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

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