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.

“It is a serious thing…”

“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ‘ordinary’ people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously – no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. And our charity must be a real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner – no mere tolerance or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment.”



Some of you may be interested in a recent find of mine.

Bookmarked in my (a social bookmarking site) are two large excerpts from Orthodox Bishop Kallistos (Timothy) Ware's book, The Orthodox Church. The first excerpt is on Orthodox Church history, and the second on issues of faith and worship – including quite a bit on how Orthodoxy has approached the ecumenical movement, and its relations with various non-Orthodox churches.

I've been wanting to read this book (along with another of his books) for some time, but that whole grad student schedule tends to get in the way, so I've been poking through these pages a bit over the past few days. Enjoy!

rock and roll!

Well, not rock and roll per se, but…

So Tuesday night was the long-awaited performance of "In C," for which I have been preparing and stressing for the past few weeks. We ended up with twelve musicians making up the following ensemble: 2 violins, flute, alto sax, trombone, soprano, guitar (me!), mandolin, 2 keyboards (on vibraphone and clavicord patches), piano, and percussion; I piped the eighth-note pulse from my laptop over a set of central monitors on a combination of harp and triangle sounds. Overall a good mix of timbres.

The coolest thing about it was the way we set up the performance space. We had the concert in a banquet room rather than a concert hall – no stage, no terraced seating, no stage lights. The twelve of us sat in a circle facing inward. The circle was in the middle of the room, with some seating around the outside, but for the most part people were invited to move around the room and listen from multiple angles. We projected the score (which is only 1 page) on a screen against one wall, had snacks and drinks against another, and people ate and wandered and listened, discussed what they were hearing, stooped looking over musicians' shoulders… it was a great interactive performance (we even had one musician in the audience join in briefly on the piano… unexpected and a little alarming at the time, but thankfully it turned out to be no problem!).

As for the performance… it's a difficult piece, not so much in technique as in stamina, pacing, and listening, and we pulled it off well. There were a couple of moments in the middle where things got really dense and chaotic, which was a little scary; but then there were other moments where everything opened up into broad, beautiful textures and everything just clicked. It's hard to describe, but if you're a musician you know what I'm talking about. It's almost magical. Particularly with this piece, where so much rides on listening closely to each other and yet remaining independent, there develops a distinctly spiritual element to a performance.

What do I mean? There are a couple of ways in which "In C" becomes something of a spiritual experience. From a listener's perspective, this kind of music completely recalibrates the ear so that one is no longer listening to chord progressions and melodies, but rather to small repeated gestures. In this texture, the smallest change – a player switching from one motive to the next – becomes a musical event of earth-shaking proportions. In a Brahms symphony, a Stravinsky concerto, a Carter quartet, these kinds of listening events simply do not take place; it's an entirely different way of hearing. This close attention to things which previously would have gone unnoticed has spiritual implications: where are we looking for the movement of the Spirit? Where do we expect to see God working, and how? We have our eyes set on big things, obvious miracles and providence, explicitly answered prayer, when God is at work every single day in small, subtle, unnoticed ways! Where else in our lives do we miss the things happening right under our noses as we look intently for the Big Important Events?

From a performer's perspective, I think this may come somewhere near what playing jazz is like (not being a real jazz musician, I wouldn't know). The same intense listening is at play, but so are two other things: interplay and independence. The nature of this music, where these small interlocking motives play against each other in such subtle and fascinating ways, makes for unexpected and uncontrollable moments of counterpoint, where one plays against another in entirely new ways. This can last for a second or for a minute, but it elevates the spirit at play in the performance to new, unexplored levels. We had one particular moment tonight where I almost start laughing because of the utterly nonsensical way in which the music we were playing suddenly became 10 times more beautiful; the motives we were playing spaced out just so, the dynamics balanced, the tone colors swirled into an almost crystalline shimmer… the air was so charged at that moment, one might think that the Spirit itself had come and begun playing with us. And why not? "Where two or more are gathered," right? And in the midst of this kind of communal interplay, this kind of coincidental klangfarbenmelodie, each musician must maintain a strong element of independence. We play with each other, but not together. It is an actual goal to not play in sync with anyone else, at least not for long if it happens accidentally, and each motive varies in length and meter, so that to play it properly you must clash against the other meters and motives swirling around you (and it's hard playing in 3 when people around you are playing in 4, 5, and 7/8 simultaneously!). Each part has an important role to play, each is part of the whole while remaining itself. One musician can not look at another and say "I have no need of you." Each in our individual-ness make up one whole-ness.

Of course, to my knowledge Terry Riley is not a Christian, and maybe wouldn't know what to make of all this, but it's there nonetheless. Faith becomes a key for opening many mysteries in this way, whether in art or elsewhere. If I refuse to engage art in this way, I miss the richness of truth buried in it and the lessons the Spirit is willing to teach, if only I am open to them.

This is the first performance I've been a part of here at Fuller, but I think it will not be the last. The group of musicians I was able to gather for this was outstanding, and all are into doing more concerts in the future. I'm psyched, this is just the kind of thing I've been needing: exciting, dynamic interaction with intelligent and talented musicians! (We also recorded the concert, which will need to be cleaned up a bit and mastered, at which point I'll link to an mp3 that you can download for free and hear what we did.)