Stonework is published by Houghton College, a Christian liberal arts college located in New York’s rural Genesee Valley. Stonework seeks a diverse mix of mature and emerging voices in fellowship with the evangelical tradition. Published twice a year, the journal reflects the arts community at Houghton College where excellence in music, writing, and the visual arts has long been a distinctive.

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  • Issue 6
    Poetry by Paul Willis and Thom Satterlee. Fiction and interview with Lori Huth. Essay by James Wardwell, and student poets from Christian campuses.
  • Issue 5
    Poetry by Susanna Childress and Debra Rienstra. Fiction excerpt by Emilie Griffin. Art from Houghton's 2007 presidential inauguration and a forum on women writing.
  • Issue 4
    Matthew Roth--new poems. Diane Glancy--from One of Us and an interview. John Tatter-on gardens and poetry. The Landscapes of John Rhett. Stephen Woolsey--on the poetry of Jack Clemo. James Wardwell--on Herrick.
  • Issue 3
    Poetry by Julia Kasdorf, Robert Siegel and Sandra Duguid. Fiction by Tom Noyes. The portraits of Alieen Ortlip Shea. An anthology of Australian Poets
  • Issue 2
    Thom Satterlee - Poems from Burning Wycliff with an appreciation by David Perkins. Alison Gresik - new fiction and an interview. James Zoller - Poems from Living on the Floodplain.
  • Issue 1
    Luci Shaw — new poems with an appreciation by Eugene H. Peterson & Hugh Cook — new fiction and an interview

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

A World of Music in Space and Time

Mark Hijleh

(NB: I am especially indebted to Dr. Jeremy Begbie for some of the concepts in this essay, which are explicated in much detail in his Music, Theology and Time (Cambridge University Press, 2000).

I often hear it suggested that music is one of the most ‘spiritual’ of the arts, by which the commenter usually means that music somehow transcends our mundane bodily existence. While the basic intent of such sentiments is probably laudable, they seem all too often to lead to a regrettable misunderstanding of the fundamental nature of music and music-making. A sort of ‘musical Gnosticism’ is usually the unintended result, a failure to understand that music is at its core an embodied experience rather than an ephemeral one. To exist at all, music must consist of bodies in motion through time at various levels. At the same time, effective music does indeed point to something beyond itself – something that transcends the merely natural, I would argue. In a word, then, music at its best is fundamentally incarnational; it is a synergistic integration of the temporal and the eternal. As such, it can offer us glimpses into the ultimate Incarnation of Jesus Christ.

The ways in which music is ‘embodied’ prove endlessly fascinating. For there to be music, there must be sound, and for sound to be created some sort of body must vibrate – a stretched violin or guitar string, a taut drum head, tiny folds of flesh deep in a singer’s throat. But the embodied motion does not stop there, for music also requires intelligent action in the planning and execution of its vibrations: there must be a musician who produces the notes we hear. Proto-music may exist in the mind of the composer, but true music seems to come into being only when it is heard by others. Such production requires great amounts of disciplined physical activity. Not until our eardrums vibrate in sympathy with these intentional sound waves do we apprehend any music. At yet another level, it is surely the principle of vibrating bodies in motion that explains why dancing to music is to be found wherever there are human beings. For those cultures in which such bodily movement is taboo, singing provides a somewhat less vigorous but no less directly physical connection to sound – and singing is as universal among human beings as speech.

Music also must flow through time to have any meaning; in this sense it is the antithesis of ‘timelessness’. Imagine hearing all the notes of a piece of music simultaneously – such an experience would be utterly incomprehensible. The musical time must also be manifest somehow in our time (and place), regardless of its original time (and place). Music is always about ‘the now’. When we for whatever reason attempt to make it otherwise, we become hopelessly disconnected.

A part of the necessary connectedness in music is the sense of its location. This is true even though musical ‘aural space’ actually has no physical locality – the sound may come from an instrument or loudspeaker or voice located across the room, but the music exists in an intimate but nevertheless physically unbounded ‘aural space’ connected somehow with each person who hears it. Perhaps this is why music is thought of as ‘spiritual’. Be that as it may, every musical event has a contextual location in both time and space, and we are not aware of this local connectedness, we will likely not be able to participate in the experience at the most meaningful level. Houghton music Professor Emeritus and composer Bill Allen testifies to this as he speaks of his work over many decades in the Houghton community, sharing the community connectedness of each major event as if the music could not exist apart from its context – and indeed, he is right.

This further suggests, then, that the temporal embodiment of music neither begins nor ends with individual performers or listeners, for music is ultimately a contextual, communitarian phenomenon. In short, musics arise from historically situated cultures, and carry with them the marks of the peoples from whence they come – musics are, in fact Incarnated from and by peoples. In this sense, to paraphrase a famous political maxim, ‘all music is local’. However, it is at the same time, and especially in our time, global as well.

It is from this last level of embodiment that we might in our particular era learn (or remember) something fresh about Jesus Christ. For He is the Incarnate Lord of a people “…from every nation, tribe, people and language…(Rev. 7:9, NIV). And we are currently witnesses to an unprecedented explosion of Christianity across the globe, a manifestation of His Body (in motion) in a multitude of cultural contexts. A seemingly endless variety of possible musical sounds and expressions pour from these emerging Christian cultures, musics offered in praise, thanksgiving, lamentation, confession, repentance and exultation to God. “O, for a thousand tongues to sing my great Redeemer’s praise”, wrote Charles Wesley – how about a thousand (or ten thousand) musical styles? We may understand and embrace such an opportunity only to the extent that we understand music as Incarnation at this yet higher level of order. Jesus is Lord of us, yes – but Jesus is Lord of all. We human beings, whose shockingly powerful musical preferences are often defended at great loss, have much to learn from one another’s music, just as we have much to learn about how Christ may be authentically Incarnate in human cultures in ways we sometimes cannot even imagine.

How might we then rise to this challenge of musical Incarnation? Eternal and yet temporal, local and yet global, flowing through times and spaces and yet always signifying something beyond itself – music, when it is as it was meant by the Great Composer to be, is all that. We can be open to the disturbingly paradoxical nature of music, rather than seeking to limit ourselves to the comfortable. We can be ever listening for and expecting more. Elsewhere, I have said that ‘real’ music is best thought of as ‘The Music of Jesus’. When He is in the middle of our music, and we in the middle of His – that is, when they are Incarnate together – the sound is sweet indeed.