Worship Collective Discusses: Worship Music – Why Music?

Finally. We’re talking worship music. One would think that with the word “Worship” in our name that we would be at the forefront of the worship music conversation, right? While we mostly concern ourselves with the interweaving of artistry and faith, worship music is a topic we’ve wanted to discuss but have pushed off due to an ever present dread over the genre. I attribute this to the fact that the opinions are vast, expansive, amorphous and slippery on the subject matter. There’s no way to address the state of  worship music in one post, but there is a way to break this down into three different questions:

Why do most churches use music in their services?

What is the goal of worship music?

How important is performance and aesthetics? 

Think about them before you go further. What do you think? Your answers (and mine) will/should overlap. 

Why do most churches use music in their services? 

Here’s a good place to start. Why music? Why has this artform been so integral in the liturgies of orthodox and evangelical churches alike? And for so long!? Why not anything else, like visual art, photography, or what have you? I posed this question to a few of my musician friends who I thought could provide insight. Here was a response that I thought was interesting:

 

“…I would say a deeper reason is that song/poetry seems to be the preeminent way of expressing human emotion.  As far as I know, all cultures throughout human history have had some form of singing. And in the case of Christianity, in many ways it is its own culture.  It has its own worldview, a specific vision of what the universe is about: namely, humanity becoming reconciled to God through his Son.”

 

All cultures throughout history have had music. Interesting. There must be something about this artform that is communal and unifying. But one could argue that lots of artforms are communal. Look at theatre or film.  The audience plays a big role in both of those forms and require some sort of community effort just like music does. So what distinction does music have that the church has grabbed a hold of?

Consider this:

I recently watched the documentary Alive Inside, about which a man seeks to give the gift of music to many dementia and alzheimers patients.  What he found is that while these patients’ brains were deteriorating, music had an effect on awakening memory and emotion. (It’s a fantastic film, and you should see it. Check it out on Netflix.)

But isn’t this true of those who do not carry these illnesses? If I played a song that played during your high school days, would you not immediately recall some specific memories of that time? Has a song ever reminded you of a trip? A relationship? A feeling? Music has the innate ability to stick with us and help the brain recount memories. Which is another reason why music is often used, as a quasi-teaching method.

Some lessons, ideas, themes, have been communicated most effectively through song. I’m going to throw out a few lines to prove my point. See if the song doesn’t immediately play in your head.

Times they are a changin,

Let It be,

Fight the power,

Baby you’re a firework,

See what I mean? I had to throw Katy Perry in there because shes too good to not. The point being that perhaps you don’t know every lyric to these songs, but you were able to think of at least one of these songs based solely on one line that speaks the message of the song.

Churches, then, capitalize on the strong emotive nature of music, and its ability to implement itself in the brains of its congregates. They simply find that singing and playing music is a natural response to hearing, understanding, and learning the gospel.  The songs also serve to teach certain doctrines and theologies that help drive home the emotional impact of the truths.

“Whatever my lot /  thou hath taught me to say / It is well with my soul”

“I once was lost, but now am found / was blind, but now I see”

“From life’s first cry, to final breathe / Jesus commands my destiny”

I literally rattled these off the top of my head. It’s helpful to use the songs, and the accompanying emotions attached to the songs to grab hold of the implications of the teaching.

So why music? It’s an aid. It’s a tool. It communicates a message. It communicates a feeling.  It’s a device by which the church uses to help its congregates encounter God.  This. This is key. This is why music.

 

A Conversation Concerning Advice For Writers


how I came to think about these things

Every Friday, in a small back room at a local restaurant, I meet with a group of men to discuss issues like religion, philosophy, politics, economics, art. Et cetera, et cetera. We recently had a conversation that is, I think, especially relevant to The Worship Collective. One of my cohorts—a visual artist whose privacy I’ll respect by keeping him anonymous—began to speak about literature. This eventually developed into a discussion on the difficult bits of our respective arts. We asked ourselves why it was so difficult to give advice about how to make quality art. Though we didn’t reach a clear consensus, the discussion was intriguing. I’ve boiled down some of the conclusions at which we arrived, and I’ve added some extras of my own. This isn’t necessarily a list of Mike’s Ten Quick Steps to Make Good Art.  Instead, this article is more about the concept of giving and receiving advice on your art-making. It’s about what kind of advice to take and what kind of advice to ignore. In short: it’s kind of a window into my own personal grapplings with how to become a better writer. And so it’s all highly subjective and anyway let’s just jump in.

the experience of my visual artist friend

My friend’s most lauded painting was completed in just over an hour. On a six-foot canvas. That’s a lot of canvas to cover in one hour, which means he worked hurriedly and let the process take hold of him. He went with the flow, responded to the inner muse. However you want to slice it, he didn’t do much revision. He didn’t do much tinkering. But here’s the thing: he might have. This piece was done while my friend was still in art school, and his professor was standing over his shoulder watching him paint. At a certain point, while my friend continued to slave away at the painting, his professor put a hand on his shoulder and whispered ‘Stop.’ His professor recognized the work as being finished—even as my friend, the artist, was still adding to it. There are many lessons one might take away from this, but I think perhaps the most important one—the one that is really going to shape this particular article—is that there simply isn’t one set method for making your art. Art is subjective. There is no list of advice I can give you to make your writing a surefire piece of craftsmanship. Perhaps there is a formula to sell a lot of books, but selling something is wholly distinct from making good art. Believing in the prevailing illusion of his art school—that the quality of a work directly correlated to the amount of time spent creating it—my friend would have continued to paint, to tweak the image, and—in his own words—‘would have ruined it.’ My friend learned his second big lesson after art school, once he’d begun to meet with a group of artists at a local artist’s home. We’ll call the owner of the house ‘Zelda.’ Zelda is a brilliant portrait artist, my friend says. She can paint a portrait like no other. Beautifully grand, technically solid, absolutely stunning portraits. But when Zelda won a local contest and had her artwork displayed in a gallery, it took my friend a few passes to figure out which one was hers. Here was a portrait that had been chosen by a panel of other artists for its glory, its technical mastery, its superiority to all other works of art in that gallery. And my friend walked right past it several times. This is the lesson my friend came away with: you can work all your life to be unbelievably good at the technical side of art… and yet still make art that is utterly forgettable, art that doesn’t draw you in. You can have a brilliant understanding of what makes good art, and even have the ability to put that understanding into practice, and still make art devoid of feeling and spirit. Now, I’m not saying (and my friend wasn’t saying) that Zelda makes that kind of art—that she doesn’t pour her soul into her work. Quite the contrary. I’m sure she does. But my friend realized that he could spend his days trying to emulate Zelda, would probably never be as good at portraiture as she is, and would have wasted his life on art that doesn’t move him. So my friend combined these two lessons: 1) his best artwork was raw and unfiltered, took a short time to create; 2) portraits and artistic realism (what he calls ‘objective art’) are not moving to him in the slightest, do not represent his soul in an adequate way. The combination of those two lessons led him to the realization that abstract art is more his thing. He revels in abstraction, in getting paint to work on the canvas in such a way as to create within the viewer an emotional experience—not just to represent some object in the world. For him, these two lessons resulted in a profound revelation about his life, about his art. And, I contend, it is only when we have such a revelation that we can understand what it is we’re trying to accomplish with our art. Which leads me to

what artists get out of art-making

Don’t worry, folks. I won’t rehash the old discussion we’ve had on this blog about what art is and what it does to the human psyche. It suffices to say that we here at The Worship Collective tend to view art as, essentially, a form of communication. We tend to see artists as communicators. And so the first thing that artists get out of creating artwork is communication—a connection with the recipient of the art. But the more important product of art-making is a sense of fulfillment. What do I mean by ‘fulfillment?’ That’s a good question, and perhaps the word I’ve used is the wrong one. I like using the word ‘fulfillment’ for rhetorical reasons, but it has the sense of, well, filling something up until it is full. Which is precisely the opposite of what I mean when I talk about what artists get out of art-making. I tend to see art as a pouring-out, a spilling of oneself. A release, if you will. So the chief end of an artist is to find that which is within herself, and then to spill it out. This echoes the idea of communication, but it is a distinctly different beast. The communication occurs when one’s audience sees what one has spilled out and subsequently connects to it, recognizes in that spillage something that is also within them. Long before such communication occurs, the artist has already been fulfilled by the pouring-out of herself. This is why my friend could not feel good about painting ‘objective art,’ even had everyone around him loved his portraits. Realism is not what is within him waiting to be spilled. If he so desired, I’m sure he could learn all the technicalities and brushstrokes that lead to brilliant portraits. But he would not have spilled out the essential parts of him that drew him to art in the first place. In colloquial street slang, he would not be ‘real.’ He’d be putting on airs, putting up a front. In short, art allows us to do as Judy Garland instructed: ‘be a first-rate version of yourself, instead of a second-rate version of somebody else.’ My friend ultimately decided that, although he could certainly learn some important techniques from Zelda, he didn’t want to spend his time copying her and other artists. He wanted to make art that was supremely and uniquely his own.

 how all of this applies to me as a writer

The internet is brimming with advice for writers. Just do a google search right now and see for yourself. I’ll wait. See? So many folks out there want to write about what it takes to be a good or successful writer. In fact, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the number of actual successful writers is probably way lower than the number of people writing about what it takes to be a successful writer. Make of that what you will. Here’s the thing, though: much of the advice is contradictory. Sure, some of the advice is great and nearly universal (‘to be a writer you have to write,’ ‘shut off your inner editor while you’re drafting’). But many of the details differ from person to person—and sometimes even render each other logically incompatible. The obvious example is the feud between Hemingway and Faulkner. Faulkner famously said that ‘[Hemingway] has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary.’ Hemingway’s response? ‘Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?’ Here are two renowned authors—veritable literary giants—and their views on writing could not be more opposite. Or take this example, on an admittedly much less bile-filled scale: Neal Stephenson is known to handwrite his books. That’s an insane amount of handwritten pages, by the way. He claims that it helps in the editing process. However, my friend Hugh (a successful indie author in his own right) sees it differently. For him, the tactile feel of having both hands typing away on a keyboard helps stimulate both parts of his brain. His typed work is much better than his handwritten work, from what he’s told me. Now, my conclusion about this is that the contradictory advice stems from the fact that we are all individuals. We are all of us different beasts with different inner lives. And since art is, in my view, spilling out what is inside you, obviously having different inner lives is going to result in glaringly different views about what constitutes good art—or even about how to make art in the first place. So to circle around back to the question that started all of this, What part of writing do I find the most difficult? I’d say that it is to know oneself, to know what is inside you fighting to be spilled out.

  how to go about writing, the ML Candelario way

When talking about actual writing advice, it is tempting to jump right into the specifics: how to capture the feel of real conversation in one’s dialogue, or how to make characters develop while not being too on-the-nose, or how to progress a story so that every scene follows by ‘therefores’ and ‘buts’ instead of ‘thens’ and ‘ands.’ All of these points are valid weapons in the writer’s arsenal, and I direct the reader to an essay by Film Crit Hulk that discusses much of this within the context of screenwriting. But that’s not the scope of this specific article. Here are my four key pieces of advice for the modern writer.

  1. Know Thyself {this is virtually impossible}

As the Bard once told us, ‘this above all: to thine own self be true.’ If you’re making art, you must discover what moves you. You must learn what is inside you. Further advice does not matter in the slightest until this point is made, because all subsequent advice is about how to structure your words and sentences to maximize the point you are trying to express. If you don’t know what you want—what you need—to express, it does you no good to know how to express it. You’re still left with nothing. So for now, learn from Bukowski: ‘Find what you love and let it kill you.’ Do not let the mystery stop you. The more you write, the closer you’ll get to your own soul.

  1. Learn the Rules {this is a Sisyphean task}

What do I mean by the ‘Rules?’ Learn proper grammar and syntax. Learn how the written English language is ‘supposed’ to function. This is a stuffy business, and I confess that I don’t find much pleasure in it. I’m not very diligent or particularly good at studying the Rules, but I’m getting better. I will continue to learn new facets of ‘acceptable’ writing styles until I die (hence the ‘Sisyphean’ tag on this point). But don’t limit yourself to just the rules of language. Learn about story—about character development, story progression, tropes, archetypes, etc. Study the rhythms of speech in order to improve your dialogue. Read other authors whose works inspire you. Glean from them their tricks of the trade. Continue to do this until you are buried.

  1. Break the Rules {this is dangerous}

Yeah, I know. You expected this one after Advice Number Two. But seriously, the Rules are there to be broken in surprising, story-enhancing, reader-enriching ways. I love the writing of David Foster Wallace because of how often and how well (read: how intelligently) he breaks the rules. As I said, though, this is dangerous. Danger comes at you from two directions: 1) the fact that you will be tempted, since I advised breaking the rules, not to learn them in the first place; 2) the possibility of drawing too much attention to your pretentiousness. There can be little pleasure in reading the work of a writer who clearly doesn’t intend to break the rules she breaks. One begins to feel sorry for and intellectually superior to the writer instead of seeing her as an equal worthy of connection. On the other hand,  an author who draws too much attention to her breaking of the Rules, who revels too much in her abilities as a writer (in short, who says too often ‘hey, look how smart I am’) causes the reader to feel intellectually inferior—or to think the author has too high an opinion of herself. All options result in a loss of the connection/communication that is really the whole point of art in the first place. So the writer fails.

  1. Suffer for Your Art and Do Not Be Afraid

Bare your soul. That is, after all, what is fighting to be spilled. People will dislike your work, and—in some sense vital to the artist—will dislike you. Do not apologize for your art. Paint a picture of a woman with her tits exposed. Write the word ‘tits’ and leave it in with purpose. Make your point and do it both intelligently and without shame. In short: be brutally honest with the world. You may not receive the kind of appreciation you crave. You may not be met with the reaction you desire. But I can promise you that the fulfillment will come. The spilling-out will be a release. But this release only happens if you write the things you both need to write and are scared to write. I am afraid of looking foolish. Yet here I am writing yet another piece on advice that many people will discard as nonsense or pretention. Why? Because it is what I needed to write in this moment. That’s not a very dramatic example, but this kind of fear can stop you from doing anything. Do. Not. Let. It. conclusion Perhaps none of that is very helpful. I haven’t given concrete specifics. I haven’t talked about whether or not to listen to music, whether to seclude oneself or to write in a coffee shop. But I hope that you will at least be affirmed in your pursuit of art. I hope that you will realize that none of us knows what he is doing—that all of us are on a journey, getting better (hopefully) as we strive to find the things we love (and to let them kill us). This short essay doesn’t have a satisfying conclusion because art is about being in a state of flux—simultaneously creating things that reflect what’s inside you and learning more about what remains inside you waiting to be expressed. So I’m sure at some point in the future I’ll look back on this and change my mind about the specifics. What will remain, though, is the core: to write well, know yourself and then go about making yourself known to others. Do not let defeat be a refutation of your art. Keep striving and keep evolving. The only consistent person is a dead one. All of those short sentences are trite clichés. But they’re clichés because they signal toward something important and enduring.  Being bad at art is, perhaps, the most important stepping stone to being good at art. And that’s okay.

TWC Podcast – Episode 01 – Art and Death

Robert Cullen’s “Other Cities”

The First Episode is here!  Robert Cullen discusses his latest album “Other Cities,” and what his process is like and where he finds inspiring moments in his music as well as his annual Top 50 Albums of the Year list. We go into to some heavy territory with how death and mortality lends itself to much of his art, but how it helps him come to terms and accept his beliefs.  I also go on a mild rant at the end of the show about some of our previous posts on whether or not depressing content is worth experiencing if it affects oneself too much.

LINKS

1. Robert Cullen’s bandcamp – http://robertcullen.bandcamp.com/

2. Kashiwa Daisuke – http://kashiwadaisuke.com/  (also my favorite song of his https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xc1cZ9Ee2eo )

3. ML Candelario’s “Good Art/Bad Subjects

4. Daniel Hansen “A Response to ‘Good Art/Bad Subjects‘”

Anathallo – A Lyric Study

As we continue this series on my favorite songs by my favorite artists, Anathallo takes center stage with the forgotten song “To Gary and Marcus: The Sovereignty of God is Omnipresent.” Or, for the sake of easier reading, “Gary and Marcus.” This is a song that would seriously benefit from a listen to the song before reading the lyrics. Anathallo, especially in their earlier days, were very free form in their song structure and the musical progression lends itself to the emotive lyrics. Check it out:

“To Gary and Marcus: The Sovereignty of God is Omnipresent”

I could not come this time and stand on my feet.
I just thought of you and sank.
“I’m tough, I’m tough,” I told myself,
but I fell apart.

Thin arms cling lightly to my sunken chest.
I hold my breath.
Your sad eyes droop with hopelessness,
and I feel like I’m dying with you.
And I hold your toothpick ribcage.
And I pray aloud into your ear,

“Lord what would you have of me?
To plead before You for this child?
Why does faith seem so foreign to me now?”

Every time I see your beautiful faces
in my thoughts, or in something I see,
may faith stand firm.
Let it grow from grace I have received and know
that this grace abounds to you
so far away.

 

Pretty heavy song, no? Let’s get into it.

Form
1. Rhyme Scheme – I scanned this song about a hundred times trying to find something. And it took some scraping to find two examples of slant rhymes, or rhymes that aren’t technically rhymes but kind-of-sort-of sound similar. Stanza 1 Line 1 has a slant of “time” and “my” and Stanza 2 has a slant on “chest” and “breath.” That’s it. These rhymes serve to bring some sort of loose unity to an otherwise very free form structure. I think it especially helps to have this near the beginning of the song.  It serves to bring the listener along without totally losing them in the radically different foundation of songwriting.
2. Meter – Again, free form. No pattern or repetition to be found, really.  When you listen to the song, though, it’s a hard fact to believe. The lines seem so rhythmic. But that could be because of the great jazz-like music that accompanies the lyrics. If there is a pattern, I can’t hammer it down.
3. Diction/Devices – Alliteration, Repetition. “I’m tough I’m tough I told myself,” and “Thin arms cling lightly…” and “Why does faith seem so foreign…” are great examples. Come to think of it, these devices might be what lends to the “sneaky-rhythm” in the song.  Even in free form, something has to ground the song for it to succeed. I strongly believe its these devices that do it.

On the Diction side of things, we some extraordinary word choice. “Toothpick ribcage” and “sunken chest” evoke strong images. And I was particularly struck in the last stanza where we see Matt Joynt (the lyricist and frontman) refer to God’s “beautiful faces,” a reminder that God has many ways to reveal himself and has “face” in different forms. Love Love Love it.

Themes
1. The Problem of Suffering Children – Joynt lays out a story (no doubt personal) of the narrator looking upon a dying child and wondering what he can do, and how to reconcile this with his faith.  He even expresses his doubts in what he believes, “Why does faith seem so foreign to me now?”  “Lord, what would you have of me?” Questions that are, no doubt, legitimate and worthy of pondering.
2. The Frailty of Humans – While Joynt highlights the awfulness of dying children, he also showcases the frailty of the narrator.  This situation leads him down a path of tremendous frailty and weakness. And just as this child he sings about is sick and dying, so too is his disposition and faith. It’s almost a commentary on physical sickness begetting emotional and spiritual sickness.
3. Beauty in Grace – After the amazing climax in the music after the third stanza, we get a lovely drop out of everything except the tapping of sticks. An auditory signal of stripping everything down to its basics. And as the music does so does the philosophy in the lyrics. Joynt knows that when he gazes upon God’s character, he sees why he believes what he does. His thoughts, his feelings, his experiences remind him of the beauty he finds in the gospel, in the grace of God.  And he takes another leap of faith, admitting he doesn’t have an answer to this child’s death, or have an action of which to take. He simply recognizes and encourages the child, knowing that the grace he has received from God, surely extends to the child.

The song takes a heavy and erratic direction in its structure but takes a deconstructing approach as it reveals the foundation of Joynt’s faith and philosophy: Grace abounds.

Reading Art and the Bible – Pt. 4 “Critiquing Art and Worldviews Separately”

Observations:

1.  Schaefer lays out detailed way to critique art not just for the christian but for everyone. Separating technical achievement and worldview messages is the main distinction here.

We are not being true to the artist as a man if we consider his art work junk simply because we differ with his outlook on life.

Again, something I’ve always tried to explain, and here, it’s validated.  The form and worldview of an art piece should be critiqued and evaluated separately.  Don’t dismiss it because you don’t agree. You might be missing excellence at work. In art school, we were never allowed to say wether or not a piece was good or bad, but rather we were encouraged to say wether or not the piece “works.” I think that type of critique is what Schaeffer gets at here.

2.  He also separates the worldview/form distinction by pointing out that art isn’t sacred.  This point serves the religious more than anyone, but he does a good job reminding the reader that one’s faith takes precedence over any art piece. So if a masterful artist creates a magnificent piece of work and it doesn’t line up with an audience’s worldview, that doesn’t validate or reject either of them.

As Christians, we must see that just because an artist-even a great artist-portrays a world view in writing or on canvas, it does not mean that we should automatically accept that world view. Art may heighten the impact of the world view, in fact we can count on this, but it does not make something true. The truth of a world view presented by an artist must be judged on separate grounds than artistic greatness.

The truth of a worldview must be judged on separate grounds than artistic greatness. I’m stealing that.

3.  After reading a hundred or so pages of this book, I can tell that Schaeffer has an aversion towards the “art-for-art’s-sake” approach to creativity.  And “aversion” might be a strong word for his feelings, because I see him constantly correcting this artistic outlook. His point is more, “Whether you like it or not, what you truly believe shines through the work. Art can’t simply end for the purpose of being.”

Some artists may not know that they are consciously showing forth a world view. Nonetheless, a world view usually does show through. Even those works which were constructed under the principle of art for art’s sake often imply a world view. Even the world view that there is no meaning is a message.

So, even though the intent of no meaning may be present, it still holds a worldview that displays itself in the work. I agree in principle, but the specifics of this still cause me to say “But…but…” Like, what kind of worldview shines through this piece?

“The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living” by Damien Hirst (1992)

I don’t have an answer. I would agree that a worldview exists, I just can’t see it. (I’m not too familiar with Damien Hirst, but I’m betting one can use the context of his body of work to find out what he centers himself around. We talked about this principle early on in this series! How exciting!)

4.  The greater the artistic excellence, the more impact the message possesses, the more seriously the piece deserves critique. Schaeffer makes the point that often, critique seems to lessen the more excellent the piece. And by critique he means mostly about the worldview of the artist.

We should realize that if something untrue or immoral is stated in great art it can be far more destructive and devastating than if it is expressed in poor art or prosaic statement. Much of the crude art, the common product of hippie communities and the underground press, is laden with destructive messages, but the art is so poor that it does not have much force. But the greater the artistic expression, the more important it is to consciously bring it and its world view under the judgment of Christ and the Bible. The common reaction among many, however, is just the opposite. Ordinarily, many seem to feel that the greater the art, the less we ought to be critical of its world view. This we must reverse.

Lol, hippie hate.

He goes on a long rant about Zen, how the worldview is about becoming nothing, and nothingness is an end goal, how this message had been said in many crude underground settings, (“We believe in nothing, Lebowski!”) and how due to an excellence in hightening the message through artistic beauty, the worldview has had a bigger impact and has had less critique. Interesting thoughts and I can see what he’s getting at. I would say that this is more a testament to the power of art.  It brought validity to the worldview because of the beauty that it showcased.  Good point to say that excellence should always be critiqued, no matter the beauty. 

Sufjan Steven’s “Seven Swans” a Lyric Study

Sufjan Stevens’ “Seven Swans” is one of many legendary indie folk albums from the Michigan native.  Some call this his most vulnerable album, though it is definitely his most spiritual.  The album is a must listen, and we will study the lyrics of the title track.

“Seven Swans”

We didn’t sleep too late. 
There was a fire in the yard.
All of the tress were in light.
They had no faces to show.

I saw a sign in the sky:
Seven swans, seven swans, seven swans.
I heard a voice in my mind:
“I will try, I will try, I will try.
I will try, I will try, I will try.”

We saw the dragon move down.
My father burned into coal.
My mother saw it from far.
She took her purse to the bed.

I saw a sign in the sky:
Seven horns, seven horns, seven horns.
I heard a voice in my mind:
“I am Lord, I am Lord, I am Lord.”
He said: “I am Lord, I am Lord, I am Lord.”
He said: “I am Lord, I am Lord, I am Lord.”

He will take you. If you run,
He will chase you.
He will take you. If you run,
He will chase you.
Cause he is the Lord.

This was the opening of Sufjan Steven’s tour in 2010.  The ominous banjo was accompanied by a projection of tiny little stars on a large screen behind the band.  All lights were turned down except for a spotlight on Sufjan, and the flickering of reflected lights from the large projection screen.  That specific performance in Asheville, NC was one of the best concert experiences in my life.  Sufjan has such a strong sense of tone throughout every aspect of his art. Let’s dive deeper.

Form

  1. Rhyme Scheme – No technical rhyme scheme, though its worth noting that repetition sometimes guises itself as a rhyme. See “I will try…”, “I am Lord…”, and “He will take you…He will chase you.” So how does this lack of scheme lend itself to the structure and effectiveness of the song? Well, some songwriters and poets, believe that meter is a more effective tool in creating a sense of rhythm without distracting from the actual meaning of the words spoken or sung. Thought I can’t lie that a good rhyme scheme in a song is like butter on freshly baked bread; a great pair.
  2. Meter – Here we find the definitive structure of the song. rigid syllabic counts on each line.  Can you guess how many syllables per line? That’s right. Seven. With the exception of the “I will/I am…”  lines and the last stanza has a few lines in the four to five range.  Obviously, this is no mistake. Stevens creates a unique syllable structure to mirror the thematic elements of the song; seven being the classic number in revelation representing God. It lends to a unique rhythm that pairs well with the lone banjo and delicate vocals. Have you ever tried writing a poem with strict syllables per line? It’s difficult.
  3. Devices/Diction – Repetition creates a beautiful contrast in “Seven Swans.” In the first example we see, “I will try,” versus the second example of “I am Lord,” we can see the comparison of humanity to deity.  He shows that in his own mind, he has a finite limitation in what he can do, but the Lord has no limitation, he is infinite and powerful, as per the wonderful and terrible imagery that Stevens portrays.  Dragons, Swans, people being burned to bits, and great fires. Yikes. The tone, again, controlled through specific word choices. The feeling that we felt in that auditorium in Asheville, was majestic and terrifying. Repitition, contrast, fantastic imagery, all performed at a master level.

Themes

  1. Revelation – Sufjan has been known to stretch the truth and we’ll talk about this later, but at the concert he explained how this was a song about how lightening struck a tree in their backyard and it caught fire. Their father woke them all up to witness it, and then the fire spread into the yard and the image of Seven Swans appeared in the sky playing John Phillip Sousa on trumpets. Whether or not this story is true doesn’t quite matter. What matters is the depiction of the fantastic and the extroardinary in life. Some moments are things we will remember forever. Some of them change our lives. I’ll add too, that some might deny or be skeptical of these moments. I’m not sure that it matters to Sufjan. He seems to concern himself with the revelatory nature of what he finds in the God he follows, or rather, the God that reveals himself.
  2. Sovereignty of God – We’ve already gone over the frightening images of dragons and burning people, so it goes without saying that this shows fearful representation of God.  This God has the power to destroy and uses it as he pleases.  He chases, he takes, he burns, He is Lord.
  3. Storytelling – This is an interesting one. As I stated earlier, Sufjan is known to stretch the truth on his songs. He doesn’t really like to delve too deep into what his songs mean, lest he ruin the enjoyment of interpretation for the audience. So he tends to explain much like the Joker explains where he got his scars. He changes the story every time, though he does keep some central points consistent. However, the main objective Sufjan has in his songs is to be sure to tell a good story by making a good song. Interpretation is left to the audience, and whatever point he tries to get accross is secondary to the form of the piece. He’s said that he doesn’t believe faith is worth discussing publicly as it is a private matter, though he writes intensely spiritual and personal songs about his faith. This creates a great deal of mystique around him. Just as soon as we feel like we can pin him down, he goes off and creates a concept album based around electronic sound and an obscure artist, then turns back around goes back to write a folk album about his parents. He loves to tell stories, and even likes shaping his own.

Sufjan Stevens has been a huge influence on my creative self in how he is bold enough to instill his worldview into his art without compromising form or content. It can be done, and this song exemplifies it.  I strive to do the same.

The Artistic Importance of Vulnerability

Sometimes, creating and sharing an art piece can feel like this:

See how nobody engages or interacts with Michael? They all stare, or avert their eyes. They can’t stand to watch. Michael thinks what he’s doing is funny, clever, and will impart joy on his co-workers. So goes the life of most artists.

There is always risk in putting something out there for everyone to see.  Even excellent work has its detractors, see YouTube.  And for the artist, this pains us every day.

For those with exposure, or who create for a living, the critique seems to never end. People have opinions and, certainly, there is nothing wrong with an opinion. How could anyone or anything exceed its current state without someone’s input? Yes, we need opinions, in fact, many artists live for the opinions of their audience.

“What did you think of the piece?” “Did it affect you?” “Did you enjoy it?” “What does it remind you of?”

And certain times allow for some excellent and positive feedback for fantastic work.

But I’ll speak for myself here: 80% of the time, feedback is like the video above.

At the root of good art is being vulnerable. Revealing what you’re thinking, feeling, believing. Showing the world what you think is entertaining, scary, inspiring, funny, and worthy of their attention. Giving a different take, a different outlook on the universe. It’s like opening up your chest to reveal your heart and seeing if anyone else likes what they see. How could you connect with anyone through a medium without in some way asking the question “Do you feel this too?”

The answer can scare. Responses aren’t always a simple yes or no. Sometimes it’s “No, and you’re an idiot for thinking/feeling that.” or “How could you even ask that question? Are you even a Christian?” or “That’s filthy” or “That’s stupid.”

Those hurt for sure, but sometimes its the lack of response that hurts worse. No answers. No one cares. No one sees. I wrote about this earlier.  It can send people into spiraling depression and

Every act of creation carries this risk. People might hate you for it. People may not take notice. So is it even worth it?  Not only is it worth it, it’s fundamental and necessary.

///

Think of your favorite lyrics from a song. Why do they resonate with you?

Think of your favorite movie. Why do you enjoy it so?

Think of your favorite novel. Why do you appreciate it?

If I attempt to answer those questions I come up with answers like: “I can relate to the pain in the song.” or “It causes me to think of life and its purpose.” or “I just think its funny!”

The bigger question: How could I even begin to answer this way if the artist didn’t first showcase vulnerability in their creativity?  How could you enjoy anything about anyone if a risk of rejection and failure didn’t accompany them? This applies to all of life, and not just art.

So the next time you comment on a blog or youtube, be respectful.  Understand what vulnerability it took to for the person to put out their ideas or showcase their craft. When you go to an art museum, be respectful, try to understand.

But here’s the bigger challenge: Actually comment on the stuff that you like.  Comment on the stuff that you didn’t like. Tell the person you enjoyed what they did and appreciated the risk they took in revealing a part of themselves.  Tell them you didn’t like the piece so much, but that you appreciated the risk they took in revealing a part of themselves.  This is the biggest help to artists and creatives like myself.   We don’t need approval, just appreciation.  Even if we’re Michael Scott.

 

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Reading Art and the Bible Pt. 3 – The Mannishness of Art

“I am convinced that one of the reasons men spend millions in making art museums is not just so that there will be something “aesthetic” but because the art works in them are an expression of the mannishness of man himself.”

Observations from Chapter 2

1.  Schaeffer makes a point to establish the fact that art is a reflection of not just the artist but of humanity.  It’s a good reminder that there are people behind the artwork. Ones with deep thoughts and feelings.  They are not abstractions or ideas or facts from history. They’re people, like me.

2. He makes the point that in order for an artist to make truly great art, they must set out to create a body of work, so as to make clear their worldview.  I find that when I watch several director’s movies, I have a good grasp as to who they are.  I can see the individual messages and feelings of all their films and get a sense of what’s important to them, and what’s not.  So I think Schaeffer hits the nail on the head in that looking at individual artistic pieces through the lens of the artists entire body of work can help inform what the artist communicates. Fantastic point, and a point I will probably carry with me as I critique pieces.

3. I love this:

How then should an artist begin to do his work? I would insist that he begin by setting out to make a work of art. He should say to himself, “I am going to make a work of art.” Perspective number one is that a work of art is first of all a work of art.

A nice reassurance that at the root of artistic creation is the desire to simply create something beautiful. In earlier passages he clarifies that a work of art is not simply a vehicle for messages or lessons and neither does the art work exist solely for itself (art for art’s sake?) but it is what it is: Art, meant to be enjoyed, meant to communicate, meant to force a different perspective.

4. Schaeffer takes a stab at abstract art. Not necessarily saying its useless but that its mostly useless because there is a disconnect in syntax. Meaning the audience can’t understand it. Have you read a novel where the words are jumbled in incoherent order? Does this strike you as particularly excellent penmanship? Probably not.

I tend to disagree with this assessment, though. Think of James Joyce’s “Finnegan’s Wake,” a whole novel of mostly gibberish (Check out James Joyce reading it here. So cool!) The novel may not be the greatest communication, but think of it on a grander scale. What was the point? Is it still a novel? Is there any order to it? It pushes the boundaries and asks us what we’re reading. Many scholars have wondered and studies this peculiar piece, and while I don’t like the book, I can appreciate the point behind it. Much like I do with other abstract pieces.

5. Christians, read this:

As Christians, we must see that just because an artist-even a great artist-portrays a world view in writing or on canvas, it does not mean that we should automatically accept that world view. Art may heighten the impact of the world view, in fact we can count on this, but it does not make something true. The truth of a world view presented by an artist must be judged on separate grounds than artistic greatness.

You don’t have to agree with the message, the theme, the characters decisions, the worldview of the artist, to appreciate and enjoy the art work. Boom. *mic drop*

*pics mic back up*

Seriously, though, why is this such a hard concept to understand? You don’t have to agree to notice the beauty of the work. One of my favorite films is “The Fountain.” I disagree with much of what I interpret to be the message of the film, but I admire, so much so, the aesthetics and music of the film. It moves me every time I watch it. Artistic excellence. This is what we strive for, and if you disagree with what we’re saying, so be it. But admire the art, look at the form, bask in it. Judge that.

Mewithoutyou’s “C-Minor” A Lyric Study

After years of listening to music I can say, unequivocally, that the best lyricist I’ve ever heard is Aaron Weiss of the band mewithoutyou. To exhibit his genius, we will break down the lyrics of their song, “C-Minor”.

 C-Minor Lyrics by Aaron Weiss – performed by mewithoutyou

Our house wrapped in disrepair,
A small mouse peeked out from a hole beneath the stairs
Nearby to where my dad sat in his favorite chair,
Thinking about the gov’t and muttering a prayer
So I scattered some oats in hopes she’d stay
And sat still to stop from scaring her away-
But she hurried on her little way
And scurried around my mind
Ever since,
Every day

Open wide my door, my door, my Lord
(open wide my door)
To whatever makes me love You more
(open wide my door)
While there’s still light to run towards

Like water on the dry wood
Equal parts misguided and misunderstood
But all the neighborhood
Watched a fire burn from where they stood
As the smoke said
“We’re not half as bad as G-d is good”
Still there’s a whisper in my ear,
The voice of loneliness and fear, so I say:

“Devil, disappear!
I’m still (ehh… technically…) a virgin
After 27 years-
Which never bothered me before,
What’s maybe 50 more?”

She came back for the oats
But she brought along a “friend”
(this never ends)
The harder the rain,
The lower the flowers in the garden bend
(this never ends)
I’d rather never talk again
Than to continue to pretend
That this never ends

Listen to it here if you wish:

In order to succinctly discuss the lyrics of a poem, or song, I find it useful to break down the technical form of the work and discuss the themes in depth in a separate category.

Form: 

  1. Rhyme Scheme – On the surface, a fairly simple scheme. The first stanza follows an AAAABBBCCB pattern, though when we listen to the song, the end of the stanza feels more like BBBB. I think the CC portion of the stanza was written for more emphasis on “ever since / every day.” In any case, we see this scheme repeat itself in the other verses, stanza’s 3 and 4. In the chorus it’s very straightforward: DDD. But lets break this down even further. When we break down each line, we can see that theres a rhyme scheme within the rhyme scheme (And this is part of what makes Weiss masterful.)Stanza 1 line 2 – a slant rhyme of “mouse” and “out”
    Stanza 1 line 2/3 – “stairs” and “to where” pairs with “chair” and “prayer”
    Stanza 1 line 4 – “oats” and “hopes”
    Stanza 1 line 5/6 slant rhyme of “scattered” and “sat”
    Stanza 1 line 7/8 “scurried” and “hurried”So within just the first stanza we can see a much more complex scheme taking shape. Not only are the rhymes happening at the end of the line, but are, in some cases, finding themselves within the line themselves. So if we were to break the lines into halves, the scheme would more resemble A/BB/AA/ACA/DE/DE/FE/FE. Craziness! The sophisticated use of rhyme within the opening stanza sets up and pairs well with the fantastic meter.  Weiss can’t sing (or chooses not to), so its imperative that this structure help carry the audience through the poetic word structure.
  2. Meter – Very complex meter (or syllabic rhythm) exists here, but its incredibly tangible. We can hear it, see it. It took me a bit of time to try and understand how this song worked as far as meter, because I knew it was very much there, but nothing was adding up to a pattern, until I broke it down even further, much like what we did with the rhyme scheme.For the sake of time, we will look at the first stanza again. Because of the rhyming scheme and stresses that Weiss puts on certain syllables, we can ascertain that he has divided certain lines into two sections. So that’s what we will do. Check out the syllables for each half of each line and see if you can find a pattern.

    ///
    Line 1 – 7 syl
    Line 2 – 5 + 7 syl
    Line 3 – 5 +8 syl
    Line 4 – 5 +9 syl
    Line 5 – 6 +4 syl
    Line 6 – 5 +6 syl
    Line 7 – 5 +4 syl
    Line 8/9/10 – 5 +8 syl

    ///

    This might look like a jumbled mess but it might help us understand why these words sound very rhythmic in nature. The first halves of these lines hover around 5 and 6 while the second halves of the lines range from 4 to 9. But do you see it? Lines 1-4 end with about 8 syllables then lines 5-7 have an average of 5 syllables when in the last combination of lines 8,9 and 10 add up to 8 syllables. It’s similar to the pattern we see in music when we see an established theme, a departure, then a return. It’s not perfect, but the pattern is certainly there. And with Weiss’ style of vocals, its very easy for him to merge certain words into less syllables.  All this helps us conclude that Weiss is a genius and I am a nerd.

  3. Devices and Diction – One of the biggest literary devices that Weiss uses in C-Minor is alliteration. “…sat still to stop from scaring…” and “…scattered some oats in hopes she’d stay,” are the obvious ones, but smaller apparent ones include “…misguided and misunderstood…” and “Devil disappear!”However, metephors and personification shine brightly in the piece. They communicate Weiss’ inner struggle with desire, and how he might be idolizing companionship with a woman. He does this through a picture of trying to lure a mouse with some oats. We can tell that this mouse represents a woman because of the surrounding context. He calls the mouse a “she” and he later states that “she came back for the oats but she brought along a ‘friend,'” which is evidence that this mouse represents a being, a person, a woman.But outside of desire for companionship, he paints a peculiar picture of water, wood, smoke, and a neighborhood of people watching this fire in stanza 3.  Weiss is a christian, so we can extrapolate a few lines to explain certain christian tenants. One of which is that God is good and people are sinful.  I believe that he’s describing the christian church as a divided group of people who are “misguided and misunderstood” much like water on dry wood. The neighborhood seems to be those outside the church.  They watch a fire burn, which I take to mean that they’re watching the sinful hypocrisy of the church going up in flames and providing a smoke. But the beautiful end to this metephor is an admition of depravity and a praise of the goodness of God.”The smoke said ‘We’re not half as bad as God is good!'”A gorgeous line, one of my favorites.

Themes:

  1. Sinful Desire: Part of the appeal to Weiss’ lyrics is his incredible vulnerability. He lays it all out there with pure honesty and seemingly has no qualms about sharing his shortcomings. A common theme in much of his music is the confession of sinful desire. In C-minor, he confesses a fear of loneliness. He shares how he has tried to lure someone into romantic a relationship only to be hurt and left thinking of the “what-if’s.” Between the first stanza of setting the story of the mouse and the third stanza of the portrait of the sinful church, he opens up the choral refrain, “open wide my door, my lord, to whatever makes me love you more.” It’s as if he knows that the desire for a relationship should not supersede the love he has for God. So he’s stuck in this tug of war between what he desires, and what he knows he should desire. How human is that?
  2. Suffering: Weiss is someone who has dealt with a temptation of suicide and had at one time taken a vow of poverty. So it’s of no surprise that suffering would be an important issue for him to talk about. C-Minor shows a different kind of suffering, one he had spoken about before but not in this sort of light. He views suffering, in this case the desire for relationship and the real presence of loneliness, as a way for him to love God more.  He also tries to show the macro version of this in Stanza 3. What I believe to be the church in discord, suffering and painfully creating a fire that the world sees, sets up the wonderful “We’re not half as bad as God as good,” line. He states that the sufferings and shortcomings of the people of God are not even worth comparing to the glory of God himself. He laments in C-minor, but not without a solid hope.In stanza 4, Weiss admits the temptation to think a certain way as a result of his suffering. That he can succomb to loneliness and fear, but he knows that he’s made it this far while being a virgin (how vulnerable to admit that!) so what’s going the rest of my life doing that? How could that make me love God less? Poignant lyrics indeed.Also, the refrain of “This never ends” clearly states the vicious cycle that suffering can lend to ones thinking.  When will this anguish end? Will it ever? The refrain (perhaps the greek chorus?) states that it will never end, which sets up the last line.
  3. The Need for God: Between the verses, Weiss prays to God to lead him to whatever makes him love God more.  He comes back from each verse knowing full well what is most important, what’s at the base of his being: The love of God. He needs it.I don’t think there’s a better line that expresses this than perhaps the best metaphor in the song “The harder the rain, the lower the flowers in the garden bend.” The picture of hardship and suffering as hard rain causing the flowers to bend, signifying worship is a beautiful picture of the christian view of suffering. It creates a dependence, a need for God. The harder the suffering, the more christians cling to God.He struggles between desiring a relationship more than desiring God, but he knows that perhaps this suffering has led him to, in fact, love God more.  He admits that it’s trying, and sometimes feels like it will never end, but he knows that he can’t go on pretending like it will not end. Because, well, It will end.

C-Minor is a prayer, a confession, a plea. He wants God to lead him wherever he will love him more, because he knows that’s what he needs. And if it leads through suffering, all the better. It will cause more worship. What a song.