A Funeral Homily for Ann Hankinson
A Funeral Homily for Ann Hankinson
We gather today as the Thursday crew here at the Cathedral to mourn the passing and celebrate the life of Annie Hankinson. These past few days, as I’ve learned more about Annie’s life, it’s been eye-opening to hear what a remarkable woman she was. I feel the pang of sorrow that I didn’t get to know her before the Alzheimer’s had already set in. Especially for someone as gifted, lively, fiery, talented as Annie, it’s particularly difficult to only have known her robbed of so much of what made her the person she was. Forget those schmaltzy pictures of heaven being filled with harp-plucking angels with beatific smiles plastered across their face. I see fiery, red-headed Annie now in all her edgy, non-conformist glory back at the piano composing her challenging melodies and setting the cherubim’s teeth on edge.
Many of you know that Annie spent time growing up in a small village in Pakistan where her father was a doctor at the village hospital, and where the children kept goats, rabbits, and chickens. The family also spent five years in Burma and Annie eventually went off to a boarding school in Himalayas. It was around that time that she actually encountered the then recently escaped Dalai Lama whose loving-compassion for all God’s creatures remained a touchstone for her whole life.
But it’s Annie’s music that I’d like ponder and reflect upon. Annie loved playing and composing music earning a BA in musical performance, a Master’s in Music Composition eventually went to become just the second woman to graduate from the Music Theory and Composition Ph.D. program at UCSD. Her musical compositions have been performed in Santiago, Chile, at the Kennedy Center in New York, here in Salt Lake, and many other venues. Interestingly, Annie was also trained as a nurse and worked much of her life in the health care field as a way to support herself in pursuit of her passion for writing music. I understand that while quiet, she could also be quite direct if she saw that the doctors or interns had the wrong idea about a patient. Her sister Connie calls her “her protector”—someone who would stop at nothing to stand by those she loved.
One of Annie’s influences, and musical heroes, was Phillip Glass the minimalist composer and her music made broad use of atonality and repetition. Laurel Ann Maurer used terms like “sparse” and “subtle” to describe one of her compositions performed in 2005 at The Contemporary Music Consortium her in Salt Lake City. One of the reasons I chose Psalm 96 for us to read today is for its call, its invitation, to each of us to “sing to the Lord a new song.” Sometimes I think that we misunderstand avant-garde artists’ use of different tonalities, surprising intervals, dissonances and the like as mere novelty. We live in a culture of endless novelty and it’s easy to miss the radical call and subversive nature of disrupting our aesthetic expectations as of the same order as when the advertising executives at Johnson and Johnson change a single ingredient in our toothpaste and declare it “new and improved.”
That’s not what Ezra Pound meant when he said, “Make it new.” Newness for Pound and for artists like Annie is all about breaking out of received patterns of perception, habitual ways of navigating the world that blind us to the strange, startling newness that burgeons forth in every moment. The Russian Formalist Viktor Shklovsky spoke of how our ordinary perception becomes automatic and that it is through art that we come to recover the sensation of life. “Art,” he says,
exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony. The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make an object "unfamiliar," to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged.
That’s Russian Formalist talk for art making the familiar strange, for cleansing the doors of perception and helping us to notice what we notice—slowing down the process of perception and bringing us a newfound appreciation of the givenness, the gift, of each moment and nudging us towards awe, wonder, and welcome.
Art for Shklovky is a means of waking us from our slumbers, from our habitual, automatic responses to life and to reconnect us with life itself. Annie’s challenging music serves the same purpose. It asks us to open our ears to difference, to otherness, to timbres gleaned from years abroad with ears perked in foreign countries. And when we open ourselves to new ways of doing things, we open ourselves to arrival of the other. We are gradually transported to a place where we can simply attend, to wait upon the Other without demand, without expectation, without firm ideas about how the next moment, the next note, the next encounter might unfold—appearing from the silence and disappearing back into silence as sheer unmerited gift.
I think that might be something about Annie’s music that we can each take to heart and put into practice in our lives. To open ourselves to the new song God is always singing in Christ at the heart of each moment if we have ears to hear. Dissonance and atonality are meant not just as novel parlor tricks, but serve a deeply spiritual purpose. To hold before us how automatic our perceptions of the world and of other people are, and to call us to learn to live from a deeper place where each moment, each person, each step, and each breath is received, celebrated, and gently released as the pure gift that it is.
The new song that Annie sang didn’t end with her life. It’s an always present invitation to gently turn away from the same old songs that grind away inside our brains about self, other, and God, and open ourselves to the new thing God is up to right under our noses. In a way, our lives and the reminder of the choice we make about what music we will dance to is Annie’s last gift to us. Let’s make it count. Let’s make it a new song. Let’s let God in Christ sing his song in us that he might dance us away from ourselves and towards others in love as bread, as wine, as water and oil proclaiming the good news of his salvation from day to day.