In The Beginning Was The Score
Music is a way to order chaos. – Me, “Sermon Thoughts I”, What’s Left In The Church, May 16, 2010
If you read any book on music – and I’ve read dozens over the past few years – the first thing you’ll encounter is a definition of music as “organized sound”. Unpacking those two words lead to things like rhythm, harmony, melody, timbre, and so on. The thing is, for me, sound can be chaotic. I know there are musicians who hear harmonies and rhythms and even melodies when standing and listening to the world around them. From the sounds of vehicles on roads through birds singing and dogs barking to the rustle of branches and leaves in the breeze, there are people who take this mass of sound and find something more there. For the most part, however, such sounds are just noise.
Before there were things like musical notation or theories of harmony there was music. Music is as ubiquitous as human societies, older than the first settled human communities, and as varied as the places and people who create them. As necessary to human existence as food and shelter, music organizes the chaos of life, whether recalling a community’s founding in song or in singing divine blessings upon a couple getting married, music recognizes the chaos that is the most basic threat to our existence and demands it submit to our order. It frames and shapes and directs human action, calling forth divine participation when necessary, and subsumes both our joys and fears under its insistent demand for order. More than speech, more than any other human action, music encompasses all over activities and creates a whole that is larger than any particular parts.
We in the west, at least since the beginnings of the capitalist era, have relegated all art to the periphery of life. Focusing the proletariat’s attention on the need for survival (and Lord someone could do a whole book on the survival ethic in modernity), thinkers beginning with Immanuel Kant have insisted that art is a nonessential part of the human common life. These ass-kissers of the rising bourgeoisie insisted that it is possible to life an entire human life without concerning oneself with beauty. For over two hundred years, art and beauty – and particularly music – has been taught as if it were not an integral part of human life. Despite abundant evidence to the contrary, we are all raised to believe we can take it or leave it when it comes to art. Artists are viewed as odd, strange, outsiders; their products are either risible or dangerous but in either case they have nothing to do with everyday life. There are many out there who have been taught this so well, they actually live without painting or sculpture, music or architecture as part of their concerns in life.
A quick survey of the world outside the West, however, a world still resisting the hegemony of our ideology dehumanizing not only humanity, but that which humanity produces, can only lead one to the exact opposite conclusion. Life is more than survival; a lived life includes not only the consideration of but the active participation in what we in the West call “the arts”; whether in the weaving of cloth and the sewing of garments, the construction of buildings both for use and appreciation, or the representation of the world in the plastic arts – all accompanied by music – that which we relegate to “the arts” and the periphery of existence is at the heart of day-to-day life. Even a glance back at our own history, or at our own social practices teaches us the human need for music to mark our most important activities. Whether it’s worshiping God, heavy-beat dance music in clubs for people to seduce one another, or a funeral Mass, all of it happens precisely because music is present. The lies of our educators, at least on this point, is offered up in our everyday life.
Christian theology roots itself in our particular profession of faith, that Creation began with God speaking the words, “Let There Be Light!” Yet the Hebrew Scriptures are filled with song declaring God’s glory! Psalm 8 is nothing more than a sung Creation story. The prophets offer words from the LORD to be set to music. The angels declare the birth of the Christ child in song. No, it seems to me that, when God decided to put the primordial chaos at bay through the act of Creation, those words weren’t spoken. I believe there was a whole musical score that accompanied it all.