From the BlogSubscribe Now

Page CXVI Good Friday to Easter Review

I was introduced to Page CXVI by a Facebook post of this video (which you should watch right now).

 I was intrigued by their style so, as can happen often with Youtube, I followed the link chain of all their videos. Their music was refreshing, It was instrumentally simple and quite direct. It presented with the old revered hymns and yet offered them in a setting more akin to postmodern ears, wonderful, theologically rich lyrics with a sound that had influences of Coldplay and Death Cab for Cutie. They did this without all the baggage of trying to be a worship band writing worship songs. They took songs of worship and prayed with them.

I quickly bought their catalog, which was surprisingly quite extensive. I loved hearing fresh ways of familiar things, like looking at your house with a different pair of glasses. I followed them on social media and secretly wished they’d come to New Orleans ( a selfish though, I know). One day in the fall of last year, they announced an ambitious project I honestly wish I had thought of first. They would make three albums following the liturgical calendar: Advent to Christmas, Lent, and Triduum to Easter.

I thought the backstory necessary so that this review doesn’t come out of left field (I don’t review music very often, although I probably should). Today their final album in this series, Good Friday to Easter came out. They were kind enough to offer willing bloggers the chance for a review copy, of which I am one.

My initial impressions were a let down, compared to their previous work. I hoped more time would be spent with Good Friday. After only two of the eight tracks, the album begins its transition into Easter. I wasn’t ready for the Alleluia’s when they came. Furthermore, the first song on the album seems almost verbatim the recording of “O Sacred Head Now Wounded” from their B-Sides EP. That choice seemed lazy. Then, I noticed “How Deep the Father’s Love of Us” was also a double from the previously mentioned EP. I can’t fault them for using material again, especially with such a wide cannon in such a short period (Good Friday is their 11th release since 2009), but I still felt let down.

Then, I listened to the Lent album in tandem with this one and my first response was proved harsh. A second and third listen to Good Friday to Easter proved not only more satisfactory but mysteriously delightful. I began to appreciate the artistic and compositional choices they made. So let’s dive in.

The album starts with the sparse arrangement of “O Sacred Head Now Wounded.” That sparsity gives the feeling of Christ surrounded not by friends but, rather, surrounded by a crown of thorns. It is tinged with sorrow and loneliness even while St. Bernard’s words ring poetry. The song finds its pinnacle in the added chorus, “You bled by our hands.” All of this suffering is caused by our own sins and is a reminder to us why He mounts the gibbet.

Then, we go back in time a night and start at Gethsemane in “Go to Dark Gethsemane.” This hymn is a lyrical guided meditation, accompanied by strings, of the Passion, going from Thursday night to 3pm Friday. It is the most hymn-like of all the pieces in the retention of the melody. The music swells and the added lyrics make a beautiful play on words, “He wept, we wept,” making reference to Jesus in front of the grave of Lazarus.

With “Three” we enter into the grave. This look is unique in its reflection. From the first, through etherial notes,  what we hear is mysterious and confusing. Three counter melodies are interposed representing the three days in the tomb. Each of these melodies are somewhat familiar but together they sound foreign. “Lay Your Body Down” is a an English folk song reflecting on the grave. “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” is an old spiritual reflecting on the transference of Elijah on the chariot of fire, which is itself a foreshadowing of the resurrection. The third though, may not be easily recognizable; it is part of the chorus Page CXVI wrote for the hymn Holy, Holy, Holy, wherein they praise the Lord for liberating us from the captivity of sin. These three melodies play together in a mix of sorrow and hope. I can see why for another reason, they chose to spend not as much time on Good Friday placing this song entitled three as the third track.

Then, we’re moved with hesitant, muted joy into “Roll Away the Stone.” It took me a while to figure out the source material for this one. A Google search came up empty, but I noticed toward the end of the song a reference to my favorite Easter hymn, O Sons and Daughters. It was only when looking at the lyrics did I realized it was an adaptation of that 500 year old hymn. Hearing it anew was both refreshing and jarring like the first cup of homemade lemonade for the summer, its both sweet and bitter. The added chorus gives  great hope, the promise has come to pass!

The energy rises in “Christ is Risen.” The joy is still somewhat muted as the mystery of the Resurrection begins to seep into the hearts of the believer. Oh what a mystery, bursting the bonds of death, people must be told! Swell the strain! I especially like the heavenly Gloria in the bridge with all of heaven and earth singing. I also like that there is bass guitar which is absent in most of the songs, which is sorrow for this bass guitarist’s heart.

Then comes the centerpiece of the album. They take the most notable of all Easter hymns, “Christ the Lord is Risen Today,” and use the 21st Century “happy” instrument, the ukelele, to introduce the song. It almost gives the feeling of the risen Christ eating breakfast on the shore of the sea of Galilee with the apostles, and they sing this song. The joy builds with each verse. Then in a turn so drastic the song moves from beach to the temple with an Hebraic Hallelujah, sung in hope and longing, that one day we to will rise from our graves. What joy! Christ the Lord is Risen Today! Christ has opened Paradise!

Then joy moves to gratitude in “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us.” This is my favorite song on the album. I can’t listen to it and not cry (baby priest). Although this song has already appeared in their canon, the arrangement is more full and beautiful. Taking poetic license from 1 Peter “by his wounds we have been healed,” the chorus “your wounds have paved the way” just hits me. I well up in gratitude at “you’ve renewed this poor soul after all it has done.” The song builds on this theme of gratitude from Passion to Resurrection. The Church indeed rejoices at the new life in the Resurrected wounds of Christ.

On an apt note, the album ends with a revision of Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus. Although the album doesn’t mention it as such, I hear this as the words of the angels upon Christ’s ascension into heaven, where He sits at the right hand of the Father to reign. I like the quiet melodic reference to Leonard Cohen’s song of the same title, which has become a sort of contemporary secular hymn. In making those references, the song wishes the kingdom of this world to enter into and be transformed by the kingdom of the Lord.

As I followed along the path with Page CXVI leading me from Gethsemane to the Resurrection I realize how important the lyrics are to the movement of the songs. The lyrics themselves are more integral to the album than the music. The music, like chant, serves the lyrics. If you are not familiar with some of those source hymns you can easily find lyrics through Google. And, although, my initial impression of this album was poor, the more I immersed myself in the mysteries it communicated the more I was moved by it. This is a great album with which to spend time in prayer.

Finally, with a deep look at each track, the more respect musically and ministerially, I had for this trio of musicians and their friends. It is a well thought out mystery play done in lyric, verse, and song all while, in creating a beauty uniquely theirs, pays tribute to the beauty of the past. I have spent much time with Page CXVI over the past two years, returning to their music more often than any other artist. This is by far their best and most cohesive record, and it has become over the past week one of my favorite albums (which is not a title I throw around lightly).

Let Men Their Songs Employ? (Or, What to Do About Bad Christmas Music)

Music is the breath of culture, just as cuisine is it’s body and worship it’s soul. A civilization is judged as weak or strong according to how well it engages in art, cooking and prayer. These are the three things that human beings do at their own prompting, the three things that, unlike any other activities, we perform not simply because we have to, but because we want to. And while it is true that there is certain necessity involved in each, that without food we could not live, without creative we could not communicate and without praise we could not commune, it is likewise true that humanity always uses these things to transcend the raw utility of life. I have seen men starve themselves because the purely-utilitarian meal prepared for them failed to feed their humanity. We have seen revolutions overthrow governments when people are prevented from praying.

Likewise, when song is reduced to mere ceremony, men abandon hope, women abandon compassion and culture begins to asphyxiate. That is why bad Christmas music does more than simply annoy. When a culture fails to robustly celebrate a holiday, when artists neglect rigorous writing, it is symptomatic of decline. The artists of our day seem to care more about fulfilling contractual obligations than celebrating even a secular Christmas. For those that are Christians, all I can say is that their devotion and artistry have, in large part, failed to produce anything other than watered-down versions of the rich hymns produced by older believers who now sleep in Christ.

I do not believe that this is because we have given up on Christmas. Nor do I question the sincerity of the faith of those artists honestly trying to tell the Christmas story in verse. What I do question is the amount of care and attention our culture puts into deeply communicating it’s true message, the “Christmas ‘kerygma’.” It is not impossible to produce profoundly moving art based upon this age old story of the God-man born in Bethlehem. In different cultures, and in other mediums within our own culture, there have been wonderful examples of good Christmas art. Yet, in the realm of music (as also in the realms of decoration, preparation and gift-giving) we have surrendered our sacred heritage in favor of a quicker, more consumeristic approach. Like I stated at the beginning, this demonstrates a decline in the life-breath of our culture.

The fact of the matter is that the Christmas story remains as radical as it ever has. God becomes man. King Herod persecutes the King of Kings. A star rises in the east, like a newer, smaller dawn, and sages travel by its light to be taught at the feet of a baby. The God who created the universe is born underground, into the heart of the earth. A silent father listens to the inspiration of angels and a holy mother ponders all these things in her heart. The story lacks none of the necessary ingredients for poetry. Yet, our musicians consistently fail to communicate the drama, the passion and the amazing grace. Or, they simply choose to sing about snowmen, ringing bells or yuletide romance. The back of their album cover boasts a glossy picture of our artists smiling in green and red, claiming to be able to bring us in touch with the true meaning of Christmas. Pop the album into the stereo, however, and the best you can hope for is an electronic remix of an old song that you could have sung more meaningfully all by yourself.

We simply must not settle for this! Christmas is deeper, simpler and stranger than any amount of dime-store Christmas CD’s would lead us to believe. And I do believe that there are artists out there trying to communicate this Christmas mystery with greater acumen. I will leave you with one example of what I mean. At first, it will not sound like a Christmas song at all, but I think that its merit lies precisely in that fact. It breaks from the idea that Christmas music must be comforting and cliche. It reintroduces as sense of penance and praise. But most of all, it is a simple and good song:

Deconstructing “Montana” (Or, Miley Cyrus Naked on a Wrecking Ball)

When my students first told me about Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball” (which together with her twerking has made her an Enemy of the State with concerned parents everywhere), I dismissed it as a fad. I saw a clip of the video, could tell why adults were upset and teens aroused, and left it at that. After of weeks of trending, however, it seems that Miley’s nude demolition has not itself been demolished. Parents are still distraught. My students are still distracted. Even Hollywood and the recording industry are discussing it (and, surprisingly, often on the side of the distraught).

I finally watched the whole thing this morning. It is disturbing, but I do not think that it’s visuals are primarily to blame. Yes, there is Hannah Montana, stripped of all her Disney accessorizing, twerking in slow-mo on wrecking ball. Having never heard the song, though, I tried to pay as much attention as possible to the lyrics. Believe it or not, I found the message of the music most distressing. The story she sings is one I have heard many times over during my decade-plus in youth ministry: girl meets boy, thinks she can ‘save’ him, throws her self at him like a wrecking ball…and ends up broken herself. Thus, the image of a naked 20something hanging on to half-a-ton of forged steel. There are many who would say that the image is pornagraphic, but within the context of the song it is something far worse: it is suicidal.

So, here and now, I would plead with anyone reading this to stop criticizing Miley for her risque behavior. She is not so much Madonna as she is Lindsey Lohan. It is not self degradation, but self destruction, that lies at the heart of all this. From a cultural standpoint, I can understand why parents are upset at the nudity, but from an artistic standpoint, they should be more concerned about the wrecking ball. After all, when a naked person of any age, sex or background rides a wrecking ball, the concern should not be for their modesty but for their safety. And Miley’s music is much closer to the edge than her video.

With that in mind, I would like to offer a short philosophical perspective on what this is really about. Miley grew up with Hannah Montana. Hannah told Miley (along with all the pre-teens that watched the show) that love is as simple as throwing your attractive-teenage self into life. If you can dream it, you can do it. If you meet some boy who has walls, give it all you got and you’ll watch those walls fall like Jericho. Only, Billy-Ray’s casual Bible references totally missed the mark. It wasn’t the Israelite’s good intentions and sweet-sounding music that felled the walls: it was their faith in God. Without that faith, the walls won’t collapse: we will. Miley hurled herself naked on a wrecking ball of self-confidence, hoping to heal achy-breaky hearts. Instead, she got her own heart broken by a world of teen-gossip, tabloids and tediously-low ratings. Therefore, she sings sincerely about being broken by the wrecking ball. That is precisely what has happened in her own real life.

That is the story we see in the music video. When the critics are right it is always for the wrong reasons: they are right to say that it is hedonism, but its not the sexuality that makes it so. It is the hopeless, whiny tragedy of it that makes it hedonistic. They say that Miley has gone of the deep end, and they are right, but they are wrong when they associate it strictly with the fact that she has taken off her cloths. Miley is merely expressing a disillusionment with candy-coated-middleclass-materialistic sort of love. It is a disillusionment that her fans share: its just that Miley is their sacrificial victim.

(Perhaps that seems too strong an ending, but, upon second glance, I’ve kept it because it expresses my thesis: Miley is to be pitied, not prodded, just as her fan base is to be pitied.)

Friday Thoughts – Tenebrae and Liturgical Music

Last night I participated in a Tenebrae service here at the seminary, which you can find here. Tenebrae was originally a part of the Divine Office for Holy Week previous to the liturgical changes called for by Vatican II and promulgated by Pope Paul VI. There is still some retention in the Liturgy of the Hours we now use, but it became the practice of some parishes and monasteries to retain the older form as a preparation for the final days of the life of Christ which we celebrate liturgically on Holy Thursday and Good Friday. The basic format is: there are three nocturns followed by an silent Our Father, a closing prayer, and the strepitus, which if you watched in the video, is the loud noise at the very end. The strepitus symbolizes the earthquake at Jesus’ death. Each of the nocturns follows the story from garden of Gethsemane to Calvary, the pinnacle being the strepitus. Within each nocturn, there are three parts: a psalm, a reading, and response. As the liturgy moves on candles are extinguished from a large candelabra called a hearse.

The Schola Cantorum here at the seminary prepared pieces for the musical responses that are at the end each of the three nocturns. We tackled very difficult pieces. Believe you me, chanting with twenty men together at once, and sounding good, is very difficult. Trying to create one voice from twenty is a monumental task for amateurs like ourselves.

After the service, I was struck again by how moving it is. It proved to me that there are certain types, yes, types of music, specially suited for the liturgy. Yes, the church documents tell us Gregorian chant is the greatest form of liturgical music and is the scale by which all other liturgical music is compared, polyphony being the second loved but still very supported child. These forms of music conform themselves to the other-worldliness of the liturgy. They are intended for no other purpose and do not resemble any other form of non-liturgical music (unless those non-liturgical musics become derivative sub-genres of popular music that resemble the forms of chant and sacred polyphony). The allign the mind and the body toward that which is beyond complete intellection and sight, hearing, taste, touch, and smell. They are means by which the soul can encounter the divine. Through the creations of His creations, the Creator reveals Himself to His most beloved creatures.

If you didn’t before, click the link above and soak in some of the glory of God communicated through music. Be moved to sorrow for the sorrows of Christ in the garden. Be moved to hope by the small glimmer in Christ’s eye walking up to Calvary. Shudder in disgust and fear (the good kind) standing at the foot of the cross of the Savior of the world; and hear the loudness of the earthquake that shook the earth, the very cosmos commiserating with the death of Jesus Christ.

The Evangelization of Masculinity and Femininity through Music

I began writing this post on the evening of February 2nd before going to a basketball game. That basketball game had great effect on my life. See this post, this one, this one, and this one for details, if you haven’t been following along. Anyway, I finally want to try and finish the post because the insight I feel is very important.

I had the opportunity last night (last month now, but for my own emotional posterity, I will let the misinformation stand, I apologize for being overly attached) to go to my first Matt Maher concert, yes, first. I have been present when he has led worship and led music for the liturgy, but as for a concert this was a first. It was a great blessing. It took on a different form from the usual concert feeling. The opening act, Audrey Assad, played in the middle of Matt’s set. A bit different indeed but it brought out something for me that was really poignant that evening.

Through Audrey’s music and Matt’s music came forth the natural complementarity of sexes. Matt and Audrey are obviously very good friends who have a relationship that spans way past music and is rooted in the heart of Jesus Christ. They’ve played music together for many years, and that chemistry is immediately apparent to those participating in their live show. Matt was a certain influence in Audrey’s conversion to the Catholic faith. The added depth of his spiritual fatherhood, in a sense, deepens their relationship on stage. Friend and father. Male and female. (It must be stated for the one who misunderstands my words. I am in no way saying are they intimate than in a manner of friendship. Be patient and I hope to show how their communication of the beautiful truths of the human person set them apart from most other professional musicians and songwriters. P.S. Their both happily married. Matt is already exhibiting the fruit of the oneness with his wife through their beautiful baby boy.)

Matt’s music is very forthright. It’s out there, driving. His latest album, even more so than previous albums manifests his masculinity. The melodies are deeper, the rhythms are heavier and stronger, the messages are kerygmatic. He is out there, moving forward, pushing forward. In a sense, they imitate that natural inclination of the male to give himself fully to suffer everything for the sake of self-gift.

Audrey’s music on the other hand is very introspective. It speaks much about her relationship with her Redeemer. It is very receptive, light, melismatic. It’s very feminine. She uses keyboard settings that are more etherial setting a mood of receptivity.

At certain songs they came together, and witnessed through music the beauty and wholeness of marriage. Masculinity and femininity were brought together to shine forth new creation.

The witness of such beautiful and awesome, indeed truthful, self-understanding from this man and this woman will have great effect on their audiences. This is how I can be a man. This is how I can be a woman, and feel and be whole. All is centered on Christ, the Savior, the True Man, who takes away that which prevents wholeness, completeness, joy.

Matt and Audrey, if you read this. Thank you for your witness of what is to be a man and what it is to be a woman.

"When all is done, Judgment comes…"

Day of wrath! O day of mourning!
See fulfilled the prophets’ warning,
Heaven and earth in ashes burning!

I have a new favorite song: the Dies Irae. Day of wrath, day of mourning. Sounds really heavy, right? And Lent is still over two weeks away. Why not wait ‘til then to talk this up. Better to set that dreary mood after Mardi Gras. That was my initial thought. However, after jamming out to DC*B’s version of this ancient hymn for a month, it has made me realize something that’s bursting in my chest right now. This song about the dawn of Judgment Day illuminates a part of Christian theology that was once over emphasized and is now largely ignored, a part of our good news that for centuries was seen as nothing more than bad news. Our modern mentality looks upon the last Judgment with a skepticism that disguises a groping fear. Some of the hardcore movies of our time (Terminator, Armageddon, etc) are about preventing judgment day, about erasing it, rather than about finding the courage to face it down. But Judgment Day, in the Christian tradition, ends on a happy note.

Death is struck, and nature quaking,
all creation is awaking,
to its Judge an answer making.

David Crowder purposely wrote his version of the song in C (the happiest of all keys!). That doesn’t mean that the song is all sunshine and sparkles and rainbows. It does mean, however, that the very last note we hear resolve the whole hymn is a ‘C.’ If you have a piano or guitar on hand, go ahead and strike a C for me…Very good! It’s quite a happy sound, isn’t it? In the context of a sequence of songs full of dissonant power chords, fiery prophets, peals of thunder and the death of the Son of God, this simple C rings out with profound beauty. The point that Crowder is trying to make after 18 minutes of reflecting on death and judgment is that there is something strikingly beautiful to look forward to. At the end of it all.

Think, good Jesus, my salvation
cost thy wondrous Incarnation;
leave me not to reprobation!

So there was the Holocaust. And there were the Gulags. Now there is apartheid and abortion, greed and global warming. So there will be political infighting, economic unrest, famines and fires, widows and wars, and yet it will not yet be the end (See Matt. 24:6). We know not the day nor the hour, though in our darkest hours we may hope it comes sooner rather than later. Though I do not consider myself a melancholy person, I cannot have an entirely optimistic outlook on the way the world is going. I’ve certainly never had the chance to be idealistic. My teenage years began with 9/11 and culminated in hurricane Katrina. Whether or not things are really getting any worse, I have no scientific reason to believe that anything short of the Reign of God could make them any better. Yes, scientific: because, as far my study of the sciences (physical, social, liberal) goes, it seems obvious that God would have to come down in order to truly reverse the effects of entropy. The crimes of racism and murder cry out from the ground not just to congress or the UN. They cry to the heavens asking for atonement. My faith brings me real comfort in the knowledge that, when the time comes to judge humanity for the killings of the poor and the Jews, it will be a poor Jewish carpenter sitting on the throne.

Faint and weary, thou hast sought me,
on the cross of suffering bought me.
shall such grace be vainly brought me?

Yet, this is not the only comfort I derive. He is, after all, a truly merciful judge, like us in all ways except sin. In all ways except sin. In all ways that are good, true and beautiful. In all ways except those ways that have led to our own destruction. To this Judge, who is truly God and also truly bone of our bones and flesh of our flesh (recall: He is our spouse as well), we cry out, “Huic ego parce, Deus!”

When all is done, Judgment comes. Spare, O God: have mercy.

As a closing note, I would like to point out how refreshing it is to hear the phrase “Have mercy” resound in praise and worship songs. Normally, the Protestant theology of the authors of this genre steers them away from publically proclaiming this petition. Because of the reasons listed above, I feel that it is oh so necessary to sing it now and always. With all the weariness of this world, my heart cries out for mercy, but it cries out in the key of C!

Pie Jesu Domine,

Dona nobis requiem. Amen.

O Great God Give Us Rest!

In order to understand what follows, it would be best to watch the video at the link below:

Ecumenism. In case you haven’t been on iTunes in the last week, you might be surprised to hear that the David Crowder* Band has released their final album, a Requiem Mass (co-authored by our boy Matt Maher). That album jumped to the top of the charts (not the Christian charts, THE charts) the day it came out. It has remained in the top 5 ever since. David Crowder is a southern baptist, a representative of Baylor University and a well versed theologian, outside of being an evagelical worship leader. Two decades ago (not to mention two centuries ago), a man from the Calvinist tradition who wrote a Mass “centered on the beauty of the Eucharist” would be kicked out of his denomination, much as the Eucharist itself was physically kicked to the curb by the first protesting iconoclasts. Now, just as it is most decidedly NOT my intention to speculate on whether or not Mr. Crowder is moving toward Rome, I also have no intention of opening up old wounds. The atorocities of the 30 year’s war, the scandal of Henry VIII and the happenings of the Huguenots belong to another age, when the West was all Christian and the differences between Catholics and Protestants resulted in some of the gravest sins in history. As both protestants and Pope have admited, there was guilt on both sides. However, when I read the history of that hideous period, what disturbs me the most is the sacrelige commited by fellow Christians against the Body of Christ. We burned each other, members of that Body, at the stake and poured the Sacred Host and Precious Wine out upon the pavement. The horror of our actions should silence any finger pointing, especially now that we are centuries out from the scandal.
Now, look where we are. Maybe it is the openess of our society. Maybe the providence of time has helped heal all wounds. Maybe it is the fact that we Christians have been forced to cooperate in a strange new era, no longer having the luxury to carry out our family fued across Christendom. What was Christendom, what was our family home, has become a secularist, consumeristic, materialistic, hedonistic parody of all we hold dear. Now, more than ever, Christians must turn to truth where ever it is found. David Crowder, definitely son of these times, has discovered that Truth can be found in the Eucharist. And he has not refrained from giving glory where glory is due. At the behest of Bl John Paul II, many Catholics have found ways to praise the Lord through song styles that our fathers would call too worldly or worthless. And we have not refrained from using them to give God the glory. Now, five centuries out from our great split, Catholics and Protestants are once more praising the Sacred Host together.
This fact does not represent the end of anything, except perhaps the end of the beginning, (to borrow a phrase from Churchill). Can we dare to look forward to a future where we will no longer debate about the Blessed Sacrament, but can commit ourselves to adoring it together? I certainly hope so. But I am ambitious and hope for more than that. I hope that we have come to a point where sacred silence before that Saving Victim can truly begin to heal our divisions. Singing is a great place to begin ecumenism, but the sacraments are the only place that it can end. I am barely a theologian. I am nothing close to a minister. However, I am a child of the Church, and I must say that, though I cannot pretend to know where all this is going, I am content to kneel at the altar with Mr. Crowder. Or Mr. Tony Blair. Or whatever other leaders decided to come around to the Eucharist. Our sad division began at the foot of the altar: let us hope that it’s ending may begin there as well.

O Candlemas Candle, O Candlemas Candle

Being that it is the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord in the Temple, or to some, Candlemas.  I thought it would be appropriate for a hymnodic reflection.

Hail to the Lord who comes,
Comes to his temple gate,
Not with his angel hosts,
Not in his kingly state;

But borne upon the throne
Of Mary’s gentle breast;
Thus to his Father’s house
He comes, a humble guest.

The world’s true light draws near
All darkness to dispel,
The flame of faith is lit
And dies the power of hell.

Our bodies and our souls
Are temples now for him,
For we are born of grace–
God lights our souls within

O light of all the earth!
We light out lives with thee;
The chains of darkness gone,
All sons of God are free.

John Ellerton, 1826-1893

Taken from the hymn for Morning Prayer for the Feast of the Presentation

Music Done Well

As of late, I have been reading St. Augustine’s treatise, On Music.  A later blogpost will give my thoughts on the whole work but one particular part in the first of the six books interested me.

He said, “Music is the science of moving well.”  As a means of necessary background, this particular treatise covers rhythm only so the definition fits well in that regard.  He goes in that chapter to make a point of the qualifier “well.”  Well does not just connote the good measuring of notes at time and intervals that are pleasing to the ear; it also connotes the proper place in which those notes are heard.

Yet it is possible for this harmony and measuring to please when they shouldn’t.  For example, if one should sing sweetly and dance gracefully, wishing thereby to be when the occasion demanded gravity, such a person would in no way be using harmonious mensuration (correct measuring of notes) well.  In other word, that person uses ill or improperly the motion at one time called good because of its harmony. (On Music 1.3)

There is not only good mechanics and sound but a proper place for those good mechanics and sound.  Good music is not harmony and rhythm alone, but proper placement of that harmony and rhythm.  One wouldn’t play, for instance, speed trash metal during the bridal procession of a wedding.  That particular harmony and rhythm, although good in itself (some may argue otherwise), does not fit with that situation.  Now I know people push these boundaries.  The 20th and 21st centuries have been all about pushing boundaries in art, but it is boundaries, i.e. harmonics and rhythms that internally control music.  Aharmony and arhythm is not music.  It is noise, a cacophony of sound with no order.  What to me, Augustine is proposing, is that not only is the order of harmony and rhythm part of music but the placement of that harmony and rhythm within a given situation.  A director would not set “Flight of the Bumblebee” during a peaceful scene with the couple walking down a beach at sunset.  It does not fit the mood.  In our insides we naturally recognize the incoherence of that.

There also occurs in our hearts and in our senses a certain deadening of that naturally recognizable incoherence when incoherence becomes the norm.  Coherence can no longer be identified.  Say for instance someone cannot tell the dream from reality.  One actually is reality and the other a figment of imagination.

This seems to have occurred in Liturgical music over the past half century.  People recognize beautiful music and wish to incorporate it into the liturgy because of its beauty, which is indeed an admirable desire, but the second part of what Augustine describes as good music requires proper placement.  Although pop music has recognizably coherent harmony and rhythm that is pleasing to the ear, it does not fit within the framework of worship.  Pop music is an earthy, passionate, and highly emotional form of music.  It keeps one firmly in earthly experience.  It does not, but its mood and movement lift someone  up to worship in God the same way the other-worldly sound of Gregorian Chant, or Mozarabic Chant, or Byzantine Chant does.  Chant lifts someone out of themselves and moves the towards God.  The lack of meter gives a certain elevation to it.  It is guided by accents and phrases connecting lyric with melody in such an extraordinarily symbiotic way.

I’m looking at this from a philosophical viewpoint, but it would seem that this viewpoint finds its way into countless church documents about sacred music.  Corpus Christi Watershed does a good job of explaining it here:

Can you tell the difference?? from Corpus Christi Watershed on Vimeo.

Sorry Rivers You Are Not God

This blog was originally written on October 30, 2010.  The reason for postponement is in the update below.

Tonight was a definitive night.  Why should I make such a bold statement about a cool night in late October on the eve of Halloween weekend?  You might expect some earth shattering revelation or some revolutionary idea that will change the way we see the world.  In fact, I simply chose not to worship the music.  My favorite band, a band I’ve admired, at times I wished to be in, and at other times just plain worshiped plays as I type, in my hometown, for the first time since my knowledge of their existence.  They are not playing an ordinary show, just another stop on the tour.  No, they are playing the Voodoo Music Experience.  Where “spirituality” meets the music on the weekend of all hallows eve.  Ghosts and goblins and witchcraft all come together for the sake of the music.  All come to “worship the music” as the Experience’s slogan proclaims.

I have experienced the Voodoo Music Experience twice in my life.  First in the fall of 2001, the buddy that came with me fled a sentence of house arrest he received from his parents.  We worshiped the likes of 311, Eminem, a young Black Eyed Peas, and the Stone Temple Pilots.  We left in ecstasy (not drug-related) from such a vast experience of music.  It was the greatest musical experience of my teenage life.

This trend of not fulfilling obligations continued.  My second “worship service” occurred seven years later when I chose to not fulfill some requirements of presence at a certain function.  Instead, I chose to listen and adore the great deconstruction and reconstruction of music that comes from the mind of Jeff Tweedy and Wilco.

Music seemed more important than responsibility, as if music superseded responsibility and became the categorical norm.  If it was musical it was more important.  I was indeed following what had been taught to me by MTV and VH1.  I was so influenced by this worldly concept that it in some ways cause spiritual turmoil in my own heart.

I speak this candidly for a purpose.

I chose tonight to forgo what would undeniably be the greatest musical experience of my life, Weezer playing live in New Orleans.  I chose this for my own virtue.  I have no obligations tonight.  I could have gone and not skipped on anything.  Instead, I chose to not “worship the music.”  It is a step of many steps towards freedom from the concept that music supersedes responsibility but more importantly freedom from being bound by a created reality whereby I can more freely worship He who alone is worthy of worship.

Rivers Cuomo is second from the left

Sorry Rivers you are not God.

Update: I have been reading The Spirit of the Liturgy by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger.  In his chapter, he specifically speaks on rock music.

“Rock,” on the other hand, is the expression of elemental passions, and at rock festivals it assumes a cultic character, a form of worship, in fact, in opposition to Christian worship. (p. 148)

Cardinal Ratzinger’s quote confirms my thoughts that evening.  I previously was a reticent in posting it because of its candidness, but after reading that, it seemed appropriate.

Music can easily become a source of idolatry.  One can worship the creator of the music, as seemed to happen with the overly popular acts like The Beatles, Michael Jackson, and Elvis to name a few.  As Ratzinger says it even holds worship services, known as rock concerts.

There’s a certain rite, if you will humor me.  One pays a tithe for entrance.  After entrance is granted, one either moves to the assigned seat or finds the best place to participate in the service.  There is an entrance rite performed by a local DJ.  This is followed by open acts, who are usually of lesser notoriety and do not deserve full worship.  They are the lesser deities that get you emotional revved up for the deity you came to worship.  Finally, after waiting, the time arrives when the sound waves hit your ears that excite those elemental passions and bring one over edge into musical ecstasy.  This is a communal experience.  Libations are present as ways of preparing for the ecstatic experience.

The cultic character is no doubt present.  No man, or creation, deserves that worship.  God alone.

So I repeat again.  Sorry, Rivers, you are not God.