Well, That’s Cool

Time for me to nerd out. Bach, in his job at Arnstadt, had access to a pretty decent choral library of 16th-century motets, which Christoph Wolff says included “Heinrich Isaac, Josquin, Jacob Obrecht, Pierre de la Rue, Ludwig Senfl, and others, but also more recent literature….” So it looks like Bach was in fact familiar with the Flemish school and, most importantly, Josquin. Isn’t that cool?

Chaos in the Balcony

James Jordan makes an interesting observation here, about the connection between the Reformed tradition’s hatred of instruments and the charismatics who re-invented a more Biblical approach to instruments in worship. He also connects (and, I think, one of his less abstruse connections) the dominion mandate and the whole concept of an instrument. Obviously, his and Leithart’s arguments in From Silence to Song have me convinced that the Reformed tradition is all wrong on this point. But there is a practical point I think that needs to be emphasized again and again.

We get so little from Scripture about what music ought to sound like, but one thing that’s clear is this: there are lots of instruments. Lots of them. Psalm 149 and Psalm 150 don’t describe ensembles as much as list inventory. It’s always good to remember that when they marched around Jericho playing “trumpets”, these “trumpets” had no pitch control. Thousands of trumpets, and didn’t care the heck what notes they were hitting. It was, without a doubt, a sound that would have  made Penderecki and Legeti insanely jealous. Simply put, I can’t help but get the impression from the Old Testament that their music was a big bash of chaotic instruments barely keeping to the tune.

So, isn’t it odd, that something that unites the current traditionalists with the CCMers is that neither camp really uses that many instruments? (Yet again, the contemporary-ists get closer to Scripture than the traditionalists, but not by much.) The one thing that you could obviously assert about the Biblical pattern—they had whole darn orchestras—is the one thing that nobody is even considering in the argument.

Exempla classica: the Reformation.

Fictionalism and Music

Just trying to lay out some options. Does music exist?

1) Yes. Where?

  • In the air. Sound vibrations hitting your ear. But this would actually make most people uncomfortable. Say there’s a piece Bach wrote that’s on a manuscript in some folder in some box in some museum put there in the 18th century by some idiot after his death, and that piece has never been performed. Never heard. Is it still music? Most people would have to admit, yeah, it is. If you don’t like that, bring it down further: Coldplay writes the chords and melody to their next song, but they haven’t performed it yet. No vibrations have issued from anywhere. Is it still a song?
  • On the page. But that’s just plain silly. I can play a tune on the piano nobody’s written down. Nobody would say that isn’t music. Music wouldn’t have existed prior to, what, the 10th century, except a couple spots popping up here and there of earlier manuscripts? Clearly not. That’d mean that Oscar Peterson’s jazz solos don’t exist, but only the lead sheet he plays off.
  • In somebody’s mind. The mind of the composer, the mind of the listener, something like that. You can think of a tune in your head nobody else has thought of. Is that where music really resides, in your mind? No. Music exists even apart from the mind. You could still have A Melody had a human never existed. Music isn’t just a mental entity or an idea that would pop out of existence without humans. A bird has no mental entity of “music” in its mind, but it still sings music, and it still would, had humans never existed.
  • In Plato’s heaven. In the mind of God. There is some ideal form of music that we, through various media, attempt to imitate. Maybe through ink on a page, through sound waves, through thoughts, but it’s not any of those things. Music exists, yes, but not like a table exists or like thoughts exist. Yet it exists. It must be in Plato’s heaven.

2) No. Music doesn’t exist. What, then, do we mean when we say “music”?

  • Music is just simply a human, theoretical invention, an approximate expression of a form of beauty we find in nature that we have no more accurate way of expressing. God, ultimately, expresses it; we imitate that in a finite way, and that finitude is a construct we call music.

I’m leaning toward 2).