intermedia installation
constructed spring 2010
Displayed in the UMKC Miller Nichols Library, May-August 2010

Reliquary was a sound art installation collaboration undertaken with my mentor Paul Rudy for the UMKC Friends of the Library annual celebration. Using reclaimed library shelving, interactive audio processing and visuals projections, and an Arduino-driven system of light- and sound-event triggers, the structure created an immersive tactile intermedia environment that invited participation through specially-placed gold-covered books on a matte black shelving background.

Here are a few links to photos and such:

Timing is everything

Arts Fest begins tomorrow. Well, I guess it started last night. We had Denison Witmer and Rosie Thomas to Fuller last night for a show which, thank God, Tracy and I didn’t have to do anything but give money and the ArtsFest07 logo to. And it was a great show. I’m not familiar with Denison’s stuff, and only a few songs of Rosie’s, but they are both very talented songwriters.

(Incidentally, if you head on over to happybirthdaydenison.com, you can procure some free music. He asks that in return you donate some money to a couple of charities he links to.)

But that has little to do with timing. No, no. Rather, in what would surely be the fates frowning most unpleasantly at us, on the eve of the week-long pinnacle of our Arts Concerns year, Tracy and I are both sick. Papers, tests, and last-minute cancellations were not enough, apparently.

Oh well, I suppose there’s nothing to be done about it. If you’re a SoCal person, come on by Fuller this week and check out some of the art goings on! The gallery is particularly impressive this year, and well worth a trip through it. Just don’t get too close to us if you see us…

We are in motion

We are in motion.

Never in one place for more than a moment, ever shifting and growing and transforming, we change continually as we renew our search for what is true and holy. We seek the holy in the world around us, always on the tantalizing edge of grasping it in echoes and ripples. We feel its presence grow closer as we work our surroundings into ever-more-beautiful visions, create reflections and hints of what it must be, though we cannot see it directly. In slow-moving circles we orbit the ultimate, and attempt to describe it in word, paint, gesture, and song. This is the work of artists: to seek, to create. And in doing so, we leave behind us a record of where we have been and what we have become, revealing by slow process some traced outline of what we seek. Change is the only constant: searching, creating, revealing glory.

Change. This is our theme for Arts Fest 2007. Its genesis lies in a meditation on II Corinthians 3:18, the way in which we are transformed from one degree of glory to another, by the work of the Spirit, as we turn more and more toward the Lord in glory. Seeking God in the work of art is a never-ending process of trying to say something true about Something utterly beyond conveyance. While apophasis must ultimately be the endpoint of any attempt at expressing the Inexpressible, by way of the work of art we are able to extend our reach beyond mere words. Truth is conveyed in image, in sound, in gesture which, though rooted in a given cultural setting, transcend the ability of that culture’s words to speak. Art touches more deeply, and reaches higher, than talk.

That is not to say that we should have our heads in the clouds. Our work as Christians and as artists must have its feet firmly on the ground. The world around us is a world filled with brokenness, and to do the will of Christ requires us to live as real persons in the world. Artists are notorious in our culture for confrontation, controversy—even ugliness. Christians have often reacted by sequestering themselves in their own sub-culture: Christian music, Christian art, Christian fiction and film. And while the impulse to reflect on what is good and noble is a worthy one, creating a sanitized ghetto of Christian art misses the full depth of beauty and truth which can speak to us in the fallen world around us.

There is a prevalent confusion between prettiness and beauty. The two should not be conflated. While true beauty can be found in light and joy, it is also often birthed in pain, in blood, in death. This is, after all, how our savior came to us: in the gore of birth, the dirt of life, the blood and suffering of the cross. This is how our God renewed the holy Image in us, and united us to himself. We share in this crucifixion, and we also share in the resurrection, but the resurrection is not a polished prettiness. It is a beauty of still-open scars. The beauty of truth is a heavenly strangeness that needs not erase history in order to redeem it, a beauty that can be uncomfortable—even ugly. We need not fear art which reflects elements of this ugliness, this difficulty, this pain: it speaks to us of the truth of our fallenness, and of the path of our redemption.

Change is the only constant. Seeking demands that we move beyond what is familiar and comfortable. This is the work not only of artists, but of all of us. Caste in the Image of our Creator, we are all creative beings, and as we seek truth and beauty in creation, as we create our own works of word and image, we are transformed “from one degree of glory to another.” This is growth rooted in the Spirit, whom we reflect by seeking, creating, and revealing glory.

We are in motion. To grow we must be willing to move. To move we must not be too comfortable with where we are. Growth is challenging, sometimes even painful. But pain in service of truth is the deeper beauty, the beauty of love.

Concert review

Saturday night I went with a few Fuller folk to a concert at the Armory Center here in Pasadena. Southwest Chamber Music performed Luciano Berio’s Sequenza I for solo flute (holy fluttertonguing, Batman!), Rain Dreaming by Toru Takemitsu, and a premiere by a composer I didn’t know, James Newton. The evening was topped off beautifully by Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto #5. Very nice programming, and beautifully performed.

James Newton’s piece was the Credo from his recently completed Latin Mass. We made it to the pre-concert talk, where he was interviewed by the music director for 40 minutes or so. Mr. Newton himself is a virtuoso flautist, as well as a jazz and “classical” composer. He talked quite a bit about Takemitsu, who was something of the glue for the pairing of Newton with Bach (the Berio was supposed to be another Takemitsu for which the music never arrived). Apparently Takemitsu was a huge fan of Duke Ellington, and both of them were formative influences on Mr. Newton himself. Olivier Messiaen’s music served as another inspiration for the Credo, in both his densely colorful harmonic language and in his faith.

The Credo itself was very good, although our seats were uncomfortably close to the baritone soloist, which meant that, at points, I heard a lot of voice and not a lot of ensemble (which consisted of flute, clarinet, string trio, contrabass, piano, and vibraphone). Especially during the instrumental sections, however, Newton had a fine sense of the ensemble; wonderful interplay and pairing of instruments. I hope a recording is released so I can hear it again, but properly balanced.

During the pre-concert talk, he spoke at length of the role of his own religious faith in writing the Latin Mass. Given the hostility (or at best, the apathy) toward Christianity found in many artistic circles, his openness was a bit daring, and more than a few audience members squirmed their ways through it. I was in heaven: here’s a brilliant musician living in two musical worlds, describing how Thomas Merton and Messiaen both so elevated the Mass as union of the believer with God that it became everything to him in both his life and his music. (Interesting side note: Newton himself is not Catholic, although to hear him talk one could be forgiven for expecting him to convert any day now).  I spoke with him briefly before the concert began, told him where I am and what I’m working on, and arranged to correspond in the future about music and faith and how they fit together. I’m kind of excited about that.

I guess that’s not much of a concert review. The concert was very good; the harpsichordist was absurdly good. I’ve heard the SWCM play before, and hopefully will again soon (William Kraft and Stravinsky next month!). Up next: just what exactly I am up to lately…

For a class: what am I passionate about?

It is easy for me to identify that about which I am passionate, but surprisingly difficult to write about it. I am a composer, percussionist, and guitarist, on top of being just plain fanatical about music in general. I am told that, as a young child, I used to climb on top of my parents’ stereo and dance whenever it was on. I took piano lessons for a few years before I got a drum-set for Christmas when I was 10. Soon afterward I took up guitar, and started a band with my brother and a friend. We played some pretty serious thrash metal, with the kind of “turn-or-burn” apocalyptic evangelistic lyrics one might expect from a group of over-zealous Bible Belt 15-year-olds. Nonetheless, the music got better and better until our friend took off to college. Soon afterward I joined another band that he had started, more of a progressive rock thing which we all thought we’d be in for the long haul. When I went to college, I started taking a couple of music classes, with the intention of becoming a better guitarist. By the end of my freshman year the band had split up, but I was hooked on music theory and for the first time began to listen to “classical” music.

I had been the biggest Iron Maiden fan you’d want to meet, and thought that rock was the pinnacle of musical art. Sure, I played in the high school orchestra, but never really paid attention to the music so much. Studying music, first Brahms pricked my ears with the pathos-laden slow movement from his Third Symphony. Then it was Mozart’s 40th. But it was in hearing Petrouchka and The Rite of Spring by Stravinsky that I was finally reeled in. I found in them a whole new musical world, but with a distant connection to my rock & roll past by way of its primitive impulse and elemental rhythmic force. I listened to Stravinsky almost exclusively for the entire summer, and when I began my second year I was truly converted.

That’s nearly ten years ago. I have a Bachelor’s and a Master’s in music composition now, and have written more for string quartet or orchestra than for guitar. My music is published and performed and commissioned and all of that good stuff. Yet I maintain a love for a wide range of musical styles: I focus on new composed music mostly, but I love jazz, I still rock out to Black Sabbath, I dig modern rock and old country and electronica and folk… I’m fairly omnivorous, I love it all. If, however, I were to try to say what it is in music that so holds me… well, I don’t know exactly how to approach that. It is many things all at the same time, and yet there is an overarching love of the art of music that is hard to put into words.

Perhaps from a pragmatic point of view, music is what I do best. It’s almost the only thing I’m good at, and certainly the only thing at which I really excel. I have been told by many people that I am a gifted musician, and have sometimes felt that way myself, and in the interest of stewardship I pursue it as a career. I used to think that meant “rock star.” Now I imagine it’s much more likely to mean “university professor.” Either way, it uses the gifts I have, hopefully to further God’s kingdom.

Yet beyond mere pragmatism or faithfulness, there is a deeper goodness to music that holds me enthralled. The Greeks spoke of the “music of the spheres,” that natural logic and coherence and interplay between all that existed, moving together in a symphony of inaudible yet cosmic consequence. That sense permeates all of creation—there is music in it all. How sweet, then, when that order and harmony become audible, when a composer puts pen to paper to draw up instructions for a new creation. It is the Big Bang blown afresh. It is a dream of a new universe, populated by both the strange and the familiar, the new and the old. It is colors borrowed from the dreams of others to form new lines, new shapes, new physics. It is imagining the other, exploded upward into whole worlds like a tiny spindle of a fractal set. Music mirrors creation, and as a composer I image my Creator, and in doing so I am brought closer to feeling the joy of creating, the sheer exhilaration of “Let there be…”

Toward something

Strangely enough, some questions seem to be largely neglected in a program ostensibly focused on theology and art:

  • The perennial, controversial, probably unanswerable (but still important) question: “What Is Art?”
  • Related, what is entertainment, and what is its relation/contrast to art?
  • What should be the goal, or goals, of art from a Christian perspective? (N.B.: there is a big difference between art by Christians and Christian art; the former has a long and venerable history, the latter usually stinks)
  • How can art (or any other vocation, for that matter) speak about the kingdom of God? How can art speak peace to violence, justice to oppression, love to hate, hope to despair?
  • In a spiritual/moral sense, what is good art as compared to bad art? Can we safely speak of good and bad art or entertainment with regard to the contrasts of the previous question (maybe also taking Philippians 4:8 as a guide)?
  • Is there a valid application of those same criteria with regard to aesthetics?
  • From a practical point of view, what does it mean to think about art “theologically?” How would this actually play out in the artistic process/product?
  • Regarding the last question, is this even possible in non-representational art (i.e., music in my case)? Without recourse to descriptive titles or program notes, can music (the musical artifact, the sound) be theological?

There are, I am quite sure, many more questions in queue with these. I am bothered that I don’t think I’ve had a serious discussion about them in any official capacity as part of my program in “Theology and the Arts” here at school. For some of them I have impressions of answers, for some rather strong feelings, and for others I have no clue; but what I think hardly matters if it is based mostly in personal opinion–informed or not. These need to be delved into, lived with, discussed. I haven’t been posting much lately with the work load pressing on me as it is, but hopefully I’ll occasionally be able to make time to explore some of these questions here at new mus(ings)ic, since that’s right in line with what I always intended to write about anyway (it certainly wasn’t intended to be primarily a theology blog, which is kind of what it’s been lately).

P.S. I’ve been updating my real website off and on for the last few days, adding little bits and reformatting others. There is a lot of work left to do, but feel free to check it out. I’m particularly proud of having finally integrated a music player, rather than just having links to mp3s for people to download.