Working in Mysterious Ways

Working in Mysterious Ways

Well, on a personal note, after sending in my initial “chatter” post to NewMusicBox, my computer imploded (shortly after I sent it, curiously) and I have been forced to buy a new one during a budget crunch. As a result, there has been a large lapse since my first post, but what this has allowed is some very deep and frank comments which are great jumping off points for future sacred music discussion. Many thanks for your warm welcome and insightful comments—I’ll address some of them this time, but in trying to keep my posts short I will address others as we continue this discussion. Just to be clear, this is not a peripheral inquiry.

I agree with many of you that sacred music does not necessarily need to fit into a certain type of musical aesthetic. I think that much of the music I write is essentially sacred, but I feel that way because of my approach to writing it and what I write, rather than its final “resting place” in the sacred or secular category. Having said that, I also agree with many of you that content and honesty in one’s musical statements is essential—otherwise the music, as many of you said so eloquently, is simply derivative. Quality is truly different than style.

So sacred music doesn’t necessarily mean that it needs to happen in a church, although we also must discuss music that does take place in a worship setting. It is very true that the organist or music director plies the churchgoer with music that can be from a variety of phases of musical formation. At a church in Minnesota I even heard a tribute to Charles Schulz improvised very reverently during an offertory the morning the artist died. I admit that although he touched and continues to touch many lives, this particular incident may have been a “Minnesota” thing since he was born, raised, and worked in Minnesota for so many years. The ridiculous and sublime of sacred music seem to work together at times. I am not implying that the tribute was ridiculous, but rather sublime, while responding to a more secular part of our lives—the newspaper comic strip—which can touch our lives as much as sacred music and was tastefully slipped into the service. Of course, in other churches, that same act might have been viewed as sacrilegious, as much as whistling, evidently irreverently, and therefore, inappropriate in a church.

I would even go as far as to say that perhaps in some circumstances, a piece of music might be too sacred for it to conform to a worship service and might be listened to in more depth in a different setting. Some ensembles perform concerts that are spiritual where applause is held in order to fully engage with the music. The concert might be held at a place where deep listening can take place without a venue’s agenda center stage. On the other hand, that venue may not hold any meaning to someone who isn’t aware of the background.

To wrap up, we’ve talked about listeners, worshippers, worship settings, music in concert, music in worship, and being touched by an experience (feet included). When I was writing about whether or not some music conformed to a worship service I was struck by the difference between concertgoers and worshipgoers as listeners. I even thought about whether to use the word “appreciate” in a concert setting, although I’d be hesitant to use it in a worship sense. Certainly touching a gifted artist after performance was an act of appreciation. (I used to live in Boulder. I know.) Do those who worship really listen to the music that is being offered? We certainly hear from those who disliked the music, but do we hear from those when they are truly touched by it?

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

5 thoughts on “Working in Mysterious Ways

  1. pgblu

    Should anyone feel the need to turn their noses up at sacred music, keep in mind that the church created the occasion for 90% of the music we consider ‘literature’ up to the year 1800. And it was by no means a priori more ‘conservative’ (whatever that actually means) than profane music, since, for one thing, one neither had to be able to sing nor to dance to it.

    One of my favorite composers, Frescobaldi, wrote his most bizarre and speculative pieces to commemorate the elevation of the host. Extreme chromaticism and oddly constructed motives were intended to protray the profoundest kinds of mystery.

    What do you think? How does today’s sacred music compare to today’s non-sacred music? Does this wild experimentation still have a place in sacred lit? What do angels, gods, etc, actually listen to?

  2. Lisa X

    Almost unrelated but Anne your presence hear has kind of gotten me into sacred music in general. Youtube is a decent starter source for all those interested outsiders like me. One thrilling example: Pastor James Morrow. Are there any good sources for a really broad history of sacred music?

  3. girl in a cornfield

    A place to start…
    Wilson-Dixon, Andrew. The Story of Christian Music: From Gregorian Chant to Black Gospel. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003. Not terribly in depth, but a good overview from David’s Psalms to Arvo Part. Somewhere to start, anyway.

  4. William Osborne

    Do those who worship really listen to the music that is being offered?

    I’ve been incredibly busy and have to return to Germany tomorrow so I can’t respond to Anne’s wonderful blog entry in a way it deserves. I think those who really “worship,” at least in its more profound sense, know a great deal about listening.

    There seems to be something inherently “sacred” about listening. All other forms of sensation are essentially directional, even smell, but listening is innately spherical. We thus associate listening with the all-encompassing, the universal, even the transcendent. It is only through the cognitive processes of listening that we give hearing a “sense” of direction. The ability to create “silence” by selectively focusing our listening is one of the greatest miracles of listening – second perhaps only to the transcendent implications of its spherical nature. It is interesting that many religions touch on the idea that the creation of silence through listening combines with its inherently spherical nature to create a sense of the deific. “Be silent, and know that I am God.” Silence is created only through a very powerful form of listening. Perhaps in that silence lies the most profound music.

    It is also possible to hear an infinitude of detail in every sound. One of the greatest mysteries of nature and human perception is that the infinitude of the microcosmic comes full circle and weds itself as a mirror of the macrocosmic. Why do the structures of the atomic world bear a resemblance to the galactic world? Why do the crystalline structures of ice and rock bear literal structural relationships to the erosion of coast lines? Why do the swirls in the little creek outside have the same form as this galaxy? How does an infinitesimal helix of DNA contain the entirety of human evolution? There is something infinite in the details of sound that can give a sense of the sacred. Perhaps through meditation on the global and focal in listening we sense a unity in multiplicity that raises human folly above our finite and conditioned existence. This form of listening seems to be a central part of many kinds of religious experience.

    I think listening is also the essence of compassion. Through listening we sound the abyss of otherness. Isn’t there a kind of compassion reflected in the empathic forms of communication that are a central of the deepest forms of musical performance? Think of the work of the great string quartets and how they listen to each other – almost as if they read each others minds, or share on some sort of almost indefinable level. This empathy is also part of the audience’s role. A profound musical experience can only happen when the listener is capable of listening in a deep way. This listening as a form of empathy or compassion seems to play a similar role in many varieties of religious experience. It might even be a form of listening that goes far beyond the perception of sound.

    For many people, profound music reflects a desire to touch the unfathomable. The correlations to religious experience are very similar, and that might be why music is a central part of virtually every religion. Aren’t those who truly worship, who truly love, who truly sense compassion, those who listen most deeply?

    That’s why I find this blog so interesting. For so long the rational, scientific nature of 20th century modernism rejected most religious experience, and perhaps even our sense of the sacred. It seems that in the process we might have lost touch with a profound part of our musical nature.

    And all of this from someone who hasn’t attended a church in 34 years….

    William Osborne

  5. philmusic

    “I am not implying that the tribute was ridiculous, but rather sublime,..”

    Besides religion, music has always been a way of bridging distances between folks. I wouldn’t be the first to point out that concerts and performances are also rituals.

    Anyway, I find it interesting that many of the things we cherish the most are those seemingly banal objects that become the most intensely personal.

    Phil Fried


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