Wellsprings of Life: Quaker Wisdom in Chant

By Paulette Meier. Self-released (paulettemeier.com), 2020. 19 tracks. $15/CD; $10/digital download.

After ten years, Quaker vocalist Paulette Meier is back, again inviting us to share—this time with refreshingly increased confidence—in her unique ministry. In 2010 she released her album Timeless Quaker Wisdom in Plainsong, with 21 well-known Quaker quotes sung in a chanting style. This new album offers an additional 19 quotes, and the time span has been broadened to reach up to the present. The front of the jacket features a beautifully inviting photo of George Fox’s Pendle Hill.

In her words to the listener, Meier reminds us how the chants she has developed caused her to become increasingly conscious of the power of chanting as a spiritual practice, as well as her experience that this was a way to “hold them close to my heart.” In the time since her 2010 album, her ministry has come increasingly to the attention of Friends. Meier has sung these chants at many meetings besides her own monthly and yearly meetings.

This is by no means all that has filled those ten years. She developed a collaboration with Cynthia Bourgeault, Episcopal priest and teacher of contemplation, who follows an ancient tradition envisioning Jesus as Wisdom Teacher, emphasizing the path of inner spiritual transformation more than the Redeemer doctrine of mainstream Christianity. This is so strikingly close to the Quaker view of the transformative power of the Light of Christ within—strongly evidenced in the chants she selects—that it was not long before the two combined energies in fruitful, mutually enriching activity. As part of Wisdom Schools that Bourgeault teaches, Meier has taught the chants in various places, including at Wisdom Schools at Pendle Hill study center in Wallingford, Pa., in 2015, 2017, and 2019.

Listening to the chanted quotations in this new album, one may notice right away how strongly all the chants follow the natural cadence of speech. Meier’s low alto voice is firm—at moments even bold—and well-placed pauses occur at dramatic points. Each chant is repeated several times, most starting with her solo voice. The style for each is carefully adjusted to its message. Some are slow and meditative (such as “Stillness, deep deep within us” or “No ear can hear, no tongue can utter, no heart can understand”); others have a much livelier pace and reach for wider, bolder musical intervals (such as “The wellsprings of life are bubbling up anew each moment” or “Here is joy, unspeakable joy”). Many of these intervals between notes are at times more subtle than the familiar whole-tone and half-tone ones. Where the words call for it, she does not hesitate to use dotted rhythms, or occasional syncopation. The rhythm of an occasional one, such as “The Lord is stretching forth the arms of everlasting Love,” is so lively and spirited that with its instrumental accompaniment it comes close to resembling a folk song.

A major innovation introduced since her previous album is additional voices singing in harmony.  Meier has done this hoping to inspire more communal chanting as a path toward meditation, an ancient Christian practice. The same is true of the added instrumental accompaniment of some of the chants. Though clearly intended to encourage communal singing as well, this embellishment may not satisfy all listeners, some of whom are no doubt going to prefer the evocative magic of the unaccompanied solo voice with its single melodic line. Her songs inspire us to chant along, and even though the melody, with its unexpected intervals, is far from a familiar one, they are readily enough memorized. When I had listened to them several times, sure enough, I could soon hear the melody ringing in my mind.

We feel the wellsprings of life bubbling up in these words, welling up from deep places within, and when we hear them once again in song, we experience their rise to new levels.

William Shetter is a member of Bloomington (Ind.) Meeting. Three short poems of his appeared recently in the “worship-sharing group in print” What Canst Thou Say?

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