Music Reviews Soundscapes

A Hymn To Hope

A Hymn To Hope is an instrumentation set to Dream Listener : An audiobook in three movements (2007) by Montreal artist Karen Elaine Spencer

Dream Listening centres in on the lives and experience of people sleeping on the streets who attend the St James’ Drop-in Centre in Montreal. I first heard Dream Listener in 2008 and it immediately resonated with something inside.  Karen’s work questions our values and investigates how we, as transient beings, occupy the world in which we live.

In the narrative Karen leads us to Dee’s story of homelessness, which is not just the absence of roof, warmth and relationships but a state of mind. It is often the very bottom of poverty, the depth of despair. People with no roof have a sense of hopelessness, resignation and powerlessness.

Poverty does not of itself ennoble and there is little romantic within it. Sometimes however it does enable you to see people anew in a strong stark light which takes away all the trappings. When everything is taken away, or more especially given up, some begin a journey which can become an Odyssey, into themselves.

Dee’s story illustrates how often the homeless have a shattered knowledge of themselves. They have been compelled, like tortoises, to carry absolutely everything important with them. They have been compelled to come to terms with fundamental and disturbing experiences which can both impoverish and uplift.

Karen’s work can be found on her blogs:

Dream Listener can be ordered here and have been used for this project with kind permission of the owner under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.5 Canada License

By 67paintings

A dialectical site of poetry, painting and the odd musical excursion into the unknown.

9 replies on “A Hymn To Hope”

It’s a sobering thought. Homelessness. It can be a terrible physical reality to face every day and every night… although, in the hands of thinkers, it becomes a philosophic notion, a toy to play with – the idea of ‘homelessness’ as one face of ‘not belonging’ to this or that place, a notion of ‘bigness’ as opposed to the ‘smallness’ of being ‘at home’.
But to be HOMELESS so that one has no place one can lay claim to, is quite another matter. Poignant!

A very thought provoking post. Thank you!

Thanks Meenakshi for your thoughts on the matter. Thought provoking and difficult to articulate the needs of such disparate, ever growing number of individuals who become homelessness and the responses made to them.

Firstly I should disclose that I have endured the situation of living on the street twice so far in my life and from these experiences I know how strong and resourceful humans can become. The homeless are not helpless and hopeless, in a different setting their courage and determination would achieve the Duke of Edinburgh Award or make single handed Trans-Atlantic crossings. Such is the resilience of people in desperate circumstances.

I wasn’t clear which part of the Karen’s interviews related to your view opinions about philosophic notions / bigness / smallness. I need more clarity to understand this point. I certainly don’t propose homeless is the person’s own fault and I’m not hearing this in Karen’s work either. Its an extremely complex picture: domestic violence, abuse, family break ups, ill health and unemployment all feature for possible causes behind homelessness, particularly in the young these days.

Karen, as an artist, is responding and describing accurately what it is she sees before her. That’s the responsibility of any Artist. Karen is therefore making a contribution, towards greater awareness to the plight of people like Dee. She doesn’t for minute pretend to have the answers to address the underlying realities. The last statement “I dreamed I was helping someone, but only made things worse” is full of honesty and integrity. Maybe it’s this vulnerability that makes us human, where all things may be possible; compassion, caring and a shared value in making this community one of equality.

Again thank you for the comment, it’s always appreciated.

Thank you for your patient reply. I completely understand the resourcefulness of the homeless, as well as their capacity to adapt, their determination and resilience.

These are qualities that are humbling to me … worthy of respect, and emulation.

On the philosophic part, I’m sorry I went off on a limb, quite unrelated to the subject at hand.

Karen has done a fantastic job and she is inspirational in her honest dealing with the issue as also her recognition of her limitations. To recognize one’s limitation to help another person demands an acuity of self-assessment, and a deep understanding of the issue at hand – it’s easy to get carried away by the perceived ‘goodness’ of one’s acts. Karen has her feet planted firmly on the ground.

You are right to say that artists have a social responsibility to highlight causes that affect the human condition. Karen is doing that with a great deal of sensitivity. I respect that.

I said: “…in the hands of thinkers, it becomes a philosophic notion, a toy to play with – the idea of ‘homelessness’ as one face of ‘not belonging’ to this or that place, a notion of ‘bigness’ as opposed to the ‘smallness’ of being ‘at home’….”

My point here is a needless digression, I admit. Please let me still explain. Sufi poets, philosophers romanticize the idea of ‘homelessness’ in a metaphysical framework. Their ‘homelessness’ is a poetic idiom for a sense of not belonging to ONLY one place – or being a creature that is ‘at home’ in the whole world, even the universe.

The Sufis view ‘homelessness’ (this ‘homeless’ is quite different in essence) as a virtue in that, a homeless person has given up everything, and is in complete and abject submission to his ‘god’ (whoever or whatever that may be) and in that sense, he is a true believer. They believe surrender of this nature brings with it peace, and the ability to draw closer to god.

What I meant was: to romanticize the notion of ‘homelessness’ is the luxury of poets and thinkers. The reality of being on the street is far removed from all such notions.

Your post, Karen’s work has given me a lot of thought.

I am working on a specific post on my blog that I will link to your post and Karen’s site. I hope you are okay with that.

Its fine, thank you for explaining the context of the Sufi’s view. Yes this doesn’t always help in practical terms. My philosophy is simply: all helpers need help. It means we should never be afraid to ask for help. It’s important to be on both ends of the caring equation..
Peace and love

Sorry I missed your earlier request…
I would be completely thrilled if you wrote something about Dream Listener, or along those lines. Your contribution to the subject and how it relates to the situation in India would be invaluable. I know too little about India and anything informative would be really, really helpful to know!!
Thank you in advance.

I feel woefully inadequate in my understanding of what Sufis believe. Where should I go to understand Sufism better, I don’t so much mean books, rather organisations. Do you know of any?

I’m linking this post with my new post on
I tried to find out about how we deal with the problem of homeless people in Delhi. It is disorganized, seasonal and not professionally done as Karen describes it. But we have so many more pressing problems in a metro like Delhi, I’m not surprised the homeless remain invisible.
have a peaceful weekend.

You are correct about invisibility, Karen’s work, reveals the real presence that comes from paying attention to someone’s story, or even standing alongside holding placards. It is, I feel, vital to engage will compassion, that comes from seeing how we are all in the soup together.

Working in the soup kitchens of Cambridge, I quickly leant that you only have to ask [homeless] people what they need and
empower them to find their own
solutions. The hard part of any genuine learning is to give up the ideas you already have, much harder than acquiring new ones.

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