Music

The Space Between the Notes

Sheet music, Franz Metelec / Shutterstock.com

Sheet music, Franz Metelec / Shutterstock.com

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.

People Love Their Nickel Creek

Photo by Brantley Gutierrez

Nickel Creek. Photo by Brantley Gutierrez

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.

Tapping the Sacred Power of Song

MUSIC IS OFTEN regarded and consumed as something that fills a space—the chords of an organ resounding off the walls of a sanctuary, the beats of a drum circle riding on the breeze through a park, the harmonies of an orchestra flowing from my headphones into my ears as I write. Music even transcends physical spaces to permeate the heart and the soul with emotion.

In Music as Prayer, pastor and musician Thomas H. Troeger invites the reader to cherish and engage in music as an act of prayer. Taking into account the metaphorical, scientific, and practical aspects of music-making, Troeger illustrates the power of music to not only fill a space but to also clear a way for meaning and creativity. Building upon Henry Ward Beecher’s metaphor of a boat stuck on the shore, Troeger describes how the “mighty ocean-tone” of a church organ brings the “tide” needed to lift up the members of the congregation and set them free from the shore.

In what Troeger calls a “dialogic process,” music lends rich metaphors to language and changes the effect of language upon the listener. The same song played in two distinct styles can convey two completely different sets of emotions.

From the ancient flute invented 35,000 years ago to today’s smartphone streaming songs on demand, music has occupied a central part of the human story. The mystery of music lies in the way that sound waves can blend into melodies that speak directly to the human yearning for wholeness. Creating space for both celebration and lament, music has the capacity to hold opposing emotions in the same breath. Music can provide release from suppressed inner tension and give voice to even the most unspeakable emotions.

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New & Noteworthy

Reading Power
Her Next Chapter: How Mother-Daughter Book Clubs Can Help Girls Navigate Malicious Media, Risky Relationships, Girl Gossip, and So Much More advises on everything from basic setup to navigating challenging topics. By educational psychologist and girls’ empowerment advocate Lori Day, with her daughter, Charlotte Kugler. Chicago Review Press

Slices of Life
Fresh on the heels of an essay collection (The Thorny Grace of It: And Other Essays for Imperfect Catholics, Loyola Press), Portland Magazine editor Brian Doyle now offers prose poems that capture prayers, piercing insights, and luminous moments with craft and frequent wit in A Shimmer of Something: Lean Stories of Spiritual Substance. Liturgical Press

Being There
The Parish Collective is a North American network of groups and churches striving to be deeply rooted in and shaped by their neighborhoods. Collective co-founders Paul Sparks and Tim Soerens and professor Dwight J. Friesen offer what they’ve learned in The New Parish: How Neighborhood Churches Are Transforming Mission, Discipleship, and Community. IVP Books

Ordinary Grace
Critically acclaimed folk singer-songwriter Carrie Newcomer’s newest album, A Permeable Life, strives to be, she writes, “radically uncynical and fearlessly hopeful ... a gritty kind of hope.” Her rich voice and intelligent lyrics explore themes of finding the sacred in the everyday and the art of presence. Available Light

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Do We Seek Experiences Instead of God?

phildaint/Shutterstock.com

Mountaintop experiences are some of the easiest ways to feel God's presence. phildaint/Shutterstock.com

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. 

Liturgical Nostalgimania

Historic church organ, FooTToo / Shutterstock.com

Historic church organ, FooTToo / Shutterstock.com

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.

Neon Tree's Tyler Glenn Is Gay, Mormon, and Proud of It

Tyler Glenn of Neon Trees performs in 2012. Photo courtesy of Mike Deerkoski via Wikimedia Commons.

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.”

It led readers to page 46 and a story about Tyler Glenn, the frontman for Neon Trees, Utah’s most prominent band.

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.

Holy Week Music Sets a High Bar, But One Church Rises to the Challenge

Cantata 79, J.S. Bach played by First Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, in October 2013. Photo courtesy Jennifer Gay/RNS

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.

That’s a shame, say church music experts, because the great trove of Holy Week music is firmly rooted in church, where, depending on location, tradition, and taste, believers hear everything from folk music to Gregorian chant, from classical requiem Masses to Passions by modern composers.

“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.

Sweet Soul Paradox

FAME studio mic

ON THE 2001 album Southern Rock Opera, over a thumping four-by-four beat and three roaring guitars, Drive-By Truckers front man Patterson Hood sang a song about “the duality of the Southern thing,” which he identified as equal parts “glory” and “shame.”

That pretty much sums up the paradox of a place like Hood’s native Alabama, where they celebrate the birthdays of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert E. Lee on the same day. But up in the northwest corner of Alabama there stands a monument to the South’s unalloyed glory—the FAME recording studio in Muscle Shoals.

Beginning in the late 1950s, when segregation was still the law throughout the former Confederacy, at FAME black and white Southerners worked as partners, side by side, to make the sweet soul music that would help change the world. Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman,” Aretha Franklin’s “I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You,” Wilson Pickett’s “Land of 1,000 Dances” and “Mustang Sally”—they were all recorded in Muscle Shoals within a two-year period in the mid-1960s.

And most of the musicians on all those deeply funky recordings were white Alabamans. The bass player, David Hood, was the father of the Truckers’ Patterson Hood.

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Art, Liturgy, and the Future of Music: A Q&A With Gungor

Via gungormusic.com

Via gungormusic.com

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.

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