Reflector

Reflector

You and I, we are all born imitators. We have a special knack for taking our experience and pushing it back out into the world. At the summit of a craggy hike, we look out on the world in miniature and when we have returned to the valley and the world is full-sized again, we find someone and tell them what we saw* apeak the mountain. We use language in an attempt to recreate in our friend the hush and awe we felt in the presence of the panorama. Failing that, at least to stir in them the desire, like our own, to hike up and see it for themselves. Our experience of beauty is like breathing. We cannot inhale but that we exhale.

We do this especially in art. When we take something that’s next to nothing—a blank page, an empty canvas, a pile of wood or clay—and we shape it into something recognizably human-touched, we imitate the God who took actual nothing and worked it into everything including our blank paper and stacked lumber. We cannot inhale but that we exhale.

We do this even in the mundane. Who hasn’t found themselves standing over a sink of dishes humming out snatches of a familiar melody without really thinking about it? Songs come in at our ears and go back out through our voices. In and out. Stories cycle through us, picking up and shedding detail, but arcing along those old, familiar bends. The journey home. The fall and redemption. The restoration of order and justice. The romance. When you tot it all up—from the mundane to the sublime—what is all this work but the imitative life of human culture?

A while back, my church housed a music venue. In the halcyon days of The 930 music venue, one of the shows that I remember best was Bill Frisell alone on the stage with a guitar making sonic magic. So, when I heard that he had recorded a version of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”—a Bob Dylan tune that I had long heard of but only recently actually listened to—I had a listen. The reinvention is sublime, but it’s a symbiotic relationship.

When it comes to an artist who has had their work reinvented and imitated ad infinitum, hard rainthere is only one Bob Dylan. Perhaps it’s a consequence of his being revered and prolific in a way that makes the onlooker feel dizzy and quite lazy, but you flip through any muscian’s body of work and like as not you hit at least one Bob Dylan cover song. In this case of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”, Frisell strips away the lyrics—a stream of opaque and increasingly ominous imagery punctuated with the invocation of that hard rain that might be a baptism or a judgement—and mines the seam of melody for all its worth and then some. In doing these increasingly complex and noisy variations on Dylan’s theme, Bill Frisell provokes a fresh emotional resonance from the song.

Now, Frisell’s distinctive playing has merit all its own but, honestly, one might find that Dylan’s simple folk melody grows a little repetitive if one didn’t have snatches of his excised lyric haunting you while you listen. The refraction through the prism of surrounding artists so often reaffirms and even magnifies the beauty of the original work. Frisell indeed bends Dylan’s vision in a gorgeous arc, but the cover is also elevated by memory. The source material remains vital.

What we see when Bill Frisell plays Bob Dylan is that some sort of alchemy takes place when we imitate even just other people. We’re a lot like Waldo. Not the guy we hunted in crowded kids books, but the myna bird from Twin Peaks. By mimicking the sounds he’d heard, Waldo added to what was known about who was present when Laura Palmer died. We, too, are mimics in our way and so we can also add to what’s known about the truth. Imitating one another is only the beginning.

It’s important, at this point, to remember that we don’t imitate as a sign of deficiency, a lapse in originality (at least, we don’t always imitate that way, though we must admit that there are eight Fast and Furious movies by now and who can even count how many Transformers movies we’ve been subjected to). We imitate because we are made that way. We are not originators. We are images of God. Reflectors. This is a distinction we often disdain as humility escapes us, but we best represent God in the world when we accept it. We cannot exhale but that we inhale.

As confessed image bearers, we have an opportunity to bear witness. We breathe in the world around us and it combines with the life which the Spirit breathes into us. Then we breathe it all back out. Changed as it is for having mingled for a while in that cauldron of thought and history and desire and dread that is our mind and further refracted for having re-entered the world tuned to the unique skill of our bodies, as distinctive as a thumbprint. Whether in acts of neighborly care, as works of art, or even as the simple routines of our daily life, we have the chance to add to what is known about how God moves in the world. By this overflow, our lives animate God’s work–so often hard to see–even as they are animated by God’s work.

This can feel like an overwhelming responsibility. Especially if we are honest about the real-life condition of our hearts suspended in the already/not yet paradox that is our common, limping pursuit of Jesus. Nevertheless, we should take heart. And, we should start small. If you ask me, we should stay small, but that’s an entirely other conversation. But, in a room with people we know, we have so much to see and so much to offer. We can testify how God has worked in the one and only us and we can see how God has worked in one and only others. On this shared peak, we can all gain a larger view of what God can do that we would have ever found deep in the valley of ourselves. This might just be the height of human culture.

 

* It bears noting that the mountain vista will always be bigger in our mind’s eye than in any photograph with its scissored edges and immobilized perspective. And would we rather remember the moment or the photograph?

 

The Good Doctor

The Good Doctor

I’ve seen my share of shows with musicians who would qualify as historic. I saw Bruce Springsteen on The Rising tour with nothing between me and the stage but a cameraman. I’ve seen U2 a few times. Bob Dylan. Pearl Jam, of course. Third Eye Blind. Wait, we were talking about historic. Scratch that last one. Double strikethrough.

Of Springsteen, I will say that the concert was an epic. His energy level was astounding and I almost passed out by the end (though that was probably more related to having been standing on concrete since sometime in the mid morning than to being overcome with an ecstatic fit).

U2, especially the first time, was nearly a religious experience. Which, I think that was most of Bono’s point.

Bob Dylan was actually a little disappointing as he grabbed the wrong key harmonica on nearly every song and even then and all the songs kind of sounded the same. Still, Bob Dylan: check.

Pearl Jam, well, they’re Pearl Jam. I almost passed out the first time I saw them, too. Near the end of Alive. That may have been more on the ecstatic end because my acoustic-noodly, DMB-loving mind was undergoing an instantaneous and electric metamorphosis.

All that said, I think the historic musician that I will remember most fondly is one I saw in a small club in Louisville, KY not too many years ago and, sadly, close to the end of his life. The great Dr. Ralph Stanley.

When you consider voices with an unmistakable, inimitable tone, Ralph Stanley has a dark, lonesome tenor that sounds like it issues forth from the heart of a mountain. I would put him in that unrivaled pantheon with the likes of Paul McCartney, Freddie Mercury, Billie Holiday, or Otis Redding. He may not have the acrobatics or the celestial aura of fame, but you know exactly who you’re listening to. He occupies a spot that nobody else can nor probably ever will.

And, he was just as much a pioneer as anyone from the British invasion or that unlikely soul corridor that stretched from Motown to Muscle Shoals. Coming out of the oft-forgotten and wholly otherworldly Appalachia, bluegrass music shares with jazz a very high distinction of being a true born-and-bred American musical movement. Ralph Stanley helped cut the trail that brought the sound down from the mountain where it had incubated since pre-Revolutionary times and into the public consciousness. Whether banjos and church harmonies are your cup of tea, there’s no arguing its a clarion call of American experience.

Then there’s the show itself. Dr. Stanley up on stage with his son and the rest of the band (the Clinch Mountain Boys). They played through a set and spent the rest of the night as a live jukebox. You could call out literally any song they’d ever done and they’d fire it up. Tunes were called that you can’t even find recordings of anymore outside of chance yardsale vinyl finds and they’d rip through it like it was their latest single. That’s no small feat for a solo artist, much less a seven-piece band. The sound, the joy, the complete mastery of the bluegrass canon, that voice. It was a special evening.

All this came to mind because I looked Dr. Stanley up last week and found, to my sadness, that he’d passed away over a year ago. I came to his music late in his life and still he’s brought me a great deal of joy. I’m glad I got to see him. I may never see The Rolling Stones and the chance to see the real Led Zepplin was gone before I was born along with so many other early rock and roll flameouts. But, here’s the thing. Rock and roll, love it though I do, has a hard time with aging. Vocal chords get shredded. Tinnitus sets in.  Hedonism takes its pound of flesh. Ralph Stanley was cut from a different cloth that only seemed to improve with age. At this time in my life, that’s the picture I want to hold before me. A little quieter though no less rich and so built to last. Steeped in history and rooted in place. Peculiar, even, but for that all the more cherished and rare. That’s the American experience I hope to have and Ralph Stanley proves the possibility.

Brief Thoughts on The Nashville Sound

Brief Thoughts on The Nashville Sound

My copy of Jason Isbell’s new record came in the mail Tuesday night and I’ve been able to listen to it a couple of times since then. My first impression is that The Nashville Sound is a sonic gem. The vocals are recorded pretty dry at times, especially on the opener and the lovely “If We Were Vampires”, and it gives a cottony intimacy to the quiet songs. It’s a sound I just can’t get enough of. The double-tracked vocals “Chaos and Clothes” are another excellent choice. The record is also louder than its predecessor. The electric guitars come out more often, which is just fine by me.

And then there’s the songwriting. Isbell has traded in some of his storytelling (which is superb) for more commentary and that makes a few of the songs hit pretty on the nose. Some people might find this troubling. When Isbell is telling stories, he comes at the poetic heart of what he has to say at an oblique angle. That distance on his part allows the listener to get in right up close, so to speak, and sop up the imagery and let it flavor their own longing and memory.

But, on new songs like “White Man’s World” and “Hope the High Road”, Isbell isn’t showing as much as telling. For 3-4 minutes, it’s about him more than you. He gets right up close, and in order to keep the same space between artist and listener–space that let’s the listener feel a sense of belonging with the song, space that Isbell provides free of charge with fiction songs–the listener needs to shift. Understandably, some might not like this affront to their sit-back-and-consume habit of listening. But, I’m ok with it. I’m willing to work at approaching the songs from a distance because I trust Isbell as an artist. So, here’s what I make of the aforementioned tunes.

Isbell and his wife (who sings and plays the violin in the band, which lends a heartbreaking dimension to that vampire song) have a daughter, their first kid. And so the music isn’t just art anymore, it’s legacy. It’s not an offering to some disembodied audience, it’s evidence of the kind of man Isbell is within his time. Evidence which his child will gather with a Holmes-like prodigy. Our kids are the master sleuths of who we really are, and Isbell wants to be found out to be good.

So, for me, these uncomfortably direct songs aren’t just about what Isbell has to say (and I do happen to agree with a lot of it, awkward as it feels), it’s about why he’s saying it. I feel that fatherly panic of wanting my own sons to find me out to have been a good man in the end. What forays I make into artistic expression (like this very thing you’re reading and all the other things in the same digital attic) I make with more than half an eye to how they might guide the boys I love. I’m glad Isbell broke the show don’t tell rule. I’m glad he went that route. It shows me that he’s the same kind of father I am no matter what he’s telling.

Music as Salve for Campaign Burnout

Music as Salve for Campaign Burnout

As a great artist does, Gillian Welch has expressed most of what I’d say about politics in a three-verse song, and with far more poetry. I’ve listened to it often in the past weeks. ‘Hard Times’ is the perfect song for when apocalyptic prophets climb up on the politician’s stump. When you’re working hard because of the hope hard work gives you; when you’re sheltered from the worry of the world by some kind of pleasure; when hardship has truly overtaken you; the refrain above it all should be, ‘Hard times ain’t gonna rule my mind no more.’ The skill and repetition of the plow preaches the same gospel that Jesus gave to our worry. Each row has enough worry of its own. Just get to the end before you turn around and start back the other direction and you’ll be all right.

Have a listen and enjoy.

 

About a band that I love

About a band that I love

It’s hard to even think straight about this. Recently, two of the highest grossing touring bands in the country—one of which is a band I truly love—both pulled the plug on concerts in North Carolina on the grounds that a recently-passed state law placing explicit restrictions on public bathroom occupancy was so egregious that they felt compelled to act any way they could within their power to oppose and protest.

Solidarity and the absurdity of power
I can think of two motivations for Pearl Jam and Bruce Springsteen to cancel their shows. Either they find North Carolina to be so odious that they can’t even stand to touch its soil, or they’re making a power play to whack the North Carolina legislature into more agreeable shape. Both motives are senseless. On the one hand, finding North Carolina so odious could only be the product of a deep sense of solidarity with the people whom this law restricts. It is a total disintegration of solidarity, though, to express it by not being present. Surely showing up and encouraging your comrades is a far deeper gesture of solidarity. The Freedom Riders didn’t boycott the segregated south. They hopped on the bus and joined those they felt so akin to. And they probably had to buy lunch on the way. Solidarity makes a nonsense excuse for a boycott. Because a boycott is a power play at heart.

At this point of clear disagreement with the bands, one might expect a theological treatise in defense of the state law the bands oppose, but this is not the place for that. I will only observe that the transgender phenomenon, rooted in the broader culture of American sexuality, seems to me the result of taking liberty to its furthest individual limits. Each single person, in their choices, which is to say in their minds which are the seat of choice, is presumed in control of every aspect of their identity such that not even something as once unequivocal as biology has any sway anymore. No circumstance must be received. The one single mind now has absolute will toward self-definition. My mind is actually boggled, then, to read that with a complete lack of irony, these two bands homogenize and write off an entire state—nearly 10 million people—in the name of this atomized individualism. It’s hard to even take it with a straight face. It is here that the absurdity of power plays begins to unravel.

What’s really going on in this situation is that there are two laws in our country—the law of the government and the law of the economy (of which the entertainment industry is a lucrative part). In North Carolina, those two sides are at war. And war has collateral damage, especially so because war tends to draw out the most dehumanizing tactics from all sides. Who is bearing the brunt of these cancellations, war tactics in this struggle for power?

Total agreement need only apply
It’s the people who run businesses around the venues who will lose out on serving food and drink to concert goers. It’s hotels that won’t fill rooms. But, most of all, it’s fans who have bought plane tickets and prepaid lodging (not to mention who likely paid exorbitant markups and service fees for their tickets which Ticketmaster, Stubhub, et al gobble up as part of their privileged stranglehold on the blistering online ticket market and which they surely won’t leap at the ‘moral obligation’ to repay). Of all the ways to take a stand, these two bands chose the bluntest, loudest, most divisive and destructive instrument at their disposal. Perhaps especially galling about the whole thing is the implicit (or in Pearl Jam’s case explicit) stance that these fans and businesses owe the artists the benefit of the doubt as they pursue their integrity. Here we see people, in all their diverse humanity, used as mere tools with which to make a point. ‘Thanks in advance for understanding’ must be based on the presumption that not understanding, much less disagreeing, are unimaginable. All good soldiers in the culture war have to accept the financial fallout of the activism of those few with clout even if they agree with the band.

The justification would likely follow, though, that Pearl Jam and Bruce Springsteen hope that by taking a stand, they will inspire North Carolina voters to democratically solve the dispute by pressuring and voting their legislature into shape. If that’s the case, then this is a power play aimed at the NC state legislature that really just smacks around ordinary citizens. The absurdity of power is that it will always justify its means with its ends. The terror of power is that there will always be further ends and when there are no more further ends, either there are no more people or there is no more freedom. Aggression in the face of disagreement is the very root of totalitarianism.

At issue here, in these few paragraphs, is not the rightness or wrongness of either the beliefs of the bands or the legislators. That’s an important debate to have, but it’s also an impossible debate to have in the current environment. Not on a large scale, anyway. Not on the scale of state boycotts and, yes, state laws. In order to have that debate, people would have to learn just how deep the roots of both systems of belief run (and run into each other). Such groundwork for productive talk takes patience and generosity. Instead, what you tend to end up seeing is something like two massive trees trying to do battle by only snapping off the others’ outermost branches. It’s easier and more visceral to just pummel one another in the public square. Coalitions and counter coalitions all duking it out in the marketplace, in the voting booth, in public opinion, and by any means available. Boycotts and counter boycotts, propaganda and counter propaganda, shouting down and shouting down. It’s hard to look at both sides of this divide and not see them throwing fits about the human abuses on the other side while tying themselves in linguistic and epistemological knots to justify their own. What I find so maddeningly obvious and so frustratingly ignored is the shortsighted stupidity of these kinds of power plays especially when the goal is some kind of civil or even rational society.

The Imagination Engine, pt. IV

on the inside

Part I   |   Part II   |   Part III

Acoustics, Pleasure, and Resisting the Sale

In order not to descend into full-Orwellian fatalism, let’s look at one musical instrument and what it says about the world technology would make for us, the world so aggressively sold to us. Not long ago, I came across a video advertising what amounted to a slender silicone pad that you could stick to the front of a guitar and so turn it into some electronic sound-looping synthesizer. Tapping one touch-sensitive region would record bits of your guitar playing while other buttons would add in percussion and other digital sounds, effectively turning the whole rig into some cyborg blend of instrument and remote control. With this pad stuck to the sound board of his guitar (an important detail we’ll circle back to), the musician in the ad built the sound of an entire electronic bad around himself. It was an impressive display of technique that surely required a good deal of coordination. Something as old as music had been revolutionized for the 21st century.

From that shallow angle, both the performance and the machine were marvelous, truly marvels. This is the perspective that dives right for the pleasure centers of the brain and can stir a watching musician to want to be that impresario on the screen, but can also drive others to want to hear more of this new thing. Generating this kind of multi-tiered desire to both do and watch done is a social engineer’s dream. It both sells the product and builds an audience ready to further consume. This closed feedback loop both entices towards and normalizes a deeper technologic dependency[1]. This, though, is only the shallow angle. What is going on deeper down.

How to make a beautiful sound
Here are two things to consider: the quality of the music and the manner in which it’s made. Consider the physics of sound for a moment. Sound is the world brought humming to life with vibration. Anything can make sound because anything can be made to vibrate. The art of music and instruments is the care and study of the best materials and arrangements that vibrate in a manner and pattern that’s beautiful. Music is all about pitch and rhythm, yes, but great music is just as much about resonance and timbre. Great music is made on great instruments. A plucked string comes alive and its energy flows into the air as sound and that sound flows into the guitar, bringing the wood to life in its own inherent resonance. Strings, though, fly out of the factory a mile a minute. A fine instrument is a slow thing made of deliberation and choice. The species of wood. The direction of the grain. The architecture of the internal trusses and braces, like a wooden cathedral built to nurture and enhance the resonating wood. To see a luthier at work is to see the love in this labor. In many ways, a fine acoustic instrument is a beacon at the peak of what engineering can achieve. By engineering, I mean the process by which a long legacy of luthiers gathered and learned the materials available to them in order to craft better and better vessels through which the sounds in a musician’s mind could be brought into the world.

The beauty of this engineering is that it never got out of hand. The best of the tradition passed literally from hand to hand, from maker to musician, always staying connected to an essential humanity by always keeping a person as an essential part of both the making and the using. A body was always necessary and never engineered out.

The fruit of all of this labor, incidentally, needs no social engineer to normalize its place in the world. The glory of a well-made instrument in the hands of one who can draw out its full potential is self-evident. Whoever has ears, let them hear.

This sound was built from the resonance inherent to a thin slice of wood, and this indispensable piece of wood is called the soundboard of the guitar. To slap a big rubberized mat full of buttons atop the thing is practically a slap in the face of the long history of craft and of sound itself. It would be comparable to a singer stepping up to the microphone with a ratty pillow pressed against her face. Suffocating. To compensate, this machine runs the vibration of the strings through a processor to mimic the bodily qualities of the wood and amplify some of the digital mimicry. Only the guitar’s volume is preserved. Its character is lost.

Now, you could argue that the target audience for this gadget may well have sensibilities not swayed by the nuances of fine acoustics, and anyway, electrified music has its own charms. You’d have a fair point about the sensibilities, but I’d still quibble a bit about the charm. Resonance matters, even in electric guitars. If you migrate too far from the sounds innate to the materials in a musician’s hands, you’ll no longer have an instrument but a machine[2]. The sound will only ever be mechanical. Again, though, some people are into that. It’s a sound. All of this about resonance and character is the sound and fury of taste and it may signify nothing to some people. But, before you dismiss it all as the romantic pinings of a doleful aesthete, please consider this.

Minor irregularities further enhance the hand-crafted uniqueness
It is the tendency of technology to excise the human element, approximating what it replaces and telling us that quick, reliable consistency and bells/whistles are just compensation. Craft, though, by some kind of alchemy, makes things imbued with what I can only think of as something like soul. It’s the potential for human error that makes something made well and by hand so beautiful. We all know it could have come out poorly and we are in awe that it didn’t. This miraculous turn calls to us and we see its value immediately.

I’d guess that most people have something they’re passionate about, something in which they can spot the subtle differences between the work of skilled hands and the dispassionate manufacture of a machine (though, in deference to language, I’d rather call it something like mechufacture). I tell you, it’s those passions, the kinds that make us so discerning and concerned, that make us most human. Those passions instill in us the value of something handmade and from that value flows what you’d call a placed premium, the desire for less quantity because we feel more than compensated by the quality.

Technology works against that premium on quality by overwhelming it in a flood of quantity. Those social engineers so motivated will preach about their own quality, of course, but their real work is far more general. It consists of raising the sea level of desire itself, not just for one product but for all products so that we’ll want to pay less and less for anything in order to have more and more of everything. This incubates a culture of mass production that shifts, by technological automation, the work to fewer and fewer people and the profit to fewer still.

Consider, though, what it would look like if we trusted one another’s best human passions for the quality workmanship of real hands. Our stomach for mechanical approximations would sour and our demand would shift to the labor of our neighbors again. This would, of course, require more laborers and more patience for the slower work, but as demand for quality increased, demand for quantity would fall and surely we would settle into a new equilibrium. As for the demand for laborers, it just so happens that the forces of automation have been quite effective at leaving people outside the ‘labor force’. The slowness of human making has the intrinsic blessing of needing lots of human effort. This new equilibrium would also require rebuilding the various cultures of good making, but surely it would be something enjoyable to learn a craft rather than learn to navigate a spreadsheet, a cubicle maze, and a byzantine office politic. And, for those inconsolable spreadsheet lovers, surely there would still be a need for accountants.

The drift towards an ever more technological society isn’t inevitable, all it takes to reverse course is an awakening. As improbable as awakenings may be, this is one that we’ve already begun in our pet passions. We need only consider the pet passions of our neighbors, that they may be as justified as our own. In short, we need only trust that quality matters for deeply human reasons and so reorient our spending to reflect such a premium. The hardest work here is the work of contentment. To be more satisfied with a little good than with an abundance of fair is hard work indeed.

The Art of Lonliness
Before we finally put all this thought to rest, I want to return to this augmented guitar to consider how the music is made. The novelty of this product is that of the one-man band, conjuring images of Dick van Dyke laden with horns and drums, clashing cymbals between his knees. It’s an image as comic as it is impractical. We have to wonder if he’d be better off finding some friends to help him out.

It may be helpful here to mention another product in passing, also served up in a social media feed. A video camera loaded with motors, gyroscopes, and a motion sensor that can track action and film it automatically. Whence came such a lonely machine? In the social media world, the only life is the life displayed. Yet we are more isolated and buffered than ever. So, validation must come through digital notifications: hearts, stars, and thumbs[3]. Unfettered availability to be watched in the cloud—to know we really exist—and this growing lone-ness create a vacuum. We must fill a human absence to stay present in the ether. So was born the selfie. Then came the selfie stick to give our navel gazing the quality framing and dizzying angles that our stubby human arms preclude. This robo camera picks right up where a hand-held stick left off and even removes that last pesky human element. Namely you. It’s the perfect joke of this social era that, having lost the social skills that play well with others (skills like making time, effort, and social grace in our individual lives), we would be allured by ads in our feed for motion-sensitive robots with which we could further distance ourselves from people and still be ‘socially’ active.

This camera and this guitar make it more fun to play with yourself, pushing the individualism that animates so much of the technological revolution to new exponents. And they are both socially engineered in a way only possible in a digital world of ‘personalized’ feeds (made more personal by reducing each person to choices easily mapped by an algorithm). Immersed in technology, more parades past us to reinforce that universe and stir our lust for its potential. What, the advertisers would have us ask, would we have ever done without them? Who would even imagine that world anymore? I guess that means we ought to answer that question, imagine that world.

Without his band in a box, that guitar player would either have to go it alone with less, or call up some friends to add what’s missing. This latter option is what we commonly call ‘forming a band’. Framed in this way, we see that once again technology is proposing to stand in for another person. Isolation standing in for community. For the musician, this can initially present as a liberating bargain. He is allowed to make complex and layered music that he would otherwise be unable to make alone. Is this actually freedom, though? Or does it come with its own set of limits?

This isn’t even a real question; the limits are clear. First, there is a creative limit. An individual is confined to the workings of a solitary mind, with all its habits and ruts. It’s a closed system. A collective, though, is subject to the diverse whims and even mistakes of others. A happy accident, a wrong note on the part of one can send the others into a space they may well have never found alone. A closed system simply isn’t stirred by the creative diversity of an open one.

The second limit is one of complexity. Simply put, no matter the technology available, a single person can only do so much. Here, we can imagine Mozart at a piano. His mind, genius though it may be, still only has 10 fingers attached. But, Mozart with a quill in hand can compose music for an entire orchestra’s worth of hands and minds. The guitarist wielding this beat box is likewise limited to what his own hands can do with the software. All of his ideas must squeeze through a gate the size of his one body.

The third limit is one of pleasure. The musician working alone is limited to his own satisfaction, unless he has an audience, but then his pleasure becomes fraught with fear and maybe even self doubt. Will the audience love him? And will they love him enough? The musician working with the machine is no better off. The computer can’t feel, only do. If we really think about it, this further complicates pleasure with loneliness, playing a duet with a cold automaton. Perhaps this is why individualism is so given to narcissism. If nobody else can be counted on to love you, you have to double down on loving yourself.

Look, though, at people making music together. I would bet that the majority of music made today, ever made at all in fact, is done in garages and living rooms with nobody to hear but the musicians themselves and maybe some folks sitting around socializing or maybe making supper in the next room. Those musicians’ pleasure is multiplied by its very source because making music is fun for everyone (usually). Something happens when people take joy in same doing. It’s not perfect, but when it’s good, it’s pretty pure. The pleasure is exponentially greater than that of even a virtuoso playing alone just by the fact that the pleasure is shared.

The general bent of technological progress of all kinds, though, is one of separation. The human element is costly so technology proposes to defray that cost by separating people from work and from one another. This is an unsettling bargain. Not only does it degrade the quality of the thing, it imposes on it a harsh set of limits. Any sort of technological advance, regardless of its complexity, brings to an endeavor only a dumb, rote repetition. It is not creative, it does not collaborate, and in the absence of additional human input (which the individual is eventually too limited to further offer), it will not add any intricacy. Even if some software engineer comes up with a code to better mimic creative interaction, there will always be the ultimate limit of pleasure when a person is swapped out for a machine or even a computer. The pleasure that will always elude technology is the simple act of doing work together instead of alone, which can make even bad work bearable and makes good work something very nearly divine.

 

The social engineers dedicated to the ongoing march of technical innovation make all kinds of promises about the glorious horizons yet to be reached and always just around the next bend. Their road is paved with a kind of progress that is always new only because it is always killing the old. The digital revolution has profoundly increased both the capability and the sheer dazzling wattage of the inventions they boast about. And these inventions abound, praises sung by this chorus. Each new machine raises the stakes of a life that, even before their time, was very fast paced and in which a human presence was an expensive line item to write off as often as possible. Certainly speed is essential to maintaining enough blur to hide the widening cracks in the glittering facade of progress, softening the edges of its own unique tyranny if only by optical illusion. People are indeed expensive, relationally and economically. I do have serious doubts, though, that those costs can ever be written off. Any attempt to do only has temporary success. The human element always comes back as either tragedy or violence[4].

Therefore, must examine the power we grant ourselves with suspicion. I believe we will find that we have always been capable of much more than what we can manage well. We can only hide the costs for so long. We spent the Industrial Revolution trying to exceed our limits by mimicking nature with our own designs, replacing flesh and effort with wit and automated steel. As the Digital Revolution unfolds, we can see signs that the machine, the imagination engine has been left running long enough to bring us back around to our limits, this time dearly missing them and needing their touch on our conscience in order to return to health. This is our opportunity while the age of the screen is still young: to slow down.

With our fist on the throttle and the devil at one ear, we are convinced that a hungry lion is at our heels. Slowing down, then, is an act of resistance. It’s the choice to stop listening to that devil long enough to consider what he’s already said. Yes, there’s a hungry lion at our heels and it will catch us eventually. This is not a surprise. But, you can try to outrun the lion or you can try to out think it. We can continue our knee-jerk flight, and, by wholesale surrender to progress by any means necessary, try to keep everything that resembles concession to our limits, to say nothing of death, at bay. Or we can simply admit that life is limited and therefore precious. Far too precious for the mere cycle of appetite and accumulation, a cycle which technology cranks faster and faster, highly efficient and de-humanized. Imagine, instead, a better engine. Crafting and enjoying better things in human ways with the time we do have.

To savor, not abhor, our limits hinges on a kind of satisfaction that can’t be sold to us, nor even engineered. We are only sold what must be bought again and again. We are sold dissatisfaction. Our resistance to the sale is a Sabbath from demand born at this sight of the absurdity of all demand. Ultimately, slowing down is our defiance of the myth of the best, of having it all, as we allow what is good to be good enough.

*     *     *

[1] Technology has this creepy knack for sculpting around itself the world in which it best fits. It makes the social engineering surrounding it almost too easy. Like convincing people they need air.

[2] Machines are beholden to some power source, which puts their use ever dependent on and therefore to some degree in service to the dirty process of producing fuels and electricity. This puts a limit on the musical machine because its life is not in itself but in the power cord. Cut the cord and the sound takes a serious downturn.

[3] Funnily enough, this list of digital affirmations is already outdated. Social media is always working to make our passage into their alternate universe more seamless, always trying to better ape what nature just does. The palette of emojis expanding well beyond even comprehensibility in trying to match the nuance of real life.

[4] One interesting quirk of the digital revolution is that we are more exposed than ever to the multitudes of tragedies and violences suffered and committed by those written-off human elements we were once ignorant of.

Advent Songs

Advent Songs

December has come again and brought with it the Christmas season. For whatever the Christmas season means to you, it definitely has its own soundtrack. This is the one time of year that the chart-topping stars at the cutting edge of pop culture take a back seat to tradition. Well-worn songs make their annual show and we are more than content, we are eager to be swamped in nostalgia, kitsch, and schmaltz.

About a decade ago, when I started attending the church at which I’m a member now, I was introduced to the season of Advent. Advent is not less than the celebration of Christmas, but it is more. It’s a specific time set aside to appreciate what has already happened in the Christian faith and to draw near to the anticipation and longing for what is still to come. It’s a mixture of satisfaction and dissatisfaction, and enduring December with that tension at the fore of my mind has helped make a lot of sense of Christmastime.

This has, in turn, given me a new lens through which to appreciate the music that pervades this time of year. I have found some new songs, I have rediscovered some old ones from a fresh perspective. If you’re looking for something to listen to in place of the millionth rendition of “Jingle Bell Rock”, here’s a list of my 10 favorite songs for Advent:


10. White Christmas

I don’t understand how anyone could dislike like snow. They’ve officially murdered their sense of wonder. A fresh blanket of snow is the very definition of possibility. It stirs anticipation in my heart—of rest and play and of the creaturely comfort of coming in from the cold to a warm home. Snow, especially in enough quantity, has a knack for bringing things into a state of stillness, whether by canceling work and school or just putting the world on mute. Both anticipation and stillness go perfectly with Christmas morning, and they go just as perfectly with every other morning we’re lucky enough to have some snow.

9. Jesus, Oh What a Wonderful Child

This is an old church song that might not have been so widely known at more straight-laced white churches until Mariah Carey used it to close her ultra-mainstream ‘Merry Christmas’ album. That’s how I found it. It’s kind of unusual that this song appears on such a commercial blockbuster from a massive pop star like Mariah. And the fact that it’s the closer, the final word, the ‘what it was all about in the end’ song is as striking as it is unexpected.

A history teacher at my high school used to assign his students a paper explaining every reference in “We Didn’t Start the Fire”. I feel like this song is kind of the Sunday School equivalent. You could make a nice little Advent project explaining all the Jesus references Mariah makes in the middle section.

And then there’s the coda. Just when you think it’s over, the piano picks up with a few chords and then whammo—doubletime madness. It’s a delirious, joyful ending. If your church is fairly presentable, oftentimes reserved if not anxiously brooding over proper reformed theology like I mine (and I can brood with the best of them), sometimes it’s nice to have a reminder that delirious joy is an ok response to the birth of Jesus.



8. Stille Nacht, Heilege Nacht

Everyone knows ‘Silent Night’. It’s the song that will have your pre-schooler asking what a virgin is. More than that, though, it’s a beautiful piece of music actually about breaking silence. There’s a 400-year gap between the Old and New Testaments. The Christ child broke that silence, reigniting a long story of God’s movement that had seemed to trail off. A host of angels broke the silence in the sky above the shepherds. We are encouraged to break some silence of our own and sing along with those angels. It’s a lovely song. My only question is: have you heard it in German? The crisp, mountainous sonority to the language lends the text an almost crystalline quality.



7. O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

Culturally, an overwhelming emphasis is put on the birth of Mary’s baby on Christmas. The baby in the manger is an isolated image. Where did that baby come from, though? What’s his story? This song traces the roots of that birth deep into the history of Israel. This baby is the Rod of Jesse. The Key of David. The Ransom of Israel. The answer to a longing that stretched back through 42 generations. Now that’s a Christmas song with some heft. (Brace yourself… this might get loud)



6. What Child Is This?

I had always kind of hated this song, seeing as how the melody conjured images of ye olde Renaissance Faire minstrels moaning about green sleeves. And it seemed to put baby Jesus in a bottle. Then I heard this oft-omitted verse, which offers a sudden flash of what was waiting for this baby:

Nails, spear shall pierce Him through,
The cross be borne for me, for you.
Hail, hail the Word made flesh,
The Babe, the Son of Mary.

Again, this verse is sung about a baby. If you need an antidote the the sentimentalizing forces of Christmas, Inc., there you go.



5. Someday At Christmas

This song has really grown on me as I’ve traded the Christmas season in for the season of Advent. The longing in the lyric—for no hungry children, for the end of death and meanness—is, I think, a universal. The Christmas season tries to sentimentalize this longing away, sweeping it under a rug of holly jolly good will. Advent welcomes this longing, which makes this a good time to invite people to consider that maybe there is an answer to their longing that they don’t have to somehow muster from within themselves. And answer that isn’t subject to political bickering, terror, war, or any of the other horrors people resort to when trying to whip the world into their preferred shape. Part of the joy of Advent is the anticipation that yes, someday at Christmas, all of these longings will be fulfilled and then some.



4. All I Want For Christmas Is You

I could dress this song up in some puffery about how Christmas is all about de-commercialized community and relationships and blah blah blah. But, really this one’s on the list for the bass line. And the grooving bedlam that breaks out in my kitchen every time those first twinkling notes ring out. Who can sit still to this song? Not my two boys. Or me.



3. Hark! The Herald Angels Sing

Speaking of bass lines, this is my favorite version of this hymn. The rhythm section is killing it. The entire musical setting is vibrant. And this is definitely another one of those hymns with a deep bench. We all know the first verse, but if you keep going the lesser-known subsequent verses draw out some wonderful elaborations of why, exactly, the angels were in such a state over the birth of this child. This here is the perfect confluence of music and text.



2. Christmastime Is Here

I am very, very fond of A Charlie Brown Christmas. I love it for all of the reasons it shouldn’t work for TV. It’s not polished to a high gloss like the ADHD Christmas specials Disney churns out (which one of those has celebrated a 50th birthday—which ever will?). It’s not built on peril and action-packed resolution. It’s built on melancholy, questioning, and eventual comfort, and that’s a poignant mix for the Advent season.

This song captures the chink in the armored days of merry and bright. Some of it is in the jazz theory of pianist Vince Guaraldi (early on, he plays an F7 chord in the right hand over an Ab in the left—two major chords, but a minor third apart, blending into one unit the ‘happy’ sound of major tonality with the ‘sad’ sound of a minor interval. Advent captured in a single chord!). Some of it is the slow tempo at which the children’s choir sings of happiness and cheer. The song is filled with dichotomies. It comes together like no other Christmas song I can think of and offers the perfect soundscape for a pause to reflect during the Christmas blitz. This is the sound of Advent.



1. Hosanna In the Highest

At last. I love this song. I think everyone should love this song. Lots of people write new Christmas songs, lots of them are sentimental and tacky. This song is rich and singable and if I can introduce it to even just one more person, I’ve done a good deed. It plays on repeat in our house and I never get tired of it.