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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Three Principles

As I was practicing piano the other day, I wrote a series of three questions to ask myself as I worked on each detail:

  1. Is it clean?
  2. Is it beautiful?
  3. Does it mean something?

First, I work technically, listening even to exercises to discern if they are played with clarity and precision. Are they clean? The same attention to purity must be given to all other passages, even (perhaps especially) the most Romantic. The greatest pianists play beautifully, but do so over the canvas of excellent technique and clear sound.

Secondly, is it beautiful? Is there a way I could shape this phrase to make it more lovely? Is the sound of the individual note rich and pleasing? How could I voice this to make it even more musical? A great pianist can set audiences to gasping at his exquisite turn of a single phrase. How can I make this phrase such a moment of beauty?

Finally, does it mean something? I was working diligently away on the first two (clarity and beauty) before I was caught by this third principle. I played a phrase surprisingly well and it conjured an image in my mind. It was nothing profound, just a little glimpse of a boat spiraling in a current, but it was enough to give a newfound meaning to the line that I was practicing.

Without meaning, what does it matter if music is beautiful? What does it matter if it is clean if it is not beautiful and, further, does not have meaning? These principles build off of each other not only in music, but in the creation of any art. The artist might (and should) begin with an idea of what he wants to communicate, but he must execute it with technical precision and aesthetic appeal in order to properly convey this meaning. Bearing this constantly in mind as I practice has revived my approach: I am not just playing rote repetitions, but am working with the goal of achieving accuracy so that I can then focus on beauty and, finally, communicate the meaning governing those two.

Being an over-the-top Torrey Honors Institute nerd, I realized that these three principles of effective artistic practice can be aligned with the overarching ideas of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.

  1. Is it good? Are the notes or strokes or words placed with commitment to good technique, adherence to structure, etc.? Is the art made with a spirit working toward excellence? This is convicting, is it not?
  2. Is it beautiful? Once technical excellence is established, it naturally gives the freedom for elegance, color, and expression! The “good” allows for the “beautiful” to be made with greater potential to be both achieved and understood. If our technique is helter-skelter, the likelihood of playing a natural-sounding and well-shaped phrase is extremely low. Artists should take chances, but trying to generate beauty without technical awareness seems a foolish one to take.
  3. Is it true? Clean performance practice and beautiful sound build upon each other to, ideally, generate meaning. Think about writing. We follow the rules of grammar, only breaking them when it serves an intentional purpose, because these set standards promote elegance of expression and clarity of intent in even the most unskilled writers. In the same way, poets often follow structural rules because it gives shape to not only their beautiful lines but also makes their meaning more accessible.

As I was reading through Ephesians this morning, I was struck by a note I made in the margin a couple of years ago: “Art of Faith.”

These three principles are not only for the practice of artists, but for the life of believers. Indeed, the walk of faith is perhaps the greatest art. We are restored Images, saved by the Word, called to worship in song. We are redeemed works of art and as we “practice” our obedience and gratefulness, we might find in these three simplified principles helpful guidelines for making our lives shine as art that is pure, lovely, and truthful.

In all aspects of our lives, whether or not we would consider ourselves “artistic,” we ought to be thinking as co-creators and, indeed, works of art. Before purchasing, making, doing, or saying anything, we should ask ourselves: is this thing good, useful, quality? Is it beautiful and lovely? Is it true, helpful, and honest?

Imagine how our lives might be transformed if we asked ourselves these questions. I doubt I would own as much clutter. I would likely speak with greater thoughtfulness. I would spend so much less time being frustrated with the repetitiveness of practice– of the everyday– because instead of just going through the motions, I would be considering even the tiniest details of my life in relation to the three greatest ideals: the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.

Little Elegy

Walking through Cambridge, inspiration is difficult to avoid. My apologies to those on the sidewalk who had to go around me as I stopped to give this poor bird a proper elegy.

“His eye is on the sparrow,” so ’tis sung
But ‘neath some foot or wheel its feathers flung-
Poor claws curled up in pain all that remain
Of this, the least of these, abandoned-slain.

The serpent struck, his head then doomed to crush,
Yet somehow just this little life- this thrush-
Drops down, his sun-stripe yellow turned to grey,
And he who flew now falls into decay.

Though sorrowful surrender stills his wings,
Another takes his tune and still he sings.

*(Poetic disclaimer: I’m not a huge fan of AABBCC… but this the rhyme scheme that happened and it somehow seems fitting.)

Method…Writing?

Method acting is a key point in my novel. One of the characters is an actor who has become “stuck” in the role that he last performed. He has lost himself into the character he was contracted to play. There are obviously a MANY problems that arise from this (many dark moments for this poor guy), but there is one lesson to learn for our benefit:

Method Creating.

First of all, to create art, you cannot always consider yourself an “aspiring artist.” If I had stayed in the mindset of “I’ll someday be a pianist” I would not have gone far as a musician. Instead, I learned, over many years of self-doubt that if you want to achieve something, you have to live into that dream now as if it is already reality. In much better words:

You have to live as if you already are what/who you want to be. If you want to be a great pianist, you have to live as if you already are one by practicing hard, humbly listening to both praise and criticism, and making original (even if not at first brilliant) artistic decisions. For too many years I worked my tail off and studied like mad, but was crippled by the thought that I had not yet achieved, that I was not yet the musician I wanted to be. In one sense this is true. I had and still do have far to go and we should NEVER stop pushing ourselves to be better or else our art (and, worse, our very selves as human beings) will stagnate.

However, you have to live and press forward with the conviction that you already are that musician (or artist) that you want to be, letting this motivate you to live up to your future vocation/goal in the present practice.

Oddly enough, I have never had a problem claiming to be a writer. To be fair, I probably should have more qualms about my claims to being a writer, for I am soooooooooo far from where I want to be. I don’t have a doctorate, haven’t published a novel, have not been invited to give guest lectures, etc.

But I am confident that one day I can reach these levels because I have already adopted “writer” as my current role. By living as a “writer” in the present, I am more motivated to actually pursue this goal than I would be had I remained an “aspiring writer” or “someday writer.”

So, I have adopted a sort of role even if it is not brought to total fruition yet, and my approach to my art is made the better for it.

What else can my poor method acting character teach us?

Surround yourself with relics.

My novel includes, to name a few, a Venetian mask, a violin, a huge volume of Sherlock Holmes, Italian postcards, red wine, a portrait, and about a million cappuccinos.

And I have all but the wine sitting beside me as I write. I can feel the characters speaking to me from their favorite curios. I hold in my hand the mask that the actor dons in a pivotal scene. I sniff the pages of the book another character read as a child. I drink the espresso one character conjures.

Through the little souvenirs I have gathered since the conception of this novel idea, I am able to enter into the realm of my story. I have adopted the role of writer, of creator, and, using tokens I have gathered from this world, am able to enter into another of my own making.

Give it a shot, maybe. What title/role would help you pursue excellence and dreams? And what little things can you surround yourself with to foster creativity and insight? Comment and let me know! I’d love to hear how your artistic life, dear reader, is thriving.

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Slight disclaimer: When I say to live into the role of what you want to be, I do not mean to adopt this as your identity. The character I used as the original example suffers this exact downfall and, let me tell you, it does not go well. Our full identity cannot be found in any temporal or merely-human characteristic and any “roles” must be held subject and united to the enduring identity promised in faith. (Indeed, though, this identity too is already given and, at the same time, yet to come, informing our lives in the present by assuring us of the future!)

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Final note: The novel featured in the photo at the top is AMAZING. Yet another reason to be excited about being a writer. 😉

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.”

Writing a Child

I often refer to my novel as “my baby” and I know this is a tiny bit weird. But, being a writer, I really could not care less if I’m weird.

Still, I think I have a valid point when I call my novel a baby, as…

 

“Writing a Child”

 

It changes each chapter

and brings me to tears,

Especially now as it

becomes a two-year

old- it calls and it cries

for it’s always in need

to stuff it’s word-count

with research as feed.

Such tender affection

to nurture its plot;

for I joy when I’m writing

and guilt when I’m not.

It’s silly and moody

and can’t make up its mind

if it wants to be three books

or five of a kind.

I yearn for a day when

it’s finally grown

and publishing rights

are all of it I’ll own-

but then will I miss it?

A mother no more?

Or is being an author

much, much better for

My sleep-schedule, diet,

mental sanity…

Or will I be pacing

ever constantly

awaiting the critics

and readers reviews…

Oh! Poor baby novel,

how can I leave you?

I must make you stronger

to stand on the shelves

amidst the great classics

who fend for themselves.

My troublesome infant,

mind-born and ink-bred

please, please obey me,

as when sprung from my head-

for then you were simple

and naked and pure

and how to raise you

I felt so very sure…

Yet still I am patient

and faithful to thee

and will guide you until

in covers neatly,

we’ll bind up and copy-

swaddle and send you

to share your small story

with those we pray who

will adopt, read, and love

‘midst this wide-worded world

 

the novel in labor,

I’ve finally unfurled.

 

To the Books on my Shelf: A Sonnet

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Couldn’t resist sharing this “shelfie”  😉  #nofilter

 

Too often, I find myself staring in admiration at my bookshelves. The ornate covers of collectables, the crackled pages of old favorites, the bright illustrations of new editions… *sigh of delight* To my abashment (isn’t that a lovely word for a not-so-lovely feeling?), I own and admire many books I have yet to actually read. Also, I continually purchase books without finishing the ones already waiting for me so faithfully at home! Horrible. Simply horrible. But, in staring at my beautiful and partially-read Shakespeare collection, I was inspired. Perhaps, if I cannot read all of the books on my list, then I can at least compose a sonnet (which may or may not resemble Shakespeare’s most famous 18th Sonnet) for them to assure them of my good intentions!

               To The Books on My Shelves

Shall I shelve thee and read mere summaries?

Thou art more dense with stories worth the wait;

Rough times have robbed my reading time in May,

And summer’s months I deem too short a date:

Though Sun a hot book light for reading shines,

And e’en by night a lamp burns near undimmed,

I fear my eyesight steadily declines

While far too many tomes remain unskimmed.

But dusty still your ink will never fade

Nor I forget the study that I ow’st.

Although cases of books rest in the shade,

Someday I shall uncover all they know’st.

So long as writers breathe and glasses see,

So long shall books give breath and sight to me.