Review: Timeless Quaker Wisdom In Plainsong

Selected, set to music, and recorded by Paulette Meier. Quaker Press of FGC, 2010. 37 minutes. $16.00/CD.

Timeless Quaker Wisdom

The cover of this CD, featuring a photograph of the interior of Stillwater Meeting in Barnesville, Ohio, proclaims a meditative stillness that sets the mood for all we’re going to hear. Meier has adopted plainsong, originally a type of free rhythm, unaccompanied medieval Church music, and to highlight and ponder Quaker quotations that are especially meaningful to her.

“The songs are not quite songs and not quite chants,” she says. “They are prose passages that I put to melody to help me memorize them. The passages are from the writings of the earliest Friends, from which I have found great inspiration and guidance.” There are in all 21 brief quotations, mostly well-loved ones such as George Fox’s “Be still and cool in thy own mind and spirit . . . then thou wilt feel the principle of God. . . .” The passages are mostly from Fox, with some by Margaret Fell, William Penn, James Nayler, Isaac Penington, and others from the 1600s, and a final Woolman quotation, from 1763.

The melody that emerges from each quotation closely follows the rhythms and cadences of natural speech. But beyond its musical creativity, it is the personally lived depths plumbed by each song that gives them such a compelling expressiveness. Meier relates how the songs nurtured her spirit in intensely difficult times and how she felt truly led by the Spirit. She experienced firsthand how her leading was supported and sustained in a community of Friends. It is in her indebtedness to all these Quaker quotations that we hear the profoundly heartfelt quality of her singing.

Meier’s calmly centered and firm voice communicates each piece’s inner meaning; by the second time you hear a song, you begin to realize that the melody could hardly have been otherwise. The songs are not so much a performance as an aid to quiet contemplation, which is why each quotation is sung two or more times. After you’ve laid the CD aside, the next time you read those familiar words about the “ocean of darkness . . . an infinite ocean of light” or “walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone,” they’ll shine with a new freshness, and you can count yourself truly blessed if you hear the melodies ringing in your mind.

The CD is accompanied by an extensive PDF file of the story of the creation of this music, brief biographies of the writers, sources of the quotations, and the biblical reference of each text. There is also an explanation of the four Quaker spiritual themes according to which the songs are arranged, which makes this a valuable first introduction to Quakerism. The score of every song is included as well, and here we see how the rapid succession of musical meters every few measures brings to life the plainsong habit of “no strict meter.” Since the notes reflect the range of Meier’s low voice, they appear mostly at the bottom of the staff and in some songs almost entirely below it.

In presenting these songs to us, Meier expresses gratefulness for being able to “play a small role in spreading the wisdom of early Friends out on the wings of song to the world.” In turn, we can be grateful to her for sharing with us the fruits of this leading that has led to a powerful vocal ministry.

This review appeared in the April 2011 Books column.

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