Jeffrey Thomas led an ensemble of ABS musicians in a special performance at The True Cost of American Food Conference at the Fort Mason Center in San Francisco last Friday night. At the invitation of Bishop Marc Andrus from the Episcopal Diocese of California, Thomas and ABS performed on the opening night of the three-day conference, which was hosted by Patrick Holden, the Chief Executive of the Sustainable Food Trust and advisor to Prince Charles of Wales on issues of sustainability. The conference brought together luminaries of the environmentally responsible agriculture movement to present and share their expertise about the economics of food production and the hidden costs of seemingly inexpensive foods. Exploring how methods of food production can take a heavy toll on the environment and health care costs, the conference spurred the dialogue about sustainable food production and consumption.
One significant inspiration for conference attendees was Johann Sebastian Bach. Sitting on a panel with Holden, Andrus, and Sustainable Food Alliance director Owsley Brown III, Thomas pointed to Bach as an eighteenth-century model of civic responsibility. Following the panel, Thomas conducted eleven ABS musicians in an all-Bach program:
Concerto in D Minor for 2 Violins, BWV 1043
Noah Strick & Katherine Kyme, violin soloists
Sinfonia, BWV 156
Brandon Labadie, oboe soloist
Dances from Orchestral Suite No. 1 in C Major, BWV 1066
“The event was quite eye-opening simply from hearing all the planet conscious people speaking,” said violoncellist Andrés Vera, “We as musicians need to be more involved with solving climate change and seeing the connection between food, climate, and music.” Violinist Daria D’Andrea commented, “I was struck by a statement made by one of the panelists from Sustainable Food Action that it has been a struggle to raise awareness about the plight of food workers, even among foodies and those who are very concerned with the ecological impacts of how their food is sourced and produced. I’ve found myself talking to friends and family about this ever since.” D’Andrea also observed the impact of the music on conference goers,”Our performance was truly welcomed by the audience. Several people remarked to me on the beauty of the music and how it had lifted and refreshed them at the end of what had been a long conference day packed with information. I think it gave the audience a much-needed moment to reflect and let the miracle of Bach waft over their exhausted minds.”
After the ABS performance, the musicians joined the conference organizers for a meal at Greens, a restaurant in the Fort Mason Center that has been a model of sustainability and the “slow food” movement for 38 years. It was an honor for the musicians of ABS to participate in this important event and share the inspiring music of J.S. Bach. It was also a pleasure for them to enjoy a meal with this group of visionaries who are thinking about tomorrow today.
Jeffrey Thomas’s remarks about J.S. Bach during the panel discussion:
Bach seems to have powerfully understood concepts of order and functionality in his world. As an extremely devout Lutheran – and one who certainly considered himself as much, if not more, a theologian as a composer – his spiritual sensibilities always became focused, and worked themselves out, in his music.
So he would pour himself into that powerfully expressive rhetoric that he developed and cultivated, whereby he really stood by the undeniability of cause and effect, in particular the cause-and-effect nature of his music. He expressed this belief that he had in his ability to reach people, to connect with his congregants, through a certain way of teaching his listeners to learn both how his music proceeded through a movement or section—by way of repeating elements of melody or harmony so that they would come to expect their return—and by gently teaching them how particular musical gestures, or affects, were meant to move them and instill in their minds very particular points of dogma and principles of living.
Another of Bach’s sensibilities was his awareness of the “order” of his and others’ lives back then. This was evidenced by his appreciation for service and even subservience at the various courts that employed him, representing another kind of responsibility of behavior that he did not find oppressive, but rather holistic and quite natural. He manifested his understanding of that by constantly organizing his compositions, from measure to measure, from section to section, in ways that were very highly structured, methodical, and hierarchical. And quite often he used the technique of musical canon—when one melody is begun in different parts successively—to represent both the need to “follow” the teachings of a theology, and the truthfulness of those teachings. The word canon in German, just as in English, means both this musical device, and of course rules, principles, and law.
Additionally, he sought with great conviction to preserve various heritages, whether of the compositional styles of his forebears or the heritage of religious devotion, not wanting to give way to various aspects of the Age of Enlightenment that were breaking through the doors of his world: for example, the simplification of high art, and industrialization and its repercussion of the loss of individual responsibility.
So, in these ways, he was a preservationist. He understood and even chose to represent concepts of societal and cultural ecology and balance.
Times were difficult in his era. There was great poverty, hunger, and disease. But his faith, his undying and relentless faith, was the very thing that prevented him from succumbing to discouragement. He shows this to us in his compositions by his constant inclusion of dance music, dance forms and structures, even in some of the most emotionally gripping moments of sadness that are found in some of his church cantatas and, of course, in his great settings of the St. Matthew and St. John Passions. Arias sung at some of the darkest moments are actually, and not-so-subtly, slow dances: perhaps a Siciliana or a Sarabande. It’s worth noting that dances and dance forms are the most formally defined kinds of music; they must adhere to rules of tempo, meter, weight, and feeling. Again, Bach shows us his great valuation of order, appropriateness, and adherence to right principles. To Bach’s listeners, it is the worldliness of the dance, as Bach utilized it in his music, that tethers spiritual enlightenment to our dance-capable human forms.
For more information about the True Cost of American Food conference, please visit their website.