Friday, September 23, 2011

Artist Spotlight II - Edison Glass

"We're moved by the authenticity of Your grace, given so abundantly."

These guys are fantastic. Hailing from New York, they are Joshua Silverberg (singer/guitarist), Josh "Mountain" Morin (singer/bassist), Joe Morin (drummer), and James Usher (guitarist). They are living, breathing proof that one not need a) be labeled as a 'Christian Band' to be authentically Christian, and b) that one need not follow the Pop template when writing about God. Oh, and c) it's OK to be Christian and musically brilliant.

Listen or die:

I feel a special connection to these guys, because I know one of their friends, Brent Stubbs. But I was listening to them way before that, struck by how clearly they just sang what they wanted, from the heart, writing with depth and creativity. Request them on your local Christian radio, watch the DJ have no idea who they are.

Again, what is Christian music? Christian music is music written by Christians. What should it sound like? Stupid question. It should sound good. Because God is the author of all beauty, and if we are trying to convey that beauty, or if we write music with a knowledge of that beauty, or if we strive to be beautiful, and do it all authentically, brilliant stuff like this will bless the world.

Let us know what you think.

The Problem With Christian Radio I

You say, "Christian music."
Your agnostic friend thinks, "A load of unoriginal crap by Casting Crowns and Tree63."
And you wonder where on earth to bring your angry mob.

I hold that Christian Radio shoulders the bulk of the responsibility. I hold that Christian Radio, in its noble effort to reach as many individuals as possible with the message of the Gospel, effectively works against authentic, beautiful music. Worse, it ends up packaging the message of the Gospel in such embarrassingly banal, watered-down, and unoriginal songs, that the Gospel is obscured, if not actively resisted by the listener.

I will focus my complaint against The Educational Media Foundation, the charity behind K-Love and Air 1 Radio, with the knowledge that much of my complaint against them could be made against other Christian Radio stations. This the EMF's mission statement:

K-LOVE Radio & Air 1 Radio are a part of the EMF Broadcasting family. K-LOVE communicates the Gospel through mass media to leads as many people as possible toward salvation and spiritual growth. Air 1 Radio delivers positive cutting-edge Christian music to teenagers and young adults. (Bold my own)

Nowhere does it mention that the Christian music need be good music, or that it be beautiful music, or that it be well-written, creative, inspiring, touching, or original music. No, for music to be played to the EMF's over 5 million listeners, there are two pre-requisites: it must be positive, and it must be cutting-edge.

The idea that music gains some inherent value by being cutting-edge is ridiculous. 'Cutting-edge' is not an adjective that should ever be applied to art. There are cutting-edge computer programs. There are no cutting edge paintings. You can own a cutting-edge car. You cannot own a cutting-edge song. It's well known amidst the Christian world that we live in an age of moral relativism; the denial of the existence of objective good and evil. What's ignored by the Christian world is the mate of moral relativism we so often fornicate with; aesthetic relativism. The denial of value. The relativism that chooses one song over another because it is newer. The Christian philosopher G.K Chesterton had this to say about moral relativism...

"To introduce into philosophical discussions a sneer at a creed's antiquity is like introducing a sneer at a lady's age. It is caddish because it is irrelevant. The pure modernist is merely a snob; he cannot bear to be a month behind the fashion..." 

...and I believe that can be equally applied to aesthetic relativism. Applying inherent value to 'cutting-edge' music is snobbish.  It's Very Bad Decisions like this that force artists to imitate Pop music instead of writing authentically, force them to think of how to have a 'new sound' instead of a beautiful sound. And perhaps the worst part of the whole affair is this: If you've frequented Christian Radio, you know that the attempt to be cutting-edge is never more than an attempt. And thus Christian music uses auto-tune, and the suckage, she continues. (To be clear, I'm not saying that Pop music can't be likable. In fact, it wouldn't be Pop if it didn't produce sounds our ears are inclined to and sell a couple million copies. I'm saying that Pop music has no value outside of popularity, outside of the 'cutting-edge'. It does not strive for beauty, and will thus have a limited effect on the world for about month, and then go back from whence it came.)

The second pre-requisite for songs to be played on K-Love is positivity. My first disagreement with the use of this adjective is that it is often no more than a replacement for the word 'Christian'. 'I'm Walking on Sunshine', I assume, is a positive song, but it gets no play on Christian radio. This sneak-attack Christianity is not particularly cunning; when people hear a Chris Tomlin song after the announcement "Positive Hits!" they're not subtly tricked into liking the song more. And if it is not cunning it can only be cowardly.

But that's not the point. The point is that positivity means absolutely nothing, even less than cutting-edge. Positivity has utterly no meaning without some frame of reference. Is it moral positivity? Mathematical positivity? Emotional positivity? Is the Crucifixion positive?

"No, it's the death of God! The greatest crime of humanity!"
"Yes, it's our redemption!"

Is the question of positivity important at all? How about: is this Good? Yes. Is this True? Yes. Is this Beautiful? Yes. Why is whether it's positive important at all, even if we could figure out what we mean when we say it?

The same applies to songs. Positivity does not lend inherent value to music. My guess is that more people have been changed by Johnny Cash than by TobyMac. And let me be the first to tell you, it ain't because Cash is positive. Positivity lends nothing to music; it only helps sell it to soccer moms.

To summarize my point; Christian Radio is killing beautiful, Christian music. Its very mission statement implies the death of authenticity in song-writing. That's not to say there are no survivors. In fact, I'm of the belief that there are far more good 'Christian' songs than shallow ones. They're just harder to find. Hence this blog.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Artist Spotlight I - Mumford & Sons

"Love that will not betray you,
dismay or enslave you,
It will set you free
Be more like the man
you were made to be.
There is a design,
An alignment to cry
of my heart to see,
The beauty of love
as it was made to be."

Mumford & Sons are: Marcus Mumford, Country Winston, Ben Lovett, and Ted Dwane. They released their first album in October 2009 after 2 years of UK tours, and, a year and a half later, they had sold over 1 million copies of their album.  From their Shakespearean inspirations, their hearts sung out their mouths, and their burning humanity, they display the reality of music.

If they show one thing, it is that honest, inspired, and passionately played, beautiful music will always draw people in.  These four men have arenas packed with humanists and Christians alike, singing together: "Awake, my soul. You were made to meet your maker."

It is music that sings of our need for grace and of the pain that comes in life. These are songs of the desire to break out of our little selves, out of our fear of death, out of our broken love, and they are sung as such. They are songs sung which profess our need for heaven.  They are songs sung in the poetry of the grand English tradition of Shakespeare.

What do we have to learn from them as artists?
Authenticity is the key to music, and these men understand its role.  Heartbreak and doubt, temptation and shame, guilt, fear, grace, and the drive to heaven all feature strongly in the lyrics of the Sons.  From the lonely pain of 'Little Lion Man' to the unity of 'Timshel' and the hope of 'After the Storm', humanity runs through their first album with all passion.  Is it not said that the glory of God is man fully alive?

Music is meant to be sung, not simply made.  Music is an act of creation in the purest sense -- it flows from ourselves and is a realization of our very selves.  Mumford and Sons has a beautiful mastery of that Dionysian passion, that glory of a heart.  "Death is just so big, and man so small," they sing, but they yet cling to the truth of hope, that Apollonian (yet never stoic) dream.

Listen to them, and learn of authenticity in music. We should be singing truth in every moment in which our mouths are open.  I cannot describe to your their style, but it is fantastic.

These are living proof that honest Christian music need not simply be a pop template with every "Baby" replaced with the Sacred Name of Jesus.  The disco-beats, electric riffs, and guy/girl parts all have their place, but one must always ask, "what are they serving?"  MercyMe, in all their poppy glory, will never reach the world as these guys have. Think about that: The Gospel has been most effectively spread by a band not claiming to be Christian, but simply writing beautiful music. True humanity sung back to God is worship in the fullest way - is there any excuse to sing any less?

Buy Sigh no More here.  It's worth it.

And get ready for their new album.  It promises to be even better.

Friday, September 16, 2011

The Duty of the Christian Musician

Recently I wrote a bunch of posts tackling the divisive issue of Christian Rock over at the ever-brilliant Basically I said - immaturely - that Christian Rock has become - thanks to the Almighty Need to Sell - a poor imitation of Pop music. That she often lacks Authenticity. That she conforms to a genre instead of attempting to write from the heart. Read all about it.

An interesting argument came up in defense of this unauthentic music - it was interesting in that it wasn't a defense, it was an evasion. It went something like this: "Yes, it's terrible that Christian music is imitating Pop Music. Yes, it's sad and yes, sometimes I cry when Casting Crowns releases a new single. But this isn't a problem of Christian Rock, this a problem of the Music Scene as a whole! Uninspired music is in; if Christian artists want to spread the message of the Gospel they have to dumb their music down. Otherwise no one will listen."

And thus we get good messages obfuscated by unoriginal songwriting.

To which the short answer is wrong, and the long answer is WROOOOOOOOOONG, and for more than a few reasons. The first bit of silliness is the idea that the world leads the Church. Wrong. The Church must lead the world. I'm Catholic, so I don't feel like finding where Paul says it, but I'll paraphrase: "The world sucks, don't be like it." We are supposed to be signs of contradiction. Sneak-attack Christianity - OMG YOU  TOTES THOUGHT YOU WERE LISTENING TO TRAIN BUT IT'S ACTUALLY ABOUT GOD - is ridiculous. It's the world leading the Church by a leash, and it needs to stop.

Cast your minds back a ways to the fall of the Roman Empire, when the learning, poetry and art of Europe took refuge in the monasteries, preserved and treasured by doddering and pious monks. What if these religious had said, stroking great beards of wisdom, "You know what, the world outside is really into drunken pillaging, the indulgence of the carnal passions and illiteracy. How are we going spread the message of the Gospel unless we meet them at their level?" An exaggerated analogy, I know, but you get the point.

If we held up real beauty like a lamp in the darkness, do we honestly doubt that the children of God would flock to it? If so, how does one explain the incredible success of Mumford and Sons? That band makes it difficult to argue that the world will only listen to banal lyrics, pop beats and generally uninspired sound. No, we are human. Our fads and fashions might run as rampant as the plague, but our underlying desires and thirsts for that which is eternal, that which elevates us, that which lasts even if it loses it's place on the Christian Radio Top 50, that desire always dwells in us.

The second problem with this follow-the-world business is that it insults humanity. For all of it's existence, humanity has been drawn to, inspired and challenged by, in admiration and awe of - if not entirely obsessed with - Beauty. It is Universal. Why are blatantly religious authors like Flannery O'Connor and Walker Percy so admired on secular campuses? Why do people of every belief flock to see paintings of the Crucifixion, the Nativity, the Holy Family, or the Resurrection by artists like Botticelli, da Vinci, Caravaggio and Michelangelo? Why are recitals of Handel's Messiah packed at Christmas? I'll give you two hints: It's not because these artists conformed to the world. And it's not because people naturally like Christian art. It's because these artists created Beauty, and Beauty draws us universally. It's an experience with the Divine in and of itself. To say that the 21st century "just couldn't handle it" is a slap in humanity's face. We can handle it. Give it to us.

If the world writes pathetically, let us write in stark opposition to the world, pulling it with us in our ascent into Beauty. Let us lead the world. It is the duty of the Christian musician to write with total authenticity, to hone and practice his craft in an effort create Beauty, to lead the world out of darkness and into the marvelous light of the Sacred, of the True, Good and Beautiful, to convey poignantly the deepest reflection of his heart. Yes, absolutely; his duty. It's not easy. But as Christians we cannot settle for less, lest we continue to wallow in Pop.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Philosophy of Music

From the solemn chant of 'Sanctus' to the mumbled love song set to the two and a half guitar chords that  her boyfriend learned on the cold evening of February 13, it structures our lives.  We listen to it in the car, singing our hearts out, play it in bands of greater or lesser caliber, practice until fingers bleed and that arpeggiation is pristine.  It is in our movies and our malls, our pockets and our cathedrals.  It will bring us to weep, to laugh, to dance, to worship, and it will ignite our hearts to love.  

Music is the purest form of communication.  Chant, in its purest sense (speaking in tone) is a sort of poetry beyond any literary structure. Harmony exists as the deepest and most inherent expression of human collaboration. Oh, where does music take us?  Is it proactive or simply a sideshow to our lives?  Why do we love it so much, and why, when we hear it floating softly over the walls of our fears and insecurities, do we come calmly out of ourselves to hear the truth and dance?

Long ago, in central Greece, the Muses stood upon the Mount Parnassus, the mountain of Poetry and Art.  A small boy Orpheus was born and resided upon this mountain.  One day in his youth, he came across Apollothe god of the sun, of dreams and of reason, as he was courting the laughing Muse Thalia.  Apollo handed the boy a golden lyre and taught him to play.  The boy's mother taught him the creation of verses for singing. He is now called the "Father of Songs", a great prophet and musician, and is sacred to both Apollo and Dionysius, the god of ecstasy, passion, and intoxication. So inspired was his singing that nature flowed in harmony with his song and thrown rocks and sticks refused to hit him, the only musician to ever melt the heart of Hades.  He, by his old age, began to turn away from all gods save that of the sun, Apollo.  His death came soon, however, brought by the servants of Dionysus, angered that Orpheus refused to respect the patronage of the God of passions and ecstasy.  Still today, the two peaks of the mountain Parnassus are each devoted to one - Apollo and Dionysus.

Sometimes a little bit
of Truth makes it out
through all that hair.
My word, do we have much to learn from the Greeks. Apollo and Dionysus, metonymically demonstrating these two great elements of human consciousness, have been used to illuminate great depths of the aesthetic theory of philosophers from the Greeks to octopus-face over here. Any Apollonian act, we learn, is an act of reason and of greater thought, while anything Dionysian flows from the basal desires and passions. Apollonian meter, rhyme, and lyricism meets the Dionysian rhythm and timbre.  These elements drive all human action and thus, they drive music..  

Even Nietzsche recognizes that "development of art is bound up with the duality of the Apollonian and the Dionysian, just as reproduction depends upon the duality of the sexes" (The Birth of Tragedy).  Our reason and our dreams, our contemplation is bound up with our deeper emotions, our ecstasies and depressions, mourning and passion--the Apollonian is bound to the Dionysian.

Look for a moment upon the Sacred Heart of Jesus and see the thorns, the blood, the tears. Look upon his face and see his pain, and think upon the choice made to love, to sacrifice--his entire person in service of our souls. In the garden,

He said to them, "My soul is sorrowful even to death."... He advanced a little and fell to the ground and prayed that if it were possible the hour might pass by him; he said "Abba, Father, all things are possible to you. Take this cup away from me, but not what I will but what you will." 

"Give glory to your son that your son might glorify you," he prays,  and never has there been a greater act of worship.  He confesses his desires and his pains, and through them, stands upon reason--there will never be a deeper hymn sung to the Father. 

And we hear in Revelation of the choirs of Heaven, that Heaven is eternal song.  The entire person is called to action.  In every moment on Earth and in Heaven, the presence of grace draws us forward such that every action is in unity with Christ's sacrifice.

Music, then, in it's fullest sense, takes into account our emotions, flows from our hearts, and glorifies our 
passions in our use of reason.  We place ourselves within a ship with solid hull, and we fly upon the waters, secure through greatest drama of life with our hand firmly and reasonably on the helm.  This music deserves, therefore, our entire selves and our practice and concentration.  Music must be good and beautiful, bringing honor to ourselves and to our purpose.  Music is a sacred art, sacramentalizing the music of Heaven in our lives (don't worry, we'll talk about that more later), and no artist has any excuse for making bad art.  The gift of music necessarily predicates a respect for its potential and valued.  

Music also calls us to authenticity.  If Christ prays forth his agony until "his sweat became like drops of blood falling upon the ground," we have no reason to write the Christian rock songs about how 'everything sucked until Jesus showed up and now I'm always happy'.  That's not how Christ's life went, and it's not how our lives go with Christ.  Music makes sense out of our desolation (Apollonian and Dionysian, remember?), making a real difference in our ability to bear it.  Music, in its truest sense, is prayer.

As Marc and I (I'm Daniel, by the way) continue to speak from our experience of music and from the knowledge which many smarter and holier people have shared, we will attempt to realize these truths.  We will attempt to nail down the practice and lifestyle of music as well as the types and roles of music, especially in the specification of congregational music.  We will attempt to share the music which we have found to match the expectations of Art and of Platonic aesthetics, thus flowing into Thomistic beauty, demonstrating bands which make good and holy music. Expect posts soon on Mumford and Sons, on Christian Rock, and much more.