DANCING WITH GAIA
Composer & Keynote Speaker, 2017
Elizabeth composed original music and delivered a keynote address for the Dancing with Gaia Exhibition, curated by Dr. Megan Clay and hosted by the Institute for Theological Partnerships at the University of Winchester in Hampshire, England.
The exhibition included works from Megan Clay, Silvia Martinez Cano, Christine Kinsey, Jill Coughman, and Annette Esser.
Elizabeth's Keynote address was a lecture on Feminist Theology and the Arts discussing how imagination and art serve important yet often unacknowledged functions in the development of theology.
I compose music to inspire people to reflect upon the meaning of life. I also seek to move listeners into action with my music – be it tapping their feet or advocating for a good cause! Music is a universal language and it communicates truth by touching the heart. I am a composer and an academic; I paint with soundscapes and ideas. For me, the two expressions complement each other. I am delighted that this project has the potential to bring ecofeminist theology to a broader audience through the arts. My composing and writing is often a solitary activity, so I have enjoyed creating with this cohort of artists as we read the same ecofeminist books and articles to inspire our creations.
My musical composition is titled Dancing with Gaia Suite. A suite is a collection of musical movements meant to be played in sequence, and the movements are usually dance pieces. As ecofeminists, we want to dance with the beauty and forces of nature around us, not destroy them. At the same time, the earth is over 4.5 billion years old, and humans have only been here for less than two hundred thousand years, so the chapter of the earth’s life that includes humans is less than one-tenth of one percent! As I composed, I wanted to keep this perspective in mind and I began the suite with the sound of primordial cosmic waters that brought forth the earth and engendered life. Megan Clay’s painting titled Symbiotic provided the visual touchstone for this awareness.
I know there are those who say it is up to humans to save the planet, but I feel we should be careful about the words we choose. We should neither overstate our importance nor obscure our actions. When we say we want to save the planet, we tend to focus on the current ecosystem that supports human life. Gaia has a great capacity for survival, much more than humans do. At the same time, humans have the capacity to do more destruction to the earth now than we ever have before. Ecofeminist theology encourages us to be in right relationship with everything around us, to honor and revere our interconnectedness.
I loved working with our “theological palette” as a way to inspire the music. I was particularly moved by re-reading the seminal work of Rosemary Radford Reuther’s Gaia and God. She turned the wheel of theological insight in an obvious way so that all could see it. She showed us that patriarchal domination is a sin and that patriarchy diminishes life in all it subjugates, women and nature alike. When patriarchy gets justified through a skewed interpretation of our sacred stories, it is a most insidious form of sin. It obscures the liberating and life-giving wisdom of these texts. I wanted the piece to reflect the hope of ecofeminist theology that sees both women and nature struggling yet ultimately triumphant in the dance.
As I began working on the music, I recalled an experience I had many years ago. I was about to move to Maui, Hawaii to assume a faculty post there. I was reflecting upon the creative spirit of the tropical paradise. I was startled when I heard a sound – a deep, low rumbling sound. As I focused on it, the sound was active. I felt like I was experiencing the earth directly, like I was deep in the jungle hearing the decomposition of organic matter as it became new life. It was powerful and overwhelming, yet barely noticeable without deep listening. The enormity and pervasiveness of Gaia has stayed with me ever since.
Dancing with Gaia Suite opens with primordial cosmic waters and a single, low rumbling tone. There is a subtle vacillation from a minor third to a major third as a way to sonically express diminishment and growth. Growth prevails as melody and harmony appear. Rhythm is introduced as the dance with humans, and the percussive instruments include indigenous drums, rain sticks, and other tribal instruments. Later, a solo piano provides a wistful reinterpretation of the triumphant dancing motif. It is the echo of how we dream and what we faintly remember before merging back into the cosmic primordial waters.
I want to thank the organizers of the exhibit for choosing ecofeminism as this year’s theme and for including two of Rosemary Radford Ruether’s works in the theological readings. As many of you know, she recently had a stroke and has lost her ability to speak. In the U.S., we have members of our American Academy of Religion Women’s Caucus who visit her regularly and are devoted to her. While working on this project for the University of Winchester, I have also been creating music for an upcoming film on the foremothers of feminist theology that includes one of the last interviews Rosemary Radford Ruether gave (as well as an interview with Lisa Isherwood!). The film, titled Forging Voice, will debut at the American Academy of Religion conference this fall. I am inspired by the whole of Rosemary Radford Ruether’s life – her works, her person, and even her witness to the frailty of existence. May we, as artists, further the mission of ecofeminist theology as we explore what it reveals about us, each other, and our connection with Earth Gaia. May we all be inspired to live the ecofeminist theological tenets of co-operation, interconnectedness, and regenerative love. May we keep up the dance!