The Spiral – a musical journey

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by Linda J. Chase

Recorded by author

…music connects people across borders and traditions

Teaching music students from around the world has reinforced my belief that music connects people across borders and traditions. It has also shown me the urgent need to not only integrate social justice education into musical arts curriculum, but also to provide artfully relevant methods for students to practice active hope during these turbulent times. 

How can educators address the anxiety and feelings of helplessness that the climate crisis triggers in many young people? Students feel the burden that their generation will have to bear and are hungry to engage in honest dialogue. They are curious to discover how artists are speaking out about environmental justice issues. To educate for social change and inspire action through the arts, it is important to encourage students to respond to concerns using their artistic language. I find that Active Hope by Joanna Macy and Chris Johnston, provides a structure for emerging musicians to grapple with their fears and articulate a vision of hope. This kind of hope is not a possession, but a practice. Just like music, we practice and grow. 

My students at Berklee College of Music and New England Conservatory engage with the Spiral through songwriting, improvisation and other sounding activities. One exercise we do is a musically recreated “Industrial Walk” (a reenactment of ‘industrial society’ and ‘business as usual’ practiced at WTC workshops). This exercise requires participants to mill around the room without looking at one another. Gradually they begin to make eye contact and join with that person for discussion. To practice this musically, students mill around the room playing their instruments (flutes, violins, guitars, and voices) but avoid eye contact with each other and listen only to their own sounds. Eventually they are drawn rhythmically, melodically or harmonically to another musician, and join together for discussion. 

Listening means paying attention.
What can it mean to listen to the Earth?

Listening to Earth’s songs of joy and of suffering has greatly influenced my musical life. Wild geese call, inviting reverence. The river sings of resilience. Uranium mining scrapes trauma on sacred land. Desecration is heard in the dumping of nuclear waste on Indigenous lands, causing dire consequences to all species. Joanna’s work around nuclear guardianship showed me the importance of comprehending and speaking out against the dangers of nuclear catastrophe. 

But being close to disaster makes a difference. On March 11, 2011, I heard the Earth cry out.

Sixty miles from Fukushima during the Great East Japan earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown the train shook to a stop, altering my path forever. We filed out of the derailed train and walked to the next town. The streets were dark without electricity, roads were closed and phones didn’t work. That night, sleeping on the floor of a middle school gym–turned shelter, still feeling many large aftershocks, I took refuge in The Ink Dark Moon, a book of thousand-year-old poems by Izumi Shikibu and Ono no Komachi, translated by Jane Hirshfield and Mariko Aratani. These poems sustained me and led to write music about the resilience of a 400-year old pine tree growing on the coast of Fukushima that survived the tsunami. 

This pine tree by the rock
Must have its memories too
After a thousand years,
See how its branches
Lean towards the ground.
               (Ono no Komachi, in Hirshfield, 1990)

After returning home to Boston, a friend shared the book, Pass It On (Macy, 2010), which helped me process my experience. The chapter on Chernobyl describes a workshop that Joanna and her team led in the town Novozbkov (100 miles from Chernobyl). She wrote about a man who told her, “the trees hold the radioactivity a long time. And that is very hard for us because, you see, our ancestors were of the forest, our old stories are of the forest.” Much can be learned from cultures that look to ancestors for guidance, remembering that we all will be ancestors to future generations, and actions chosen today will affect generations to come. These insights and the exercises from “A Larger View of Time” in Active Hope explained the ancestral connection I felt with the poets from the ancient court of Japan.

Music is my companion
Singing together shows us 
we are not alone

Several years after the earthquake, I was grateful to attend a Work That Reconnects training at the Rowe Center in Western Massachusetts. The conversations from that training deepened my understanding of the Spiral and Joanna’s words remained in my heart, “If we are afraid to feel the grief, rage and fear about our world we become stuck, but can begin with gratefulness and move towards an active hope.” In response, I composed a 90-minute multi-media oratorio The City is Burning. Inspired both by the Spiral, and insights by theologian, Harvey Cox. The music reflects on what it means to listen to the quiet voice of the soul and asks how feelings of uneasiness might invite an awakening from inaction to a place of action. 

Responding to the concept of Honoring Our Pain, this song spilled out with tears for the state of our world. “Lift Me Up” illustrates the process of awakening to respond to injustice through active hope. The tears never end, the spiral continues. 

Lift me up, I’ve been down so long I can’t arise. 
Wake me up, I fell asleep because I chose to close my eyes. 
You promised peace, you promised hope at least so I must start walking to see. 
Shake me up, I wanna hear the voices that cannot speak. 
Take away, my sense of fear that keeps me numb and weak. 
The tears never end but they melt my heart again so we can be the light!
Lift me up, so I can raise my voice and join in the song. 
Wake me up, there’s many ways to make a world where all can belong. 
We can make peace if we decide to be, standing together to be free. 
Shake me up, so I can feel the life all around. 
Take away, what isn’t real so I can hear the sound. 
The song of the land, a music that understands that we can be the light!
Don’t be afraid of your light! (1)

In the performance of The City is Burning, the song, “Just Remember Your Light” is preceded by a reading of this Joanna Macy quote: “Active Hope is not wishful thinking…it is waking up to the beauty of life on whose behalf we can act… The web of life is calling us forth at this time. We’ve come a long way and are here to play our part.” (Joanna Macy)

Seeing with new eyes, the singers step into the aisles. Facing audience, they sing:

You don’t have to be right, you don’t have to be strong. 
You don’t have to know which way to go when the road is long. 
You don’t have to be wise, just keep open your eyes!
You don’t have to know the way, you don’t have to know why.
You don’t have to feel like being brave, in the rising tide.
You don’t have to be wise, just keep open your eyes!
When the nights’ growing long, and you’re feeling so cold.
Just keep singing your song and you won’t be alone.
Just remember your light will keep shining through the darkest of nights.
Just remember your light! (2)

My most recent large scale composition is another oratorio, For Our Common Home – Resounding Ecojustice inspired by the encyclical Laudato Si. Based on a canticle of St. Francis of Assisi, Pope Francis addresses not only people of faith, but everyone on earth, calling on humanity to acknowledge the urgency of the environmental crisis and work toward building a just and sustainable world. The message focuses on working together across all divisions, to mend and care for our common home. Laudato Si’ calls us to be compassionate and to take action – going forth – reminding me again of the Work That Reconnects. I interpret the text as a call to action through music.

Our goal is not to amass information or to satisfy curiosity, but rather to become painfully aware, to dare to turn what is happening to the world into our own personal suffering and thus to discover what each of us can do about it. (Pope Francis, 2015)

One of the 23 movements in my new oratorio is titled, “Gratitude.” While composing this movement, I realized that it had grown from seeds planted by the Spiral years before.  Circling around, I conclude with gratitude.

In gratitude and affirmation
The work of solidarity
The sacrifices taken to heal the suffering
So hate and fear may cease, may cease to be
Who work for justice: root of peace
With tireless devotion build community
Who seek to restore
Resolve the causes of suffering 
Rebuild our common home
Reveal the common soul
In gratitude we speak
Proclaiming equity
Faith is turning dreams to deeds 
The urgency of healing needs
A dialogue for all to speak till all are free (3)

(The last three lines of the song Gratitude refer to famous quotes by Clarence Jordan and Martin Luther King Jr. “Faith is the turning of dreams into deeds,” Clarence Jordan. “We are not free until all are free,” Martin Luther King, Jr.)

Notes & Links

(1) Words and music by Linda J. Chase
Nedelka Prescod, voice, Anna Unchu Pyon, piano

(2) Words and music by Linda J. Chase
Sarah Matsushima, voice, Pavle Zvekik. piano

(3)Words and music by Linda J. Chase
Stuart Ryerse, piano, 
Carduus Chamber Choir
More music from the oratorio:


Hirshfield, J. Aratani, M. (1990) The Ink Dark Moon: Love poems by Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu, Women of the Ancient Court of Japan. Vintage Books.

Macy, J. Johnstone, C. (2012) Active Hope: How to face the mess we’re in without going crazy. New World Library

Pope Francis. (2015) Encyclical on climate change and inequality: On care for our common home. Melville House

Recorded by Rebecca Selove

Composer / flutist Linda J. Chase teaches at Berklee College of Music and New England Conservatory. Her music weaves elements of classical, jazz, and gospel, blending boundaries between musical worlds. Her music often focuses on themes of peace and justice, striving to create art that will have a positive impact in the world. She founded and directs the Peace and Justice Arts Café concert series, joining music students with local communities to invite dialogue and demonstrate the arts as a vehicle for social change. Chase recently completed a 23-movement oratorio for ecojustice, For Our Common Home, based on Laudato Si’.

One thought on “The Spiral – a musical journey

  1. Thank you Linda! I love the idea of musicians milling with their own instruments, only listening to themselves, before they start to meet each other and dialogue. I’m trying to find your oratorio “For Our Common Home” to listen to it. If anyone can tell me where to hear it, I’m interested!

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