In 2013 the first Cult of Orpheus concert was given at a small venue in Portland, Oregon. As the producer and composer I did a little emceeing but mostly stayed out of the way and let a wonderful company of local singers and musicians bring to life music I’d written and coaxed. Actually I did more than stay out of the way: I disappeared. Something was unfolding that I’d always sought, and finally found, and I watched it emerge in wonder. At the end of the concert I brought myself back enough to lead those assembled in an original “Hymn to the Many/One,” the first of many such boundary-blurrings.
Artistic desire is a paradox, particularly for an introvert in performing arts. One wants to establish one’s voice and find one’s place in community as an artist, and simultaneously one wants to disappear into one’s devotion. Devotion can provide a nurturing of the untold possibilities of self, a hammering on the anvil of self, and a gazing past the horizon of self. In the moment of epiphany, self is not eradicated but eclipsed in the beaming beauty of the work. This struggle is isomorphic to the spiritual: one is called by the unfolding of consciousness in cosmos to connect with others, to participate in the communal, but also to tend the private evolution of the psyche which opens a secret window to All, a practice that only comes from solitary devotion and soul-craft. The urge toward utterance out of dream, contemplation, meditation, revelation, life-urge, witness and wonder, justice and love is the common source of art and religion, which I believe are originally and ultimately the same thing. Ritualized experiences, whether they are labeled ceremonies or performances or wild parties, are those that open the gates of consciousness to share what is most evolutionary in each of us and in the universe, pointing us beyond dualities such as self and other, personal and universal, artistic and spiritual.
The name Cult of Orpheus was chosen intimately, not as branding but in soul-searching, to represent the intersection of creative spiritual and artistic practice and to form a covenant for the work I would do under this aegis. As years and songs have unfolded there have been temptations to turn Cult of Orpheus into something slightly different, buffeted by the relentless zeitgeists of marketing and institutional practice. Cult of Orpheus has at different moments appeared convincingly as an indie-classical artistic concern, as an arts non-profit, as an opera troupe, as a publisher and a recording company. Yet even as these only partly-fitting outfits were tried on, the covenant remained at the heart of the work, and it is to this covenant I return for continued work. The work of Cult of Orpheus has never been primarily economic or even ‘fine arts’ work, but a personal journey of exploration and spiritual/artistic manifestation through devotion to the transcendence of words and music. I have never felt it appropriate to call this work my ‘profession’ in the modern sense because it’s the path of my soul, my religion, an instance of what my eclectic spiritual tradition calls the Great Work.
We are all, at once, solitary and legion – bearing our burdens and pursuing our brave, chimerical adventures, and buoyed by known and unknown souls gone before or working in common cause, and by comrades and collaborators who work beside us. This is perhaps the trickiest thing to communicate carefully in the buzz-labyrinth of art, and scarcely found in more manipulative and institutional forms of religion: that humility and creative heroism need never be at odds. You can be “just doing your thing” and also equal in soul, in cosmic birthright, to anyone who has ever lived. The true spiritual seeker (which is also to say, the true artist) never claims anything for oneself that one would not claim for all of humanity, which is the right to be original, individual, in community, and transcendently universal, not as an exception – which is what the imperialist and hierarchical among us love to make of artists and prophets – but without exception, as the natural condition of any soul-in-the-world. Epiphany, revelation, poetry, beauty, prophecy, culture are creations and we are the creators. These gifts are neither for a narrow community of believers nor elite caste of privileged practitioners but for precisely all souls, bestowed inherently by the cosmos, the One Thing that is the fulcrum of our wonder and witness. This is the buoyant nothingness from which a word, a song, a world emerges.
But here I am writing discourse – it’s perhaps not a bad sermon, but I trust it less than music, poetry, song. There are operas unwritten; I return to my work.
C. Corbell, Washougal, Washington, 5 December 2020