On Awe, Loss, and Collaboration

Recently, the New York Times published an article discussing research on why humans experience awe.

Apparently, recent studies show that people who experience awe in their lives tend to act more generously toward others. Psychologists Paul Piff and Dacher Keltner wrote, “We found that awe helps bind us to others, motivating us to act in collaborative ways that enable strong groups and cohesive communities.” In multiple studies, people who reported experiencing awe in their lives, through the beauty of the natural world or through the arts, felt more connected to strangers and therefore gave generously and selflessly.

Prompted by this article, I have found myself thinking a great deal about the nature of awe and how it changes my life. Those of us who make music and attend concerts can point to magical moments we have experienced, where the music swept us into a transcendent space. As a teenager, I remember feeling euphoric joy in a high school choral performance (full disclosure: I was in a show choir. With sequins. And lots of hairspray.). In graduate school, I heard a performance of the Verdi Requiem by the Swedish Radio Choir and Orchestra that remains one of my top musical experiences as a listener, with exquisite pianissimos and thunderous no-holds-barred passion.

In the last couple of weeks, I find myself thinking about awe, gratitude, and generosity in a more personal way. We have been preparing four works with Resonance that fill me with awe, even in rehearsal. Poulenc’s Figure humaine is an incredible masterpiece for six-part double choir – twelve distinct parts in all – that cries out musically about war. Poulenc set powerful poems by Paul Éluard, composing in secret in occupied France and smuggling the work out to be premiered in England. Poulenc described it as an “act of faith to be performed without instrumental aid, by sole means of the human voice.” It is pretty awe-inspiring (an “act of faith” seems to me to create awe!) that the human voice can make such glorious, complex, profound music.

Schoenberg’s Friede auf Erden is a plea for peace on earth. I described it in last night’s rehearsal as Schoenberg’s walking as close to the edge of late Romantic chromaticism as possible without actually jumping off the cliff into atonality. The music sounds like late, late, late Brahms, with yearning chords that mirror the composer’s longing for peace. I hear those soaring chords and feel awe and connectedness with the wondrous singers of Resonance.

The extraordinary tear-jerker on the concert is Lee Hoiby’s Last Letter Home, a setting of an actual letter written by an Iraqi war veteran to be given to his wife and children in the event that he did not make it home alive from the war, which, sadly, he did not. The letter is full of such tenderness and joy, with a final, painful, loving reminder, “don’t forget to smile.”

And I can’t begin to articulate the awe I feel bringing the finale to Vaughan Williams’s Dona nobis pacem to life. Its unbridled optimism shimmers, giving me goosebumps.

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One of the people on this earth who has been most beloved to me was my uncle Danny. Dan Meltzer was a Harvard law professor, legal scholar, and public servant who served in the Obama administration as principal deputy counsel and who believed in leading a generous life. Growing up, I didn’t know those things – I just knew that my goofy uncle Danny took obvious enjoyment in nurturing his children, nieces, and nephews. He made us feel cherished and truly seen. He also had an incredible partnership with my aunt Ellen, and I loved seeing their delight in each other.

Danny loved music. He had a great ear and could play jazz standards in any key. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of classical music; I remember riding around in the car with him when I was a graduate student in Boston a decade ago, and he knew the composer and opus number of obscure string quartets on the radio that I could only guess at. He was very supportive of my musical and academic career and always asked questions (the legal scholar coming to the fore) about rehearsal process, music history, Resonance, and Lewis & Clark.

Danny passed away on May 24 after a battle with cancer. He was only 63. I feel sad for all of us who loved him, most especially his wife Ellen and their sons, Josh and Jonathan. But again, I find myself thinking of awe.

Danny’s career is one that could be said to fill people with awe. But in the end, I think he would say that that isn’t the type of awe that matters. What matters is finding experiences, and relationships, that make awe a part of your life. Danny lived that kind of life. That delight he radiated when he was with my aunt Ellen, or his boys, or his baby granddaughter, or yes, discussing a complex legal issue, was the visible manifestation of his awe at his beautiful life. He found awe in musical experiences, too.

To return to the studies that so captured my imagination, Danny’s awe may have been part of the reason for his generosity. He was a generous friend to all, and certainly to this grateful niece.

So, amidst feelings of grief, I am experiencing gratitude for being able to make music and for knowing my loving, generous, awe-inspiring uncle. And I understand better the ways this awe transforms us and makes us want to be better, more generous people who collaborate lovingly with others.

Daniel J. Meltzer, 1951 - 2015 Kathy's awe-inspiring uncle

Daniel J. Meltzer, 1951 - 2015
Kathy's awe-inspiring uncle