Following a musician's journey through the rough and the redeemed.
No abundant bright bloom of flowers on the CD cover or obscure Latin in the title or gentle dance of cursive font describing the song list, nothing can hide that this is not your light-and-breezy summer release of cruising-with-the-top-down jams, but rather, a full-blown concept album of folk hymns about the art of dying.
The Art of Dying (officially Ars Moriendi) represents a brave and risky move for the make-it or break-it breakout album of an up-and-coming band. The Collection’s courageous collection of orchestral pop hymns chart and curate the grieving heart of a gifted songwriter and the community of bandmates and fans that surround him.
At a time when the flame of the alternative folk explosion still burns bright despite much backlash, this North Carolina ensemble shows up as the son of Mumford and Sons, married to Edward Sharpe’s second cousin, with too many members to pack the tiny stages of clubs and bars, with a sound fit for mountaintop vistas, and songs as mystic visions that pierce the veil between life and death.
Despite the heavy earnestness of the entire package, it’s exactly the grief-support-group that my ears need, and I imagine a rendering of fragile faith and hope against hope that our world craves. The Collection manage to sing about Jesus and Thomas and the prodigal son without getting pushy, dancing on the fringe of explicit CCM, exploring sacred-meets-secular crossover paths and gritty crossroads that groups like Needtobreathe, Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors, and Gungor have already traveled.
Death remains that earthly finality to render our denial mute — and our religious musings about whether it represents cosmic reunion, bodily resurrection, or eternal rest are powerless when we admit that the mysterious premonitions of the “heaven is real” crowd are but passing glimpses and not bulletproof facts. The Christians that remain relevant in our world have invested in the Kingdom here, now, and all around us, and they don’t shove tracts that guarantee afterlife fantasies in our faces on the same street corners where tramps and hobos sleep and sometimes starve.
I am waiting for the music to return — the sonorous graces of laughter and kitchen clinking, of bird call on the hillside.
I am waiting for the music to return — the precarious arrangement of hope and memory that uplifts and guides.
I am waiting for the music to return — the band, the orchestra, the seisiún, the jam, the people who make and craft sound.
Instead, I am stranded in an eschatological posture like pause on my mp3 player. The Wifi Spirit does not respond and even if I could connect, the playlist I have randomized is sore lacking. I miss the people who make these sounds. I miss their voices.
The French composer Claude Debussy once said, "Music is the space between the notes." His compositions were a part of Impressionism in music, a movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that focused on suggestion and atmosphere and favored short forms of music like nocturnes, arabesques, and preludes. This movement was a correction of the excesses of the Romantic period, where the focus was on strong emotion and the depiction of stories and the favor was toward long forms of music like symphonies and concertos.
The last time I listened to Nickel Creek was to analyze their adaptation of Robert Burns’ poem, “Sweet Afton,” in my English literature class in college three years ago. Indeed, the waters of Nickel Creek flow gently, a trait reflected in “Sweet Afton” and many other Nickel Creek staples. And that general lack of bite, paired with an almost robotic mastery of each band members’ respective instrument, pushed me away from the band.
So it was strange that, with no expectations and an arbitrarily negative perception of the classic folk band, I really enjoyed seeing Nickel Creek reunite in Washington, D.C. after a six-year hiatus. The show, in sum, was really, really good.
Reading the Bible from the comfort of my couch, I find myself pointing fingers at individuals like Elijah. I can throw them under the bus for missing the point. It's easy for me to see how they got it all wrong. I'm amazed how apparent the presence of God can be one minute and the very next minute they sink deep into despair with this "woe is me" attitude — all the while thinking God has abandoned them.
But, as an onlooker, I have the privilege of seeing the whole story. I'm not living in the moment waiting for things to unfold. The Bible has extended to me the privilege of seeing the big picture, which makes it easy to see that while God is sometimes found on the mountain, or in those big cinematic experiences — conquering prophets, healing the sick, reviving the dead, conquering death — other times he is found in the valley, or in that still, small voice.
But then again, I have to wonder if I'm really any different? Don't I have the same struggles today? How often do I get caught up in the circumstances and lose sight of the big picture? I have some big mountain top experience — the money comes through, the deal works out, I got the job, my fear and anxiety dissipate, the mission trip is life changing, the sermon was exactly what I needed to hear — and, it never fails, the next minute I feel as though God has abandoned me. Doubts surface about whether or not God really has my best interest at heart. I wonder if he can even use someone as broken as me.
What causes such a drastic change?
After wrestling with this a little more, I came to a disheartening conclusion — I have a tendency to seek an experience instead of God.
Nostalgia drives liturgical change as much as it drives musical entrepreneurship. What songs warm our hearts? What reminds us of grandmother? A song might symbolize an imagined, more perfect, time in the church. Nostalgia and utopian dreams of the past collude and what emerges is new liturgy.
The new is born of ideations of the old. The new is born of nostalgia as much as anything else.
Of course, most of us are nostalgic for times and places that are irrecoverable. How we partake of the table feast is predicated on what moves our heart. And it is mediated by the liturgical power structures of our own traditions. Perhaps you have a prayer book like the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. So, you try to create a liturgy for both you and your grandmother even though your grandmother still perceives the 1979 Book of Common Prayer as an innovation and not the church of her childhood for which she too is very nostalgic. She misses her parents. She misses her grandparents.
KISS may have been on the cover of the April 10 issue of Rolling Stone, but the most eye-opening headline may have been the one that proclaimed: “Gay, Mormon & Finally Out.”
After years of denials and lyrics that obscure the issue, Glenn declared proudly that he is gay — and still a devout member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“I believe and I have faith and I was born with this,” Glenn told The Salt Lake Tribune in one of the first interviews since coming out.
Think Christmas, and carols come to mind: “Joy to the World,” “Silent Night,” “The First Noel.” But think of the other great Christian season — Holy Week and Easter — and most people draw a musical blank.
“The music written for Holy Week is some of the richest in our literature,” said David Ludwig, dean of artistic programs at Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.
Rolling in the Deep — Adele
Mama Said Knock You Out — LL Cool J
Lazy Song — Bruno Mars
Je Ne Veux Pas Travailler — Pink Martini
Rich Girl — Gwen Stefani ft Eve
I Want It All — Queen
Eat It — Weird Al Yankovich
Can’t Stop — Miley Cyrus
I Want You to Want Me — Letters to Cleo/10 Things I Hate About You soundtrack
I’m Sexy and I Know It — LMFAO
I’m the Best (clean version) — Nicki Minaj
Devil Went Down To Georgia — Charlie Daniels Band
Jessie’s Girl — Rick Springfield
Dancing on My Own — Robyn
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.
Some day soon, pop music will start wafting through the urban canyons where I live.
Styles will collide, and they certainly will drown out spring birds. But no matter. The longest winter on record — or at least the longest since last year — will have ended, and the city can breathe its annual sigh of relief.
We did it. We survived the snow and bitter cold. We survived urban indignities like skyrocketing rents and public servants who care little for the public or for serving. We survived snow days when families who depend on public schools not only for education but also for day care and basic nutrition found themselves trapped, and entitled folks complained when schools were kept open after snow to serve those basic human needs.
It was a busy weekend on the eve of Lent for fans of spirited singer and spiritually-minded musician Michael Gungor. If you were not on the Gungor or Michael Gungor Twitter feed over the first two days of March, you might have missed the news about a new band, a new record, and a new mini-tour.
As the band called Gungor takes a short break from touring in support of its sonically and lyrically adventurous album I Am Mountain, the family business has reinvented itself with the proverbial “side project” so common with musical visionaries who cannot contain their creative output to just one brand name or band name.
But The Liturgists — a collective that includes Michael’s wife Lisa, brother David, and a host of other supporting musicians and collaborators — are not just another band, and the brand is “the work of the people.” The band’s Vapor EP is a warm and experimental worship text that includes a song, a spoken-word invocation and incantation, and a guided centering prayer meditation. On the group’s Ash Wednesday-week mini-tour, all the shows are free by RSVP and are not really shows as at all — not as indie-consumers even in the contemporary Christian scene have come to expect.