Suzzy & Maggie Roche

Draft #2 of Program Note

by John Limon

At 11:15 AM 4/9/02 -0400, John wrote: This weekend I am going to New York for a Roche sisters concert. Do you know their work? They set to music a bunch of prayers--some original, some traditional--as part of Anna Deveare Smith's Harvard projext; Dickie worked on them, too, and sent me the CD, called Zero Church. I liked it, though I had never heard of the Roche sisters, and sent him an appreciation; he forwarded it to Suzzy Roche, who thought I had said exactly the right things. So I revised the email message as an essay, and it will be in the program at the concerts this weekend. So this is the single big event of my year.

At 11:02 AM 4/9/02 -0400, Elsa wrote: i will order the cd from amazon. say hello to dickie for me. if you send me what you wrote for the program I will put it on my web site!!!!! that wd be sooooo coool. do you have to ask permission from anyone????? nah...... xox.e. see you when school ends.

At 2:50 PM 4/9/02 -0400, John wrote: I agree that putting the program note on your website would be cool, but why would it deserve it? In any case, the concerts are in Brooklyn, at St. Ann's Warehouse, April 12 and April 13 at 8 PM, and April 14 at 4 PM. I think the Roches are bringing a version of the performance to Boston soon. The Brooklyn event is the first public performance of "Zero Church." "Zero Church" refers, by the way, to the actual Cambridge address where Suzzy and Maggie Roche collected these prayers from friends.

The first two questions that Suzzy and Maggie Roche implicitly ask and answer in "Zero Church" are these: can there be non-denominational yet meaningful prayer? can there be prayers for non-believers? Though the second question sounds like a larger and stickier version of the first, you can imagine them coming from antagonists, from truculent theists and abrasive atheists.

The answer to both questions seems to be yes, if you define prayer as any heightened expression of the mutual and inclusive obligations of a community. Pervasively in these prayers, the communal obligations that are called for are two in number: sorrow and gratitude. Sometimes the gratitude is for God's intervention in a scene of sorrow:

thank you for putting your hand in the midst of our trials and tribulations. ("Hallelujah")

Sometimes gratitude in one quarter recalls sorrow in another:

We thank you Lord for having guarded and guided your people of Southern Sudan . . . . I thank you particularly for freeing me from the bondage of slavery . . . . I have suffered greatly, but worse yet, I have seen people of all ages, children murdered right before my eyes. ("Musical Prayer by Francis Bok")

Sometimes the gratitude is for the capacity for sorrow:

I know how to pray I know how to be thankful for God has blessed me with a broken heart and true godly sorrow for sin. ("This Gospel How Precious")

The proper circuiting of these obligations is through God. But it need not be, exclusively, for if gratitude and sorrow are evoked by the Lord who giveth and taketh away, it may be added as a corollary that so does, apparently, everyone else. Thus:

Here's a song for the heroes who were braver than I could ever be love for their families who are grieving but not alone. ("New York City")

In this verse the grief and the gratitude pertain entirely to this world.

The third and most interesting question that Suzzy and Maggie Roche ask and by example answer is: can innocence be made available to smart people? One classic American answer, apparently irrefutable, is that if intelligence is most essentially manifest in the knowledge of good and evil, then intelligent people can no longer be innocent though presumably they can be good.

Of course, these prayers put to music show a perfect awareness of evil: slavery in Sudan, AIDS, Vietnam, the execution of Matthew Shepard, September 11. So it is not obvious how Suzzy and Maggie maintain-or recreate the effect of--innocence. Nevertheless, we can hear that effect recreated, for example, in the middle of the most difficult verse of "Anyway."

You see, in the final analysis, it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway.

The "them" is all the cheaters, doubters, and spoilers who make goodness impractical. Yet the turning away from them to God threatens to be a refocusing of human obligations as exclusively superhuman obligations-it threatens the project of defining prayer as a secular as well as a sacred intention. And so it seems both ingenuous and brilliant when Suzzy and Maggie drop a line into the middle of the verse, a line not in their transcription of the original prayer.

You see, in the final analysis, it is between you and God. Yeah, Yeah, you and God. It was never between you and them anyway.

You have to hear the actual singing of this line to know how childishly insouciant is the interruption and redirecting of transcendent spiritual commitment.

This is an example of subtle innocence, but it does not suggest a general solution to the problem of how to make innocence available to intelligence. Nor do I know the general solution, though I believe it must have something to do with the music, for whatever they are singing, Maggie and Suzzy are unflaggingly intelligent rhythmists, melodists, and harmonists. It may be worth noting that the psychologist Howard Gardner believes that musicality is a discrete type of intelligence; if this is so, then innocence might be relocated not on the near but on the far side of the knowledge of good and evil. It would not be oblivious to evil but could catch it up in sweetness and sadness.

Thus would Emerson, not far from where the Roches collected the prayers of "Zero Church," in a talk that bemoaned the ugliness of prayer in his time, ask: "What now sounds the persuasion, that by its very melody imparadises my heart, and so affirms its own origin in heaven?"

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