Following Beauty into the desert

Alana Levandoski’s Lenten Reflections on the Music Business

Set against the background of Numbers 10:33-36, 11:1-9 and Mark 6:14-29, Alana offered this reflection for our Wednesday March 23rd Lenten gathering. Speaking with a voice at once powerfully challenging and frankly vulnerable, she challenged us to see both the wilderness and the vocation of the musician in new ways.


hen hearing this narrative about the ark of the covenant it might be difficult for us to imagine being a nomadic people traveling around the desert, with our priests or pastors, carrying this heavy awkward thing that symbolizes God, some 2000 cubits in advance of us as a group. It must have been slow going and seemed rather impractical. Why not just ditch this heavy cumbersome God we carry around with us, we might get through this whole ordeal a lot faster. But the ark was seen as the throne of YAWEH, the Lord over chaos. And they carried it.

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We’ve become a very streamlined culture that strips away anything that doesn’t seem to have practical use. And by “practical use” we all know I really mean an obvious and tangible “return on investment”. Profit making is our top virtue according to a recent study on our society’s values. Why on earth would we bother lugging some ark around with us when reverence has been reduced to a quick glance at an inspirational email we get from one of our favourite writers before we head out to do real and valued work? In our culture, meditation has become a way to stay strong and focused so we can be more successful and profitable.

“Music is cosmos in chaos,” says Leonard Bernstein. If YAWEH is Lord over chaos, then music that is cosmos in chaos, serves as one way to reflect YAWEH.

If Moses had been a modern day CEO, the first thing to go would have been the ark of the covenant. Then the weaklings. Then the poets, unless they could be somehow exploited.

I included the reading in Mark’s gospel about the beheading of John the Baptist, because it reminds me of the peer pressure I’ve witnessed in the business world. No one is allowed to appear weak. Herod it seems, did not want to look like the kind of leader who would go back on his word, despite his misgivings about beheading John the Baptist. And so it was, “off with his head!” in the name of saving face with his colleagues.

There is nothing quite so uninspiring to me as a group of business men trying to look strong in front of each other. And I’ve seen this more than most of you. But I understand the rhetoric and am compassionate about the dilemma. We paint ourselves into corners of postured security because we’re all searching for an identity.

“To be alive is to be vulnerable,” says Madeleine L’Engle. “To be born is to start the journey toward death. If taxes have not always been inevitable, death has. What, then, does life mean? No more than “out brief candle?” The artist struggles toward meaning. Art is an affirmation of life, the rebuttal of death.”

Of course art isn’t the only rebuttal of death, but it is the context I know and feel informed to speak about. Doctors can save lives which is fascinating and wonderful to me, others can make the money to fund the saving of lives, which is fascinating and baffling to me, but it is the artist’s job to search for the reason why a life is worth saving in the first place.

Today, writers and musicians struggle through an incredibly challenging and transitional time… if you weren’t born early enough to develop your career when people still bought books or music, you face a great challenge… you are confronted with a desert that any practical person would suggest you should just not bother with. Art has become as impractical as prayer. But if Madeleine L’Engle is right, that art is an affirmation of life and a rebuttal of death, then, like prayer, if there is a God, we ought to start viewing it as one of the most practical vocations in the world.

We’ve been hearing it repeated through this Lenten season, “we fear the desert because we fear the unknown”. We protect our personal comfort and affluence beyond all else. This is reflected in the model used to make quick returns on investment in the music industry. I just watched an example of how a tone-deaf 17 year old girl,who had been a swimsuit model for 5 years already, was put in the studio. They were able to auto tune her voice and even add the sound effect of sexy breathing, and make a pop video that looked believable. What is sad about this is that the projection numbers show clearly that a project like this will have a much quicker return on investment than someone with actual talent ever will, and people who only look at numbers would sooner put their dollar toward something safer and quicker… (ahem)… no matter that it is pornographic.

There is not a lot of room in the music industry for young desert dwellers who were born with the assignment to make beauty and I would argue, even the artists that developed their careers prior to the digital shift, are doing projects that are at best, safe, when they could be making the most daring, wise and groundbreaking work of their careers. But almost everyone sticks with what isn’t broken and even though we can’t quite put our finger on it, inertia sets in where new life should be blossoming.

It seems the desert traveler is the new leper.

The wilderness is misunderstood. Exile is an end of sorts but it is not the end.

In her book Walking on Water, Madeleine L’Engle tells the story of a friend of hers who walked through exile and I think it is important to read this excerpt. I also think its important to reflect on how living a cautious existence is like ducking out of your own story.

During the Second World War one of my friends was an English-woman who was married to an R.A.F. officer. Daily she walked with vulnerability, not knowing whether or not his plane would be shot down. One day he was allowed an unexpected leave before a dangerous mission and came home to London for a brief visit with his wife and three small children. Joyfully, she left him at home, took all their food coupons, and went shopping to prepare as festive a meal as could be procured in wartime London. While she was gone there was an unexpected daytime raid, and her house was hit. Her husband, her three children, were killed.

During the rest of the war she worked hard, was helpful to many other people, did her passionate grieving in private. Ultimately she met a man who fell in love with her and asked her to marry him. It was, she said, the most difficult decision she had ever had to make in her life. If she did not marry again, if she had no more children, she was safe; she could not be hurt again as she had been hurt. If she remarried, if she had more babies, she was opening herself to total vulnerability. It is easier to be safe than to be vulnerable.

But she made the dangerous decision. She dared to love again.

I told this story once at a college, and during the reception a handsome young philosophy professor came up to me; she had been married and her husband had died; she told me that she was not going to do as the Englishwoman had done; she was never going to open herself to that kind of pain again; she refused to be vulnerable.

I do not think that I would want to be a student in her philosophy class.

Somedays I wonder at bothering with courage at all. But as compassionate as I feel toward the young professor who chose not to remarry, I’m with L’Engle on this one. I wouldn’t want her as my philosophy teacher either.

And I am not moved by risk-free music either.

In Hans Urs von Balthazar’s Glory of the Lord, he says,

Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage and decision as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters (Goodness and Truth) without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance. We can be sure that whoever sneers at (Beauty’s) name as if she were the ornament of a bourgeois past – whether he admit it or not – can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love.

Currently as an artist and as a person, I am in the position to either avoid the unknown and never take the risk of following Beauty into the desert, or to keep going because I believe in serving the way I know how: to remain committed as a songwriter, a music maker and a storyteller, which is my small rebuttal of death, indifference and hopelessness. Why this is not a practical vocation is beyond me! Bonds and money might be worthless tomorrow if the satellites go out, or if we’ve driven our cars on oil for the last time which isn’t so much a conspiracy theory as a future fact. Our empire is crumbling. Do we contribute to the cheapening hype by clinging like crustaceans to the last 72 hours of Stardom? Or do we merely cling to nostalgia and only embrace the artists from “our generation” (boomers, you know who you are)? Or do we hold fast to beauty, truth and goodness and have the courage to follow it into the unknown future? Into the wilderness.

If anyone needs to reach me, I’ll be out in the wilderness with Beauty and her Sisters and their small, motley, entourage. What we will look like after years in the desert is hard to tell, but I’ll bet after our sojourn, there to meet us with big smiles, will be a crowd of cowards, looking to make a buck, who only like to be on the winning team. After having run the gamut of all my record deals, after having met my heroes and many grotesquely famous people and after having played some of the most beautiful venues in the world, this is what I’ve learned: a bandwagon is worth about a dime. A lifetime with each other, devoted to what matters is priceless, even if what matters has been pushed into unpopular and abandoned terrain. As one of our own poets puts it: “all else is stubble and hay”. *

-Alana Levandoski

* “one of our own poets” is Gord Johnson, Artist-in-Residence at saint benedict’s table, Winnipeg, Manitoba. His song “Stubble and Hay” appears on Steve Bell’s recent release, Kindness.

4 Responses to Following Beauty into the desert

  1. Byron says:

    It’s a date then!
    Relax Alana….
    You can ask anyone,Steve, Jamie Jann, Larry etc…they will tell I probably won’t show.
    The word coward gets my dander up…I find it is so harsh. Could I lobby for hesitant?

  2. Jaylene says:

    Maybe, just maybe, you are a pillar of fire by night and a cloud to lead us all, Ms Levandoski.

  3. Alana Levandoski says:

    Hey Byron- well I’m not surprised you are challenging me in some way on this:) And ‘m glad. However, as someone who could never qualify the “due diligence” associated with Van Gogh’s Starry Night, I feel like it is partly my duty and calling to sing about Beauty and it’s merits, even if it sounds like I’m trumpeting an age old dilemma.

    I think sometimes passion for what counts can be misunderstood as entitlement or bitterness. You detect wrongly about those two emotions. However, I would say I’m angry at the cowardice of our culture, on many levels. We live in an incredibly selfish and fearful society that is permeated with abandonment. I know a thing or two about this.

    I think safety is overrated too. Playgrounds look like fascist safety zones instead of places kids can learn the valuable lesson of the laws of physics. Parents don’t take their children to funerals because they don’t want to experience the discomfort of their children’s discomfort. And there is a plague that is seen as acceptable: for “well” partners to leave sick partners or partners in crisis.

    I think there is more to this than just Beauty in the desert… as von Balthazar said. What happens when Truth and Goodness go too?

    You also misread me regarding the digital era. I’m not attempting to demonize it. It is a huge part of the plan for my upcoming project. I didn’t intend to put a negative spin on digital access to music. What I’m preaching about is Quality and Integrity and what side of the fence we choose to be on when it comes to these values as we transition. Numbers will never determine this, and never will.

    I am right in saying that people over 50 who have a fan base and make commercial music, are not making the most daring, moving provocative work of their lives: when they could be. I’m not bitter about this as much as sad about it, for it signifies far more than we know. It is entirely prophetic.

    Anyway- there’s nothing wrong with being a tad prophetic (prophets may have sounded bitter or emphatic or entitled too… but were they?) about taking our temperature and assessing what way we are contributing to culture today. I find that some people are too quick to say “its all been done” in politics, protest and observation of a culture’s direction, particularly at a time when choosing wisdom and richness is unbelievably imperative.

    and yes, I’d love to sit down and speak with you! alana

  4. Byron says:

    I see this digital age as a golden one in many ways.The practical tools of recording have been reduced to the size of a briefcase. Creating art and adventure in music is at ones fingertips. Exposing it to the world is as easy as an upload. Being able to listen to the work of other artists world wide is as easy as a search click.The pure in heart but weak in talent can be as involved as the greatest singer/songwriters.
    I find a component of anger and bitterness in this article, Alana. It is no revelation that artists are the poor cousins of society. Have they not always been…with exceptions of course. Imagine poor Old Vincent’s frustration at not selling a single painting in his life! The world does not owe any of us a living simply because we have a gift and a point of view and ambition.
    The world of popular music has generally been the shallow end of the pool. While big bands were sticking to solemn arrangements for the masses to dance to, jazz was beginning its struggle to interpret human spirituality.
    I think it has always been this way…we are subject to the assault of the various bottom line seeking media daily, and there is a heightened awareness of the struggle to create and be heard.
    I would rather write one poem that satisfys me and is never heard than have any of my more embarrassing weaker work become a cash cow.
    Perhaps we can sit and speak sometime…that would interest me.

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