started circa 2001, to a Mary-centered oratorio, Backus-Yoder talked about her inner voice. She explained that there is a musical sound that she can hear in her mind. In addition, she had a message. She looked at what she had composed so far, seeking what would fit in musically with what she had to say about the Fall (humanity’s fall from grace with God), the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem and its destruction, Jesus of Nazareth’s teachings and the prophetic tradition. “What was God trying to tell people?” Backus-Yoder asked.

At the time the composer was working on the mass for women was the year after the Sept. 11 Twin Towers destruction. She felt that she had something to express about the ways people harm each other. For her, the vengeful motivation to destroy the towers was similar emotionally to the fearfully hateful crucifixion of Jesus. She wondered if there is an accounting, if there is a judgment for actions of violence committed through misunderstanding.

The composer points out in conversation that dogmatism, fundamentalism and intolerance are destructive. In her perception, we are still violent. We still insist that we are right, but others are wrong. We continue, unchanging, paying no attention to accountability. She realized that Mary of Nazareth’s story communicates something about the way people insist on forcing their religious beliefs on others regardless of hurt. Backus-Yoder feels that Mary wanted to confront the pharisaic attitudes of the social conservatism of her time. In her oratorio, Backus-Yoder implies that we, too, should confront the unbending negative emotions we might hold.

In its directness, “The Care of Eagle’s Wings” is powerfully relevant for anyone, regardless of spiritual orientation, who questions their own assurance or considers where humanity may be going with its social actions. Of women, by a woman, the oratorio personalizes Mary, the mother of Jesus. The listener can sense Mary’s strength and her dilemma between feeling protective and needing to let go of her son. As a woman and a mother, Backus-Yoder identifies with the woman Mary, who was the mother of a special child in a situation that engendered complex feelings. Mary as a woman lived through large challenges and misunderstandings in her community because of this child. The enormous amount of faith this mother needed to navigate the elaborate web of her life is vivid reality to Backus-Yoder.

 

The premiere performance of “The Care of Eagle’s Wings” was given at St. Mark’s on the Campus in Lincoln, Neb., on March 17, 2002. A newly revised production will be performed by choir, vocal soloists, flute and organ at St. Mark’s on the Campus Episcopal Church and Student Center in Lincoln, Neb., on March 21, 2010, at 2:00 p.m. The director is Holly Heffelbower; soloists are Holly Heffelbower, Pippa Lawson, Julia Schlect and Laura Waldman; flautist is Genevieve Randall; organist is Burns Davis. For further information, contact Connie Backus-Yoder at (402) 477-7345 or e-mail cyoder[at]windstream[dot]net.

 

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