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.

 

 

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Tenebrae: a sonnet

Awhirl before my eyes did swirl the sparks

As one by one the candles turned to smoke

And sitting there in silent, stillest dark,

A flicker burned within and I awoke.

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I felt a pang for that dear body broke

That bled betwixt time and eternity.

It seemed I saw His image in the smoke

And felt my heart, too, fixed upon that tree.

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Oh how I ached to join this agony!

Yet I, near sleeping, safely sat below.

I closed my eyes the better then to see

And hear the ever-present, past echo.

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To wait in darkness was my only wish;

Now hidden, I wanted no light but His.

Mirror, Mirror had a Great Fall

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There is a story to be found in anything and, I am finding, that there is also a theology to be found in any story. I feel this poem is an apt example of enjoying the beauty of an old tale reimagined while contemplating a truth that shimmered in the retelling.

Mirror, Mirror Had Great Fall

“Mirror, mirror upon the wall,

Who is the fairest of them all?”

I once was asked from day to day

And in reply I’d always say

“My lady, it is surely true;

The brightest, fairest one is you.”

 

It was my joy, your face to see,

Peering in and out of me.

And mine was whitest complexion

For it was rightest reflection;

To revel was no vanity

For I shone back your own beauty.

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“Mirror, mirror upon the wall.”

I’d thrill to hear my mistress call

And sing to her worshipful words

That beauty best was only hers,

That there could be another one

Would be to think the moon the sun.

 

Yet still a subtle crack did creep

Out from some secret, smeary deep

And when her face would turn aside,

A self-whisper would soft confide.

The dream I dared not dream when she

Would smile, singing, before me.

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“Mirror, mirror upon the wall-”

Her song my heart did yet enthrall

For ’tis my nature to reflect

That which I love as first object.

In her dawn’s light, all else soon fades,

Sly secrets flee as shyest shades.

 

But then again as she’d depart

(Though I know she yet saw mine heart)

I’d ponder those sly smudgélings

That obscure honest imagings

And I could not but speculate

What once I’d simply contemplate.

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  I, the Mirror on the wall, 

Dreamt I was fairest of them all!

And as I answered, said aloud

Those words, so false and yet so proud:

“I cannot say, my dearest queen,

For you’re the only one I’ve seen.”

 

“Perhaps,” I pressed, not to give in,

Enthused by this first spoken sin,

“There is another one dearer

Kept hid within this magic mirror

And if I only can break free,

I’ll find the fairest one is me.”

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O! Mirror hung upon the wall,

You must have known that you would fall;

To try and see your own self rule

Was to prove only princely fool.

A mirror looking in its glass

Will find nothing but emptiness.

 

In turning to a blank portrait

I chose the broken mirror’s fate;

Bad fortune was my prideful gain,

For nihil gleamed the shattered pane.

I thought not e’er to see again

Bright Beauty,

but, of a sudden- 

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“Mirror mine, though you did fall,”

Spoke she, most loved and feared of all,

“Your shattered face was made for mine

And I have power to refine,

To smooth and polish, good as new,

Though with a somehow richer hue.

 

“You, shaped to be an image of

The Beauty that shines forth above,

Are raised once more to this high wall,

To see the more-than-fair of all

And hence reflect and emulate

That Beauty ever true and great.”

Non-Writing Writer

I was inspired this morning as I walked to practice piano for an upcoming recital… this would have been great, had I been inspired to practice. Rather, I was inspired to set the opening of Wordsworth’s The Prelude to music. 

My roommate (bless her) stopped me just in time: “Ryanne, if you write a melody and add lyrics, you’ll also want to add harmony and piano. You don’t have time!” 

Valid. 

But I felt strongly the annoyance of being unable to create due to the pressures of my ordinary, required pursuits. 

So I wrote a little rhyme to vent: 

A non writing writer’s a monster they say:

A little too frazzled and nearly insane.

She lives in an enchanted, storybook world 

Yet can’t venture in, for life is a whirl.

One single word leads to many and two-

Well, they multiply to be more than a few. 

And should she dare to compose a small line 

She risks the danger of falling behind;

The everyday life has no cares for the muse,

Though the poet’s soul, she hardly did choose. 

So cursed with a mind that brews up ideas 

And a heart that ever ceaselessly feels,

She stumbles about with a businesslike stride 

And forces her little brainchildren to hide

And wait for a time when life will relax 

It’s grip made of boring and ord’nary tasks-

So she might finally write them all down,

These inkling ideas that, impatient, abound. 

Eclipse Coronation

The Solar Eclipse 2017 was the *literal* highlight of today; all anyone seems to be able to talk about are eclipse glasses, viewing parties, live streams, testimonials of why not to stare directly into the sun, apocalyptic premonitions, the stupidity of needing to be told not to stare into the sun, pinhole box tutorials, etc.

Although I did get in the spirit of the eclipse by making a rather shoddy pinhole box and baking “eclipse cookies,”  it became, for me, an opportunity for theological and allegorical contemplation. As with most moments of intense thought, poetry happened. Please read (aloud if possible!) the following and share either this post or your thoughts.

“Eclipse”

In the beginning were made two lights: 

The Greater gleam to rule the day,

The Lesser govern vassal night.

 

The First burns of his own pure pow’r,

The Second purposed to reflect,

Yet greedy, grabs a sunlit hour

And, doing so, her rule rejects.

 

She vain ascends from queenly throne

To tame and topple truer King,

Like we who take more than our own

But conquer only creeping things.

 

We watch below to cheer her course

For hers is our selfsame desire;

We both image a brighter source

Yet wish to usurp fueling fire.

 

The Lesser light in pride covers

The shine of right ruler at last.

But lunatic, our governor,

Can only fleeting shadows cast.

 

Yet we determine just as she

To place self ‘fore the Greater one

And forget in sad irony

That we glow solely by the sun!

 

Pure gold cannot be dimmed by her

Except to those on lowly earth.

She blots naught but her own silver

And rules as we but dark and dearth.

 

Though hidden to our sight below

The King yet unabated burns.

The moon cannot his rule o’erthrow

And to permitted path returns.

 

For when she did achieve her aim

False queen could barely extend night.

Just so, we find ourselves the same;

When seeking more, losing all light.

 

Soon scheming moon shall fall away

And eclipse turn coronation;

To crown the sun’s most radiant rays

That lumine ‘cross all creation.

 

Dystopian Reality

Dystopian novels have been “in” for several years now. The Hunger Games and Divergent were the most popular reads of my high school days. Brave New World, 1984, and Anthem were on the AP reading lists. I continue to devour Ray Bradbury’s work.

However, we forget the purpose of dystopian fiction, which is to warn and protect us from creating such futures in reality. Dystopian fiction remains fiction only so long as we read and heed these books as warnings, not merely as disturbingly entertaining tales.

While we continue to be shocked by the dystopian stories we read, we are at the same time allowing ourselves to fall into them. By labelling them as “fiction” we are separating them from our reality and from our future. We feel terror and disgust as we read them, but can easily brush them aside as “mere stories” once we close the covers.

Ray Bradbury once said,

“You do not have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.”

As much as I’d like to say Bradbury is inerrant, I would like to alter this statement ever so slightly for the sake of clarity:

“You do not have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop believing them.”

As soon as we assure ourselves that dystopian societies are just monsters created by authors, they lose their power to prevent us from growing into such societies. The moment we begin to read these books as fiction, when we stop believing that such horrors and degeneration might be possible, is the moment we begin to descend into dystopia ourselves.

images-1.jpgIf children were to read the classic tale of Hansel and Gretel as merely a story that could not possibly have any truth to it, the preserving concept of “stranger danger” loses its impact. We cannot read this story to children without explaining its moral and begging them to heed its lesson.

In the same way, adults cannot read dystopian novels simply as futuristic fairy tales; we cannot consume them only for their shock and entertainment value. Rather, just as we would hope that children learn caution from Hansel and Gretel, it is our duty as responsible readers to learn an even greater caution from stories such as Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, and even The Hunger Games. 

It is of even greater importance now in 2017 than when these stories were originally penned, even if that was not long ago. We already have turned deaf ears to the warnings of these stories and are already reaping the consequences as we slip into dystopia.

Consider the following: 

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 Remember the citizens of the Capitol in The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins? We were bothered by them for their selfishness, their vanity, their degenerate morality, and their obsession with entertainment. But are we equally concerned by such lifestyles in reality? Or do we shudder at them between pages and then act as they do in our own lives without even realizing?

download-2In The Giver by Lois Lowery, another YA dystopian novel, babies who are not up to standards are “released.” I remember my friends and I crying over this chapter in elementary school. Yet now so many former young readers champion the killing of the pre-born because of detected health problems, special needs, or simply because the child is unwanted. How can we justly promote in reality the things of which we once read with sorrow?

download-3Fahrenheit 451 is fairly explicit in its message (Bradbury makes no attempt at subtlety -bless him). Yet while we read of the death of literature, we retreat without a thought into cheap entertainment as soon as we finish the book. Worse, we ignore his clear warnings and are happy to glean our information through soundbites and social media blurbs rather than through thorough reading, considerate conversations, and serious thought. Are we, too, mindlessly “watching our stories” without discernment or contemplation?

fullsizeoutput_161Perhaps the most shocking dystopian novel I’ve read is Brave New World (Aldous Huxley). At least, it was shocking when I read it four years ago. Now, it feels rather ordinary. (Has the world really fallen so far in four years? Perhaps I am simply older and sorrowfully wiser.) As I read this book, I was horrified at the unrestrained sexuality of it; most characters sought only their own pleasure, cared nothing for relationships, and procreation was a thing of the distant past. But is this so far different from today? We find ourselves living in a generation that boldly protects promiscuity and demands consequence-free pleasure while conservative approaches to relationships are scorned as old-fashioned.

download-4.jpgAyn Rand’s Anthem centers on a character called “Equality 7-2521.” Everyone is equal, but, ironically, no one is free; every member of the society is equal to the extreme that none of them may differ from others. Today, are we perhaps striving for a dangerous equality like that of Anthem? We must certainly protect and value all people equally; however, Anthem warns against forcing equality of thought. Although we read this warning, do we follow it? The minute someone expresses an idea that we consider offensive, are we quick to aggressively silence him or her rather than admit that we all have the right to think freely?

I am not saying that everything in these dystopian novels will come true, but they are not nearly as far-fetched as they once seemed. Certainly I do not expect America to be divided into factions or our teenagers to be sent into battle against each other or for us to mate according to selection by governors. However, there are undeniable dangers to reading dystopian novels as fiction, just as there are dangers to ignoring the morals of fables and fairy tales.

We ought to read dystopian books as seriously as we read history books. It is said that “those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it” and so we diligently are set to studying history from the minute we enter school. We also are encouraged throughout our school days to read dystopian stories, but we must not be satisfied with reading them as mere fiction. Rather, we must read them with the discernment and diligence with which we study history. It is imperative that when we read dystopian books, we read with great awareness of their relation to reality so that we are not, like poor history students, doomed to live them.

 

Sing, Muse

Dear reader,

Please read the following poem. Then, please click the link and listen to me read it; I have of late found great value in reading poetry aloud. Once you do those two things (it should take but two minutes of your time), you are welcome to read my explanation of the poem or to interpret it for yourself. I’d imagine both will lead to similar conclusions. Finally, if you are so inclined, I would love to hear from you! Thank you in advance!

-Ryanne

First, the written word: 

Sing, Muse, of rage-

     or rather- Desire.

     Drive with twin rhyming whips –

              Name and Fame-

     up mountains toppling, rising peak,

     ever crying, out of reach,

     “On, on, onward!”

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Harpy howl to clamoring poets’ ears

     as siren song does fall.

     Dazzling, drawing, drowning:

     divine-seeming, it pulls

     still higher, higher

     up Tow’r where language

     began and begins

     “On, onward, pilgrims!”

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So scaling e’er, traipsing eager,

     though weary,

     worshippers seeking sanctuary

     not for rest

     but to exalt,

     that which in climbing, we sculpt:

           New relic, sainted self.

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Oh! To be one of the many few,

     who, pious, always “onward”

     and yet- when time trickles low-

     kneeling, wonder,

          “wherefore.”

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Wherefore place an icon made

     (like us only in its fade)

     of substance age-old, ever-new:

     Ambition dressed as Holy Muse?

 

Second, the spoken word: 

 

Finally, a brief word of explanation: 

I found myself forcing creativity today, working to compose a piece of music without passion. I was inspired only by the thought that if I finish this, it will be another successful accomplishment to my credit.

But as I realized that selfish ambition was my main motivation (at the moment), I was deeply convicted. Why create at all if what compels me is untempered ambition? What profits it to climb what a favorite author of mine calls “the Alpine Path” if I seek only to plant my lonely, temporal banner at its peak?

And, as in most moments of intense emotion, poetry happened. In scribbling and speaking this poem, I was able to recall why I write and compose: not to glorify myself but, as in the parable, to be a faithful steward of my talents. To do this, I must write to the best of my ability to reflect the true Author and pray that my words will direct minds toward the living Word.