Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Musings on Music

My boss approached me earlier this week, asking me if I would partake in a ritual hazing program done for our team.  Basically, he wanted me to give a few personal facts that he could throw up into a Powerpoint presentation for our team meeting, where it would be displayed for all to see until someone guessed who it was.  For your information, it took all of one slide for them to figure out it was me.  Perhaps I'm a bit more transparent than I originally thought.  But I digress.  More to the point was a single question that was asked:

Name your favorite musical performer/group/band.

For many of you out there, this would be a fun question to answer.  However, my own proclivities deny my that pleasure.  To call it agonizing would be too much, but it was rather difficult.  Opinions in general are difficult for me, but this is one area I simply don't know much about.  My problem when picking out music is not that I don't like any of it, but that I like all of it.  It's difficult for me to whittle it down without ending up with mere splinters in my hand.  If you want someone with strong opinions, find a good old fashion stake-burning and ask those with the fire and with the rope burns what is right and true.  I have difficulty figuring out what to eat for dinner.

To help remedy the situation, I picked out some stuff that I thought I liked (or that I knew people that I like had liked) and started downloading.  Mixed in with songs that were interspersed with my memories helped to round a nice little collection (which is still growing).  In the meantime, I have been able to ruminate a bit on music and its place in our lives (or at least, in my life).  Specifically, I don't know what role it plays.  Like sports/hobbies, music seems like something that I should like, that I should love, that I should defend to my last breath.  As one of my buddies told me, other than politics, music is the one topic of conversation that will consistently end up in argument.  I'm not sure why that is.

So what is the purpose of music?  Why do we create it?  Why do we listen to it.  Why do we take time to integrate it into our lives (how many iPod people have you seen today)?  Is too important?  Not important enough?

I've said that for many moderns, politics seems to replace all traditional religion as the new place of adoration and worship.  It is there that we find truth, that we partake in community, and to extend that truth to the ends of our borders (which are ever growing).  And some of my amateurish study of older societies would seem to bear out this tendency, since we can see a number of situations where the power of the religion and the powers of the state overlap.  Partially, this is due to common goals (witness phrases like "the betterment of society").

And yet, I wonder if, for postmoderns, music (art in general, really) has taken over this glorified, reified role.  It is the place of a common meeting ground where sticky words like "truth" aren't getting in the way.  It's trivial enough to be honestly say "pshaw" to discussions on it, and yet it allows us to exhibit our personality in some way.  It is (in this theory, anyway) a place of pure expression.  Of course, discussions of meaning still come up in these circles, but that is really a reaction to the "art for art's sake" mentality I'm talking about.  We could extend that to all of us post-post-moderns, but I'm not sure such a dialectical approach would be all that helpful.

In fact, these tenets way oversimplify the answers to the questions above.  Perhaps we should just start in.

As to why we create music, I think that "free expression" must be given its due.  We have a need to create, to communicate, to give ourselves, to take what is around us and make it ours.  Regardless as to the psychological reason why, we just do it.  Today, I went on a walk and heard birds in the trees, people running around yelling (frisbee football is in season), cars passing by.  Music surrounds us, and somehow impinges on our feeling.  As this feeling bubbles up (sometimes with some help), we can respond, interact, give, and take back from the world.  We create it.  Something just seems so natural about a song describing a person's early experiences with love carrying a strong beat to it (I know that my heart was beating pretty loud in my ear at that time as well).  Something seems so natural about the somber tones of harmonica coming out of a period of despair.  I'm not sure that there's a whole lot of moralizing to be had here.  Undoubtedly, there are a lot of foolish or silly motives for creating music, but the sheer act of creating itself is inherently good. 

Now whether we should listen to music is another story entirely.  And here, free expression must find its limit.  The cool air might be inherently good, but that doesn't mean I must leave my windows open all year (I've tried it before...I got sick a lot).  The problem isn't with creation, but with consumption.  We partake of music unthinkingly, allowing it to do whatever it does upon us.  Of course, deciding what we should, shouldn't listen to requires us to consider what purpose music should play in our lives.  I don't have a clear answer, but my encounter with some eastern stuff leaves me wondering.  In my readings of early Christian thought (NT Wright, John Behr, et al), we see that by and large the apostles didn't recognize Jesus for who he truly was.  If you think in purely human terms, consider the failed Messiah, the crucified man, on its own.  It is a tragic (and so oft repeated) story.  However, Christianity only arises in its contemplation of the physical event when seen through the lens of the Resurrection.  Suddenly, the crucifixion, far from failure, is the very place of success.  Or to take a different tack, the ethics of this worldview would arise from seeing the grit, the blood, the mess of this reality as that which is fulfilled truly in the next.  We try to consider the resurrection in the crucifixion of this life, and at times the Spirit works in us and shows us that this can be so, but of course we only see now in part, anticipating the fullness of that later vision.  I don't want to roam too far into theology here, but those are some general outlines.  Suffice it to say that the emphasis is placed on contemplation.  In the film of Tarkovsky, we see a similar emphasis placed on contemplation of the world around us.  For him, art allowed us to consider the world in different terms.  It allowed the created order of the director (or painter, as we see in Andrei Rublev), to prod watchers to consider more deeply the world of the art form.

It seems to be right that the one should lead into the other.  Perhaps the contemplation that art brings, allows us to consider (or more likely, to reconsider) the world around us in different terms, in different pictures, in different motifs.  Awhile ago, while discussing the books people tend to keep around them like trophies or mountains they have conquered, I remember pointing out the need for us to hang on to those things that inspire us, the open up the world to us in different ways (at least I think that was the context of that thought).  Perhaps music should be the same sort of a thing.  The music that we listen to can nestle into us, so that it can help us appreciate the sounds of the birds, the sounds of the wind, and the thud of our heartbeat.

If this is the case, music fulfills its purpose (and is thus right for us to listen to) when it touches us, when it moves us, when it allows us to contemplate the world and the truth of it.

For those of you who aren't religious or don't have a clear sense of truth with a capital, that must be the end of it.  I can run through examples of different worldviews and how they might consider art to inform them, but that isn't necessary.  We all know that music has meant different stuff to us at different times.

So how does this combine with the theological stuff I mentioned above?  Music would be appropriate insofar as it moves us to consider Christ's fleshly existence in terms of the Spiritual life.  Or to look at it a bit differently, it allows us to see the [body of] Christ's fleshly existence in terms of the [body off Christ's] Spiritual life.  And of course, see we recognize that the Logos lies in all creation, music can help to open up this world to us.  Listening to music can help us to hear the music of the world and to catch those stray glimpses of God's glory breaking through.  Not because the world is so dense that we can't see it, but because we haven't trained ourselves to open up our eyes.  Let us pray that just as the prophet's servant, our eyes might be opened as well.

Note that most of these thoughts would equally apply the other arts as well.  It just happens to be that most of the others are not as immanent as music seems to me right now.  I don't hear random conversations about painting the way that I do about sports and music.  My guess is that others have the same experience.

I have to admit, as always, that at the end of this essay the whole should/shouldn't stuff seems just as far off, just as mysterious as it does before.  In the same way that some "Christian" songs jump straight to the resurrection and miss the grit and dirt of the crucifixion, other "non-Christian" music can wallow in fleshly existence (whether that is the hoplessness of death, or the exuberance of sex).  I am convinced that in discovering a Christian way of seeing Christ, we can begin our journey of seeing the rest of the world in what it is.  The art must have the fleshly grime and exuberance, it must acknowledge the death of it, and for a Christian, it see those with wonder as we consider the rebirth of that grime and exuberance.

What do you think?

PS Just for the record, the two artists I put down as my favorites were Johnny Cash and Tom Waits.  I think Waits' music requires reflection, just as Cash's voice stimulates it.  Johnny Cash can turn the simplest non-Christian song into Gospel, his voice and tone makes everything seem so grand, so large in scope.  Tom Waits does near the opposite, bringing our lofty conceptions back to the ground, back to the grit.  I appreciate them both.  Also, I should point out that I know very little about music in general.  I've been listening to these guys for mere months, so I would appreciate any suggestions you might have for me.

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