On Friday, Nov. 17, soprano Lianne Gennaco and I performed my song cycle "Darkness from which I come", a setting of new translations by Mark Burrows of sacred poems by Rilke. The concert was followed by a discussion about the music, texts, and the power of music to offer theological interpretations. The evening was co-sponsored by the Society for the Arts in Religious and Theological Studies and ARC: A Theopoetics Collaboration. Here's a link to a complete video of the event!
Here's the recording of the world premiere of my new sacred piece PNEUMENON. The program note below describes the piece. (To hear the music that goes with the page of the score posted above, go to 5:40)
“The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit." John 3:8
“Pneumenon” is a word I coined that combines two Greek terms of central to ancient philosophy and theology: “noumenon” – which means the hidden world beyond our senses – and “pneuma” – which means both “breath” and “spirit.” This new piece is a musical attempt to demonstrate the way these two contrasting terms and concepts can be reconciled.
The notion of “spirit” denotes some kind of ineffable yet powerful force that resides inside of us, ready to make itself known in a transformative way. Catholic mystics, African griots, and Christian Pentecostals are well-known examples of religious people who - when filled with the “spirit” – sing, dance, pray, feel, or see things that are amazing, powerful, and even out of their control. But “inspiration” of this sort can be felt by anybody who is moved by a powerful experience to do something beyond that which they might normally feel capable – or even comfortable.
Our “spirit” is what we are really made of; it’s that which reveals our true nature – or allows us to experience that which cannot normally sense (the noumenon.) For some, this base reality is God. For others, it is love, or nature, or community. Regardless, we all sometime feel a connection to something that is greater than ourselves, and prompts us to act in ways we might not have been able to anticipate.
When we go to an orchestra concert, we hear beautiful music emerging from the instruments we see before us. In a sense, we can think of those instruments as the world of “phenomena.” We can easily sense it and understand it. But holding those instruments are dozens and dozens of human beings, usually dressed in black, who are acting almost as puppeteers. We are not supposed to pay attention to them – even though it is THEY whose physical actions are bringing the music to life. The performers make no sound. They are not supposed to be sense - yet they are really the “base reality” at any concert. They are, in essence, the noumenon.
In Pneumenon, I wanted to explore the ways that the musicians themselves can contribute to the music we hear. In addition to playing their instruments, the performers are asked to contribute to the sonic landscape by making a variety of sounds using their hands, feet, legs, and mouths. The idea is to bring into the world of phenomena the incredible sonic potential of each musician’s body and breath, and thereby challenging the separation between the idealized, abstract world of classical music and the corporeal foundation of live music-making. Consistent with the idea of the spirit as surprising and resistant to control, the piece reveals a wildness and intensity that may be out-of-the-ordinary, humorous, and sometimes even uncomfortable in its directness.
Welcome! If you’re here, it’s because you have some degree of interest in the intersections between music and Christianity. Thanks for visiting!
I’m a professional musician who has a love for all sorts of musical traditions – from hip-hop to gospel to contemporary classical music. I’m also a person of faith who has at various times worshiped as a Roman Catholic, Evangelical, and liberal Protestant. I’m not a theologian or a pastor – nor even primarily a church musician. But I’m someone who has spent 40 years exploring the intersections between music and Christianity, and therefore I think I have something interesting to say about the topic.
In this blog I’ll write a lot about my own experiences, and even when I don’t, I won’t try to separate my thinking from own lived experience. I’m not approaching this project as a scholar – careful, dispassionate, and logical – but, as John Caputo would says, as a “religious” person:
Religion is for lovers, for men and women of passion, for real people with a passion for something other taking profits, people who believe in something, who hope like mad in something, who love something with a love that surpasses understanding. (Caputo, On Religion, Routledge, p. 2)
I’m going to adopt and adapt Caputo’s description of “religion” for my own purposes, in order to justify and explain my approach to this project. (If you are keeping track at home, this means I’m going to approach religion religiously. You’re welcome.) As the narrator in the Biblical book Song of Solomon says: “My beloved speaks and says to me, ‘Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away…” (2:10) The loving response to such a call is to leap toward the beloved like the stag or gazelle mentioned earlier in that same passage. There is no fear or doubt – just a leap into the beloved’s arms.
This is the kind of enthusiasm and passion I feel toward my twin “beloveds” of music and of faith – and it’s the attitude I’m going to bring to this blog. (To Laura, my wife: if you are reading this: you are also my beloved, and much of my understanding of the kind of love I feel toward music and faith has developed out of my experience of my love for you!)
I don’t know about you, but when I leap, I can look pretty foolish – and I often fall. But my beloved doesn’t care if I look silly or fall on my face. When called by my beloved I’ll leap any time I get the chance. It’s the only appropriate and true response to that kind of call. So that’s how I’m going to approach my topic.
By the way, I think that being a “lover” in this way brings us in some ways closer to the meat of existence. Kierkegaard writes:
Existence itself, existing, is a striving and is just as pathos-filled as it is comic; pathos- filled because the striving is infinite,…comic because the striving is a self-contradiction” (Concluding Unscientific Postcript, Trans. Hong, p. 92)
When he writes about the life-changing experience that prompts the famous “leap of faith”, I can’t help but think of the calling to become an artist: a radical re-evaluation of the very fabric of one’s life.
When artists create, they hear the call of the creative voice (however they imagine it.) They have to go where they are led, for if they don’t respond enthusiastically and faithfully to its call –and instead seek first to understand it, codify it, justify it, and explain it – they are no longer being artists. They are no longer being lovers.
In short, the creative act (whether one is a professional or amateur) opens one to an orientation toward the world that is distinctly “love-oriented”: that is, an existence that is marked by faith and hope.
So that is how I’m approaching this project: as someone responding to the call of his beloved with passion and enthusiasm, pushing aside fear or doubt and confident of forgiveness (if necessary.) I hope not to write things that are false or incorrect, because doing so would insult my beloved. But I won’t be afraid to be honest and to follow my ideas where they lead. That is: I promise to always respond in truth.
Other writers and thinkers seek truth within discourses of theology or philosophy; I read and respect them, and I value the work they have done. But I’m not afraid to step outside the academic disciplines and explore my topic as a lover.
I may not be a good dancer, but when my beloved calls, I will leap right onto the dance-floor. I hope you'll join me!