Archive for October, 2011

Bending Time

On the philosophic side of art I am fascinated with attempts by artists who wrestle with the subject of time through lyrics, images, plots, and sounds. A most recent example is Inception, starring Leonardo Dicaprio. In this film time-benders enter the subconscious of a victim to bend future events. The film wreaks of Huxley with drug-induced states being the modus operandi for accessing subconscious networks (note Dicaprio’s latest adventure literally with a Huxley text) .

Among musical examples, two of the most artistic/philosophic offerings are Windmills of the Mind by Michael Legrand and Time by Pink Floyd.

In Windmills of the Mind time is described as a series of never ending circles. As the lyrics become more personal toward the end of the song, referencing specific relational experiences, the theme returns to the overwhelming wheels of time that swallow the details. The song certainly embodies  melancholy longing, a salient example of the end-game for secular materialists. Interesting, but a gnawing soulish hunger accompanies the lyrics–no doubt, a bleak eternity even without Dante’s Infirno.

Pink Floyd both bends time in Time and deals with time philosophically. The writers remind us that living through time more than anything proves the timelessness of time. I would say between the two examples, Pink Floyd is perhaps a little closer to the truth, though not much closer when actually measured against Truth.

These explorations with time do little more than the much older artistic experiments with time in Indian Raga. With the Raga, the sitar player places the listener in a dreamy trance like state, only to be followed by the conqueror of time, the tabla player. Tabla players are the real mathematicians of the world, dividing time with sound in complex macro and micro phrases.

But what is one left with in these various versions of the Eastern art of allure. What one is left with is the desire to dive into the art, like the feeling you get when looking at the multitude of colors in a tropical aquarium.

I fear that some of our worship attendees are doing little more than the rock listener who dives into  Pink Floyd. Let me be the first to say as a worship leader that we must explain in a very sober manner the meaning of rich poetry. Rich art needs constant commentary and explanation. When the art becomes too rich with no one to rescue the culture the philosophers will enter the room in one way or another. In Greece clarifiers of complexity entered as philosophers as the Greek tragedy was spinning out of control.

I would suggest C. S. Lewis (quote from Weight of Glory below under comment) as a guide for understanding time. In the great divorce Lewis explores time and concludes that eternity is firmly planted in the heart of man, and humans feel a strange comfort with a sense of eternity. This strange comfort is a pointer toward the state of being for which humans were originally intended. But the point of the longing is for one to recognize the need for Christ. In receiving Him, in fellowshipping with Him, the sense of timelessness reaches its fulfillment.

Worship Orders

A friend of mine Jerry St. Pierre recently asked me about content and content order in worship services. I thought it might be fun to discuss this matter through this blog. Please feel free to “chime in.”

21st Century Hymn Troping

I continue to find the Middle Ages trope to be one of the most interesting developments in the history of church music. For a quick review, the trope essentially reflects a desire to decorate the Word through artful words or pitches. Specifically, from the middle to late Middle Ages chant was enhanced in the following ways: melodies were enhanced with additional words (e.g., words are added to various pitches in a melisma), pitches were added as melismas, or in some cases pitches and words were added to chant melodies. Although the goal was to exalt Christ through these creative additions to the chant, one of the general results of this artistic flourishing was that the congregation could no longer follow the melody.

In the pursuit of the highest levels of excellence in art, interest is usually a key factor that the artist seeks to increase. The music artist might seek to increase the level of interest with the rhythm, melody, harmony, or timbre (instrument sounds). However, in corporate worship a careful balance of interest and clarity must be maintained to encourage enthusiastic congregational participation. Obviously, Christian art was out of balance in terms of interest by the late Middle Ages, with the typical church member only able to participate at a minimal level in the worship experience. Eventually troping led to the writing of multiple melodic parts occurring at the same time (polyphony), and by way of the late Middle Ages English church musicians, tertian harmony emerged. Tertian harmony is the basis for all harmonic music of the West (Western classical music of all types, hymns, jazz, blues, rock, and country). So, good things can certainly come from a pursuit of interesting art.

I would suggest we are now living in an interesting age of 21st century troping. I am referring particularly to new arrangements of hymns. A few years ago several popular Christian artists began focusing their creative endeavors on hymns. Amazing Grace/My Chains Are Gone is a clear example of a modern trope: New text and words are added to a traditional hymn. (Type I modern hymn troping)

However, another form of modern troping is to produce increasingly interesting musical arrangements of hymns (Type II modern hymn troping). In the middle ages, the main material one could use to make increasingly interesting musical art was through new melodies. Eventually the most interesting option became the use of polyphonic lines, which eventually suggested harmonic relationships. Currently, one does not typically make a hymn more interesting by inserting harmonies (e.g., adding jazz harmonies in some instances would be an exception). In fact, most hymns are more harmonically rich than the new arrangements that are created. Rather, modern arrangers increase interest through the use of interesting timbres.

To clarify, there are two arguments for artistic qualities in rock or popular music. The most frequently used argument is that jazz, the blues, country, and rock musicians combined Western harmonies with African rhythms.  This is a legitimate argument because one could make an argument that the polyrhythmic nature of African music is more sophisticated than the rhythms in Western music, whereas the harmonies in Western music surpass all attempts at harmony in the history of the world. I do not make the same claim for polyrhythmic African music because Indian music is arguably more sophisticated rhythmically than  African music. However, African rhythms may be better suited to congregational participation because they embody a careful balance of interest and clarity.

The other argument for artistry in 20th century American genres (listed above) is the use of increasingly interesting timbres.[1] Before the emergence of electronic music, Wagner stretched the outer limits of timbre (instrument color) interest, even inventing particular types of wind instruments to provide a particular color. In the 20th century, electronic production opened up a new world of sounds for artistic production. The use of interesting rock sounds to increase interest in hymns is quite appropriate in my view. The only warning I would give is that of accessibility. We must not forget the rule learned above from troping in the middle ages. If one takes troping interest too far, one may lose congregational participation. An intellectually and emotionally engaged congregation is an important verification of the needed balance between interest and clarity.

I would like to suggest an excellent example of type 2 troping to which I was recently introduced by Ronald Laitano, worship leader at FBC Kenner, LA. Rock of Ages by Sojourn is a par excellent example of the right balance between interest and clarity in modern troping:


[1] T. Gracyk, “Popular music: The very idea of listening to it” in Bridging the gap: Popular music and music education, ed. C. X. Rodriguez (Reston, VA: MENC, 2004), 51-70; Gracyk showed how observing the evolution of Western music as a jourey with sound offers a different perspective on the progression of music history.