Archive for the ‘Music’ Category
I have praised the work of singer-songwriter Eric Peters in this space before, and Eric happens to be coming into the home stretch of a Kickstarter campaign for his current project, Far Side of the Sea. You can find out more about the project here:
I’m particularly excited about Eric’s concept for this latest project: lending his voice to the overlooked and abandoned things of the world. It’s ambitious to take on such a task on an album-length scale, but Eric has done this before in individual songs, and those songs demonstrate that his mind and talents are perfectly suited to the task he’s set himself with Far Side of the Sea. If a man resolves to sing the songs of overlooked, abandoned things, it is well that his voice should resonate with the clarity and faithfulness of the heavens, while touching the things of earth with a reviving tenderness.
Only a few days remain to back this project. Don’t miss the chance. The return will make you proud.
Something old, something new . . .
California Chrome’s run at the Triple Crown made me think to dust off Eric Peters’s Chrome (2009) this week. (By an extraordinary coincidence Chrome‘s title track is sung from the POV of my old Schwinn, which I abandoned at a D.C. metro station many years ago.) I’m glad I did; Chrome is such a tender masterpiece about pain and hope. If you’re not familiar with it, you should be.
In a similar gritty-hope vein is Melanie Penn’s Hope Tonight, just released this week. On account of the excellence of Melanie’s 2010 debut Wake Up Love, and the advance release of Hope Tonight‘s opening song “Turnaround,” I had high expectations for Hope Tonight — which the album has blown away. Of particular note is its ninth song: “Shadow of Doubt” is the kind of marvel you might give half your iTunes library to have.
Yip Harburg once said that “words make you think a thought; music makes you feel a feeling; a song makes you feel a thought.” But it takes a good song to make one feel a thought. And by that measure, the songs of Chrome and Hope Tonight are very good songs indeed.
 Just kidding.
Text: St Luke 1:39-80 (the morning New Testament readings for Wed.-Fri. after Trinity Sunday)
St Luke’s two-volume history has a grand scope. It runs from small-town Galilee to Jerusalem, then from Jerusalem to all Rome’s empire, and ends in the great capital city of the empire itself. By structuring his grand narrative thus, Luke creates a brilliant apologetic concerning the kingdom of God — established through Jesus, in fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel, for glory of his people Israel and for a light to lighten the Gentiles.
For a story of global ends and high apologetic ambitions, Luke’s gospel has quite provincial, and some might say unpromising, beginnings: an old priest with a barren post-menopausal wife, a virgin in a blink-and-you-miss-it town. Mary visits Elizabeth in a town in the “hill country of Judah,” a town so small that it has no name. Luke doesn’t scoff at these beginnings. On the contrary, he narrates them with the utmost care and respect, without a whiff of condescension. The humble beginnings appear neither as little obstacles to be razed by the global kingdom, nor as the small confines from which the story has to emerge before it can really get going. The characters do not appear as blinkered, ignorant hicks who need to be educated after the manner of, say, Luke himself. Their knowledge of their nation, culture, theology and liturgy is so deep, when it’s stirred by a fresh promise of fulfillment, it bubbles over in songs of beguiling subtlety – and revolutionary power.
Given the breadth of Luke’s narrative, it is striking that he, alone among the four evangelists, pauses to record the song Mary sings during her visit with Elizabeth, and the one Zechariah sings at the birth of John the Baptist. It is doubly striking because Luke is the only Gentile evangelist, and the Magnificat and Benedictus are, in structure and symbol, thoroughly Jewish songs. There they are, two songs for the summing up of the old covenant and the dawn of the new. We still sing them today, magnifying the Lord, rejoicing in God our Savior, in ancient words first heard in the remote hillsides of a faraway land. For that, we are indebted to a man who, like A. P. Carter and Lesley Riddle in Appalachia, did not regard hearing and transcribing the songs of the hill country as too light a thing for him.
Posted in Exhortations, Music, Philosophy, tagged Andrew Osenga, George MacDonald, inner chamber, inside joke, Leonard the Lonely Astronaut, loneliness, peculiar life, The New Name on 8 May 2013| 3 Comments »
Every now and then someone crosses our path and insists we think about an important matter which, on account of sloth or cowardice, we would sooner avoid. Recently Andrew Osenga has been performing that office for me. He doesn’t know he’s been doing that. Last year, though, he released a concept album, Leonard the Lonely Astronaut, that has pressed me to think through a subject — loneliness — I’d usually shy away from thinking about.
Some people steer clear of thinking about loneliness because they’re afraid of loneliness itself. I usually shy away from thinking about it for a different reason: it’s kind of my beat. It’s a pet I’m often quite happy to feed and groom with mindless solicitude, forgetting that, for all its soft fur, it has some damn sharp teeth, and it can bite. Leonard confronts me about this.
The album goes about confronting me in several ways. Without going into a review proper*, I will note its general musical excellence, and its lyrical cogency and depth, which prevent me from writing it off on style points before I hear what it has to say**. That is especially important since what Leonard says hits uncomfortably close to home. Osenga sings it in the character of Leonard Belle, a loner who was in the process of divorcing his wife when she suddenly and unexpectedly died. Following that succession of tragedies, he jumped into a space freighter and set off into space all by his lonesome. Like Leonard, I have a pronounced tendency toward introversion, and I am divorced; had a spaceship been available immediately following my divorce, the idea of a solo space mission would have presented a very real temptation. Leonard was released a bit late for it to be cathartic, but it carries a great deal of credibility with me because of its realistic portrayal of divorce’s aftermath. Its verisimilitude extends down to small details. To take one example: there’s a line in “We Never Said Goodbye” where Leonard says, “to look at my bed is such defeat now” — too well do I remember that sense of defeat, which drove me to sleep on the couch for a solid year.
In short, when Leonard insists that I think sharp about loneliness, I listen. What follows is some of the fruit of that thinking.
A moment ago I compared loneliness to an animal with soft fur and sharp teeth. But there are many such animals, and these present us with a broad spectrum, both as to danger and goodness. House cats present little danger (opinions as to their goodness vary). Pet dogs may present a little more real danger, though we generally think of them as “good.” Tigers and bears appear to us as very real, but amoral, dangers. Wargs are really evil, and really dangerous. And Aslan is simultaneously the most good and least safe being you’d ever meet. As with furry animals with sharp teeth, so with loneliness: there are different kinds, ranging from bad to good, and these kinds present diverse dangers.
I. Common (bad) loneliness
After the weekend
He was standing at the corner,
With his hands itching for pockets;
He was looking for another just like him.
And the heart of God broke for his creation:
It was not good for man to be alone.
Osenga, “It Was Not Good for Man to be Alone”
I start with common loneliness, which we may also call bad loneliness. The first thing God described as “not good” was the man’s being alone. And so we have to admit that most — probably almost all — loneliness is bad. Some of the simple causes of bad loneliness are listed in Osenga’s “Out of Time”: spite (“fine, tell your father he was right, I wasn’t worth your time”), sloth (“guess I just didn’t try”), cowardice (“I was scared, I don’t know why”), and presumption (“oh, how I loved you, but I never told you . . . always thought there was time”). There isn’t anything for this kind of loneliness but to go after its root causes.
II. Difficult loneliness
When we said “I need you”
It didn’t sound right;
We were hurt and confused,
Fragile as the breath of a candle,
Staring in silence at the Tower of Babel.
Where do we go from here?
Osenga, “Tower of Babel”
There is another kind of loneliness, though. I call this the “difficult loneliness,” and its causes tend to be more complex than the causes of common, bad loneliness: confusions in cultures and languages, differences of worldviews and characters. Difficult loneliness arises from the fact that everyone is to us an “other,” and from our being an “other” to everyone. There may be very little about any of us that is truly sui generis, but there are lots of wrinkles to all of us that aren’t easily understood. Difficult loneliness is a goad to make us explain these wrinkles, particularly to those we trust and love. In that sense, difficult loneliness is a good thing. It makes us think, grow, communicate; it makes us step out in faith. Difficult loneliness also presents us with the real, profound dangers of frustration or betrayal.
When we shrink in fear from trying to overcome difficult loneliness, or when our efforts to overcome it end in frustration or betrayal, its ultimate effect may be to send us back to bad loneliness. Or it may point us to a place through which we must press, into a third kind of loneliness.
III. Peculiar loneliness
As the fir-tree lifts up itself with a far different need from the need of the palm-tree, so does each man stand before God, and lift up a different humanity to the common Father.
George MacDonald, The New Name, in Unspoken Sermons, First Series (1867).
This third kind of loneliness is, when found, exceedingly good; finding it is also exceedingly rare. This is the loneliness that comes from the thing about us that no other created being will ever understand, though we spend ages trying to explain. George MacDonald described it thus in The New Name:
In every man there is a loneliness, an inner chamber of peculiar life into which God only can enter. I say not it is the innermost chamber — but a chamber into which no brother, nay, no sister can come.
The existence of this loneliness presents us with several dangers. It’s exceedingly difficult to locate this “chamber of peculiar life.” For we never really know if or when a brother or sister might come along to give us the secret handshake; and, if we then refuse our brother or sister entry to the inner chamber, on the ground that we’d already called it “ours,” our miserliness would place us in mortal danger of falling into the most diabolical loneliness of all. On the other hand, if we make no progress in finding out where this inner chamber lies, the frustration arising from its unknown, unacknowledged existence could well consume us.
Here is the loneliness that would embitter us for all eternity — or the secret joy, the inside joke between each of us and God, that would sustain us, even if all hell rained its fury upon our heads.
* If you’re looking for one of those, I suggest checking out Jason Gray’s review here. If you’re interested in another, more elegant Leonard-inspired essay, I suggest Stephen Lamb’s, which you may read here.
** Yes, I am that small.
When I drift away in dozing, will You softly light the candles
And touch the piano with Your kind, strong fingers,
Set stern fugues of Bach and stately themes of Handel’s
Stalking through the corners where the last disquiet lingers?
Dorothy L. Sayers, Christ the Companion, in Catholic Tales and Christian Songs (1918).
About twelve years ago I discovered the foregoing poem — Dorothy Sayers’s requests to “big brother Christ” — and was particularly struck by this stanza. In large part, that was because I was just then learning to love the music of Bach. But there was also something about the image: music “stalking” disquiet through corners. I could feel in those corners a heavy, lonely disquiet, and then — ah! — sound waves, dancing through the heavy still of the night, their light steps chasing away the lingering disquiet.
When I pick up a stringed instrument to set music stalking through the disquiet corners of my house, I nearly always think first to play something by Bach. And I can tell you: the effect even of two measures of Bach is magical. His music is like aural athelas (let the Tolkien reader understand).
So imagine my delight in reading this wonderful essay by Sarah Clarkson, in which she considers a story about the premier of one of Bach’s cantatas. Take up and read.
Yesterday Andrew Peterson officially released his latest album, Light for the Lost Boy. Having now lived with Lost Boy for a whole day, I heartily commend it to you. (It’s available for download/order here.)
If you want to hear more, two reviews in particular have helped me more fully appreciate the depth and excellence of Andrew’s most recent work: Jonathan Rogers’s release review, and S. D. Smith’s The Weight of Our Story (part of Andrew Peterson appreciation week at the excellent site Story Warren).