Archives For Music

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?

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.

Over the 4th of July weekend, I spoke at the Audio Feed Festival in Champaign, Illinois. I was invited last year and was excited to speak again this year. The fact thatAudioFeed-8 I agreed to come back shows what I think about the festival. Yeah, it pretty much rocks.

The festival is only two years old, but its roots have a rich history. AudioFeed was born out of the widely popular Cornerstone Music Festival started by the Jesus People USA in 1984. In 2012, Cornerstone announced that this would be the last year of the festival, and AudioFeed said lets keep rocking! So for the last two years AudioFeed has been hosting a music festival where dozens of bands and several speakers come together to enjoy God’s gifts of creativity lavishly poured out on his image bearers.

Yes, it’s a “Christian” music festival—but don’t think CMA. This stuff is different. And in my mind, refreshing.

Artists from several musical genres rock out (or scream out or rap out, or whatever) in a way that might not seem “Christian”—that is, you won’t hear most of these bands on K-Love. The Homeless Gospel Choir is a one-man band who writes satirical songs about nationalistic Christianity. Justin Driggers has tats and dreads and sings emotionally dark, yet real and redemptive, country songs. Timbre shreds on a harp. Sean Michel, whose signature beard puts Phil Robertson to shame, lights

Peter Furler, former lead singer for The Newsboys.

Peter Furler, former lead singer for The Newsboys.

up the stage with deafening guitar riffs, powerful lyrics, and rich sermons between his songs. My Epic, Listener, Flatfoot 56, and several other popular bands drew some loyal crowds. Noah James—a largely unknown Christian artist—sent my heart to heaven and my knees to the cross as he left me spiritually dazed after proclaiming the gospel through some of the best “Christian” music I’ve ever heard. His song “Heaven Is Far” punched through my chest, ripped out my heart, and slammed it at the foot of the cross. Joy collided with frustration over the fact that Noah will probably never break through the political and consumer-driven walls of CMA, which is unfortunate for those who love theology, the cross, and unpredictable music.

Although I rarely visited the “Black Sheep” stage, I could hear the screaming from across the fairgrounds, which freaked out my daughter at first. One band screamed out David Crowder’s “How He Loves Us” just after the lead singer gave his testimony about how Christ rescued his soul from hell. I can’t say I love the hard-core screamo stuff, but I can appreciate someone screaming for Jesus. If we meditated on what we’ve been rescued from, I think we’d probably scream too. Grave Robber, a “horror punk” band, showers the audience with blood launched

Sean Michel ripping it up--Arkansas style

Sean Michel ripping it up–Arkansas style

from cannons in celebration of Christ’s atoning sacrifice. But it’s not real blood, which means Grave Robber is tamer than the freak show Moses and Aaron put on in Exodus 24. That was real blood.

AudioFeed is one of those places you’d never bring your grandma—though I saw quite a few grey-haired enthusiasts dancing around with ear plugs—but you’d do well to bring your non-churched, de-churched, or overly churched neighbor. Why? Because the music is simply outstanding. It’s fresh. It’s real. It’s unpredictable (blood from cannons, folks). And the musicians are real people who don’t think much of themselves. I don’t want to overly sanctify the musicians—they’re just as screwed up as you and I—but humility seemed to glow from these artists who don’t carry the stage with them when they finish playing. Casual conversations between rock stars and fans is a regular sight at AudioFeed. I met Peter Furler (former lead singer of the Newsboys) in passing, and when he saw me just seconds after his set, he remembered my name. Shane Claiborne, the keynote speaker, defies Christian fame by going out of his way to turn Christian celebriolatry on its head. He talks to people, looks them in the eye, remembers their name, and doesn’t ask to be put up in a hotel. He’d rather stay at the home of people in an effort to obey Jesus’s second greatest command. Shane is one of the most authentic, humble, passionate Christians I’ve ever met. What you read in his books is what you get in the flesh. And that’s pretty rare.

The thing that encouraged me the most was the intellect and passion among the participants. It’s a counter-cultural crowd, but you only become counter-cultural by thinking outside the box, asking hard questions, and not being satisfied by recycled answers. It’s not uncommon, as a speaker, to get questions about apocalyptic readings of Revelation, reader-response hermeneutics, or various theories of the atonement from a dude wearing black eye shadow and spikes. This is why I came back to AudioFeed this year. The festival reminds me that the kingdom of God is pushing forward through all types of people who live out their faith in nontraditional ways. And most of the people who attend this festival have a massive, cross-shaped heart for people. Yes, it’s true. Many of them have problems with patriotism, militarism, capitalism, suits and ties, combs, and the traditional evangelical church. But walk around and talk to them. Get to know their stories. Have a 5 minute conversation with a stranger and he’s likely to give you the shirt off his back. Even if you’re a suit-and-tie wearing CEO of a large company that served in Desert Storm. Disagreement doesn’t interrupt love.

Josh Stump, Shane Claiborne, myself, and Jay Newman. My kind of panel discussion!

Josh Stump, Shane Claiborne, myself, and Jay Newman. My kind of panel discussion!

At AudioFeed, everyone is accepted. Rainbow hair, painted faces, spiked Mohawks, and tattoo-less dorks from California (er, Idaho) wearing flip flops and a sun visor. If you want to wear a black trench coat on a hot July day. That’s cool. What matters is whether you love Jesus and people. You want to walk around hoisting a log on your shoulder, no one’s going to bat an eye as long as you don’t smack anyone with it. (These are all true scenes, by the way.) For one of my talks, I wore a black Harley Davidson shirt and I felt like people were thinking, “you don’t need to dress up here, bro. It’s AudioFeed.”

And this is why I love this festival. Jesus was all about the marginalized, and his followers would have raised a few eyebrows if they entered most of our churches today. Our New Testament was written by a terrorist named Saul, a slave named Luke, a treasonous extortionist named Matthew, and other marginalized ruffians with variegated shades of a shady past. But God loves people unloved by the

Josie and I with Sean Michel. He wouldn't give me the shirt off his back, but he gave me his face on my shirt.

Josie and I with Sean Michel. He wouldn’t give me the shirt off his back, but he gave me his face on my shirt.

religious elite. And God loves diversity. Middle class, white, suburban Christianity only reflects a small sliver of God’s image in the world. AudioFeed reminds us that we serve a beautifully complex and diverse God who loves all types of musical genres and doesn’t have a favorite hair-style. Suits and ties, khakis and blue blazers, boots and 10 gallon hats, black leather and trench coats—they’re all woven from a creation blessed and enjoyed by God.

AudioFeed: A festival that celebrates and magnifies our Triune God who defies singularity.

Resonate Mark BeuvingI’ve already said plenty about Resonate (here, here, here, and here) but Zondervan has provided us with 5 copies to give away, so here we go! For a chance to win a free copy of the book, enter your email address at the bottom of the page. [Sorry folks, the contest is now over, but you can still find the book here.]

If you’re unfamiliar with the book, or if you just can’t get enough promotional material for it, I’ll just say a few things about why I wrote the book, and why I think it might be important for you to read.

Music is everywhere. Everyone experiences music often in a variety of capacities and settings. Since it’s such a familiar part of your everyday experience, it may seem like a waste of time to think about it more deeply. But that’s exactly why I wrote Resonate. Music is everywhere. We do interact with it every day in a variety of capacities and settings. And for that very reason, we ought to think more deeply about it.

First, there’s the dangerous side. Music is powerful stuff; it can affect us in ways we haven’t begun to understand. And much of the music our there can be harmful to your soul. So if you’re hearing this music—at work, in movies, on the radio, at the coffee shop, in the mall, in the car, in commercials—and you’re not thinking about what this music is saying, what it’s doing, and how it might be affecting you, then you’re crazy. Music is one of the most powerfully mysterious phenomena in this powerfully mysterious world. Passively listening to whatever sounds good or happens to be in the atmosphere is a dangerous game.

But then there’s the beautiful side. Music is powerful stuff; it can affect us in ways we haven’t begun to understand. We all know what it’s like to be deeply moved by a song in a way that goes beyond logic. We have all been moved to dance or tap our feet or sing aloud purely because the right song started playing. We have all (or is this just crybaby me?) cried as a song perfectly expressed some longing or fear or disappointment that we haven’t been able to express ourselves—whether the song expressed this lyrically or through a combination of sounds and silences.

HeadphonesMusic is God’s gift to us, and he intends for us to enjoy it to the fullest. For that reason, we would all do well to take some time to think more deeply about it. Where does music’s power come from? Why do we like it so much? The reality is, we know of no society that has ever gone without some form of music. Why is that? We know of societies without alphabets or currency—what makes music so universal?

I can’t promise that Resonate will satisfy all of your curiosity about music. But I wrote the book because I want to push people deeper into the mystery. I want people to acknowledge how miraculously beautiful music is, how amazing it is that God has given us instruments and ears and creative gifts and creative inclinations. I want people to look beyond lame distinctions like sacred/secular or pop/indie/classical and simply enjoy the gift of music with discernment, awe, and appetite.

So if you want to give it a shot, enter your email address below. If you’re one of the lucky winners, your life will be changed (because you will own a book you didn’t own before).

______________

If you’ve just stumbled across this page, you’re too late! Which means that five lucky people now have an additional book to read. But don’t worry, if you still want to read Resonate, you can find it here.