Composing Myself: Part 2

Crashing waves

Since beginning my grad studies (and for months prior) I anticipated the day when my soul could plunge into the oasis of creative renewal called “songwriting.” I quickly learned that when you’re creatively parched you can’t guzzle. You have to sip.

I imagined weekend retreats where rigorous academic study and intimate devotional reflection would coalesce seamlessly. Surely in this context I could birth a musical masterpiece. Anyone on the other side of an artistic grad project – myself now included – will point out the absurdity of such an idealized vision, but at the time I did not know any better. In retrospect I am thankful for my ignorance because had I known the difficulties that lay ahead I may have opted out of one of the most surprising and formative experiences of my life. Through this process I have not only learned about the value of remembrance in shaping Christ-centered community. I have also experienced music-making and music-sharing as one of God’s gifts of grace in my own life. The entire creative process has been a gift that has helped me remember and relate to God and others with increased confidence, sacrifice, vulnerability, hope, and imagination.

One of the first surprises came when I was forced to confront the distance between my lived experience and the academic and theological concepts I claimed to value so highly. I could wax eloquent about the importance of remembrance in cultivating faithfulness to God then fail to address my own forgetfulness. I could be moved by a pithy quote about the sanctity of time then take personal offense when rush hour interfered with my tight schedule. I could cherish the idea of musical dissonance as a metaphor for the already/not yet nature of God’s Kingdom then write music that jumped too hastily to resolution.

I would often do my research and writing in a library or coffee shop while listening to instrumental music (soundtracks, classical music, etc.), but rarely considered the music I was listening to as a significant conversation partner in the academic writing process. My academic advisor – unaware of the tension I was experiencing between theology and practice – noted that an early draft of my academic paper was rather vague and cerebral. He wisely advised me to anchor concepts about temporality, communion, and remembrance with real-world musical examples and case studies. By critically engaging with the music I was already listening to, concepts explored by theologians like Jeremy Begbie and Kathleen Marie Higgins – concepts like the formative potential of tension, the value of patience, and the relational dynamics of repetition and liturgy – became practical. These new experiences challenged me not only to write better, but to live better.

Similarly, with the help of my technical advisor I began to see that early drafts of my music manifested a sort of impatience: a discomfort with unresolved musical phrases, a hesitancy to allow notes to linger, a dependence on clearly identifiable rhythm and meter to bring stability to each song. Knowing this would be my tendency I asked my advisor to help me identify where more aural “breathing room” was needed in my compositions. As I attended to the temporal demands of my songs I discovered parallels between those songs and my day-to-day life. I continue to ask questions out of this experience. Why does a lack of resolve in my circumstances bother me so much? What might this discomfort teach me about God’s sovereignty and/or human agency? Where is my desire for efficiency in conflict with God’s call for patient endurance? How might I cultivate rhythms of remembrance in my life? Conversely, what habits or rhythms have become unhealthy ruts? I began to see parallels between tension in music and tension in life. Looking back I see that God was resolving the tension between my theology and practice. I only needed to be receptive to God’s work and patient with the process.

Another surprise came when I booked several Saturday mornings at a local retreat centre to read and write only to find that I deeply struggled with solitude and silence. As an introvert this discomfort was almost startling. Silence began to amplify the noise of my mind and heart, and solitude forced me to sit in that noise without external distractions. Alone with my thoughts I became more aware of how much I was trying to accomplish on my own and how little I had sought Jesus. During later visits to the retreat centre I decided to read the Gospel of John over and over again. I was supposed to be writing songs about Jesus’ death and resurrection after all, so John seemed like a good place to begin.

I remain astounded by this little book. It is brimming with profound theology disguised as simple storytelling. The context of every story is intimately relational. The beliefs and motivations of each person in the story are exposed in conversations that often seemed mundane. The preeminence and servanthood of Jesus are always held together. John also plays frequently with the idea of remembrance. When Jesus washes Peter’s feet, for example, Peter is confused. Jesus’ responds that Peter will soon understand what He is doing. I could not help but think that when Peter later denied Jesus, he must have recalled having his feet washed, perhaps as a symbol of Jesus’ authority to forgive sins – even preemptively. Ironically, it was writer’s block that brought me to a place of deeper dependence on Jesus. I discovered that I could not remember on my own. I could not write songs on my own. I certainly could not make sense of the noise of my life on my own. After several Saturdays of solitude I had only written one song on paper, but God had written something far more important on me. As I acknowledged my dependence on God, He began to release me from my debilitating perfectionism, my fear of collaboration, and – in time – from my infuriating writer’s block.

It has been said that the best way to eradicate writer’s block is to write. The content is less important than the process of writing itself. Early on in my IPIAT – and for mostly selfish reasons – I decided to write an email newsletter. This decision was less about keeping people informed and more about creating a self-imposed accountability structure to keep me on schedule. That said, I did try to provide insights and resources for people along the way. Except for the faithful few who would send kind replies after receiving a newsletter I do not know whether anyone else read them. The process of preparing the newsletter motivated me not only to write music but to reflect on why I was writing it. I also built this website. It was one more way for me to meaningfully integrate my unique technical skill set into the project. It also drew my focus outward, toward you who choose to read my meandering thoughts. Thus the website became a self-motivator, a promotional tool, and a symbol of sorts – a continual reminder to me that the journey I was on was meant to be shared in the context of community.

Yet another surprise came when I realized I did not remember how to write music. To say that my creative cogs were rusty is an understatement. I would retreat into my bedroom for evenings on end with a guitar in my lap and a notebook on the floor. After experimenting with chord progressions and different forms of poetry I would emerge with little more than sore fingers and a headache. Nothing fit. Everything felt forced. I wrote songs at a breakneck pace in university, though few of those songs were ever completed and even fewer ever saw the light of day. I have never experienced amnesia before but writing songs again felt like re-learning a language I had forgotten. Since university I had transitioned from being a full-time web designer to a full-time theology student to a full-time campus ministries worker and part-time songwriter. I was used to the binary world of code and the comfort of course syllabi. Suddenly the success of my job and my schooling became far less quantifiable. What constituted a job well done? How could I measure my progress? When could simplicity of language and melody take precedence over complexity (or vice versa)? What did it mean to honour tradition while creating something new? Neither music nor relationships are binary. Both burgeon with possibility, uncertainty, and novelty. Both require community in order to thrive. Recruiting musicians and worshipers to contribute to my project taught me this in brand new ways.

It was safe to write and play songs in the confines of my home, where my only collaborators were the virtual instruments I sequenced on the computer and my only critics were the competing voices in my mind. Such safety was helpful for a time but art needs to grow up and leave home eventually. If it doesn’t, it – and those who create it – often become arrogant or fatalistic. Besides, since communion was important to me, I knew I needed to put my money where my mouth was and start sharing. Through this journey I came to the conviction that the music-making process is not complete until the music is shared with others. As long as my compositions sat on my hard drive I could call them works in progress. This possibility of further refinement provided me a degree of comfort but I knew it would eventually paralyze me. I offered the writing process and the songs themselves to God in worship as best I could, but until they were “enfleshed” with the technique and heart of real players, I knew they would never be finished. Sharing these songs with artists I deeply respected was one of the most difficult things I have ever done. I was not afraid of them putting their unique fingerprints on the work. I really looked forward to this. What I was afraid of was the possibility of rejection – the possibility that what I had worked so hard to craft would be dismissed. I had to take a risk.

With the help of many friends and colleagues I finally found a sizeable ensemble who was willing to commit to the project. My fear of rejection and feelings of inadequacy lingered for a time but diminished with each rehearsal. Hopes and possibilities now had names and faces. Mutual trust was growing. Playing with people had an anchoring effect on the music and my creative process. The music finally had a context – these particular players at this particular time, working together to create something beautiful. Each person in the ensemble was overwhelmingly generous with their time, their creativity, their patience, and their encouragement. I struggled at least as much with their kindness as I would have with any negativity I might have received, but in time I learned to accept it with gratitude rather than questioning my worthiness. I had prepared myself for the worst only to find grace and friendship extended to me at every point in the rehearsal process. These men and women demonstrated the reciprocity and sacrificial nature of music-making. I offered them my very best and they offered me the same. I trust that this was a worthwhile exchange, but I remain convinced that I was one most blessed.

Several weeks later the evening of my IPIAT performance arrived. I will forever remember the many logistical miracles that enabled us to begin (almost) on schedule. The apparent chaos of the day resolved into an evening rich in music, conversation, and delicious food. God was faithful. My near panic attack five minutes before the performance became a fleeting memory five minutes into the performance as the music we worked so hard to create together was finally offered back to the communities out of which it was birthed. Throughout the songwriting process I was aware that people were praying for me but until the evening of the performance I did not grasp how much of a communal effort my IPIAT actually was. As we shared songs of remembrance, grief, doubt, forgiveness, hope, and peace I looked up and saw friends and family looking back and receiving what they in many ways helped to shape. To me this is a beautiful picture of communion – an act of mutual giving and mutual receiving. This evening served as an Ebenezer of sorts – a shared experience or signpost of celebration and unity. I tremble in the face of such generosity and I am forever grateful.

Photo courtesy of Folkert Gorter under the CC Attribution 3.0 license

Composing Myself: Part 1

Violin, Lamp, and Bible

A moment in time cannot be captured but it can be remembered. I believe that to create art is (in part) to marvel at the infinite depth of a moment. Each moment of our lives is too large to be captured and caged. Image, word, music, and movement are just some of the ways we try to get at a moment’s meaning.

I have been processing my IPIAT performance (held this past February) for some time now. Below is the first of two posts exploring some of what I learned through the process.

First, context matters. Music is meant to be shared and becomes meaningful in relation to particular people and places. If I could rewind and choose to do one thing differently for this composition project it would be to find my ensemble first then write music with them specifically in mind. As it was, I wrote most of the music on my own and then looked for musicians to fill predetermined roles. No approach is inherently superior to the other but it was when particular music parts were attached to particular people that I was most energized creatively.

Second, endurance cultivates creativity. I often became discouraged while writing or studying Scripture because the songs did not come readily at first. It often took days (or weeks) of mulling over a Bible verse, theme, or melody line before music began to emerge, and then large parts of a song would usually come together in a short time. This ebb and flow was mostly unpredictable but I did discover that frequency of contact with the material was often more important than the actual time spent writing. Meditating on a passage from John was often more important than mastering the art of poetry. Endurance and scheduled reflection time were absolutely essential to my creative process.

Third, if writing is the goal there is no substitute for writing. If I was unable to write something thought-provoking or beautiful I resolved to write something clichéd or awkward. This was difficult at first but became easier when I remembered that neither God nor my advisors required me to write my magnum opus the first time around (which reminded me of another creative axiom, which is that the only good writing is rewriting). My IPIAT was first and foremost an offering of worship to God, then an exercise in spiritual formation, then an offering of thanks to the various communities of which I am a part, then a component in the completion of my degree. I had to remind myself regularly that musical perfection was not embedded within any of these priorities. Over time the discipline of writing a little bit every day paid dividends.

Fourth, art is sacrificial in nature. Given the narcissism of Western culture many view art as the epitome of self-indulgence, yet I experienced art as something very different through this process. The completion of my IPIAT required self-sacrifice for everyone involved. After a long day of work the last thing I wanted to do was research, write, or rehearse. My inner grumbling was usually about a lack of energy and a desire to zone out and watch television. Yet I knew the time I had been given was not my own. It belonged first to God but also to those who were in some way participating in the project. This music was not for me, it was for us. Nine musicians sacrificed many evenings to collaborate and rehearse. They gave of their time and of themselves (their voices, their instruments, their unique perspectives and histories, etc.). Those who attended the IPIAT performance were not static recipients of a commodity or service either. They shaped the context and direction of the event just by being there, and all the more so by actively listening and asking questions. It was sacrifice that enabled people to move toward each another in mutual love and respect to create something of meaning. This sacrificial impulse began to make sense when I saw it in light of God’s Triune nature. This beautiful Communion of self-giving love demonstrated between the Father, Son, and Spirit is also represented in how God chose to relate to us, most profoundly through the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Photo courtesy of Peter Caulfield

The Heart of Existence

Bench by the water

Without Sabbath rest (menuha in Hebrew) the universe would be incomplete. Afterall, it took a special act of creation to bring it into being. Why are we afraid of it?

Ruth Ellen and I recently returned from a wonderful Christmas holiday. We decided to splurge and rent a condo in Playa del Carmen for a week and a half. We splashed about in the crystal clear waters of the Caribbean Sea, enjoyed food at local taquerias, and barely thought about schoolwork. The evening we returned home I remember driving through the Massey Tunnel and suddenly panicking. I don’t know if it was the enclosed space, or if it was the pulsating sensation of tunnel lights whirring past me at regular intervals as we drove, but I got really anxious really fast. “So much to do, so little time,” I thought to myself as I tried to breathe slowly. As soon as we exited the tunnel I saw the vast and starlit sky and my perception of speed all but disappeared. Unlike the tunnel lights, the moon and the stars seemed anchored in the sky as we continued to travel the highway toward home. It’s interesting how proximity changes my perspective.

Abraham J. Heschel was a Jewish rabbi and theologian who thought a great deal about rest and time. I’m reading his book about the Sabbath and it is messing with my head (in a good way). In it he laments our civilization’s preoccupation with subduing and controlling things of space. He argues that we tend to think of power in terms of conquest and consumption yet find ourselves powerless against the invisible grip of time. All of our attempts to ignore it, reverse it, or make a commodity out of it belie the dread we feel at time’s inevitable hold on our lives.

“The higher goal of spiritual living is not to amass a wealth of information, but to face sacred moments.”

Abraham Joshua Heschel

Why are we so afraid of time? Perhaps it is because we think of time as a thing (you can read Neil Postman’s critique of public discourse for more on that) and we like to control things. In Genesis the first thing God makes holy is not a thing but a day; the seventh day, Sabbath. Unlike other religious festivals, Sabbath is not attached to seasons, lunar cycles, or particular places. Instead it is attached to the creative work of God. Heschel calls time the heart of existence. This is not to say that things are not important, but again and again throughout scripture priority is given to time, to relationships. Sabbath and the great Jewish festivals are attached to sacred events in time. Holiness itself is seen in relation to time. In other words, time as well as space can be hallowed.

This poses a problem for those of us who are driven by (thoroughly modern) concepts of efficiency and productivity. Rest appears to be the antithesis of control. It is. And that’s the point. In time there are no shortcuts. To quote Heschel, [t]he more we think the more we realize: we cannot conquer time through space. We can only master time in time. The higher goal of spiritual living is not to amass a wealth of information, but to face sacred moments. If control is our highest aim this truth is a serious problem, but if communion with God and one another is our highest aim, this truth is a profound relief. We are invited not to conquer time but dwell in it, to face sacred moments, to sit awhile with the One who says “I Am.”

My IPIAT performance is now 7 weeks away. I’m trying to breathe slowly. I’m learning to abide with Christ so that my proximity to Him will change my perspective. He is unshakeable. He is. He.

Photo courtesy of Jon Eckert

375 Words on Words

Handwriting

You’ve probably experienced this feeling before. You are trying to articulate something important, something that has shaped you in a significant way, maybe something profound.

Is it complex? Not really. It’s more that the nuance is hard to get right. A simple explanation should suffice but simplicity is elusive. So you spout more and more words to make sense of it for your sake and the sake of your listener. Even more fundamentally, you elaborate for the sake of the thing itself, for to describe it poorly feels tantamount to denying or defacing it. You begin by teasing out its shape. Then you dance (more likely stumble) around the essence of the thing. Then finally, just as it starts to come into focus, it vanishes. The frustrating thing is that it’s really quite simple. Or is it? Either way, what you’re left with at the end of the whole exercise isn’t a profound picture of the thing, but a tangled mound of verbiage instead. Do you know that feeling?

Every time I can’t put two words (or notes) together for my grad project I’m reminded of this simple reality: language is slippery. So is music. Both come up short. Maybe this is by design (on this side of the veil anyway), to remind me that while my efforts are always inadequate, while some things are beyond description, the Living Word still speaks. He is always sufficient, and we live by His Word (and His Music?), not our own.

On many days the limitations of language – and even more so, my own limitations as a composer – cause me frustration and even fear. Will I distort others’ picture of God rather than enhancing it? What if my songs are fluffy, boring, or disjointed? Fortunately on other days I see these limitations as an opportunity to thank God for His limitlessness. It’s impossible for anyone, much less me, to fully describe the mystery and beauty of God, yet God lovingly invites me to explore His bigness so I can understand my smallness is of little consequence. So I reach for words, I reach for music, I reach for something that will illuminate a small sliver of the Beauty I long to behold. Today a sliver. One day the whole.

Photo courtesy of Robert Aichinger

Scheduled Creativity

Old piano

I grew up believing the myth that artistic vision is realized through occasional bursts of inspiration. This is probably why I have piles of digital song “fragments” from my high school and university years but very few compositions I would consider complete. One of the most challenging yet important ingredients for my integrative project has been scheduled creative time.

I still remember going to a songwriting workshop years ago and hearing Brian Doerksen mention that he schedules time to write music. I don’t know whether or not this is still his practice, but I remember thinking it was a bit odd since, up to that time, I only wrote music when I felt “inspired” (I’m still not sure what I meant by the term). But what do you do as a fledgling artist when you don’t feel inspired, or, as is now the case with my IPIAT, when you’re writing on a deadline? You do what any effective person does – you schedule the task into your day. So now, if my schedule says “write music,” I write music. And during those days when fatigue gets the better of me or the creative juices aren’t flowing clear and steady, I settle for writing something that sounds like music’s ugly third cousin. Setting a schedule combats the silly notion that music is just a byproduct of unexpected bursts of inspiration. In my experience so far, it’s usually a more disciplined and drawn out process than that. Is it worthwhile labour? Absolutely, both for my own growth and learning, and hopefully, for the edification of the Body too.

Since I’m writing songs surrounding the Easter narrative, I thought it made sense to go back to the Gospel accounts. I was immediately drawn to the Gospel of John. There’s something about the emotional immediacy of John’s writing that captivates my imagination. The emotional nuances and subtle shifts in each character are at once accessible and expansive. What I love most about John is how he writes narrative and theology together. After sitting with the Gospel of John for a few days I thought, “that’s exactly what I want to do!”

I have selected several passages from the story, beginning with the Last Supper in John 13:16-30 and ending with the resurrected Jesus eating breakfast with several of His disciples in John 21:1-13. So far I have sketched the rough outline of two songs.

Photo courtesy of Robert Walker

Don’t Skip to Sunday

Jesus artwork

Is our view of community worship – and our view of God – expansive enough to account for the deep-seated pain and sorrow in and around us?

We recently celebrated Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Resurrection Sunday. In preparation, my students and I crafted four worship gatherings for our campus community leading up to Good Friday. As we prepared we talked about remembrance, worship, death, resurrection, sacrifice, shame, hope, and many other things. As followers of Jesus – particularly for those of us who are evangelicals – it can be difficult for us not to “skip to Sunday” when we think about Easter. After all, we are resurrection people! The violence and agony of crucifixion, the darkness and weight of sin, the grief and solemnity of burial, the discomfort and restlessness of waiting, all grate against my neat and tidy sensibilities, my sense of control, my desire for comfort. My student leaders and I wrestled with these tensions as we prayed and planned together. We tried to give voice to the hope of resurrection life without trivializing the price God paid to secure it on our behalf.

Without Friday and Saturday, without Holy Week, without Lent – in fact, without continual reminders of my great need and God’s great love – the earth-shaking reality of Sunday does not cause me to tremble in holy fear or worship as I should. However, I also realize that, along with all who have believed in and declared Jesus as Lord, I have been adopted as God’s child. This is cause for celebration, joy, and gratitude. Throughout the planning process with my student leaders, I couldn’t help but think again about what it means to live well in this tension. It even relates to music itself, which “stands under the shadow of the fall and the promise of redemption” (Jeremy Begbie, Theology, Music, and Time, 147).

Photo courtesy of Jannes Glas

Music in Time

Wristwatch parts

How can we serve a God we have forgotten? Perhaps we cannot. Or at least not well.

Remembrance: A Biblical Priority

In my last post I talked about the importance of remembrance. The biblical writers seem to think quite highly of it. More than that, when they talk about remembrance, they usually talk about the real-life consequences associated with remembering or forgetting. Psalm 106:6-7 tells us that the Israelites failed to remember how God delivered them from slavery they began to rebel. Conversely, Psalm 22:27-28 links right remembrance with a return to God. This makes sense, for how can anyone serve a God they have forgotten? Remembrance profoundly shapes our thoughts and our actions.

Music: A Timely Gift

Have you ever been so transfixed by a piece of music that you lose all sense of time? Have you ever felt music so deeply that you feel as though it is inhabiting you, or you it? For me, in that moment, music arrests all of my senses (not just my hearing) and demands all of my attention. I savour each moment as it arrives and passes away in the ebb and flow of musical time. Such experiences for are not like floating away on a timeless cloud as much as they are like sinking into the rich soil of temporality. These experiences are spacious, mysterious, and alluring – some might even say mystical – not because they somehow allow us to escape time, but because they allow us to abide peaceably with it. This is some of what Jeremy Begbie explores in his wonderful book Theology, Music, and Time. Music helps us to remember that time is not our enemy.

Contentment: A Fruit of Being Present

If you have ever felt like time is against you let this be an encouragement. Time is part of God’s good creation. Without time, there would be no music. Without time, there would be no remembrance either! At all points of the music-listening and music-making process memory is at play– yet we do not dwell in the past or the future when we experience music. Instead we learn to live – if only for a few moments – entirely in the present, remembering what has been and anticipating what is to come, but always appreciating what is. Our God is the God of history. He is working out His redemptive plan in time and lovingly invites us to participate in it. God’s work within time reminds me that I don’t have to be anxious. I can breathe.

Do you have a song that captivates all of your senses, a song that you love to “sink” into? Please tell me about it. I would love to hear it and to learn more about why it is meaningful to you.

Photo courtesy of Aleksandra P.

Remembering and Doing

Quail in the desert

Throughout scripture God’s people are told to remember. This seems like a simple command, until we realize that how we remember is just as important as what we remember.

In the Old Testament, when Israel forgot (which happened regularly) the results were rarely pleasant. Remember how, in Numbers 11, the Israelites pined away for “the good old days” of slavery after they got tired of eating manna and quail in the desert day after day? Were they really equating eating bland food with being submitted to forced labour? Probably not. Rather, because of their stubbornness in the present they profoundly mis-remembered their past.

“It wasn’t that bad in Egypt,” they probably muttered to themselves.

Fast forward to the early church all the way up to the present day. As followers of Jesus, we are called to remember Jesus’ death and resurrection by participating in the communion meal, or the Eucharist. This celebration is central to our lives as disciples of Jesus. All of this suggests that remembrance is vital to our Christian lives. I am guilty of mis-remembering all sorts of things. It’s often what turns frustration into bitterness or anger into resentment. Generally it’s what turns little problems into big problems. Like the Israelites in Numbers 11 I need to repent of my ingratitude. I also desperately need to recover my memory.

Are there certain things we should make an extra effort to remember? Are there right and wrong ways of remembering? When we remember, are we simply looking back at something or are we participating in it in some way? These are some of the themes and questions I am pursuing in my integrative project. I hope you’ll join me on the journey!