Paulette Meier is a member of Community Friends Meeting in Cincinnati, Ohio, part of Ohio Valley Yearly Meeting. She didn’t come from a musical family, but grew up singing Gregorian chant as a young Catholic. Meier has created two albums of chanting to Quaker quotations. The second album, Wellsprings of Life: Quaker Wisdom in Chant, was released this past March (and is reviewed in this issue). Using these chants, Meier has co-led several retreats at Pendle Hill study center in Wallingford, Pa.; the next one is scheduled for May 2021.
Karie Firoozmand: You created your first Quaker album after a series of events in which way opened over time. And this one came about in a different way. Would you tell the story of how?
Paulette Meier: It really got started in 2010 when I discovered the writings of Cynthia Bourgeault, the contemplative Christian Wisdom teacher and Episcopal priest. I was so struck with how much her description of the ancient Wisdom Tradition of early Christianity resonated with early Quaker understandings that I decided to write to her and send her my first album. I wanted her to know about Quakers and Quaker understanding of things. I later discovered she had attended Quaker schools, but had missed the mystical aspects of our faith. She right away wrote back and proposed that we do workshops together, bringing the two “streams” together. After doing a few weekend retreats, in 2017 we did a weeklong “Quaker Wisdom School” at Pendle Hill that included [Quaker teacher] Marcelle Martin. At this gathering and again in 2019 Marcelle provided me with some texts she planned to use and asked me to put them to song, so that there could be more of a conscious weaving of the material with the chanting. That’s the source of most of these new chants.
At that last Quaker Wisdom School, there were about 80 people, including two musicians I’d met at other Wisdom Schools: Nick Weiland and Andrew Breitenberg, who accompanied us with the chanting. Enthusiasm was so great about singing these new Quaker chants together that a proposal was made to start a fundraiser right there and then for me to record a new album. A small group met, including a board member of Northeast Wisdom who quickly arranged administrative support from that organization. There was $4,000 in pledges that week! Bass player Nick offered to be the project manager, and it was clear that he and pianist Andrew would provide instrumentation and harmonies for this new one, after our joyful experience together.
KF: The individual chants are all very evocative, and one example I really like is on the new album. You use the word “move,” which is one syllable when you speak it, but in the chant, it’s got seven or eight notes, which is movement. What is your process for coming up with how it will sound?
PM: You know, Karie, it’s really hard for me to say how I do this. Because it seems like it just comes. It’s like I can pick up something and just sing it. And it seems like there’s something—like in “Stillness,” the word “move” at the end, it just seems like it naturally flows.
On a lot of them, I just sing them as I would hear them spoken, only put to melody instead, so that on certain notes, certain words that would be held out longer—for instance, the word “waiting,” I would hold “wait” longer because we’re waiting.
And when we speak, our voice naturally has inflections. So when those inflections occur naturally, I think I go up on a note, and then come back down—just kind of natural inflections. I don’t know how else to say it. Because I can’t read or write music, there’s not any awareness of any notes that I’m singing at all.
KF: “Meaning rests on the surface, waiting to be grasped, but it also is connected to the absolute that lies deep.” A Friend said this in my own meeting recently; he drew that inspiration from Howard Brinton. It reminded me of your chant about the anchor, about hope. And I thought, not only does this quotation remind me of that chant, it reminds me of how they all affect me. How do they operate in your life?
PM: You know, I think that there’s something about song that allows us to embody words. Certainly, when we sing, we’re using both the right brain and the left brain together. And that’s one reason why song is good for teachers to use in classrooms—because it allows people to remember things better with both sides of the brain engaged.
But there’s that embodiment piece too. I find that sometimes when I’m really worried or disturbed or something, these chants will just kind of come up from the depth and into my brain. And suddenly, it’s like, “Oh, yeah, remember that, Paulette.” It’s a reminder that helps me in the moment. And in that sense it can serve like vocal ministry in my mind. I think when I first was running across these quotes, there were just certain ones that I thought, oh my god, this is just so profound and so profoundly true for today as well. And how many people know this? How many people are aware that these seventeenth-century Quakers said this? And that prompted me to want to memorize them and be able to share it.
The new album is deliberately more chantable. I realized that I could create chants that were much shorter and more intentionally singable. And so the ones on this new album are meant that way more than the first album, that groups of people could easily sing them together. And the added instrumentation helps that as well!
KF: I’m struck by the relevance for today of these quotations. Sometimes it’s just almost too much for me to believe that these words were not written yesterday.
PM: That’s right. I totally agree. Everywhere there’s all this [talk] about the importance of staying present, the present moment, mindfulness. And then we have George Fox in the seventeenth century saying, “Ye have no time but this present time,” which is in a chant on my first album, as well as the one where Fox says, “And may not the Spirit of Christ speak in the female as well as in the male?” You know, it’s so hard to believe that was said in the seventeenth century.
KF: The one that’s provocative for me right now is from the song “Wellsprings of Life” and the image of the angel troubling the waters. This is not the “time to stand on the bank and recite past wonders.” You know? It feels like, “Jump in!” What we’re living through in the world, and especially in the United States right now, seems like it could’ve prompted those words.
PM: That’s from Thomas Kelly, who I think had such a great appreciation for the power of presence and the power of being in the present moment, to experience that presence and to not hold back, to take risks and go deep within. He did not hide from the reality of Nazism, but faced it head on, all while holding on to a deeper reality.
KF: What is your hope for this new album?
PM: I really would like for Quakers to entertain more this notion that this kind of singing together, this chanting, can actually be a spiritual practice. It doesn’t have to be a long, memorized text. And so I feel a little bit like on fire to help Quakers understand that there’s a value in this for our own meetings for worship. Like in so many contemplative traditions, chanting can help open a door to deeper silence.
But also it takes me back to that first year at Pendle Hill, of having this message come to me that I had a role to play in helping Quakerism to be known in the world. And so when I see hundreds of people [at Wisdom Schools] singing these Quaker quotes, none of whom are Quakers, I feel like, wow, you know, this prayer that I had back then, that I had a role to play with Quaker outreach, that it’s coming about in a way I never would have dreamed of through my own song and voice.
KF: It’s deeply inspiring to hear that. It has become a ministry that’s unique, and, although the words come from others, when I listen to you, I feel like the words are coming from you. You didn’t write them, but they’re coming from you to me.
PM: Well, sometimes in meeting for worship I can feel like I’m channeling those words of Quakers from previous centuries. But, in all honesty, it is a journey I am on, to have those words become my own. In sharing them, perhaps I am offering that hope for others as well.