Lent III – A Firm Foundation

One of the reasons I started this blog seven years ago was that I have long grappled with the legitimacy of the calling to be a classical musician within the kingdom of God. I also doubted the godliness of spending 6+ years working toward my PhD, when many of my classmates from college were either going into missions or beginning jobs that clearly served others. However, I have come to believe deeply in the importance of a Christian presence in the music world, and in the arts and culture more broadly, because of the present reality of God’s kingdom, launched in the Incarnation and the Resurrection, and our role as livers of and workers in the “already” of that kingdom (anticipating the “not yet,” the decisive return of Jesus, the rending of the curtain between heaven and earth, and the remaking of all things). And it is clear to me that the legitimacy of my work as a musician, researcher, and teacher is assured when it is built solidly on the foundation of Jesus Christ–that is, when all my work is informed by who Christ is and by the reality of his new kingdom.

11 For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— 13 each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. 14 If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. 15 If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.

~ 1 Corinthians 3:11-15 (ESV)

This Lent, I find myself staring down some demons. I am not doing much music, much research, or any teaching, and I find myself feeling less myself, and far less valuable, because of it. The majority of my time is spent loving my two small children and keeping house, and while this is a temporary situation, I have trouble keeping that in perspective. But today I am encouraged by the grace of God, that all my work, both the visible work of my professional life and the invisible work of my personal life, is valuable not because it is my work but because it is founded on the Lord, Jesus Christ and set before me by him. And I am also chastened, reminded that if I do the work set before me merely because it is my duty, having a poor attitude and valuing it less than I should, that yes, I will remain a child of God, but that my work may in fact count for very little in the kingdom.

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
    the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
what is man that you are mindful of him,
    and the son of man that you care for him?
~ Psalm 8:3-4
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Grace in the Raw

Review of Les Misérables (2012)

This review was written for Chesterton House and can be found here on their website.

Before attending Les Misérables, I heard from a friend – a long-time fan of the stage musical – that she found the rawness of the cinematography distracted her from the music. Armed with this observation, I did not expect to be as ravished by the film as I was. Most captivating is the way in which the musical and filmic elements work together to create a deeply engaging experience of the narrative and its characters that spills over into life, especially through the portrayal of grace.

Photo credit: NCR online

Film settings necessarily contrast with the expectations established by stage dramas. Many film interpretations of musicals retain a relatively theatrical setting and the perceptual distance of a stage drama.  To say that Les Misérables abandons any theatrical effect would be to entirely mistake the film, but nevertheless, the film takes advantage of the medium’s capabilities. The city is shown in various states of disarray: the prostitutes appear ill, the poor look starved and cold, the inn is chaotic, the streets are dirty. Aerial shots are juxtaposed with extreme close-ups to create a continuum of varied perspectives on the story. The close-ups are especially raw, introducing us to the vulnerability of the characters in an intimate way that is downright uncomfortable. Les Misérables thus eliminates the lens of ironic distance common to popular postmodern perception, much to the chagrin of critics. Put differently, it dares to “treat old untrendy human troubles and emotions with reverence and conviction” (Stanley Fish; NY Times).

Trained musicians tend to disparage the quality of the vocals in this film. Although Anne Hathaway presented a stunning performance as Fantine, other leads have come under some severe criticism. However, with the possible exception of Russell Crowe, I think the vocal issues are balanced and even, perhaps justified, by the circumstances in which the characters find themselves; the raggedness of the physical and emotional states of the characters is much more pronounced in this film than it could be on stage, and the rough edges in the vocals are generally appropriate to the dramatic situation. This trained musician finds that the vocal imperfections contribute to the film’s powerful effect.

Empty Chairs at Empty Tables

One might think a film offers little advantage over a staged production with respect to large ensemble numbers, usually staged as a colorful choreographic spectacle. Yet this film production of Les Misérables balances the spectacle and the underlying character of the events portrayed. Take, for example, “Lovely Ladies,” in which shots of the whole group of prostitutes dancing are juxtaposed with disorienting footage of Fantine as she winds her way through the chaos and is swallowed up by it. The scene becomes grotesque and disturbing–the crude humor of the lyrics offset by Fantine’s desperation. We are not supposed to laugh and the film makes laughing impossible.

Consider also the intriguing contrast between musical time and the “real” time of the narrative. In Fantine’s “I Dreamed a Dream” and Jean val Jean’s “Bring Him Home,” all else comes to a halt. No other characters hear these songs; they are reflections, prayers, asides. This feature is not unique to musical dramas but is perhaps most pronounced in them because words take time to sing and are often repeated in a way that would be nonsensical if unaccompanied by music. The realism of the film setting is what makes these pauses in the narrative so emotionally striking. Combined with improbably close-up cinematography and realistic expression, these “slow” moments drag us into the characters’ inner reality.

Many reviewers have remarked on the pervasive theme of grace in Les Misérables. Here again, the film’s interwoven cinematographic and musical elements provide a suitable lens. The grace of Les Misérables is visceral rather than philosophical. We cannot distance ourselves from the ragged horror of the characters’ circumstances and experience, but are rather invited – even compelled – to empathize with and extend grace to Fantine and val Jean, Marius and the young rebels, even Javert. These are sinners all, yet desperately craving mercy. Freed of ironic distance, do we recognize our own desperate need for grace? Are we not also inspired to empathize with, extend grace to, and even act on behalf of our fellow image-bearers who are suffering in the world around us? The epilogue articulates what it might mean for grace to be extended, for all things to be reconciled, at the moment when Jean val Jean steps into death and encounters the prior dead from the story singing a revised version of “Do you hear the people sing”:

Do you hear the people sing? Lost in the valley of the night.
It is the music of a people who are climbing to the light.
For the wretched of the earth there is a flame that never dies.
Even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise.

We will live again in freedom in the garden of the Lord.
We will walk behind the plough-share, We will put away the sword.
The chain will be broken and all men will have their reward! 

(To start the clip below at the above lyrics, skip to 4:25. However, the whole clip is worth listening to.)

Epilogue (Val Jean’s Death/Do You Hear the People Sing Reprise)

Other reviews of interest:

“Les Misérables and Irony” (Quoted above; Opinionator Blog, NYT)

“Two Cheers for Javert” (Cardus blog)

“Law and Les Misérables Revisited” and “Les Misérables Review” (CT)

The Goodness of Time

If in Christ ‘all things’ have found their fulfillment, then, presumably, the same is to be said of time as an integral dimension of the created order. (Theology, Music and Time, p. 71)

Jeremy Begbie’s book Theology, Music and Time (which I have briefly mentioned here) explores the connections between the interactions of music and time and a proper theological understanding of time. In Chapter 3, “In God’s Good Time,” Begbie sets out to use properties of music to suggest that time is intrinsic to creation and that time is essentially a positive part of God’s “good ordering” of the world (p. 71).

Photo credit: art knowledge news

To support the first assertion, namely that time is intrinsic to creation, Begbie draws on earlier arguments in the book, suggesting that music is necessarily made up of time in the very way it operates – that in music, time is seen not as a container, backround, or mental construct but as absolutely inherent to the “interrelationship between the physical entities involved in the production and reception of sound” (p. 80).

To support the second assertion, that time is good, Begbie presents four ways in which music demonstrates that a “link between time and fallenness” is not necessary:

  1. In music, change and order are seen to coexist; “change need not imply chaos” (p. 85). Tonal music (at least) is by nature subject to persistent change and yet embodies dynamic order.
  2. Music takes time not only to be created but to be. The implication is that the created world takes time to be, and that in music we can see that the fact that creation can only reach its fulfillment through time is not necessarily a negative, fallen characteristic of creation. Thus patience and waiting become potentially positive and enriching rather than empty. Music demands patience and waiting, the trust that there is something worth waiting for, and the realization that the “something” is not detachable from the music. (pp. 86-87)
  3. Different entities have different “time-structures,” different rates of coming into being, reaching a peak, returning to non-being. In musical works, multiple different temporal operations occur concurrently, often with irregularities (for those in the music world, an example is multiple layers of hypermeter, in which irregular hyper measures might occur), and these fluctuating and simultaneous layers of temporal action are crucial to the integrity of the piece. These differences and varieties should be seen not as signs of corruption but as signs of the diversity God has given his creation for good (pp.89-91).
  4. Finally, music challenges the assumption that finitude – boundaries and temporal limits – is by nature a fallen characteristic (p.91). As a result, Begbie suggests (with Barth) that limited duration in human life is “fundamentally beneficial and advantageous” (p. 94). A quote seems clearest here:

Music depends heavily for its meaning on finitude at every level… Musical continuity emerges from transience, from the coming into being and dying of tones, for in this way and only in this way can their dynamic qualities be sensed. The fact that music never solidifies or coagulates to form a thing or substance is critical to its intelligibility…(p.92)

Implicit in our finitude is an invitation and direction to through ourselves upon the divine graciousness…creation praises God in its very finitude and thus shows what authentic praise is…[T]he universe is suspended between nothingness and the infinity of God – music can exemplify and embody just this suspension. (pp.95-97)

As Begbie suggests, these characteristics of music in conjunction with the doctrine of Incarnation (Christ’s entering into the created order as God and man) should waken in us the conviction that temporality is an intrinsic dimension of God’s creation and that our interaction with it should recognize it as a gift, as an opportunity to recognize not only our limitations but also the divine goodness of our creator, as something with which we can work and live peacably, working in “the stream of God’s wisdom” (Rowan Williams, qtd. on p. 97).

…the purpose of music…

…the purpose of _De Musica_ is to bring the soul to a recognition of its fallen state and promote its return to God, to move from the world of sense to the world of intelligibility. The soul is fallen from the restful contemplation of eternal truth, into the busy-ness of temporal activity. Because of the fall, we are ordered by the tapestry of time, ‘sewn into’ the order of spatio-temporality. We have become so many individual ‘words’, each forming part of the poem of the temporal whole but unable to perceive the harmony and beauty of the connected work. By immersion in temporal sequence, we have lost the purview of the whole temporal series we possessed prior to the fall.

al_assumpta_est.jpg

…by the time we reach the _Confessions_ a more positive attitude to the created order, materiality and temporality is evident… The recitation of a psalm, though so obviously in time and subject to the distractions of the temporal order, is … used to illustrate the way in which the mind’s descent into diversity has not entirely effaced its ability to grasp that Unity from which all things proceed. Insofar as the mind achieves some ordering power over time, it approximates, albeit very weakly, to the perspective and character of eternity.

…For all the qualifications we have noted, it is hard to ignore the signs of the ancient tendency to run together temporality and fallenness, and especially significant for us is the way in which music is discovered and known insofar as we abstract from the temporal relations of physical realities patterns which reflect in some measure the order of eternity. Despite its considerable subtlety and fascination, for this vision to be advanced as offering a way forward for the theological deployment of music today would be, I suggest, dubious.

[Because] [t]onal music exhibits not the temporality of a single straight line but that of a multi-levelled matrix of waves of tension and resolution, in which the temporal modes interweave within an overall directionality[,]… it would seem that music is capable of demonstrating that such a strong link between time and fallenness need not be assumed, and that there is no necessity to distance ourselves from the mutable multiplicity of the temporal world in order to experience beneficial and enriching order.

Jeremy Begbie on St. Augustine’s remarks on theological engagement with time and music (some of which are quite beautiful); also questioning the assumption that temporality and fallenness go together, that materiality is only of value in its signification of that which is eternal. ~ Theology, Music and Time, 82-84, 68, 85

Marriage and Music

I had the privilege of playing the music for my brother’s wedding ceremony today.

When he and my new sister-in-law first sat down to discuss what that music would be, we sought a suitable style and tone for both the occasion and their particular tastes. They wanted music that would set a worshipful and God-centered tone in the prelude (hymn arrangements ranging from traditional hymns to Getty songs), be atmospheric and beautiful during the processionals (Debussy), focus the vision of their marriage in concert with the congregation (Be Thou My Vision), and offer their new life together to God in praise (the Doxology) just before the absolutely joyful recessional (See, What a Morning!). Today, I even accidentally began the recessional during the kiss… but the result was a joyful accompaniment to the most exuberant part of the ceremony!

In some ways wedding music is a formality, something we do because that’s the tradition. But the choices we made for this wedding reveal the beautiful potential of that formality to express and shape our experience.

Why does music form such an integral part of our lives – even the lives of those who are not musicians, like my brother and sister? Why does it add meaning or adjust the emphasis of moments in our daily lives? Whence comes its power to articulate and define emotions and meaningfully attach them to verbal expression?

Somehow music appears to combine the ineffable with the articulable – and today, as my brother and new sister were wed, they were surrounded by music that hinted at the inarticulable fullness of their hearts and provided a setting to their worshipful offering of their lives before the God of the universe. I am so grateful to have been a part of it.

RE: Remembering the Mystical

I wrote this post a couple of years ago, and as I reread it, I am both encouraged to see that these ideas have continued to influence my scholarship, specifically in my own research area, and bothered by my own failure to remember in my daily life. Remembering is difficult but terribly important. That God formed the nature of music is part of the picture, but that God formed me and the whole context of my life must necessarily shape the priority I place on the study of music. However significant this art and the study of it may be, even more so is the living out of my WHOLE life, body & soul, for God’s glory.

Pictures on Silence

How do I practice music in such a way that I am treating the created world “as able to glorify God in its own way, by virtue of its own distinctive patterns, rhythms, and movements?” (Begbie, RT, 92)  This as opposed to viewing music as merely a pointer beyond itself to a Platonic ideal harmony, as dangerously earthy, emotional, nonverbal, as necessarily contained in its proper place by the clarity and purity of words and ideas.

As a theorist, I must necessarily treat music as a less-than-scientific whole.  The analytical-logical side of me longs to understand music as a science, to articulate how it works in an orderly, organized fashion, to hypothesize and experiment, to explain away its ineffableness.  And to a great extent, delving into the organized patterns that compose effective music is aesthetically and spiritually rewarding, leading to a grand appreciation of the existence of such…

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The temporal whole

An interesting idea about how music and time interact.  Unfortunately, I’ve had to cut a number of the elaborating bits that flesh out the argument.  If you are very interested, check out the book Sound and Symbol, Chapter 12: The Musical Concept of Time.

[…] melody is a temporal Gestalt; temporal Gestalt presupposes that a temporal whole–a whole whose parts, with the exception of the one part present at the moment, either are no longer there or are not yet there–is given to us in an immediate experience. […] thus past and future are given with and in the present and are experienced with and in the present […] But the past is not a part of the future because it is remembered, nor is the future a part of the present because it is foreknown or forefelt. […] The temporal whole with which we are here confronted is, then, certainly not the work of memory and foreknowledge or forefeeling. […] Every melody declares to us that the past can be there without being remembered, the future without being foreknown–that the past is not stored in memory but in time, and that it is not our consciousness which anticipates time but that time anticipates itself.  The possibility of music and of every temporal Gestalt rests entirely upon the premise of a time […] that stores itself and anticipates itself.

[…] What a melody is on a small scale, the total course of a musical work is on a large scale–a whole that unfolds in time and is so constituted that, though its individual members appear one after another, the whole, in order to be present, does not have to wait for member to be added to member, but is, so to speak, always already there, not factually, as with the spatial Gestalt, but as direction, as oriented tension.

~ Zuckerkandl, Sound and Symbol, 236-237