Editor's Note: Last week, Sojourners’ Associate Web Editor Catherine Woodiwiss caught up with musical collective Gungor at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas. Here’s what Michael Gungor has to say about art, liturgy, and the future of music.
This interview has been edited for length and content.
Catherine: So what brings you to South by Southwest (SXSW)?
Gungor: I guess we thought it was about time to experience the circus.
Catherine: A couple of years ago there was talk of SXSW becoming a destination for "Christian techies,” and Donald Miller premiered his popular film, Blue Like Jazz, at the film portion of the festival. Do you consider yourself part of a Christian “witness” here at SXSW?
Gungor: We are here to make some music, have a good time, and perhaps make some friends along the way. We certainly aren't here to proselytize or advance some secret religious message or anything.
But anywhere we go, we do have a desire to live the sort of life that Jesus invited people to live.
Catherine: You frequently wrestle with the idea of purpose, in life and in art. Is the purpose of music to provide a safe space, to enchant, or to serve?
Gungor: I can’t speak for the purpose of other people’s music, but for us we make music to express and open the human heart. Music helps me to more fully experience the transcendence and magic of existence.
I have found that if I make music that first helps me experience something personally, it often has the same effect in others as well. I prefer that to primarily trying to accomplish a “purpose” in someone else.
Catherine: In the past, you’ve struggled with embracing “Christian” as a label for your music. Your songs seem to chafe against the easy answers that can arise in a community with prescribed codes of behaviors. And your newest album, I Am Mountain, marks a noticeable departure from Christian-centric language. What have you found on the other side?
Gungor: It’s not just that I struggled to embrace it. I rejected it, as I still do. Christians are people. Music cannot be Christian or not Christian any more than it can be the color purple or not. Music is music.
As to my own experience in making the music, I feel I am in a freer place than ever before to explore all of life in our writing. And all of life, to me, is “sacred.”
Catherine: Earlier this month, you also released a new project, The Liturgists, with musical liturgies based on the book of Ecclesiastes. How do you connect this project to your music as Gungor-proper?
Gungor: It’s not connected other than in the fact that Lisa [Gungor, Michael’s wife and music partner] and I are involved in The Liturgists as well. It will also probably serve as the primary outlet for any musical material that we write that has a more liturgical focus.
Catherine: The word “liturgy” is usually understood as a manual for public worship. How are your references to Carl Sagan, anthropology, and the health effects of prayer as heard on the song collection Vapor relevant to liturgy as we know it in the church?
Gungor: I think liturgical space is wide open for artistic experimentation right now. The sheer amount of people that go to a religious gathering every week proves that there is a strong need and desire out there for liturgical work that speaks to the human heart and helps people experience the Divine together.
One human discipline that I find very little in most liturgical expressions is science. I think that’s a mistake. Religion and science may have not gotten along very well in the last few centuries, but I don’t think that is how it should be.
Catherine: You’re often called an innovative musician. Who are some other innovative musicians with a spiritual pulse?
Gungor: I think everyone has a spiritual pulse. We just are all at different places in our journeys and we all express our spirituality differently. As to innovative musicians, a few of my favorites off the top of my head right now are Sleeping at Last, K.S. Rhoads, Chris Thile, and Paul Simon.
Catherine: This week at SXSW, Neil Young launched pono, a musical service to provide quality audio and raise the bar in how we hear music. Have you heard of pono? What do you think the future of music — making, hearing, sharing — looks like?
Gungor: I think the pono idea is great and, with how fast people are supporting it, a lot of people seem to agree. I love that a lot of people are starting to realize that with a huge push in our culture for expediency and convenience, quality often becomes an afterthought. As our technology continues to increase, I think we will be able to experience both. As long as we see more things like pono and less “free music” services — which I’m not sure that we will — I think the music industry is moving in the right direction.
I think the biggest mistake the industry could make would be to devalue itself too far in services where people can easily listen to any song they want to, as many times as they want to, without having to pay anything for it. If that happens, recorded music will lose all monetary value in people’s minds, which would, of course, make the quality of the music being produced suffer.
When you place the highest value on convenience and pricing accessibility, you end up getting McDonalds, but not necessarily good art.
Watch Gungor’s sing, “I Am Mountain” below.
Catherine Woodiwiss is Associate Web Editor at Sojourners. Find her on Twitter @chwoodiwiss .