Tuesday, February 17, 2009

What Music Means to Me

The following is a something I wrote for a recital in the program notes. Questions, comments, critiques are very welcome:

I have been asked to write down some thoughts about what music means to me. I shall begin then, with a short account of my own experience with music. My love of music began (I am almost ashamed to say) from selfish reasons. When I was 10, I read an article about how classical music makes ones IQ go up. Being a snobbish little boy I threw myself into my parent’s Mozart collection which amounted to about 10CDs. All the while, I constantly chanted this mantra to myself: “this will make me smarter, this will make me smarter” add infinitum. Like a musical moron I would vigorously nod my head up and down with the rhythm of the symphony or when the music became grand and exciting I’d wave my hands around frantically as if I were conducting an invisible symphony. Can you imagine what I must’ve looked like? In fact, I would look into the mirror sometimes and practice my I-am-deeply-in-musical-thought look and try to seem very profound, I mostly ended up looking constipated. Thank God something good came of this egoism! As I became more and more familiar with the pieces, I found that I actually enjoyed listening to them for their own sake. I didn’t really even know why yet, I just liked listening. My initial enjoyment began to spill over into a liking for other composers. In addition to Mozart’s music, I began listening to Elgar, Dvorak, Beethoven, Puccini, and then it hit me: I had discovered the Second Piano Concerto of Rachmaninoff. Diane Ackerman, a poet, describes this piano concerto as one that is:

full of tenderness and yearning,
beguiling melodies, raging passion,
and long sensuous preludes
to explosive climaxes,
frenzy followed by strains
of mysticism and trance.

Loaded with starry melodies,
it was a map of his sensibility,
and a wilderness rarely known
-the intense life of an artist
seen in miniature, with rapture expressed
as all-embracing sound.

But words do not come close, I think, to describing what it is like to listen to that music. How can I describe that aural experience which ravishes my entire being and makes me weep to hear such beauty? The answer is, I think, that we wouldn’t have music if we could fully describe it in words. Descriptions of Rachmaninoff can only go so far, you will have to listen to it yourself.

If I thought that discovering Rachmaninoff was something, imagine how it must have shaken my world to find Bach! Oh Bach! What a colossal syllable! I shall not even try to tell you the love, humility, and goodwill that his music inspires in me. This is what Leonard Bernstein says, “…once you do get to know Bach well enough to love him, you will love him more than any other composer. I know this because I went through the same process myself.” Further on he states,

And what is it that holds all these pages together, that makes it all inevitably the product of one man? The religious spirit. For Bach, all music was religion; writing it was an act of faith; and performing it was an act of worship. Every note was dedicated to God and to nothing else…Every last cello suite or violin sonata, every prelude and fugue from The Well-Tempered Clavier praises God…Bach…was a man of God, and his godliness informs his music from first to last (The Joy of Music, 237-277).

And with that, I come to my point. The fundamental value of music is in its ability to make us better people. Rather than just a hobby or something we teach children because it will make them “smart” (which it will). Classical music is an education of the heart. It is a vital part of forming a person’s character for the better. Now realize that I am not saying that you need music to be a good person, after all, the Nazis also listened to Schubert, but music makes it that much easier to love God and to love your fellow man. While the music lasts, I am in wonder and awe before its beauty. It’s almost as heady as being in love with someone, and perhaps it is just that – love – I mean. I do love music. And though my fingers stutter and mumble across the keys trying desperately to incarnate that love, I still do it; rather, I play because I love. In the last act of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, we are given a very good model of what all our praises to God are like when the King of Athens comments on the bumbling and ridiculous play of the builders is put on in the King’s honor,

Our sport shall be to take what they mistake,
And what poor duty cannot do, noble respect
Takes it in might, not merit.
Where I have come, great clerks have purposed
To greet me with premeditated welcomes;
Where I have seen them shiver and look pale,
Make periods in the midst of sentences,
Throttle their practiced accent in their fears,
And, in conclusion, dumbly have broke off,
Not paying me a welcome. Trust me, sweet,
Out of this silence yet I picked a welcome,
And in the modesty of fearful duty
I read as much as from the rattling tongue
Of saucy and audacious eloquence.
Love, therefore, and tongue-tied simplicity
In least speak most, to my capacity
(Act V.90-105).

If you skipped over that long quote, don’t worry about it, I mostly put it there to sound smart. The point is that the king took the stuttering praises of his servants and accounted those jumbled and messy attempts as eloquent speeches because of their love for him. In the same way, God will take our intention and count it as the act. If we will commit the time we spend in practicing and playing this music (like Bach) as a form of worship towards God, then it will mean something; otherwise, recitals are simply mutual admiration societies. We have mechanical piano players to do that. We come here not just to listen to those we know and admire the talent and hard work that has been put into these pieces, we come here also to participate in and experience beauty, beauty that at its root is from God. Life itself becomes more wonderful because such beauty exist. That’s what music means to me, it is one of the ways in which we are led to God. Where would I be without music?

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Cross-Post: I Shot a Man in Reno...

...not really, but I did read a fascinating book recently by a man whose surname is Reno. In fact, his name is Rusty Reno (savor the alliterative goodness). Mr. Reno's work is entitled "In the Ruins of the Church," a dense piece on the state of the church as he sees it and how one ought to respond to it. Sound original? I didn't think so either, that is, until I flipped through the first few pages of Mr. Reno's remarkable little book. What did I expect to find? The usual, angry (sometimes rightfully so) commentary on how messed up the church has become and why we need a scorched earth policy of diverse forms in order to salvage her image and purpose. With regards to these books, my mind had become a veritable burned-over district, a calloused surface that refused to absorb any more rants.

All that to say, I did not have the most receptive mind when going into Reno's text, and that it moved me is a credit to its affective power. Whilst sparing you of a mere synopsis, Reno manipulates two ideas in particular that I feel are just what we need right now (by "we," I mean anyone who has ever at any time felt the church let them down; otherwise, most of us). First, Reno discusses the "sin of distance." While it has an eerie ring, the truth behind this idea is something so common that we may not immediately recognize it for what it is. The sin of distance, according to Reno, is the inclination of church-goers to "be in but not of" their churches due to personal grievance, discord, etc. This perverse parody of how the Christian sub-culture normally views the world around them turns inward, and breeds an invisible segregation within her own ranks. I bet you have noticed it, I bet you have done it yourself a time or two or more. Example: you are sitting in your seat and church begins with the first songs of the worship set coming from the band or choir. You recall with the first notes that this is a 'new' style that you feel has no place in church. You do not want to be obvious about your discontent and so you sing along, but you know full well that you have no part, and largely want no part, in what is going on around you. And that is the sin of distance. It is that invisible self-alienation that pervades the heart and mind of the church-goer. This immediately requires a few qualifiers. First, this does not mean excommunication. I have seen churches (mostly youth groups) through uncharitable ostracism make it quite unbearable for a person to partake in the service. Second, this does not mean that feelings of discontent in themselves are wrong, indeed they can often be the whispers of discernment. Third, this does not mean that one should not distance oneself from sin (just not the sinner). Essentially, the sin of distance is self-imposed spiritual isolation based on dissatisfaction. This bears some more fleshing out, though.

There is a particular example I feel qualified to examine, mainly because it comes from my own testimony. Two periods in my life have been marked by severe angst and grief concerning the church I attended. These illustrate the difference between good and bad distance well, I think, because whereas the first period was an evil sort of cynicism, the second was due to a profound woundedness that I fervently tried to heal, and failed to do so. In my first dark period, I committed the sin of distance grievously. Not content to merely remain aloof from my fellow congregants, I am ashamed to say that I was subversive in the church as well. I was cynical, and bitterly sarcastic toward the well-meaning leaders and fellow students because of what I called the "blunt simplicity and elementary nature" of the teaching, worship, and discipleship. Here's the tricky part: deep down, I craved intimacy and deep discipleship, to go further up and further in, so to speak. I failed to do so by alienating myself from the entity I needed the most: community. In my second dark period, I craved intimacy in the church community, and sought to serve as well as I could, knowing how much I needed them and how good it was to be needed. Then, due to some very unfortunate events, I found myself ostracized from the community as I had seen done to others in the past. This is not meant to condemn them, but rather to point out that in those times, I made an anguished decision. I committed something akin to the sin of distance again, differentiated sheer grief. Grief is the product of a wounded love, and that is exactly what happened. Not to contradict myself from earlier, when I said that the sin of distance does not apply in cases like this, what I know to be true here is what Reno himself seems to know in his text. My distance was not self-alienation, but the beleaguered final move of a tired soul. I know what happened to me, but I would not presume to make a standard of it for others.

This then, is Reno's concept of the sin of distance. And yet, how does one avoid it or recover from it? The cure may be found in his sister-idea of the "love of our ruins," in which Reno draws on the imagery of Nehemiah (who does that?) to demonstrate how Scripture leads us in a path of 1) return, 2)reflection, 3)resolve, and 4)rebuilding when confronting the reality of our ecclesial ruins. I will save this, however, for my next post.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Creature with Two Legs on Either Side - A Thanksgiving Perspective

Do you ever wonder......

about the little tufts of grass rising from the deeps of the earth?
about the wind-swept skies that have clouds dancing to and fro?
about fingernails growing and growing?
about little clumps of dust appearing seemingly out of nowhere?
about the minuscule ant able to carry food as heavy as itself?
about words which, at one glance, appear recognizable, but at other times, looks like meaningless symbols?
about life?

Its challenging to think of life as I have never seen it. Imagine if you had seen the world for the first time, that everything is entirely new and not understandable. Wow! How we would marvel at the sight of a leaf! The sun in all its glory. We discussed this during Torrey after reading Chesterton's A Crazy Tale (the title references a section of it). Without revealing too much of the plot, I wonder if it really is crazy?

Perspectives play such an important role in our lives. It is like glasses we throw on every day. But sometimes they are smudged, or filter out the things that we think are so ordinary. In that way, nobody thinks too much that

Today, November 25th, Wednesday
never existed before nor will ever exist again.

So...lets clean off those glasses. Lets look at the world again in a curious manner. Lets see things as if we've never seen them before, and we are looking at things in a new way.

Life as we know it would change dramatically...

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Thoughts from "Jane Eyre"

Recently, I have been listening to the soundtrack of the musical "Jane Eyre" (which has lovely music, by the way). There is one song that is sung that got me to thinking. Here are the lyrics.

Sympathies exist
Presentiments and signs
That baffle our mortal comprehension
To dream or to see
Or to feel or to hear
What seems not to be there
But such things exist
Things beyond this earth
Things beyond our sacred
Thoughts of heaven
These are the things that reason defies
But reason sometimes lies

So they are. The last two lines have made me think. Can reason lie? I had never thought that it could as it has been, in my opinion, a way to discover truth. So how can reason present truth if it lies?

Monday, November 17, 2008

Brains Conquer Beauty?

While reading in the library today, I happened upon a copy of "Sacred History Magazine" that was on the table I was sitting at. As I was flipping through the pages, I came across an advertisement that caugt my attention. The title read, "Brains Conquer Beatuy." Apparently some scientists have discovered a way to make fake diamonds that "look even better than the vast majority of mined diamonds." They go on to state that "only experienced diamond appraisers...are able to make the distinction between a flawless natural diamond and the scientifically perfect" model from the lab.

I have seen real diamonds before. They are a beautiful stone. Held to light they are dazzling and contain colors that can shock even a creative imagination. yet I wonder if the claim of "perfection from the laboratory" is not bordering on some deeper concept. It would seem important to remember that these lab diamonds , however wonderfully cut and clear, are still, at best, good imitations. I am not raising an indictment of the product or ones like it, which seem to be visually pleasing, but the fact that it is still a lab diamond makes it very different from a real diamond. Functionally, in sight and quality, for what it is, the lab diamond may be superb. Yet there is something tragic in the claim to have "cracked the code" of beauty. It reduces something beautiful to a mere function, in this case, a matter of appearance. Value, then, is found in the quality of the imitation. My fiance, Melissa, is very, very beautiful. If cloning does eventually come about, and scientists in a lab somewhere begin advertising that 'brains have conquered beauty; we now have the ability to produce copies of Melissa at a low cost that is just as radiant as the original, but that does not ever get ill or grow tired.' How profoundly hideous!

The good news here, folks, is that it is impossible to do this, because no lab could reproduce the subtlety or mystery or complexity, or any of the numberless qualities that work into what makes the brilliance of Melissa. With the lab replicas of diamonds, scientists have an easier job than this. They do not have to make up for the mystery of the human soul. But they still have the tall, and in my opinion impossible, order of replicating the mystery of what makes a diamond truly beautiful. Can the lab re-create the awe and wonder that the seemingly chaotic pressures and forces in the earth could arrange something that is at the same time so delicate and yet so immensely strong? Can they copy the wonder that God would make room in his plan for something so seemingly gratuitous as this? The lab attempts to give the spledour of reality to an imitation. i ask, however, if it is better to merely experience, even if for a fleeting moment, something real, or to have possession and permanence of merely a dream?

Thursday, October 30, 2008


This is my first time ever posting on a blog. So, please, all you experienced bloggers, bear with me.

Good-bye. Nobody really likes that word. Why? It means change; it means seperation. It means a disconnection from what we had held as dear. Yet why is it so painful? I've recently begun thinking about good-byes. But I've been wondering if there's a deeper reason why the human race tries to avoid good-byes.

In the beginning, man was created and lived in communion with God. Then God created woman as a suitable companion. And for who knows how long, man and woman lived in constant fellowship with God. However, mankind sinned and fell from his state of friend of God. That was the first good-bye of man. God said good-bye to his most treasured creation. Man said good-bye to his Creator and first friend. Before the fall, there had been no such thing as good-bye in the knowledge of man.

From that time to now, good-bye has been used over and over and over. And, except in special cases, they have been very painful. They are painful, in my thoughts, because the first good-bye of man was painful. It was never supposed to be. That is why, therefore, we rejoice over the news of Christ's coming to stay with us forevermore.

Such are my thoughts. Let me know what yours are, if you care to disclose them.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Attention from Wheatstone

Hey all!
Guess who linked to our blog?  Wheatstone Academy's blog posted a link to ours.  Check out their blog at www.wheatstoneforum.com  :)  Very happy day, yes?
Under the mercy,