Sunday, May 16, 2010

Sermon Thoughts I

Since I'm preaching next weekend, I have been mulling some ideas I want to include, and how much of them. These are more in the nature of thematic content, rather than the way I want my sermon structured. Help in the form of feedback would be gratefully appreciated.

My wife and I were talking about the subject, and wondered aloud, "What is it about music, anyway?"

Music is a way to order chaos. Before there were the rules of literature - theme, plot, character development, and so forth - there are the far more basic, elemental structural rules of music - rhythm, harmony, and melody. They impose a most basic structural rigidity upon how we wish to go about telling a story. The earliest stories, in any case, were sung before they were spoken, and the imposition of the structure of song creates a framework which forces the narrative to flow this way and not that, to move forward orderly, rather than flip, flop, and meander. Other elements of musical composition - dynamics and meter, for example - have to serve the far more basic demands of the rhythm, the harmony, and melody.

As such, music is primarily a social art form, more so than, say, painting or sculpture. While the products of the plastic arts are certainly meant to be shared with a wider audience, and to so to communicate, even to tell a story (consider the cave paintings in Lescaux, in France, as an example). Yet, we don't sit around and paint together in worship. Instead, we sit and sing together, expressing our faith and praise, praying and confessing within the ordered rules of song.

With those rare exceptions of Free Jazz and experiments in group improvisation in both jazz and rock music, music of necessity follows these strict rules. Even in other cultural settings, where musical development can be strikingly different. For example, the diatonic scale of the west is not the only musical scale. A friend of mine in Virginia, enjoying the sitar music of Ravi Shankar, tried to learn to play it, and discovered, much to his chagrin, there is actually a different note, say, between F# and G-flat! This is one of many reasons music from India sounds so discordant to our ears - it utilizes sounds that are not utilized in western music.

This idea - discord - is another that has fluctuated in meaning over the centuries, even in the west. For all the years music in the west was dominated by the monastery, there were certain harmonic structures - both well known such as the Dorian mode - and less well-known that have become commonplace in musical composition. The most famous is the use, by jazz musicians after the Second World War, of what was called "the devil's harmony" - the flatted fifth. This discord in particular, precisely because it sounds not so much "wrong" as sinister, was actually anathematized by the Roman Catholic Church.

Discord is often in the ear of the hearer, too. There are many people who quite simply cannot listen, say, to the composer Schoenberg, or avante-garde pianist Cecil Taylor, or post-bop jazz pianist Thelonius Monk because of their use of what sounds like discord. Stravinksy became enamored of non-western music and incorporated it in to his suite, "The Rite Of Spring"; at its debut in Paris, the audience quite literally rioted because the sounds were so strange. Because what often sounds discordant is not resolved by some composers and performers, but used as a platform for expanding our ideas of harmonic structure as well as melody, there seems to be less structure to such compositions. Whether it's "Pharoah's Dance" by Miles Davis, or the long, free-form group improvisations of King Crimson or Phish, by violating harmonic rules, we tend to think of them as not so much "making music" as playing, pure and simple. The accusation, in turn, is usually accompanied by that most feared of critical epithets - self-indulgence. Musical onanism certainly shares with its sexual cousin the reality that it doesn't create anything other than a mess. Yet, in the same way that sexual onanism serves as a way for us to learn about ourselves, so, too, musical self-indulgence allows the individual to push his or her limits, perhaps clear up questions and offer the opportunity to explore what might otherwise not be explored.

OK, I probably won't use the whole masturbation thing in my sermon . . .

Virtual Tin Cup

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