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.