Carol Contemplation (Part 1: The Text)

My favorite carol this year is one that few people have heard of and I myself did not know until this advent season. It’s title alone sets it apart from the more popular carols, which I love as well. Can you guess which it is?

Joy to the World

O Come, All Ye Faithful

O Little Town of Bethlehem

All I Want for Christmas is You

Hark! The Herald Angels Sing

Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence

Angels We have Heard on High

The First Noel 

Alright, alright. Admittedly, there are two songs here that don’t quite seem to be like the others. (*Two of these songs just don’t quite belong!*) One, of course, is not a carol at all, but a song that I objectively don’t like, yet can’t seem to skip…it’s like some sort of disease spread by Mariah Carey’s catchy riffs, as demonstrated by my roommate’s latest Tumblr quote:

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But I digress. The other title that seems at odds with all of the angels and joy and faithfulness is “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence.” This doesn’t sound like a typical Christmas carol at all; in fact, it’s sort of spooky. Honestly, though, as much as I adore the other carols on this list (Mariah Carey aside), I feel that both the lyrics AND the music of this hymn best capture the advent attitude to which we are called as believers, as mortal flesh awaiting our salvation.

First, let’s take a look at the title.

“Let”
To let is a permission, invoking the graceful giving of a higher power. But it is also an invitation. In carols such as “O Come, all ye Faithful,” we are not praising or invoking God directly, but singing truth to our fellow believers. To “let all mortal flesh keep silence” is to pray for contemplative, anticipatory silence, as well as to call each other to rest in this silence. I think this is one reason that calm quiet at the end of a candlelight service is so magical; it is rare, silent fellowship and, in itself, an act of worship.

“All Mortal Flesh”
In the emphasis on the supernatural and divine that so often (and so necessarily) surrounds the Christmas season, we forget the gross, gory messiness of being mortal. Of being flesh. “All mortal flesh” refers to all of humanity, past and present and future. Dust to dust: flesh and bone.

More so, though, “all mortal flesh” calls to all life that was and is and is yet to be. All mortal beings, from the lambs sacrificed on the altars of old to the pets that now snuggle beneath glowing Christmas trees. The beasts that fed where Christ lay, the sheep grazing beneath the heavenly hosts. Let ALL mortal flesh await. As Romans reads, all creation is groaning with the birth pangs of the coming kingdom, just as the virgin mother with the first advent.

But how can we speak of “mortal flesh” without considering the Incarnation? Indeed, how can we speak of Christmas without the Incarnation? In these two words, we find also our Lord and Savior: immortal God in mortal flesh. From the very title of this hymn, we see the scope of the narrative it tells; not only does all creation suffer under mortality, but the Creator who enters into this messy, painful, shivering mortality. We cannot forget that, Christ was born to die, so that, as another carol declares, “man no more may die.” This counterintuitive gospel is at the heart of this carol; Easter and Christmas are not kept to their separate seasons, but held together in Christ.

“Keep Silence”
Keeping silence is a weakness of mine. I love to sing and talk. Christmas is a favorite time of year for me because everyone seems to be singing, dancing, and wishing each other good tidings. I honestly feel guilty if I don’t listen to Christmas radio nearly 24/7. Silence, especially this beautiful-but-noisy time of year, is something that takes great discipline. And yet, before the angels sang, there must have been a stillness in the air, rent only by cries of pain, animal sounds, and — at last — a baby’s first cry…the first cry of the Firstborn of Creation.

But if we keep our silence, we will learn to listen. The distant roaring of a still winter’s night. The twinkling of the stars like the jingle of bells. The singing of choirs instead of the blasting of the radio. This silence is not the absence of noise, but the noticing of sounds other than ourselves. It is to await something other than our ordinary daily race. It is a disciplined contemplation of the world around us and the creator of this world, who, though he deserved the fanfare of the heavens, entered first with quiet humility.

The Verses
If the title was not already loaded with insight, the rest of the text for this carol is absolutely astounding:

Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
and with fear and trembling stand;
ponder nothing earthly minded,
for with blessing in His hand
Christ our God to earth descendeth,
our full homage to demand.

King of kings, yet born of Mary,
as of old on earth He stood,
Lord of lords, in human vesture –
in the body and the blood.
He will give to all the faithful
His own self for heavenly food.

Rank on rank the host of heaven
spreads its vanguard on the way,
as the Light of light descendeth
from the realms of endless day,
that the pow’rs of hell may vanish
as the darkness clears away.

At His feet the six-winged seraph,
cherubim, with sleepless eye,
veil their faces to the Presence,
as with ceaseless voice they cry,
“Alleluia, alleluia!
Alleluia, Lord most high!”

How many Christmas carols speak of “fear and trembling”? And yet this is vital, for it calls the faithful not only to come and worship, but to reorient their minds (as so often depicted in the Psalms, which also feature the “fear and trembling” motif) toward not only the hope of Christ, but His fearsome righteousness and grace.

It also alludes to Philippians, where we are told to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling.” This speaks of an active contemplation; although keeping silence, we are actively engaging with what it means for Christ to be born unto us. And as we read on to find that “Christ our God to earth descendeth, our full homage to demand,” we might again be struck with fear and trembling. If a righteous God is descending to our realm to demand the payment of our debts, Oh Lord who can stand?

But the hymn does not stop here.  We might fear and tremble before the coming of a God we have wronged, but the second verse reveals that He came not to demand his recompense from us, but from himself. Christ, “In the body and the blood…will give to all the faithful, His own self for heavenly food.” In these lines, we make the journey from Christmas to Holy Week, finding that Christ’s birth and death are not separate at all. Just as the Infant Jesus was placed in a feeding trough, he is the sustenance for his flock. In His birth, our “Lord of Lords in human vesture,” prepared the way for salvation and communion. He descended not to demand payment, but to ransom us of His own eternal and infinite, yet mortally-clothed, worth.

Verse three is in a more typical Yuletide spirit, though its language is remarkably strong. “Rank on rank” and “vanguard” are more warmongering words than the usual “herald angels” (“Who’s Herald?” as the Peanuts might ask.) But we see here that although Christmas brings a newborn, in the words of C.S. Lewis: “he is not a tame lion.” Our humble, baby Jesus is not at all separate from the conquering Savior who will clear away all darkness and vanquish the powers of hell. Perhaps this Revelation Christ does not seem compatible with tender Nativity scenes, but this hymn reminds us that they are one and the same.

In the final, powerful verse, the supernatural reappears as the “six-winged seraph” and “cherubim, with sleepless eye” hide their holy eyes from the Divine Presence. The scriptural descriptions of these beings are, frankly, terrifying, so it is no wonder that the angels atop our Christmas trees are more friendly entities. However, the sheer majesty of our Lord is expressed here; even the most glorious of creatures cannot bear to look upon Him, yet this same Lord clothed himself in mortal flesh to redeem his fallen images. How terrifyingly beautiful? How wondrous and yet how fearsome?

This hymn’s text begins with mortal silence, but ends with divine and ceaseless cries of “Alleluia, Lord most high!” This advent, although it is nearly at its end, let us first contemplate in silence and then join in rejoicing as we remember the truth of the gospel, of Christmas and Easter and Revelation bound together in the person of Jesus Christ.

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Preeminent Performance

In my “Redeeming Culture through Music” class, we were asked the following question:

“Which is most important in music: the composer, the performer, or the listener?”

The class more or less unanimously expressed that the three persons are equally important. After all, if there is no composer, there is nothing to perform and if there is nobody to perform, why bother to compose? Furthermore, without either of these, there is no reason or even opportunity to listen. In fact, these three roles are so remarkably interrelated that it is difficult to define or even discuss one apart from the other two and often an individual musician may (and should) practice more than one of these roles.

It seems, however, that although there is an almost triune relationship between the composer, performer, and listener, it is worth realizing that the composer and listener are mediated by the performer and, indeed, the performer ideally acts as both composer and listener. In performing a piece, a musician is interpreting and expressing with a unique intention, thus co-composing while also being the mode by which the original composer is sharing his ideas with an audience. Without the performer, these “ideas” would be limited to the mind of the composer; after all, notation is not truly music any more than words are truly that which they describe. The composer relies upon the performer to breath life into the form of his work and, through the performer, the music is made.

The performer is also the most active listener. It is immediately clear when a performer is not listening to his music and it is rightly said that while a musician might hear the note as he plays, the true artist hears it before. To play well, to bring to life a work in collaboration with the composer, the performer must also be the greatest of listeners.

Communication too must be mentioned, for without the performing artist to produce the sounds imagined by the composer, listeners or audience members cannot experience and participate in the music. As Madeleine L’Engle writes in her beautiful devotional book, Walking on Water: 

“Art is communication, and if there is no communication it is as though the work had been stillborn.”

A piece of music might exist conceptually in the mind of the composer, but without the performer as its communicator, those who are mere listeners will not be able to hear, enjoy, and ponder it. The performer, then, is not only the embodiment of both composer and listener, but the mediator between the original composer and the awaiting listeners.

At this merely human level, it seems that of composer, performer, and listener, the performer (if we are forced to choose one) is the most vital, for he is both of the others, as well as a communicative mediator. It becomes apparent through scriptural synthesis that this answer is consistent theologically as well.

Here is where I must clarify: I do not mean to suggest that the relationship of composer, performer, and listener is a perfect parallel to the Trinity. (I have laughed at too many #AlsoNotLikeTheTrinity posts to risk it!) However, I will venture to suggest that music, like all arts, is incarnational, and that the composer, performer, and listener wonderfully image the intermediary work of Christ between God the Father and His creation, mankind.

“To paint a picture or to write a story or to compose a song is an incarnational activity.” – Madeleine L’Engle

First of all, what do I mean that “art is incarnational”? The production of art is to put ideas into a sensory, communicable form. Books are ideas set in words; painting or sculpture are visual and tangible expressions of the artist’s idea; music differs slightly in that a person, rather than a medium such as a book or canvas, is needed to produce the audible product. But even (and perhaps especially) in this case, the music is an idea made actual through the performance; music is an idea incarnate as organized sound.

Already, there is an echo of Christ in the word “incarnate,” and rightly so. The idea that music is brought fully into being by the mind of the composer and through the performer as co-composer is reminiscent of John 1:1-3:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him was not any thing made that was made.” (ESV)

God (the Father) creates as a mind imagines, while the Son manifests as the Word communicates. Ideally, a composer would be also performer, thus imaging the perfect unity of the Trinity. Even with a separate composer and performer, though, the reflective relationship is present: the composer creates conceptually and, through the power of the performer, communicatively.

This brings us to the listeners. Controversial composer, Arnold Schoenberg, believed that:

“A real composer writes music for no other reason than that it pleases him. Those who compose because they want to please others, and have audiences in mind, are not real artists.”

Theologically, based on the parallels I seek to draw, there is some truth here. God creates out of His overflowing delight and the Genesis narrative immediately reveals God’s pleasure as He deems each piece of creation “good.” However, this delight indicates that God formed all things also in order to share this wondrous joy. When God crowns His creation with His own image, mankind, He pronounces it finally, “very good.”

Here and throughout Scripture (consider the Psalms as one such vast example) it is apparent that God in His infinite goodness and love made all that there is for His own right pleasure, but also with the gracious desire to communicate Himself and His creativity with His image bearers: mankind, the listeners.

This brings us back to incarnation. Consider Colossians 1:15-17

“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities— all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” (ESV)

Christ, the Son of God who took on flesh, is fully divine and fully dust, fully God and fully man. By Christ all things were made and in him all things are held together; he was the means by which all is made and remade, but also is the true image of the God we cannot see. He is the Word that speaks of the Divine Mind, making manifest what is “too wonderful” for mankind (Psalm 139:6, ESV).

Christ is the mediator, the co-creator who yet condescended in mercy to listen and to teach. He is the Word, incarnation, and — in this instance — the truest of performers, for through Him we receive reconciliation and understanding, for though Christ walked in flesh among us, He is one with our Creator.

“He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.” – Colossians 1:18-20 (ESV)

Although composer, performer, and listener are each necessary and impossible to isolate from each other, we find that the performer is ideally both composer and listener, as well as the mediator between an unhearing audience and the seemingly-incomprehensible ideas of the composer. Within the context of Christianity, we find parallels that reveal the incarnational aspect of the performer’s work and resonate with the truth of Christ’s manifestation and mediation. Performers, then, in their practice, image the preeminence of Christ as they bring music to life.

 

 

The Girl in the Red Dress

23517777_1510531702365350_5454757495854809805_nI am a pianist, but I have long suffered from stage fright. My junior undergraduate piano recital was yesterday and, true to my philosophy that no art is complete without a proper understanding of other art forms, I used literature such as Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner to create program notes to give greater depth to the pieces that I played.

As I was writing these notes, I realized: Why not also use literature and this wonderful union of my two arts to ease my stage fright? What if I wrote a story tracing the ideal progression of  my recital and pretended that I was an audience member?

So I did. And, to my delight, it helped exponentially! Although I was still incredibly nervous, as soon as I stepped on stage, I was no longer scared little Ryanne, but the Girl in Red that I had seen perform her recital through the eyes of my narrator. It was marvelous! I felt like I had already seen the recital and so was able to imagine I was listening and enjoying the musical and literary journey rather than sitting on stage performing.

Obviously no live performance is perfect, but I felt that by writing this, I was able to play my repertoire more confidently and thus communicate their themes more effectively.

So, my dear musical readers, here is my recital in literary form:

Oh! I should tell you my program as well so this makes more sense:

  1. Piano Sonata No. 17, Op. 31 No. 2  I. Largo-Allegro by Ludwig van Beethoven  (1770-1827)
  2. Miroirs  II. “Oiseaux Tristes” (“Sad Birds”) by Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)

  3. Années de pèlerinage II, S. 161 No. 7 Après une Lecture du Dante: Fantasia quasi Sonata by Franz Liszt (1811-1886)

So a piece about the storms of life, lonely birds, and Dante’s Inferno. Fun, right?

The Girl in the Red Dress

We came by invitation, to see a girl we know. She’s quite a character…lanky, blonde, eyes that are intense one minute and twinkling with laughter the next, always writing or dreaming of writing, usually stepping in a limping time to a tune nobody else can hear. But she’s anxious. She overworks herself and doubts her work. She is likely trembling backstage now, her hands nearly purple with cold from the frigid hall and her nervous heart. Likely she is pacing and wringing these hands, trying to calm herself and warm them.

I send a quick prayer up past the cracked ceiling of the hall for her. Lord, calm her nerves and let her play with the excellence and emotion with which she has practiced daily.

As I whisper “Amen,” my hands join the chorus of clapping. She has stepped onstage.

But this is someone different. Still her…and yet not. She’s taller. Her arms are stronger. Her lips match her blazing red dress and yet the blue of her eyes flash and burn the brightest. The click of her heels echo through the hall, a measured drumroll for her own performance.

But she looks upward when she looks outward, as if her audience is not below but somewhere beyond the ceiling’s crevices, in the region my prayer just ascended.

A bow.

She sits.

Silence.

The audience scuffles, trying to hush the murmur of their program notes. Program notes…about books, of course. I glance down at them but it’s too dark to read now. To the glow of the stage I return.

The ghost of notes begin; substantial yet ethereal. How? I hardly dare to breathe, unsure whether I really heard them and yet they are resounding gently through the hall. It’s a mist of sound. And then the mist is broken by the steady gallop of a frightened yet determined human tread.

But the mist is back.

And now the running. It’s an uphill run- not fast but intense and ever moving.

And suddenly it’s a battle cry interchanged with a plea. And now a whirlwind. All melting seamlessly into each other.

But the mist comes again, for the adventurer has reached a peak in the mountain range. It is cold, yet clear, colors of sunlight radiating softly through the curtains of mountaintop clouds. Peace descends like a gentle rain, drawing us upward.

Then the battle rages once more, startling and yet not surprising…Did not we feel in our souls the same ever-present struggle of this piece? Beethoven was too knowledgeable. He knew himself- that is, he knew all of us – too well.

Another moment of peace…yet not peace. It’s a cry. The sound of an oboe as the sound of our very hearts. It is a recitative and it is reflective, but it is not weak.

And then a piercing urgency and pain returns, then whirling and, before I knew it, the piece concludes; urgent and yet not rushed. It is reminiscent of intentionally restraining the racing heart. Controlling our steps if we cannot quite control our fears.

Silence falls. I can see the moth-like breath of the girl in red; it flutters, shaky, but soft.

The scene changes. It’s still a mountain’s peak… Grey swirling mist abounds, but the girl in red leads us above it. We are alone. I am alone. She is alone. Everyone is isolated and alone. No man is an island? False. All men are mountaintops calling in vain to each other, wandering birds forever losing their nests.

It is beautiful but sorrowful. Something tugs in my heart at the harmonies, so blended and subdued but for a sudden flurry of frantic wings. And then faded again, as if the great shroud of mist has descended over us all, sealing out loneliness and separating us from the enduring and interconnected nature in which we have no part apart from our lost nests.

This silence is lighter and heavier at the same time. Something is coming. Something terrifying.

And then it does, in a trumpet blast. It is evil. Or no…not evil…something more terrifying than the evil that has become familiar. It is the best good. It is the Good. And I cannot stand to it and thus cannot but think it evil. The mountaintop that seemed a hermitage is opening up as a gaping prison beneath me and I stumble into it with a crying utterance too deep for words.

Is she bringing us into this inferno? Is she the girl I know or some spirit sent to administer justice of the most fearful kind?

The lament continues, more rhythmic than melodic and each note is a beat of my own heart, which is pounding at the walls of my chest in an effort to escape, but my ribs constrain it and it holds its time.

A reaching for higher aid falls back into lament. We have all killed an Albatross in our lives and this is our recompense.

Drum-rolls and rising tides. Shivers of terror more substantial than chains run down my spine and suddenly it is the distant beating of drums as they approach a funeral pyre…my funeral pyre.

But something is changing… the tonality is richer. Something of gold is in the flames of judgement and real gold fears no fire…but who put it there? Can it – this gold – be enough to pay my ransom?

And then in a burst of light made of every color, my soul is bathed in the burning purity of F-sharp major. It peels back my mask of sin and I realize this mask hid not my face but hid me from seeing the face of One too Great for My Sight.

But I can hear Him. Though I may not yet look, I might hear and feel and sense that the Almighty has won a victory. The victory. And I might dare to hope that He shall make me a soldier to share in this victory.

I take to arms within the deepest part of my being and when the trumpets of fearsome judgement sound again, there is something of my own determination in them.

And this determination brings the strength which is grace.

It is beautiful. I am swept into a lulling dance which turns to the song of Him singing over me. The powers of darkness might whirl around, but this song holds me fast, anchoring me.

It gives way to a beautiful dancing flurry which concludes with a declaration of coming victory, if only the judgement first comes.

Drums again. I feel the darkness creeping forth from its pit. It will not be contained, it says. It inches its way toward the hearts of men.

But that Great and Only Goodness is not touched. It’s dignity and perfection reign and the throne is not overthrown by these creeping, oozing things. It’s perfect order and rhythm and timing subdue them with a fear greater than any they could evoke.

And the song sings again, restoring my strength to finish this battle.

And I see it. I see this Light. Distant, but it is coming for me. I tremble yet rush to meet it.

Oh, glorious victory! Surely it is won!

But are those the trumpets of perdition I hear once more? Oh! the dwellers of the pit sneak forth again in chromatic slyness. They dance, the demons do, dance with a syncopation that is too easy to fall into. They crescendo in their final push.

But their frantic, Bacchic celebration of their own undoing is overthrown by the grace and gentleness of a waltz, which crescendos along with them into their end and its everlasting beginning.

The drums return, but no longer accompanying lament. Rather, it is a drumroll toward triumph. And the horns declaring this triumph continue longer than expected, but, after all, are they not to resound throughout all eternity?

Yes, Lord.

Amen, Lord.

I am shaken. Something has been purged from my soul. I barely register my hands applauding. How does one applaud the victory of the Lord?

But then I remember. This is a piano recital. An ordinary girl in a red dress is performing. This is a piano solo, not a divine judgement. But perhaps they are intertwined after all. Perhaps, even more than the Steinway grand, she herself was an instrument of the true Master.

Flowers and bows and the girl in red smiling as if she has won a victory herself, yet blushing and laughing with an innocent, overwhelmed delight at the same time.

She exits.

And returns.

More bows. More golden laughter, trilling softly beneath the thunderous applause of her loved ones below.

She winks at a friend, signaling him to stop clapping and waits for others to follow before she invites us to tea and scones.

Tea and scones? After this moral turbulence?

I glance at my watch. It’s only been thirty minutes.

Alright, then. Tea time it is.

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Also in the interest of combining arts, I used this stunning painting “Le Femme en Rouge” by Impressionist artist Giovanni Boldini for my recital posters. People kept asking how I got someone to paint me…

The Eroica 10k

Calling all runners and musicians!

Thanks to my music history class, I have of late become obsessed with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 in E-Flat Major, Op. 55, better known as the “Eroica Symphony.”

“Eroica” means “Heroic” in case you did not figure that out for yourself and this musical adventure is just that: heroic. It traces Beethoven’s personal development and victories over the trials of mortal life, as well as mirrors those of humanity as a whole. It might be considered a distilled version of the entire “triumph of the human spirit” genre…or perhaps even the epitome of this genre.

There are many ways to process a piece of art such as this: analyze it visually, internalize it through listening, taste it if you are brave and nobody is looking, etc. However, I firmly attest to the power of movement (no pun intended) when it comes to studying music. Often this leads me to dance around the practice room, but the incredible power and hero’s journey found in the Eroica is something beyond dancing awkwardly by myself.

It demands power. It demands perseverance. It demands running. 

Are you a runner? Are you a musician? If you answered yes to either of these questions, I (and possibly Beethoven) challenge you to take on the Eroica 10k. 

The Eroica 10k

(performed by Simon Rattle and the Vienna Philharmonic)

  1. Lace up your running shoes and turn up your music. As soon as the conductor’s baton strikes the first beat, you are off and away!
  2. The first movement is perfectly timed (about 16 minutes) so that you can complete two miles during it if you run at a steady 8 min/mile pace. This is fairly brisk, but it is possible if each step is in time with the beat! (Pro tip: Increase your stride length as the dynamics increase; this will add interval training and speed boosts.)
  3. The second movement is not as rapid; after all, it is more reminiscent of a funeral march. Slow your pace slightly and catch your breath, but continue to run in time and increase your stride during crescendos.
  4. The third movement provides a nice pick-me-up after the sombre second movement, during which I became oddly philosophical even whilst running. This movement, a “scherzo” (joke), is vibrant and quick. AND SO ARE YOU! Pick up speed, but allow your stride to stay short so that you do not overtax yourself.
  5. The fourth movement signals only about 2 miles left, depending on your average pace. You’re almost there and the humor of this opening is sure to put some bounce back into your step. Don’t fight this; instead, allow your stride to be more bouncy as it will actually help energize you through the remaining distance.
  6. Continue to increase your stride length as the music builds, returning to a comfortable pace as it settles down again.
  7. The ending of the symphony will surprise you with its drama and inspire you to finish strong. If you have the urge to conduct while you run, go right ahead. Who cares if the soccer players give you weird looks as you conduct dramatic cadences? You are a runner and a musician and you deserve to add a little flare to the end of your workout! Now sprint!
  8. As the symphony ends, check your distance. If you still have a lap or two to go, never fear! Turn on some light music and run in the spirit of Nike! (Not the shoes…the goddess of victory. But by all means, the shoes are wonderful too.)
  9. Congratulations! You ran an entire 10k and reached a deeper appreciation of Beethoven’s most renowned symphony within the same hour!

Do you feel heroic? You ought to! 6.213… miles (a 10k) is something to be proud of, especially at Beethoven’s relentless pace! Both this symphony and running are exercises in overcoming life’s obstacles, as well as celebrating personal victories; they are both heroic journeys.

I sincerely hope that you enjoy this experience as much as I did, for it served my development both as a musician and an athlete.

Nike!

-Ryanne

 

The Heiligenstadt Testament

How painful in cruel irony…

That you, though sighted, cannot see:

Deafness- not pride- is Beethoven’s malady.

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This “unlicked bearcub” of a child

Was born spirited and wild,

Yet yearned to love, kind and mild.

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But those called to the highest aims

Are ne’er allowed to stay the same:

Both blessing and curse shall raise a name.

.

Torn ‘tween the two he yet did know

That despite the silent, awful blow,

The call of Art he was destined to follow.

.

The Muse and Virtue spurred him on;

This lifesong born and bred in Bonn

Would never, though softened, fade as gone.

.

Tired eyes shall ruin writers

And fear mute the tongues of singers.

But these who quit are amateurs

For trials train the masters.

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Art’s best servants are the ones

Who fight to finish work begun.

These faithful press onward through life

To create art out of their strife.

Just My Type and Fontly Yours

The title of this post is made of two puns, so I’d say it’s off to a good start.

Today I want to talk about fonts. I know, I sound like Brick Heck from The Middle, but I strongly believe that fonts and type style are crucial to the success of a piece of writing.

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The other day, a friend of mine and I found ourselves in a heated debate over which font is better: Georgia or Helvetica. I argued that Georgia is whimsical yet still professional. He countered that Helvetica is simple and easy on the eye.

We did, however, find common ground in our preference for 12 point font and 1.5 line spacing, as well as our hatred of boring, old Times New Roman.

But why do we as writers feel so strongly toward one font and type setting over another?

To answer that, I am afraid I will have to get a bit philosophical. Writing is both an abstract and concrete art form; it is abstract in the ideas it presents to the reader’s imagination, but concrete in that it does so using visual cues- that is, written words. A book, then, is a concrete collection of the abstract thoughts. Good books are works of visual art that seek to give the reader an impression of something invisible; visible words communicate invisible ideas.

Most importantly, a book (or any piece of writing) must be well-written. The concrete words absorbed by the reader’s eyes must flow naturally, make sense, and be beautiful in their individual phrases in order to construct an abstract thought in his or her mind. Just as no poorly-made sculpture leaves a lasting mental impression, no poorly-written book will inspire great thoughts.

However, there is an element to this process of concrete-abstract in writing that goes beyond the skill of the author; if words are beads, no matter how eloquently the author strings them together, the chain upon which they are strung must also be a thing of artistic merit. This “chain” must complement the beads without overshadowing them.

Just so, fonts and type settings must complement and support the writing itself. You’ve doubtless been told to “never judge a book by its cover” and I’d agree. But perhaps there is some truth to judging a book by its font.

Consider the Harry Potter books. Being a giant nerd, I own both the American and British editions. And, while I prefer the British colloquial to the American “translations,” I always opt for reading the American prints because of- you guessed it- the font. Take a look for yourself!

IMG_4921First of all, notice the adorable illustration! I hold to the belief that one never outgrows books with pictures. Second, I challenge anyone to glance at the font of the chapter title and not immediately associate it with the whimsy and adventure of Harry Potter. The font of the text itself is legible, yet not as stiff as, say, the font you might choose for a thesis.

Now consider the spacing; the margins are wide enough for a child to hold the book by its edges and the space between lines is enough to prevent the reader from feeling overwhelmed.

However, the spacing is not as wide as in some children’s books, making it feel less condescending and as if it is also intended for older audiences. Similarly, had the font been Comic Sans or some other outlandish style, the book would have been less desirable to anyone aside from early readers.

Overall, I’d say the American editions of Harry Potter are an ideal example of font and spacing being used to not only attract the reader, but make the story more accessible. It is easy to “fall behind” the printed words into the story itself because the spaces leave enough of a hole to fall through and the font is easy on the eyes without being distracting. Beautiful.

IMG_4922Now, consider the British editions.  They’re more compact, first of all, so naturally “superfluous” illustrations must be forgotten to save space. The title is lovely and, of course, consists of the same words as its American counterpart, but it lacks the quirkiness the so perfectly parallels the story. No fancy letter “M” for the first word in this edition. No wide margins or extra space between lines, thank you very much. If the American edition wonderfully represents and facilitates the magic of Harry, the British edition is more characteristic of businesslike muggles.

The words (aside from a few candy names and the Philosopher-Sorcerer switch) are the same and the story is thus the same. However, with more crowded words and a more mechanical font/spacing, this edition is not as open to being read by all. I can hardly imagine a child being drawn to this edition, despite the story not being changed, because the words are so packed together and the margins are not friendly to a child’s clumsy grasp. Sure, maybe an adult would read these, but said grownup might not be drawn into the childlike wonder of the HP books as he might be by the visible whimsy of the American editions.

Font matters.

Spacing matters.

Writing is a visual art.

The best writing transcends visuals because it inspires imagining and ideas beyond the printed word; however, this transcendence can be bolstered by a wise choice of type style. Choose a font that reflects your writing’s ideas and, from the first page, the reader will fall more easily into the abstract world you create.

In painting, the better the work, the more it says. Another painter might be inspired to create something with the same message, but if he does not do it with excellent presentation, the viewer will not understand the idea behind the work as well as he might when looking at the first, better painting. The idea is the same, but the presentation makes all the difference.

It is the same with writing.

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Which one, to you, communicates the idea of a “beautiful day”? To me, the first is too stoic to truly represent the beauty of a sunshiny day. The second is more welcoming and expressive.

I’ll say it again: Font matters and spacing matters. Abstract themes are reflected in and enhanced by the visible art of words.

So what do you think? Let me know in the comments! I’d love to hear your thoughts on this hypothesis. Do you  have a favorite font? Why Wing Dings? Why not Papyrus?

I look forward to hearing from you, readers!

Perhaps you’ll be more open to commenting, thought, if I write it this way:

I look forward to hearing from you, readers!