Archives For Music

Strange TrailsI get excited about music, but I have waited for few albums with as much anticipation as I waited for Lord Huron’s second full-length release. When I wrote Resonate, I included a section on Lord Huron’s first album, Lonesome Dreams. At the time, I had listened to that album over 100 times (according to my iTunes play count), and I wrote about the depth and complexity of the album. The album flows gracefully from one song to the next, themes recur and develop, the last song even mirrors the first both lyrically and instrumentally. I included Lonesome Dreams in the book because I see it as a powerful example of music’s potential to draw us in, to make us think, to stir our imaginations, to make us wonder and think and feel—even if we are not receiving propositional statements that tell us what to think and feel. I have now listened to Lonesome Dreams over 200 times, and my thoughts are the same.

So when Lord Huron’s follow up album, Strange Trails, released, I was excited, though a bit apprehensive that Lord Huron wouldn’t be able to create another album at that caliber. Thankfully, they delivered. Strange Trails sounds like a cousin to Lonesome Dreams: some definite similarities in style and themes, but not simply more-of-the-same.

One of the most surprising features of Strange Trails is the process that Lord Huron’s Ben Schneider used in creating the album. Strange Trails has an underlying cast of characters. Essentially, Schneider envisioned a greaser gang, and each song comes from the perspective of one of the characters in Schneider’s fictitious world. The album doesn’t offer a strict plotline, as in an opera, but one does sense an underlying story and movement throughout the album. In an 8-minute radio interview with NPR, Schneider describes several of the characters—including their names, physical appearance, and some back story—and explains how these characters contribute to the album.

Lord Huron

This is similar to Schneider’s method in crafting his first album, for which he created a fictional fiction writer (sort that out), who fictitiously wrote the Lonesome Dreams series of adventure novels, each of which shares a title with a song on Lord Huron’s Lonesome Dreams album. (“Naturally,” Schneider, who is a talented graphic artist as well, created a website for his fictitious fiction writer, George Ranger Johnson, where each novel in his series is featured.) Schneider also created a series of “episodes” as music videos for the songs on Lonesome Dreams. (He is doing something similar for the Strange Trails album.)

Admittedly, this is a quirky approach to songwriting. The listener certainly doesn’t need to know about the characters and their back stories to enjoy the album, but I will say that his approach gives his albums a depth that is often missing in music. The lyrics aren’t bald statements or shallow rhymes, they are as complex and intriguing as the characters “speaking” them. Musically, the album is multi-layered and varied. The songs flow well together (intentionally so), yet there is a range of emotion that highlights the variety of perspectives through which the album “speaks.”

The combined effect is enjoyable and inspiring music with unusual depth. I haven’t figured the album out yet; it continues to draw me in. There are lines that immediately speak to me (“I had all and then most of you / some and now none of you…I don’t know what I’m supposed to do / haunted by the ghost of you”), but lines like these are more suggestive than clearly defined, and they set my imagination to work. In my opinion, this is how an artist taps into the power of music. So much of music’s power is its ability to suggest, to stir, to move. Music is deeply mysterious, so songs that leave no space for mystery or subtlety or reflection betray their art form; they are more sermons lying atop instrumentation than actual songs.

Lord Huron 2

So what can Christian artists learn from Lord Huron? I don’t mean to suggest that everyone should adopt Ben Schneider’s approach to creating art. But I do think every Christian artist, regardless of their particular medium, would do well to learn from the depth of Schneider’s work. Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins recently criticized Christian musicians for simply imitating U2 for the last few decades. Corgan is obviously exaggerating, and he seems to be unaware of some recent trends in “Christian music,” but he is surely right to call Christians to greater originality in their art.

Many Christian artists are extraordinarily creative, and the world has benefited from the creativity of Christians throughout history. But we need to continually be inspired by the beautiful, reflective, mysteriously complex art of people like Ben Schneider. Christians, after all, believe that ultimate reality is the Creator—infinitely complex, deeply mysterious, worthy of never ending reflection and contemplation. And we believe that this Creator formed a world that is itself complex, mysterious, and full of meaning, along with a mini-creator capable of exploring the mystery and meaning that resides in all things. So in my opinion, Christians would do well to listen to the music of Lord Huron and be edified and inspired—not to imitate Schneider’s style or approach, but to create with the same pursuit of depth and meaning.

 

The Composer

Mark Beuving —  March 9, 2015 — Leave a comment

I have written a lot about music, both on this blog and in Resonate. And while I don’t want to always ride my own hobby horse, we can always stand to be re-awakened to amazing aspects of the world God made—like music. I recently came across this wonderful poem written by a friend of mine in my church, and I’m sharing it here.

Acoustic GuitarThe reason I want to share this poem is that it encapsulates in short, poetic thoughts so much of the wonder of music. In a short space, this poem explores many of music’s most powerful and enigmatic features: its physicality, its allure, its structure, its freedom and adaptability, its ability to suggest, its connection to the human experience and human emotions, its divine origin, etc. The poem does all of this while still preserving the inherent mystery of music.

So I’m posting the poem here (with the author’s permission) in hopes that you will reflect on the mysterious power of music and come to better appreciate the musical world you inhabit. We tend to take music for granted, in the sense that we fail to value it. But we should take music for granted, in the sense that we see it as a wonderful gift of God and make a continued effort to enjoy it for all it’s worth.

 

The Composer

© Jim O’Brien – January 2009

The overture lasted six days
After a measure of rest
He began to fill the staff
Of an unending composition
Infinite movements
Filled with keys and meters
Melodies and harmonies
Rhythms and timbres

A symphony of mystery
And anxious anticipation

A dissonant chord
Remains a constant reminder
And demands resolution

Modes change
Signatures modulate
As acts of engagement

There are no accidentals
Only “intentionals”

Grace notes

The music is miraculous
It transforms
It moves
It arouses

Overwhelming joy
Tears
Deepest despair
Tears
Amazement
Wonder
Freedom

Pondering…

How often does He sing the blues?
Does He cry when He hears Handel’s Messiah?
Do Gilbert and Sullivan make Him laugh?
What does He think of rap?

Finite styles from ethnic and regional identities
Different languages?
Who connects to all forms?
What is it that the Creator places in the heart
That makes the Russian and Italian
Express passion uniquely?

Why does a concerto enhance a sunset?
How is it that one style embellishes
And another distracts?

Who says that country or blue-grass
Only work when a mill and water-wheel are present?
A river absent a man’s intrusion
Wants a stringed quartet or piano and cello

Can a trombone paint a hummingbird?
Must the brush be a flute?

How is it possible that wind
Through branches and leaves
Can render an illusion of rain?

What comes to mind
With the sound of rolling timpani, crashing cymbals?
Is it the rhythm of the ocean?
Or a flash from a massive billowing anvil?

Man has been given a gift to create
Instruments that recreate
The sounds that He created
To what purpose?

We can guess
The composer knows
I think He wants us to know Him

I do have one question:
Why seven?
The frequency of eight is double that of one
Logical, simple, …divine?

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. Nothing like this had ever happened before. In the beginning, there was God. And nothing else. Not an empty space and an endlessly ticking clock. Just nothing. No space. No time. Space and time are included under the heading of “the heavens and the earth.” In the beginning, God. And that’s it.

Let It BeAnd then the Maker began to make. One powerful word at a time. For six days, God continued to say this tiny word: “yehi,” “let there be.” The word is tiny, but powerful. This little word was not earth-shattering, it was earth-generating. Every single thing you’ve ever seen, or heard of, or even dreamt of was spoken into existence in those six days.[1]

This rhythm of verbal creation is punctuated by the repeated refrain, “It was good! It was good! It was very good!”

Creation is an act of the Creator. And it’s incredibly good. Thus far God has created through words: a poem written in stone and wood and soil and skies and living beings.

Orion Nebula

But in Genesis 2, God goes beyond speaking. Now he begins to “form” (v. 7). God is now digging his fingers into the dust that he spoke and forming it into a statue. This statue will become the inspiration for every statue of a human being every created, and it far exceeds them all—even Michelangelo’s David. But God is not done creating. After he “forms” he “breathes” (v. 7), and the breath that shaped the word-creation of all the stuff we’ve ever known now breathe-creates human life. God exhales into the nostrils of his statue and humanity takes its first breath.

God now takes one more creative step; this time he “plants” (v. 8). He plants a garden—not a raw wilderness or an unorganized jungle, but a specifically shaped garden. Speaking, forming, breathing, and planting God brings into existence the world we know. From absolutely nothing, the Creator creates his creation.

Given this creative context, we probably shouldn’t be surprised at the first job God gave to Adam. God created, then decided to make something like him, something “in his image and likeness” (1:26–27). So what did the Creator create this image-bearing creation to do?

Create!

“The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.” (Genesis 2:15)

Once he finished making the world, the Maker made a maker. Adam and Eve were specifically placed within the garden to “work it” (which means exactly what you’d think) and “keep it” (which means to preserve it and take care of it).

It wasn’t enough for God to make paradise, he wanted paradise to continue to be made. To be further developed. God’s creation wasn’t bad (“It was good!”), but it wasn’t finished. The Creator finished his creative activities in the beginning by creating a creator to act according to the example of the Creator.

So now, thousands of years and millions of creators later, we find ourselves standing here, on this same spoken earth, in this planted garden, as these formed and breathed human beings. And the job description remains. Created to create. Look at the world around you and see what the Creator’s creators have done. Some of it is magnificent. Some of it is horrifying. Some of it reflects the Creator. Some of it defies him. But we stand as creators, bearing the likeness of the Creator, creating in the not yet finished creation.

The Artist in His Studio (Rembrandt)

“The Artist in His Studio” by Rembrandt

 

So what will we make? Too many Christians—who bear the image of the Creator to an unimaginable extent—have hidden away from the task of creating. It’s too hard, too dangerous, too dark, too embarrassing, too defiling, too degrading, too physical, too artsy. Too many Christians have hidden in pews or buried themselves in doctrine, as if those things are somehow antithetical to creativity. Too few of the Creator’s Christian creators have created.

Christianity actually has a rich history in this area. We have created works of staggering beauty. We have shaped our world to a profound extent. Yet who would argue that the Creator’s creators are creating as they should, all they should, where they should?

In the beginning, the Maker made a maker, and he placed us here to make this world the kind of place he wants it to be. Wherever we stand on God’s good earth, may we dirty our hands in the stuff God made and make something good and true and beautiful.

 

 


 

[1] Of course, there are many things that human beings would make out of the original things that God made; I’ll make that point next.

One day, during my sophomore year in high school, a friend introduced me to MxPx. From that moment, I listened to virtually nothing but punk rock music for five years. I’m hardly exaggerating. Punk is not my favorite style of music anymore, but I keep coming back to it. And every time I listen to one of these albums from my teenage years, I remember the appeal. It goes beyond nostalgia—I truly enjoy listening to punk.

The draw of punk music is its simplicity. You typically have electric guitars, a bass, and drums. In most punk music, the guitars are distorted in every song, with the possible exception of a song intro here or there that begins with clean tones. You also have a lead singer who typically is not a “good” singer. They can get the job done, and often on key, but you’ll find few vocal flourishes.

That’s a very limited palette, but with that simple arrangement punk bands explore all of life.

MxPx

The whole approach is very raw. Most punk songs consist of only four chords (that’s true of most pop music, actually), and most punk bands use what are known as “power chords.” Instead of forming the full chord using five or six strings, the guitarist holds down the first three notes of the chord and mutes the rest. This is a very basic form of the chord. There’s no embellishment, nothing to make it sound more interesting or unique. Punk rock hits you with driving distorted guitars, steady bass lines, and aggressive drum beats.

You might be struck by the simplicity of punk music. Many think that every punk song sounds the same. This critique is raised against most genres, and it’s never as true as the casual listener assumes. Yet there is some truth to this critique of punk music. The genre functions within very narrow constraints. But that’s not necessary bad.

Jack White is an advocate for the beauty of constraints. If you give an artist all the options in the world and all the time in the world, he’s likely to be paralyzed. Jack White explains that in his band The White Stripes, he intentionally limited his options (only drums, guitars, and vocals; only red, white, and black; only rhythm, melody, and storytelling; and surprisingly, only two musicians). He’d intentionally give himself less time to record an album than he needed. He continued to play with old, worn out guitars that he had to fight to keep in tune. He made sure his organ and spare picks were a step further than he could reach in time in order to force himself to strain.

When most of us think of creativity, we think of doing something brand new, something far outside the box. For White, creativity comes when we restrict ourselves and then force ourselves to create something interesting within those constraints.

Consider punk music in this light. These musicians are very limited in “building materials.” They’ve got a few instruments, a few cords, a few variations in sound or tempo. That’s really it. And then they set out to create. And what they come up with when they work within these restrictions is often incredible.

You could argue that my teenage emotions were not well developed (and you’d be right). But I found a host of punk songs that spoke to my longings, my anger, my fears, my social insecurities, my feelings of love, even my relationship with God. Within the raw simplicity of unrefined vocals and unembellished power chords, these punk artists compellingly explored the human experience. I could relate to these simple songs. I still do.

In my opinion, punk is ideally suited to express or explore raw emotions: anger, love (whether reciprocated or not), excitement, etc. Most of the punk songs I love (typically from bands like MxPx, The Ataris, Slick Shoes, and New Found Glory) express a longing more than they provide an answer. And that’s what all great art does. It pushes us to wrestle with the human experience. Great art gives expression to our hopes and fears, it poses questions or presents us with a unique perspective on the familiar. That’s what punk did for me in my late teens, and that’s what it continues to do when I come back to these beloved albums from time to time.

Music is a gift from God, a means of enjoying him, his world, and the people he made. Music allows us to see more clearly, to grow more attuned to who we are, why we’re here, and what it means to be God’s image bearers. Though many dismiss punk rock as an impoverished form of music (or perhaps a perversion thereof), my generation found a lot of meaning in these simple songs. Perhaps you did, or do, or will (I’d start with those bands I listed above if you’re interested). And if you want to dive more into the power and importance of music, here’s a great place to begin.

I’ll explain what I don’t mean by that in a minute; first let share my experience with worship leading.

I was a junior in high school when I asked a friend to teach me to play guitar, partially out of boredom. He graciously taught me a few Nirvana songs and a few basic chords (in that order). From there, I started trying to bang out a few worship songs in an effort to train my rookie fingers to go where they were supposed to. This means that my intense efforts at training my fingers to play the guitar coincided with my first personal experiences with playing “worship music.”

I have been a Christian as long as I can remember, but I don’t recall having been passionate about my faith prior to this point. I repeatedly sang basic songs like “Lord, I Lift Your Name on High” as I laboriously positioned my fingers for each of the four chords the song requires. I can’t tell you how many times I played that song in those months, but it was A LOT. As my muscle memory kicked in and I developed the ability to switch chords without prolonged pauses, the song itself began affecting me. I can still remember the night that I got down onto my knees as I continued to strum the guitar and sing that song directly to the Lord. It was the first meaningful worship experience I can remember.

Why? Why should forcing my fingers to move into unnatural positions bring me into a deeper expression of praise? I am only recently realizing that it has a lot to do with the embodiment that playing an instrument requires. Though we think of singing praise songs to God as a spiritual experience (and it is), it would be impossible without the body. When we sing to God we are using our brains, mouths, vocal cords, and lungs in addition to our souls. The praise may be spiritual, but it works in conjunction with the physical, embodied functions of the bodies God created. All of this deepens the impact. Just as the physical practice of taking communion deepens the impact of remembering Jesus’ sacrificial death—chewing the bread, tasting the wine—so the physical involvement of singing deepens the truths we express when we praise God. It involves the heart as well as the mind.

So adding another dimension to that embodiment by involving the arms and fingers sinks these truths into our hearts. “Lord, I Lift Your Name on High” became ingrained—not just in my mind, but also in my muscle memory. I believe that the authenticity of worship that came from this experience stems in large part from the involvement of my body. Prior to this, my worship consisted of words. Now more of my body was involved, and my desires were being shaped at a deeper level.

Presumably, all worship leaders have experienced something similar. They went through the initial process of training their bodies to engage with music at a deeper level. And week after week they participate in embodied practices that express worship to God. These processes help the truth to sink in, and the worship deepens.

I know that many worship leaders become calloused to the truths they sing about. Through over-familiarity a song can lose its potency, and a worship leader can become numb to the powerful truths embedded in the song. Nevertheless, the solution to this is not stepping away from embodied practices that can help the truth to sink it, but instead to continue to pursue creative ways of expressing truth so that it has the greatest possible impact.

When I titled this post “Why Worship Leaders Are More Spiritual,” the full thought I’m getting at is not that worship leaders are more spiritual than other people, as if singing into a microphone were a sign of spirituality. What I am actually suggesting is something more along these lines: worship leaders are more spiritual than they used to be. The idea is that worship leaders are engaging in a powerful means of expressing truth, and that truth is bound to sink in more deeply as it involves more of the person.

God created us as whole beings, and we are made to glorify him with every integrated aspect of our being. Worship is more than contemplating spiritual concepts. Worship is meant to seep into our bones, to transform our hearts, to come to expression through our fingers, our voices, our footsteps, through every gesture and pursuit. Learning the guitar deepened my faith. You may have no inclination to follow my lead in this, but all around you are embodied practices that can deepen your faith. Pick a handful and pursue them to the glory of God.