More on freedom

Arts and TheologyWith much of my recent posts on freedom, I found the following from Tim Keller’s book, The Reason for God, very helpful. On page 46, he writes:

In many areas of life, freedom is not so much the absence of restrictions as finding the right ones, the liberating restrictions. Those that fit with the reality of our nature and the world produce greater power and scope for our abilities and a deeper joy and fulfillment

Keller goes on to say that the ultimate liberating restriction is the love of God. Having that placed before and around us allows us to live as we should- fully human.

This makes total sense to me as a musician, as placing a certain amount of restrictions, be it key or tempo or mood or timbre, really allows one the freedom to create music. I need to think about this.

Some Love from Begbie: Ordered Openness

Arts and TheologyJust finished Jeremy Begbie’s Resounding Truth today. There have been many things going through my head, but this is one that has the most practical impact for me right now. On pages 198 and following, Begbie writes on the order of creation and the openness of creation. He hits on these two main subjects a few times in this book and a few of his other books: freedom exists within constraints and change does not always necessitate disorder.

On the topic of freedom and constraints, he quotes Stravinsky on page 249:

I experience a sort of terror when, at the moment of setting to work and finding myself before the infinitude of possibilities that present themselves, I have the feeling that everything is permissible to me. If everything is permissible to me…every undertaking becomes futile…I shall overcome my terror and shall be reassured by the thought that I have the seven notes of the scale and its chromatic intervals at my disposal…strong and weak accents are within my reach, and…in all these I possess solid and concrete elements which offer me a field of experience just as vast as the upsetting and dizzying infinitude that had just frightened me…What delivers me from the anguish into which an unrestricted freedom plunges me is the fact that I am always able to turn immediately to the concrete things that are here in question…Whatever constantly gives way to pressure, constantly renders movement impossible…Whatever diminishes constraint, diminishes strength.

This idea of freedom working within constraint is the subject of another post regarding jazz.

The second idea of change not necessitating chaos can easily be heard in Bach’s violin partitas. There is a sense of improvisation here (Bach was an incredible improviser), but there is the unmistakable feeling of order. Order within improvisation. For the believer, this is a great comfort. God, who made order out of disorder in Genesis, is in control of all things, even change. And change need not be automatically characterized as disorder. This gives meaning for our lives- lives of suffering and pain- these things have meaning and purpose in the grand scheme of things, they are not God’s mistakes or evidences of his lack of control. Through Bach’s works, we can see that change or variation or rearrangement can be ordered and have teleological meaning as well as existential and situational meaning.

Both of these truths give great comfort to the believer, and allow us to hear these truths in our time.

Some Love from Begbie: Bonhoeffer on Music

Arts and TheologyReading more from Jeremy Begbie’s Resounding Truth, he brings up Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s use of polyphony as a metaphor for the Christian life. According to Bonhoeffer, the life of the Christian is similar to a counterpoint in a piece of music. The counterpoint can be confident of its appropriateness as long as there is a firm “principal or central theme” of which to ground our responsive voices.

This principal or central theme is what is called the cantus firmus. As long as we have a strong cantus firmus in our lives, we do not need to fear our polyphonic melodies. As in a Bach fugue, they reinforce and shed new light on the cantus firmus, not by changing the cantus firmus, but by interacting with it.

This is a great metaphor for the Christian life, but what about representing this in music? There was a similar idea going on in this piece for communion (4.13.08), and I played it this past Sunday during the passing of the bread. There were two common reactions: one where people just commented on the quality of the playing itself (which I humbly receive) and the other reaction was from those that really seemed to get the big picture: work, rest, etc. Now I understand that being in group 1 doesn’t necessarily preclude someone being in group 2, they can be both, but I almost felt like the playing itself can be distracting if one doesn’t “get it.”

Now I hope this doesn’t come off pretentious, but one the staff members at the church made the comment that I shouldn’t limit myself to those who may not completely understand what is going on, that I should leave space and give them room to come to a point of understanding. But without teaching and speaking on this topic, I think that is pretty close to impossible. If I didn’t read the books I’ve read, I would probably be just as lost- and I’m a musician! Think of the person who is not the music nerd that I am. So I’m waffling back and forth on how far “out there” to go. Eventually, my plan is to develop a Sunday school class where some of these topics can be brought up and discussed.

Some Love from Begbie: Music and Metaphor

Arts and TheologyI’m currently reading Jeremy Begbie’s Resounding Truth and am digging it so far. Unlike other books by Begbie that I’ve read, this one attempts to look at what theology can bring to music. Most of the other books were the other way around (what can music bring to theology). In the first chapter, Begbie digs around something integral to music and the arts in general: the idea of metaphor.

Starting on page 50, he starts with the metaphor being a “surplus of meaning”:

The different terms of the metaphor each draw on a whole range of connotations and associations of the the words…thus a metaphor generates a whole new set of new meanings for us, and just because they are generated this way, these new meanings can be apprehended only through this metaphor, by being drawn into its life. Thus a metaphor is irreducible.

Begbie goes on to say that unlike many visual arts, music does not live or die based on referring outside of itself. It is a “stream of metaphors” that reference itself constantly. The rhythms that we hear or the repetitions of melodies, for example, all reside within the music themselves.

And the metaphor creates something unique, or at least something other than a wooden description. If I say, “My friend is a rock,” I could have said,”My friend is strong.” But this doesn’t have the amount of connotations and associations that Begbie’s quote spoke of. And this also brings up the question why use the metaphor at all if strength is the only thing I mean? When David says that God has broken his bones, does he mean God actually broke his bones? There is something more going on here- something that says much more than what appears initially on the page. That’s why Hebrew poetry can be so terse, and yet so deep and almost timeless, but I digress…

This metaphor of music that can happen from completely within itself may not be able to refer to specific words or thoughts like “my cat is fat” but that does not mean it does not refer at all. It seems to me the biggest push that comes from music’s use of metaphor is a realization that there is something going on out there, outside of ourselves and outside of mere materialism. As Begbie writes, “Art reminds us that in fact the world always exceeds our grasp and perception.”

Obviously something like this gets me excited, being the music-theology-nerd. And we all know that I like Begbie. These few quick thoughts show us that we need art, we need music, for more than mere entertainment. It is part of theology.

Theology Through Music: Rest and Resonance

Arts and TheologyOften we think when we rest nothing is happening. Or at least I do. I totally fall into the typical American work-harder-because-that-is-the-answer-for-everything deal. But this is just not true for our lives, and this is easily illustrated in music. God has set up a rhythm that we ought to follow, working then resting. And music often happens in this same way- between the notes.

If there was no “between,” if there was no space, be it in time or pitch, we would not be able to make out anything, it would be to hit every note at all times (even quarter tones!). And this is what we often try to do: hit all the notes at all times. Not only is this impossible in music or in our lives, it really wears us out. There is a reason for God’s resting. The divine rhythm (no, not what you’re thinking) sets up patterns of resonance. After we work, we rest in the resonance of our work and in anticipation of more to come.

This is the idea for the latest music post. I’ve recorded the music in what I labeled as “hip-hop pedal.” While not just being fun to say, it’s meant to reflect the use of a pedal on a piano, while recording as many parts separately as possible, be it one note or a few notes together. The reason for this was to accentuate as much resonance as possible, riding the volume faders to boost what we often miss in music and life: what happens after the note is played. There are some really interesting harmonics that result from this, and the play between harmonics is just as interesting, or maybe more so, than the originally plucked notes.

There’s a lot to say about harmonics and resonance. Begbie, who I’ve referenced many times before, uses resonance and sympathetic harmonics to illustrate obedience. That might be a future endeavor, but for now the focus is on this (maybe more for me than anyone): We may not be doing anything, but there is plenty going on during rest. The rhythm that God has set up does make sense (whether I see it or not) and not resting is akin to creating a cacophony of sound by not choosing which notes and times to use. Part of the reason for this, I believe, is that it is hard to hear what is going on, especially when our environment does not naturally lead us to contemplate the sound of rest and resonance. So we need someone who can open our ears and allow us to listen.

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.