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The Adjacent Possible: A Story of Creative Serendipity


O Magnum Mysterium- Bruce Sawhill PhD & Aude Castagna

O Magnum Mysterium– Bruce Sawhill PhD (organ) & Aude Castagna (cello)


Happy New Year to all of you creatives, now that fully 24 time zones of the world have officially passed into 2022. Another trip around the sun.

Today’s post is a story of the social side of creative serendipity, hearkening back to our posts on architecting luck. Formal studies of people who considered themselves lucky showed that they had lots of acquaintances, which is a form of risk-taking as it includes the possibility of rejection or snubbing.




We had an opportunity to reflect on this dynamic on New Year’s Eve, when Bruce performed as part of a yearly concert called the ‘Kaleidophone.’

The word Kaleido comes from two Greek roots. It is a combination of the Greek words “kalos,” meaning “beautiful,” and “eidos,” meaning “form.” So, in the spirit of combinatorics, the organizer (so to speak) of the Kaleidophone, Vlada Moran, added another Greek root, “phon,” meaning sound.

This concert takes place in a local church that has a fine pipe organ. Seventeen years ago, Vlada decided to have a celebration of local musical talent and invited all of the other professional organists in the area to join in and create a concert.

Classically trained organists have become an endangered species, because it involves many years of training and fewer churches have organs than in the past. Organs are expensive and complex, and until the Industrial Revolution they were the most complex things built by human hands.



Cathedral Organ


We’re fortunate to live in a place with a vibrant musical community that has a half-dozen of these rare creatures.

Since that first Kaleidophone, there have been 17 concerts. (Last year’s was called off due to COVID) Bruce has been a part of 15 of them, and Nancy three.


Instrumental Combinatorics


As the years went on, the participants started inviting their friends who played other instruments than the organ. In time, there were string quartets, brass ensembles, guitars, banjos, oboes, harps, flutes, tympani, and English horn.

Kazoos haven’t been seen yet, nor Scottish bagpipes, but any year now. The instrumental combinatorics worked with varying degrees of success, some of them bordering on silly, others startlingly beautiful.

People were creating music but they were also creating community. The community, by its very presence, fostered more and more innovative combinations of sounds, more musical risk-taking,  and an expansion of the repertoire that people usually associate with the organ. 


A Pivotal Moment


In 2016, Nancy, then a relative beginner on the cello, brought her instrument to the Kaleidophone. We had worked up a simple piece all of two minutes long called Undan Hulu by the Icelandic composer Ólafur Arnalds, originally for piano and cello.

Nancy decided on the spot to perform, perhaps after a frisson of gumption generated by the unusual ensembles she was seeing perform. 

The next year Nancy and I arranged a piece by Ralph Vaughan Williams, Rhosymedre, a setting of a Welsh hymn tune originally for organ solo. It worked well.

There was just one problem, though. Nancy thought she was relaxed, but as she raised her bow arm to play the first note on an upstroke, it was bobbing up and down like a jigsaw. Her arm had a malicious life of its own.

Nancy thought, Oh no, this is going to be wretched, but at least it will make for an interesting story. She had to wait some years for the story to come out, but here it is.


A Story Of Creative Serendipity


Music has a real-time aspect that painting does not. People don’t generally paint in concert to a beat and with a conductor. But the performance anxiety is universal.

The next year, Nancy said, I’m too nervous, I haven’t had much time to prepare for the concert and I need some moral support. I’d like to play, but I don’t want to be the only instrument up there other than the organ. 

Enter serendipity and acquaintance.

In our rich but small musical community, we began searching for another cellist. We eventually found Aude Castagna, a professional cellist, through an ex-teacher of Nancy’s.

Aude agreed to play a Bach transcription with Nancy, both of them playing the same melodic line.This may have been like asking Picasso to teach high school art, but our friend was a good sport about  it, only grumbling a little sotto voce.

Not surprisingly, this was good for Nancy.

But perhaps a little surprisingly, it was good for our professional cellist friend also. She met other musicians who knew the other organists. She came back to subsequent concerts, played in newly formed ensembles, concertized with other organists as well as Bruce, learned new repertoire, and performed astonishing solos. 

The most recent Kaleidophone contained a duet with Bruce and Aude, playing a piece originally written for an a cappella choral group. It first transmuted through a violin/piano duet before emerging as an organ/cello duet. 


An Intersection Of Painting & Music


There is a painterly connection to this concert. The composer of the choral piece that Bruce transcribed, Morten Lauridsen, was originally inspired by a painting of the Spanish baroque painter Francisco de Zurbarán (1598-1664) that he saw in the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California.

It is a still life of objects on a table, but it is filled with metaphor, not as obvious in our secular time as when it was painted in 1633.

It is a deeply religious painting, the white cup and water representing the purity of the Virgin Mary, the oranges and lemons representing spring (Easter) fruit, and the blossoms representing rebirth. 



Still Life with Lemons, Oranges, and a Rose, Francisco de Zurbarán, 1633


Mr. Lauridsen was moved to tears by the painting and it surprised him. As he delved into the meaning of the painting, he realized it was especially about a mother’s grief as her son was dying.

Lauridsen puzzled over how he was going to express her profound grief in a contemporary composition. Six months later, he awoke and realized he needed to spotlight the moment of Mary’s grief with one note.

It reminded us of how, in poetry, there’s a word around which the poem hinges- a sort of turning point. Likewise, in haiku, there’s the cutting word that the haiku pivots around.


The story of the creation of O Magnum Mysterium is the story of the composer sitting with his feelings evoked by the painting. 


We hope you enjoyed the recording. Bruce transcribed the piece for organ and cello. The virtuosic cello part is from a violin transcription and Aude performed it beautifully.

We leave you with creative wishes for a Happy New Year with a recording of the performance:

With gratitude from our studio to yours,

Nancy & Bruce


Want to get your own adjacent possible going? Grab a copy of The Adjacent Possible, available in print and ebook editions HERE. 



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