Cacophony and Symphony

Arts and TheologyThe previous posts were about a metaphor of jazz standards and the task of Christians in the church. Towards its end I was calling on the church to create compelling “standards”, creating a culture that is both new and familiar, enabling humanity to be all that it was created to be. This task is for those in and outside the church. There is somewhat of a problem here, however.

These standards will sometimes be played with wrong notes and will be out of time. Sometimes these notes will clash with each other in the worst ways. Sometimes it will sound like my first attempt to play the saxophone in the 4th grade: garish, fumbling, and squeaky. Hopefully we will ask forgiveness for these errors.

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Standards New and Familiar

Arts and TheologyIn the world of jazz, it is common to perform and record songs written by other jazz artists. Some songs are classics, or in jazz parlance, standards. These standards are (or should be) always different and new from one another, with each artist or band baking their individual flavors into it. At the same time, there is a sense of familiarity to them, because they are standards. How can something be new and familiar at the same time? Continue reading

When We Play Wrong Notes

Arts and TheologyAs mentioned in the previous post:

But what about when we play bad notes? What happens when a jazz player plays a wrong note, something that goes outside of the established rules? What happens when he or she intentionally goes outside the rules? This will be the subject of the next post.

We’re looking at the inevitable situation: wrong notes will be played.  So how does this work in the analogy of freedom in the Christian life?

I’ve made another favtape for this post.  It’s called Jazz: Wrong Notes, and you can use it as the soundtrack for this post.

First, I think we need to make a distinction.  There are two types of wrong notes: intentional and unintentional. Intentional wrong notes are played on purpose, with the wrong note in mind, they are not mistakes.  Unintentional wrong notes are mistakes, the player did not expect to hit a note that sounded off or bad, but did any way.  Because of these differences, we could probably classify the notes as “wrong” and wrong.  “Wrong” notes are intended, wrong notes are not.  “Wrong” notes have a premeditated purpose, wrong notes are present mistakes. So with that…

“Wrong” Notes
“Wrong” notes are meant to happen. These occur when the soloist decides to add tension, or dissonance, to their melody. Solists often color outside the lines to make the solo interesting.  When going outside the correct boundaries, the soloist isn’t saying, “These wrong notes are really not wrong at all” but the “wrong” notes point all the more to which notes are right. “Wrong” notes are noticed as such and, if anything, give us a tension that makes us really want the resolution.  It plays on our expectations on where home is.  When we think the soloist is going home, playing a note that beautifully resolves, and the soloist goes somewhere else than a comfortable home, we feel it.  We want to go home and anticipate where home might be.  The tension that we were unexepectedly presented with doesn’t become the new home, but leads us there.

Too much dissonance can end up with a fatigued ear on the part of a listener and with a lack of direction in the music.  This is often intended by free jazz, as evidenced in Ornette Coleman’s “Science Fiction” on the favtape. Sometimes we need some right notes in there to give us direction, to have tension and resolution.  Because without the resolution (or an implied resolution), tension ceases to exist as tension, it all becomes homogenous.

But dissonance can be a great learning tool.  Saying what Christianity is not can be very helpful in determining what Christianity is.

Wrong Notes
Wrong notes are mistakes we make. Jazz is fundamentally a live music.  Being a live music, wrong notes are made all the time.  The soloist plays something that was supposed to sound smooth, but now sounds erratic or disjointed: just plain wrong. If the soloist chooses to keep going, these mistakes don’t have to end the music.  The soloist still has the opportunity to make something beautiful out of the melody, though a wrong note has been played. Just as in our lives as believers, dissonance, our mistakes, do not end the song.  The musicians don’t pick up and leave, but keep going. God doesn’t drop us the second we make a mistake- He might hit the next piano chord a little harder so that we can hear where the right notes are, or He might play the drums a bit more pronounced so that we can hear the tempo better, but He doesn’t stop playing.  He keeps playing, continually inviting us to create something beautiful with Him, and our mistakes end up being part of the song.

And even the best players make mistakes.  Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie- these are jazz giants.  And they made obvious mistakes on their recordings.  But just because they make an occassional mistake does not discredit the melodies that came from their continual playing.

So “wrong” notes and wrong notes are both going to occur.  But the song keeps going, and we keep playing.  And the more mature we get, the less wrong notes we use, and we will be able to use “wrong” notes in the right places, pointing ourselves and others to our home.

Creeds and Freedom or The Jazz Rhythm Section and the Soloist

Arts and TheologyIn explaining some of the church’s confessions and creeds to my Worship Leading class, I used an example I often go to: jazz.  Jazz (and I have in mind more straigh-ahead jazz from the 40s to the 70s, like Miles or Coltrane or Brubeck or Parker) has much to offer our lives beyond its music (which is good by itself, too).

I’ve kind of breached the subject on freedom already but there’s so much more to cover in this intersection of music and theology.  And our focus right now is the Creeds of the Church, in general.  More often than not, the major creeds define things negatively- what the subject in question is not. A great example of this is the person of Christ as defined by the four councils of Chalcedon. The four councils mark out what the person of Christ is not- Christ is not only God, Christ is not only man, Christ is not more or less than one person, Christ has nothing more or less than two natures.  This creates four lines, demarcating the lines of where we cannot go outside of.  But these four lines form an area like a square, inside of which we can have freedom to move around and see exactly who the person of Christ is- the positive definition. This is the task left to us.

Jesus and John Coltrane

Jesus and John Coltrane have more in common than what we

So where does jazz come in? Jazz comes in as a great metaphor for something we do every day in this arena of positively spelling out our theology.  Let’s look at a typical jazz rhythm section, there’s the drummer, the bassist and the piano player.  The drummer is laying down the tempo, the rhythm, the groove.  The bassist is establishing the tonal foundation, the lowest tones we’ll hear, giving a base for the chords.  The piano player lays out the rest of the chord.  Each are filling in the emptiness the others have and each are contributing to the overall mood of the song.  Now here comes the saxophone soloist.  He hears all these things as boundaries or limits to where this particular song will go.  There’s a tempo, a key, a mood, a length of verse and chorus. The soloist hears these and uses these to create the melody, the solo.  The notes are all within the boundaries, but when put together by this soloist, the melody (and the complete overall sound) is something completely unique.  When it’s the other soloist’s chance to play, she hears the drummer, bassist and pianist and plays another melody line, all within the established boundaries, and also completely unique.  Each soloist is unique, depending on instrument, timbre, influences, what one wants to say versus another, and therefore, each overall sound will be unique.  But none of these have to break the established rules to be unique. This seems to be opposite our culture’s view of what is unique or authentic and what is not.

So this jazz soloist is you and it is me.  When we go about our lives, doing our daily things, we are positively asserting what our theology is. When we choose to sacrifice ourselves and love someone, it is something unique to our situation and easily within the boundaries of what love or humility is. Our creeds and most of theology proper give us the right boundaries for us to positively live out what life is truly meant to be. All of our individual songs will end up sounding different, even if we have the same rhythm section playing the same thing.  They are different and they are good (if keeping within the boundaries).

Hopefully we have the correct boundaries. And if we do, hopefully we will stay within them. The funny thing is, we know when we get outside the boundaries.  We might try and rationalize it, but there’s a dissonance that rings inside of us. But what about when we play bad notes? What happens when a jazz player plays a wrong note, something that goes outside of the established rules? What happens when he or she intentionally goes outside the rules? This will be the subject of the next post.

Holy War and God’s Use of Means

I was lecturing on holy war in my Old Testament class yesterday and today- specifically in Exodus.  I have been relying heavily on Bruce Waltke’s Old Testament Theology- not only because it’s incredibly awesome, but it covers the areas I want to focus on (literary and biblical perspectives).

An aspect of holy war that I think is interesting is God’s use of means.  During the exodus, God is the one fighting the Egyptians, throwing the waters over their chariots.  But later on Israel gets direction on how to carry out holy war. When the Israelites attack the Amalekites, God uses Israel to do the actual fighting.  The victory in both examples (against the Egyptians, against the Amalekites) depends on faith in God.  So the ends stay the same- God determines the outcome, but in holy war, God uses Israel to carry out His purposes.

This can really help to inform us on our freedom.  We often think that freedom is living without constraints (hello, Sartre) but true freedom needs limits.  True freedom is being able to express who who really are.  If we are in love with someone, we feel free, free to be who we are without reservation.  But this love does put contraints upon us, we now think of the other person and their needs sometimes at our expense.  We have constraints and limits, but limits in themselves don’t necessarily inhibit freedom- indeed, they can free us.

Freedom has no better illustration than in jazz.  There will be plenty of posts in the future about our freedom and jazz music (hello, Begbie).  But here’s the basic idea: the soloist has room to create music when proper limits are put upon him/her. Limits such as tempo, tone, rhythm, key, etc.  There will be more specific posts on this to come.

So let’s not think that boundaries are fundamentally opposed to freedom.  If one does not have boundaries, one doesn’t care about anything, and actions must all be arbitrary.  But if one has the right boundaries, one is free to be who they are.

And God actually wants this- he ordains this use of means to carry out His end.  We have creative power to build up His kingdom.  Although it might be lacking in emphasis, this is the common reformed and Calvinist view of our lives.  God ordains the ends, yes, and he also ordains us to carry out the means.

So holy war and music might have more in common than what we think.

Theology Through Music: Freedom

Arts and TheologyNow that I finished my paper for Reggie’s Worship class, I can (hopefully) make more sense in these theology through music posts. On the concept of freedom, Jeremy Begbie wrote about the goodness of constraints in Theology, Music and Time. There’s this idea that freedom means liberation from all possible constraints, as in that would be a good thing. But we often get our identity and behavior in working within constraints, especially those that we cannot change. Take time, for example. We are all temporal beings, subject to the presentness of existence. We (especially Americans) are constantly in battle with this thing called time…it’s always “working against” us. We treat any boundary as a bad thing. We shouldn’t.
Time has been created by God, was present before the fall (as far as we assume), and should be a good thing. A very good illustration of this works out in music, especially in jazz improvisation.
We have a time signature, a key, a groove, a pocket, all these things in place to make good music. Once we understand where the boundaries are, what key and time, when to play, when not to play, when to slow down, speed up, get quiet, etc. that is when we can make good music. It’s when the improviser, not paying attention to the band, starts going off in a wild direction, that we would probably classify as bad music. Some people might object, and say, “Well, what about free jazz? There’s often not a specified key or time.” But there are still constraints- one of those constraints would be: make music like it doesn’t have a key or a time.
So the key to real freedom is understanding one’s boundaries in which to live. Listening to where the band is will allow one to create beautiful music.

There’s a lot more that could be said: the importance of practice, how to rightfully test the boundaries, when to “break the rules” (especially in jazz improvisation), but I think this will be good for now.