Monday, August 22, 2005

Sting on Music, Mystery and Silence

“ . . .When you watch a musician play—when he enters that private musical world—you often see a child at play, innocent and curious, full of wonder at what can only be adequately described as a mystery—a sacred mystery, even. Something deep. Something strange. Both joyous and sad. Something impossible to explain in words. I mean, what could possibly keep us playing scales and arpeggios hour after hour, day after day, year after year? Is it some vague promise of glory, money, or fame? Or is it something deeper?

“. . .Songwriting is the only form of meditation that I know. And it is only in silence that the gifts of melody and metaphor are offered. To people in the modern world, true silence is something we rarely experience. It is almost as if we conspire to avoid it. Three minutes of silence seems like a very long time. It forces us to pay attention to ideas and emotions that we rarely make any time for. There are some people who find this awkward, or even frightening.

“Silence is disturbing. It is disturbing because it is the wavelength of the soul. If we leave no space in our music—and I’m as guilty as anyone else in this regard—then we rob the sound we make of a defining context. It is often music born from anxiety to create more anxiety. It’s as if we’re afraid of leaving space. Great music’s as much about the space between the notes as it is about the notes themselves. A bar’s rest is as important and significant as the bar of demi-, semi-quavers that precedes it. What I’m trying to say here is that if ever I’m asked if I’m religious, I always reply, ‘Yes, I’m a devout musician.’ Music puts me in touch with something beyond the intellect, something otherworldly, something sacred.”

Source: Bassett, Sam, and Sandra Bark (Eds.). Take This Advice: The Most Nakedly Honest Graduation Speeches Ever Given. New York: Simon Spotlight Entertainment, 2005.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

He’s Got Kitty's Litter Box In His Hands

Not long ago, I settled into my favorite corner of the couch with a book. I’d turned on the TV for background noise, but wasn’t paying it much attention until I heard a version of “He’s Got the Whole World In His Hands.” Kind of a cool thing, right? How often do you hear a spiritual on TV? And then I glanced up and saw that it was an ad. And not for, I don’t know, anything vaguely spiritual. Or related to the song.

It seems our friends at Fresh Step believe that upon hearing this song, we’ll be compelled to rush out and purchase their Premium Cat Litter.

That whirring noise you hear would be the ancestors spinning in their unmarked graves.

I guess next a cosmetics company will be hawking lotion with “There is a Balm in Gilead” in the background. And even if that did happen, they’d be a step ahead of a company that links “He’s Got the Whole World In His Hands” with kitty litter.

Seriously, whose idea was that? Did some young idea person struggling to come up with a good way to sell kitty litter (a product that I imagine really sells itself) figure What better way to convince people to buy than to play a catchy spiritual tune in the background as kitty paws around in his litter box?

The commercial left me with a couple of questions. First, what was the rationale for this—the thought process someone went through in order to believe this was a good idea?

Young Idea Person: “Sir, how about this? I can’t think of a better way to sell our scoopable cedar clumping cat litter than to tweak this song a little bit. No doubt the masses, intrigued by our use of this familiar tune, will rush out to pick up their own box of premium, paw-activated odor control with the natural freshening and deodorizing power of real cedar.”

Sir: “Great work, Johnson! With a mind like yours, you’ll go far here.”

Second series of questions: How many people approved this idea before it made it to TV? I mean, I assume marketing research is involved as well as test groups and folks who schedule production and camera operators, et cetera. Did no one think, “Hey, maybe this isn’t a good idea, guys?” You’ve got to wonder.

It’s true, we all deserve a fresh house and a happy cat. And people can hawk their wares using whatever clever gimmicks they can come up with. But this use of gospel music just feels strange to me. It is, after all, sacred music—or music that was used largely for a sacred purpose.

I’ve had a few opportunities to think about this lately. I’m sure, by now, many readers have seen the new AquaVelva commercials. As you know, AquaVelva aftershave keeps your face firm, toned and fit. But is it just me, or does that commercial sound like an Andrae Crouch song? Again, it just feels kind of strange. And not long ago, I saw a fairly moving commercial for the Curves fitness franchise that used the gospel song “This Little Light of Mine.”

I think this kind of use of gospel music points out one of the downsides of gospel music’s acceptance in the larger culture. As it’s become increasingly accessible and popular, some of the sense of its original purpose. I've reported and written on that issue here. I love the music, and I believe in sharing it with people. Despite my joking, I can’t imagine the kitty litter folks saying, “Hey, I bet this music, which people used for a sacred purpose, would be great for selling kitty litter.” I’d imagine the thought process probably went something more like, “This popular song, which people recognize because they sang it around the campfire at Girl Scout camp or wherever, is a hook we can use to sell our product.”

I recently spoke to Dr. Horace Clarence Boyer, one of the preeminent scholars of the Negro spiritual, on this issue. When I mentioned the AquaVelva commercial, he commented that today, the term “gospel” refers to a musical sound that people relate to as often as it does a specific message As a result, people sometimes disconnect it from its original purpose, and it becomes popular music or folk music:

“ . . .Gospel music is a song, but it’s also a style. I’ve heard people say ‘give me a gospel feel on that.’ When you go to buy a synthesizer, they have a gospel rhythm—a gospel beat that you can punch in. Because they have a jazz beat, and they have a rock and roll, and a country beat. Gospel is in there, so that proves to you that gospel is popular music. . .People like gospel—and what they want from gospel is not the wonderful singing quality of a Mahalia Jackson or a Marian Williams. They want the wild, the raw . . .it actually makes people feel good about themselves for a minute, because there is something uplifting about that.

“[But] I came by this music as a confession of faith, and as a statement of my religious beliefs. . .In the 1950s we were working hard to get people, particularly educated black people, and white people to like this music, because we thought it deserved a larger audience. And so, we took it to non-sacred places, thinking that we would take non-sacred places, and make them sacred. And instead of making those places sacred, those places took the music and used it the way that they wanted to. So, we initiated it, and now we’ve lost control. . . It’s our fault, and I’m saying our fault meaning a bad thing only because it was a religious music and I’m still having difficulty seeing it used outside of that space.”

Dr. Boyer cites the Jewish and Native American traditions as ones that are more protective of their sacred or tribal musics.

So here’s what I’m wondering: Is it possible to protect the integrity of religious music and share it with others at the same time? Can sacred music be shared without ending up in kitty’s litter box? To be honest, I really hope so. I believe that music has an amazing power to bring people together. Perhaps as we learn to be better neighbors and respectful cultural tourists, we can partake of each others’ traditions without trampling them. Or selling each others’ cultural artifacts.

In the meantime, a quote from Howard Thurman on the spirituals, excerpted from his Ingersoll Lecture on the Immortality of Man at Harvard Divinity School, April 14, 1947:

“What . . .is the fundamental significance of all these interpretations of life and death? What are these songs trying to say? They express the profound conviction that God was not done with them, that God was not done with life. The consciousness that God had not exhausted His resources or better still that the vicissitudes of life could not exhaust God’s resources, did not ever leave them. This is the secret of their ascendancy over circumstances and the basis of their assurances concerning life and death. The awareness of the presence of a God who was personal, intimate and active was the central fact of life and around it all the details of life and destiny were integrated.”

--Source: Fluker, Walter Earl, and Catherine Tumber, eds. A Strange Freedom: The Best of Howard Thurman on Religious Experience and Public Life. Boston: Beacon Press, 1998.

Or, He’s got the whole world in His hands.

Monday, August 15, 2005

And That, Young Lady, Is What You Get For Googling Yourself

Oh, good grief.

I cannot be the only person who occasionally enters the name of her blog into search engines, just to see what the chatter is.

Today, though, I'm feeling the low-grade (ok, in my case, high-grade) dread you feel when you realize that you're not the only person with your name out there.

There's another gospelgal out and about--much love to her--who occasionally posts on the GospelCity messageboards.

Just for the record, that's not me.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Jazz and The Christian Life

blogging to: Mary Lou's Mass, Mary Lou Williams

Lately, I've been thinking a lot about the connections between jazz and gospel, and exploring the idea of jazz as a way of thinking, living and viewing one's life with Christ.

A couple of years ago, at a reading/signing of his book, This Far By Faith, Juan Williams described the way African-American Christians express their faith as "jazz-like," and that made perfect sense to me (My friend and colleague Ed Gilbreath discusses this idea with Williams in this interview.). It was one of those moments where things just clicked. And when I kind of wished that I'd thought of that Grand Idea first, but I was also glad it's out there to explore.

Since then, that idea has been simmering in my mind. I know I've got some thoughts developing along these lines, and I'm trying to be patient as they cohere. John Coltrane said it this way: "When there's something you don't understand, you have to go humbly to it. You don't go to school and sit down and say, 'I know what you're getting ready to teach me.' You sit down there and you learn. You open your mind. You absorb. But you have to be quiet, you have to be still, to do all this.' (quoted in Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church)

I can't be that still, though. So I'm doing some reading in the meantime--most of the time, that's as close as I get to stillness. Here are some of the interesting things I'm discovering along the way:

Musician and Presbyterian Minister Bill Carter on joining theology and jazz:

"I've always been concerned about integrating the various pieces of my life, especially since I was called to ministry. The Reformed tradition speaks strongly to the head, the intellectual part of who I am. It's very text-oriented. But when we smashed our statues and took the arts out of our churches during the Reformation, we lost something. Theoretical truth must also be embodied. . .Jazz and other new, non-traditional forms of liturgical music join the text of the Scripture and the church's historic confessions with the tune of human experience."

In this article, Carter goes on to compare the process of learning jazz from the greats to studying under great preachers who combine the historic confessions with human experience. He also talks about understanding spriritual gifts, using jazz in worship, and his desire to "talk together about the whole business fo integration between tradition and innovation, between Scripture and experience, between text and tune . . .for me, jazz is a model of how to do that. I thought for so long that there was a clear line between the secular and the sacred; but now I believe that if the whole earth is really the Lord's, no experience is outside the sacred."

Here, Carter describes additional parallels between jazz, life and faith:

"The act of playing jazz, like daily life, is an informed risk," Carter says. "Improvisation happens through nimble fingers, serious training in music theory and form, and a willingness to jump into uncharted territory. It takes disciplined, technical preparation to play this music, and it also requires the freedom to take enormous risks. You work hard to lift the music from the page and release it into the air."

"Yet there is always a safety net of grace," he adds. "If a musician hits a sour note or flubs a rhythm, it cannot be replayed, only forgiven. There will be another opportunity to play better notes on another day. These basic characteristics of jazz make it particularly congenial to the life of Christian faith."

What a feast for thought!

Nelson Boschman elaborates on the idea of a theology of jazz in Christian worship in this paper. You'll need Acrobat to read it, and you can download that here. The paper itself is a lovely work, and the bibliography is a great list of resources to study and digest for yourself.

More Information/Other Resources:

Swing a New Song to the Lord: Resources for Jazz Worship. This well-titled jazz hymnal is a great starting place for music ministers who want to integrate jazz music into their worship services.

Here's a link to Bill Carter's blog.

St. Peter's Church in NYC is known for its jazz ministry, which includes jazz vespers every Sunday at 5 p.m. Here's an article about the history of the church's jazz ministry, and it mentions October's Jazz and the Church Conference.

Ann Pederson's God, Creation, and All That Jazz: A Process of Composition and Improvisation explores some of the ideas we're talking about here.

Dr. Kirk Jones teaches a course at Andover Newton Theological School that explores "the jazz of preaching." Last year, he published a book by that title, and you can hear him read an excerpt of it here.

Rejoicensemble, an acappella group, explores the idea of Sacred Jazz on the group's website and on a recent CD, Strong and Graceful Oaks.