21 November 2014

When Music doesn't 'Resolve'

I don’t know much about musical theory and have never had much musical talent. So, a while back, when I read a description of a band (called Thrice) which was described as having “mathy time signatures,” I had no idea what that meant. So I asked my husband, who is a bit more musically educated than me, and he explained the time signatures as having to do with how many beats there are in a measure, and also has to do with how many beats it takes for the main melody to resolve, and a “mathy” one would be particularly complex. He waited until a song played that had such a time signature, and I was at least able to recognize that the difference he was talking about. (That song, by the way, was by Amit Erez, and is called “Cinnamon Scattered Along Your Shoulders.”)

It was still a little confusing for me at the time, but I liked the idea of how music has to resolve, which was something I never really understood before. Indeed, it’s part of the reason why Jazz is so hit or miss for many people—it’s not hugely into resolution, it’s into exploration. That can be really enjoyable, or really frustrating.

Most of the time, however, in order for the melody to be powerful and effective—however complexly it goes about it—it eventually has to resolve.

The idea has, shall we say, some striking metaphysical resonance. People who are especially musically talented can hear where a tune “ought to have gone” or where a melody “missed an opportunity” or where an important nuance was missing, or something was overdone. I do not have this skill, but my brother does and it fascinates me, because the implication is that music is not just a chaotic free-for-all, where anything goes, even though it may seem like it: it’s going somewhere. It’s saying something. The notes have purpose.

So what’s the point of all this mild-mannered musical theory from someone who knows far too little about the subject?

Well, a while back a friend recommended a song to me. I listened to it and liked it and sought out more of the artist’s work, because I detected some spiritual themes that intrigued me. Very quickly into my research, my shoulders fell because—as it turned out—themes were all there was to be found. Or, more accurately, spiritual imagery and cultural references with too little blood pumping through the veins to keep it alive.

I almost felt tricked. Don’t get me wrong, the music was still very good and the lyrics had real substance. But what I had thought was something truer and deeper was only an aesthetic—like incense, stained glass, or a gilded menorah when I had come through the door hoping for prayer, worship, and light.

And I realized what bothered me. It wasn’t that the music didn’t line up with my spiritual values—though that was a factor—because I listen to all kinds of music that doesn’t do that. It was that the song didn’t resolve. Oh, musically, it did. But thematically? Not at all.

I found myself feeling frustrated and weary. I don’t expect every artist who uses religious imagery to actually put forth something of spiritual depth and merit. Religion will be used by culture just like every other product. But when I get that hint of real truth-seeking and find that it was just a artistic flirtation with fact and faith? It’s getting old. Real old.

The imagery of faith is beautiful. I get it. It even resonates in an era and a culture that has little respect or understanding for the foundation beneath that imagery. But weirdly, it almost resonates like a fairytale—something dangerous and adventurous that pulls at their soul, but which they won’t really dare to believe. Something you like to muse about with quick-beating heart that is hiding just beyond the corner of your eye, but which ultimately has no effect on your daily choices and beliefs.

Artists use this spiritual imagery because it is evocative. They use it in a similar way that we have used the imagery of ancient myth: of Greek gods and fairies and elves and imps and sprites. Symbolically. Half-believed, but never lived.

But this is different. If I were to say something poignant about Athena because I was going into war, this wouldn’t come off as grand. At best it might be considered poetic, at worst extremely silly. It has little cultural resonance because we do not believe in Athena, nor does anyone we know, most likely. Athena is not a name tossed about at the center of most philosophy, religion, and even current political debates.

So this habit (particularly among musicians that I tend to love) is more than just evoking religious grandeur. This is tip-toeing on the edge of belief, recognizing with an artist’s eye that this is the greatest, most poetic battle on earth: it is life or death. Forget the trope of “Unresolved Sexual Tension” in every YA novel, cop procedural, and sit-com. The real stuff is to be had in the “Unresolved Spiritual Tension.” That’s where the true thrill is. The battle over souls, not sex.

So just as we desperately want to see the main couple in the cop show get together, but then we’re often bored once they do, it’s as though we—as a culture—are conditioned to demand that everyone wrestle with God, with Truth, with Faith, with Purpose, with Meaning, but then we cannot stand it when someone has reached a conclusion. It’s everything but the marriage, the smell of food without eating it, all of the preparation but none of the action, all the intellectual posturing but no final choice.

So here’s what I think regarding both types of unresolved tension: We fail to see that the reason we’re ‘bored’ when the couple in the TV show gets together is not because satisfied and growing love is boring, but because it’s beyond us and can no longer include us in the way that the lead-in can. We can join in the build-up, like we can attend a wedding. But then the married couple has to live it. And that is greater, and more complex. It’s not mere story arch anymore. It’s a road. The tension may be reduced, but the richness is increased and it is too subtle for easy caricature. Deep wholeness is harder to depict than mysterious fragment.

So too with faith. It isn’t always Jacob wrestling by the river (though I’m wont to feel that it is in my life). Sometimes it’s Abraham waiting years upon years for a promised to be fulfilled. Steadily—sometimes failing and falling—but doing so for years on end often without the flash and snap of doubt and tension.

The theme of Unresolved Spiritual Tension is powerful because we all must wrestle. Even when we believe, we still must wrestle—working out our faith with fear and trembling.

But it’s also heartbreaking because everyone seems to think that mere wrestling is enough. Even I am wont to think that more often than not, and I’m sitting here saying I know better. It would be like in a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu match, if I were to wrestle and wrestle but never attempt a triangle choke or an armbar because I thought the heart of it was just in the act of rolling around on the floor and exerting well-trained effort.

And that’s just not true. At some point you have to make a decision, find your opening, and go for the choke. Then you find out if you were right or wrong. If you don’t act, you will get choked in the end. To refrain from making a choice regarding belief is to make a choice against it. Eventually, even if it’s just because the time runs out, there will be a resolution.

We, both in and out of the church, are often trying to have all the trappings of spiritual depth without having to actually engage in the occupation…the leaves and fruit without the trunk and the roots. We like the resonance, but not always what that sound calls us to. So many wish to employ the beauty and power of things they are not quite willing to believe in.

Oh and they are beautiful and powerful. But if everything becomes divorced—the image from the meaning, the question from the answer, the wrestling from the conclusion—then the power either dies horribly, or becomes perverted in a way that something less meaningful never could have.

Why do artists do this? Why do we do this? Why do I want to be satisfied with the mere fight, never mind the victory (God’s, not mine)?

Because people think that imagery and a feeling of comfy antiquity is all Christianity has to offer? Or because we want to be able to yell at God without answering to him?

I think it’s both, but today I am discussing the latter. Our spiritual selves are drawn to throw our anger, our pain, our struggle, or hate, our longing towards him. Our baser selves cannot stand the thought of having to face a real, live response that requires something of us. Or, rather, everything. We’re afraid of resolution the way some people are afraid of marriage. It’s so permanent. What if I get bored? What if I change my mind? What if I’m wrong?

We want to rant, not to debate. We want to be heard, not to listen. We want to angst, not to resolve. I say this because this is my strong tendency.

Or, suppose, some of us do want a resolution, but we just can’t swallow the idea of one that requires us to give up all we have and are—our hate, our anger, our revenge, our bitterness, our preferences, our desires, our meandering…ourselves. Resolution means shearing off certain paths. Utterly and forever.

This is not to belittle the search and the struggle.  I enjoy these artists because their work resonates deeply with me—with my own spiritual struggles—and because there are powerful questions being asked. But no answers being struck.

And that last bit infuriates me.

I’ll tell you what, though: In the Bible the same person who said “My God, my God, has thou forsaken me” said “I will yet praise you.”

The same person who said “Why did I not perish at birth, and die as I came from the womb? and “I have no peace, no quietness; I have no rest, but only turmoil” and “Though he slay me, yet I will hope in him; I will surely defend my ways to his face” at the final hour said “my ear had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you.”

But for some reason, not all are willing to both ask the question, and then with a cry of “I believe, Help my unbelief” point to the answer because of its imposing permanence. We’re really not supposed to worry the same bone forever. We’re not supposed to wrestle over that one piece of ground endlessly.

What good is it to “have a form of godliness” but deny its power, or to be “always learning but never able to acknowledge the truth” (2 Timothy 3: 5 and 7)?

Strange as it may seem, answers are simultaneously wild and complex as they are concrete and simple. In any case, they are real.

“We have looked for questions in the darkest corners and on the wildest peaks. We have found all the questions that can be found. It is time we gave up looking for questions and started looking for answers”
-GK Chesterton

So, further up and further in. There is power in the music when it has the courage to resolve.