Music Composition: Preliminary Remarks
From the Biblical Creation Perspective
Note: I am a late-comer to music composition, with relatively sketchy background. The following reflections were formulated in response to Dr Walter Mays, my dear and excellent teacher of music composition, in deep gratitude for all he has done through the years to pass on to me our musical heritage in our Lord. jam indebted to Dr. Mays for his invaluable advice and gracious consent to be my sounding board in the preparation of this paper Any shortcomings, of course, are my own.
God Himself tells us in the book of Job that music was the first response of created beings to His creation out of nothing. Even while He was laying the foundations of the earth, "the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy" (Job 38:4-7). Seen from the Biblical creation perspective, then, music is joyous praise and celebration of that which gives us life, namely, the Living God Himself by His creation and sustenance. Therefore the is the essence of writing music, and hence academic, abstract analyses of music or aesthetics are apt to leave us dissatisfied. Perhaps with regard to outside analysis of all human action, but particularly with respect to artistic creativity in music the words of George MacDonald apply in full rigor: "Analysis is well, as death is well."1 As I was recently told, analysis of music composition may be compared to the dissection of a cadaver useful to be sure for learning composing techniques, but not life-giving in itself.
We rejoice in the birth of our compositions most fully when hearing our compositions first performed, but often also when in the midst of writing them. To me this is when I feel most fully alive. Paradoxically this is when lam least aware of myself. Time and place vanish from consciousness in the ecstasy of laboring to bring forth the composition conceived within me and ready for birth. The travail is total fulfillment, life and joy, no matter what effort or sacrifice it might require.
Not for applause, but to capture a God-given image: "it is the glory of God to conceal a thing: but the honour of (artists) is to search out a matter." (Pr, 25:2)
Yet the desire to travail in birth over our music or to hear it performed so we, like our Creator God in Whose image and likeness we are made "creators" ourselves, may rejoice in our work as did He in Creation Week (Genesis 1), is not our ultimate motivation, "making us" write music. For this desire, fervent and indispensable to persevere in a composition as it may be, is yet not the composition itself, nor its beginning. Before the desire, at the very inception of each truly new musical "creation out of nothing," there often appears a vision or image, and it is this vision or image which calls forth in us its own appropriate expression in "our" music. We can choose to embody it in musical composition, or not.
For example, a vision or image of "night" was the root of what later became a composition named "Night Music" by a dear composer friend. The vision was unique for him and could be shared of necessity only in degree (albeit a high degree with some listeners themselves closely attuned to his vision). To this vision the composer's emotions, intelligence, professional expertise, personal background, his very desire to hear it transposed into sound, were but servants and instruments, even as the cellist and cello playing the composition on stage.
This particular music reminded me of childhood walks through woods in the night. It also reminded me of a description of the woods of Britain in the time of King Arthur and Merlin (sixth century A.D.) by C.S. Lewis those ancient woods with "a murmur of evasive sounds.' rustling of mice and stoats, thumping progression of frogs, the small shock of falling hazel nuts, creaking of branches, runnels trickling, the very growing of grass."2 Thus in my imagination the music, faithfully and skillfully embodying the composer's vision, linked together the composer, myself, a writer with a similar vision or image, and even otherwise distant times and places. you see this coherence from words written on paper; to the composer this coherence is inherent in the music, our blessed means of voicing (hat which underlies the words even the vision or image itself in all its compelling totality.
Fruit bearing begets fruit bearing: "For to everyone who has shall more be given." (Matt. 25:29)
This vision or image may be evoked by scenes of the concrete world around us. After much effort on my part to master the composition of continually moving or ongoing music, my teacher used the word "playful" to describe what was needed. Suddenly this word evoked in me the has shall more be image of bright sunlight dancing upon the ripples of a pond. This image was evidence to me of our Creator Lord's own childlike, playful, infinitely joyous creativity which simply delights in fundamentally homogeneous yet ever slightly differing variety-in-sameness, motion-in-rest. From this happy vision grew a Barcarolle (Venetian gondola music) which I count among my best pieces to date, and which incidentally solved my problem about composing continually moving or ongoing music. I now knew "not by the hearing of the ear" but as it were by touching our Lord's garment, in a living way.
The vision may also be given by an experience apart from the literal sight of our physical eyes. It was the awesome inner vision of our Lord Himself which inspired my dear teacher's symphony "Voices From the Fiery Wind" (based on passages from the Scriptures, in particular the book of Ezekiel), a composition of stunning impact rightly nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in 1981.~ It was an inward vision or realization of the glorious meaning of our heritage as believers -the heritage of our kingdom and dominion over all the works of our Lord given to us who tear His holy name as I read Psalm 61 immediately upon being first introduced to a particular part of our musical heritage which resulted in my composition "Meditation on Psalm 61."
The Christian writer Dorothy L. Sayers has stated:
The true work of art . . is not manufactured to specification, as an engineer works to a plan . . . though it may involve compliance with accepted rules . . . and may also contain .."effects" which can be mechanically accounted for. We know very well, when we compare it with so-called works of art which are "turned out to pattern" that in this connection neither circumcision availeth nor uncircumcision, but a new creature. Something has been created.4
Sayers then rightly compares the creating activity of the artist to the way in which God Himself creates. God creates by Christ His Son Who "is the brightness of His glory and express image of His person" (Hebrews 1 31. The image usually initiating our creative work, as Christ for the Father, is the "firstborn" of our creation. By this image our creations, like God's creation in Christ, "hold together" 1Colossians 1:15-17). It is true that some composers create their works by more than the initial image; additional images or sound patterns arise in their minds and shape the compositions as they are being written. We must remember that while God, of course, knows every detail of His entire creation "from the beginning of the world" (Acts 15:18), we who are not God but His creatures only see our works proceed step by step as we persevere in them (Proverbs 4:12, Proverbs 20:24; 2 Corinthians 3:5). Since the completed work must possess internal integrity must "hold together" -to be satisfactory, however, additional images or sound patterns arising while a composition is in progress cannot be essentially incompatible with the initial one. They rather relate to the initial image, and to the completed work, as the its tiny seedling and the young sapling relate to both the acorn and to the full-grown oak. Lastly and very importantly, there is an inherent wonder and mystery in music which cannot be precisely and fully expressed in words by composer or listener, and which directly impinges upon our experience.
The artistic creation must maintain integrity with created identity.
Sayers points out that
this idea of Art as creation is. . the one important contribution that Christianity has made to aesthetics.. . the Greeks had not this word in their aesthetic at all. They looked on a work of art as a kind of techne; a manufacture. Neither, for that matter, was the word in their theology -they did not look on history as the continual act of God fulfilling itself in creation.5
As Christians we must "work out our salvation with fear and trembling" as God is "working out His good pleasure in us" through our compositions (Philippians 1:12-13). While we can and indeed must learn from our musical predecessors, "proving all things and holding fast that which is good" in them (I Thessalonians 5:211. we should not slavishly, mechanically or timidly imitate their techniques, innovations or style Their works, too, are part of our glorious heritage in our Lord over which He has given us dominion.
This is turn means that our musical heritage is not given to us only for our passive enjoyment of "consumption." In our own generation this passive consumer attitude" towards music seems to be especially pervasive and deadly to our musical sensitivities and tastes. We also need to be deeply concerned about today's veritable glut of music. Music has become an almost unavoidable "background noise" and part of the general "noise pollution" of modern urban land increasingly rural) life. By sheer ubiquity and quantity not only "hard modern sensually arousing" but also "soft neo-traditional something" popular music has rendered us more and more unfit for deeper (so to call it) music serving not as drug, stimulant or soporific but bearing a savor of life unto life.
The artist must maintain integrity with his created identity.
We who bear a burden of being not only music consumers but primarily "producers" or composers are called to write "our" music-that music which is part of our unique, individual personhood as unique, individual sons and daughters of our Father Creator Who predestines us for unique, particular places within the Body (l Corinthians 12). The glory of our unique individualities mirrors the ineffable glory of His joyful, prodigious creativity. You understand, I do not mean contrived, self-made and thus idolatrous "originality" or "uniqueness" for their own sake. I mean our God-given originality and uniqueness our created identities which we simply "cannot help" expressing. The Bible itself, inerrantly inspired by one and the same Holy Spirit from Genesis through Revelation, yet written by many individually different men of God in their own individual styles, bears witness to this truth. One sad result of our contemporary, "consumer-oriented" music mass productivity for "Christian" music is that it is generally geared to the more or less mediocre, imitative, shallow standards of its probable mass appeal as perceived by the producers, composers and publishers. Yet some of our fellow men and women perhaps more than we think are thirsty for "a new song unto the Lord (the Lord, not the shallow taste of the moment)." Oh that the quality of our compositions and our listening preferences would honor and glorify Him !
So let us praise our Living God according to His excellent greatness "with the sound of the trumpet, the psaltery and harp, with the timbrel and dance, with stringed instruments and organs, upon the loud and high-sounding cymbals" (Psalm 150) in awe, faithfulness and joy.
1 C.S. Lewis, George MacDonald. An Anthology (Doubleday & Company, Inc., Dolphin Books, Garden City, NY 1962), 98.
2 C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength (Macmillan Co., New York, NY, Tenth Printing 1971), 288.
3 For availability and cost of sound tapes of this symphony, contact Dr. Mays c/o College of Fine Arts, Department of Musicology, Wichita State University, Wichita, KS 67208.
4 Dorothy L. Sayers, Christian Letters to a Post-Christian World. edited and introduced by Roderick Jellema (Wm.B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, Ml 1969), 77.