5 Lessons Revelation Teaches about Music

Revelation 4 and 5

1. This music is loud.

The first voice he hears “speaking to me like a trumpet.” “Coming from the throne are flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder.” The mighty angel proclaims “with a loud voice.” And then something immense: “I heard the voice of many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders; they numbered myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands,” not merely singing, but this time “singing with full voice.” And then the choir gets even bigger: “I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing.”

2. This music is old and liturgical.

The four beasts are described in 4:8 wonderfully. “They were full of eyes within: and they rest not day and night, saying, ‘Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, which was, and is, and is to come.'” And here we have the liturgical element. It continues, even now. The King James allows this present tense to stand out against the rest of the past tense verbs. This is echoed in the twenty-four elders who whenever the beasts worship thus, “fall down before him that sat on the throne, and worship him that liveth for ever and ever, and cast their crowns before the throne, saying, ‘Thou art worthy, O Lord.'” This idea of without-ceasing is, I think, perhaps a little disturbing to Protestants when taken literally as a prescriptive of liturgy. It sounds too Eastern, like praying with “vain repetitions.” But it appears there is a kind of repetition that is not vain. This is an old musical act not simply because it has stretched into the past indefinitely but also because of the development that follows in heaven.

3. This music is contemporary and eschatological.

Suddenly in the midst of this litany the problem of the scroll takes center stage. Who will open it? The Lamb takes it, and immediately the four beasts and the twenty-four elders break out into a new song. This song is not directed directly toward God on the throne, but toward the Lamb. The same sort of language of honor and blessing is now ascribed to him, and the similarly liturgical gesticulations seem to be taking place, now re-oriented. This development is eschatological. Glory has been added onto glory. I think that the use of the present tense in the last passage is an indication that the older liturgy is still going beneath this newer activity. I realize that this is logistically difficult to imagine, but I don’t think that that should bother us. John portrays the action of chapter 4 as continuous through the present, which is why I think the eschatological development in the liturgy of chapter 5 happens on top of the other. Old beneath, continuous and unchanging; new on top, ever-changing and growing in glory.

4. This music is contrapuntal.

The result of this co-existence is that the worship is in some sense contrapuntal. An old song is happening at the same time as a new song. It necessitates that two songs are happening at once. This is testified by the fact that, even in the old liturgy, the grammar makes it impossible to imagine other than that the elders and the beasts are singing two different songs simultaneously. They are not singing the same thing. It is also polychoral. There is a chorus of twenty-four elders, which are angels according to James Jordan, and there is a chorus of four beasts. On top of this there is the larger chorus of angels unfathomable, and then the largest possible chorus of all creation. There is a certain dialogue between the various choruses of creation and the different choruses have different roles to perform, different songs to sing.

5. This music is surrealistic.

This is not simply because the scene is surrealistic, although that is part of it. There are certain images that are a little hard to imagine quite exactly. A rainbow like an emerald doesn’t seem to make sense as such, since a rainbow is multiple colors and an emerald is one particular color. The four creatures are also pretty fantastical, but then the strangest thing is the description of the eyes. At first they are described as “full of eyes in front and in back.” This forms a chasm where the description of each individual animal is bookended by an emphasis on the eyes, the latter description that they were “full of eyes around and within.” That’s just plain strange. The Lamb itself is nothing like our vision of him. He is described “as though it had been slain.” This clearly means that its neck is cut and bloody. It also has seven heads and seven horns. Oddly enough, that doesn’t seem to show up in a lot of icons or pictures of the Lamb. John would not tell us this, or any of these things, without realizing that he is giving us a mental image. I don’t think we should suppress these mental images because some of them are in fact symbolic. Indeed they are symbolic, but the mental images are powerful and strong and John clearly wants us to try to develop a picture. If we were to commission a Biblically faithful painting of this scene, it’s clear that the only painter who could do it faithfully is Salvador Dalí.

But this is logistically a necessity for the music. When you have polychorality, when you have any sizable group of people together singing, the sound becomes uncontrollable. Control is something we love in our music, and we usually feel that chaos is a pejorative. But chaos is inevitable with an ensemble of any greater size than 5,000. That many people singing even one tune or melody together at any speed greater than the utmost slowness would differ in all sorts of aspects. To add a sense of the contrapuntal on top of that means that likely the noise is not just massive but incredibly dissonant. It’s worth remembering that the rams-horn trumpets (think of Jericho and Gideon’s battle) are very loud and have no pitch control. I’m not sure what the specifications of the trumpet John was imagining would be here, but certainly any instruments present in this vast ensemble would not have the sort of melodic capabilities we expect of instruments now. It’s quite likely that they would be doing something improvisitory and varied with their instruments. I am not pressing for specificity in an effort to ignore the fact that this is all symbolic language. But the symbolic language would have connoted something in the minds of his readers, and it is not what Church music connotes in our minds. Which is to say, it is not tame.

There are two subsequent observations that I’d like to make. First, that these truths about the worship of heaven have been prescriptive of worship music of the church in the past and to some extent today. Second, that they ought to continue to be prescriptive of how we think about music and compose it.

A few examples of the first point: One of the lessons that I think high music ought to learn from popular music—particularly metal, techno, pop, and dustup—is just how important and powerful a loud bass can be. It’s nothing to sniff at. A bass that makes you feel the raw, physical power of music is terribly important for reminding you how physically powerful and raw music is. Your jaws rattle, your cheeks jiggle, you feel it in your chest. This is visceral the way music ought to be. There are very few instruments throughout the 18th and 19th centuries capable of producing this effect besides the bass drum, which is scarcely used by any composer of respectability besides maybe Tchaikovsky (and there are many who think he isn’t). But this is to say nothing of the 17th century. There is, really, only one instrument that rivals today’s synthesized popular music in raw power and compelling bass, and that is, of course, the pipe organ. This is not incidental—I think the presence of a timbre-distinct and prominent bass is exactly what makes pipe organ continue to be the best instrument for congregational singing. It is an instrument designed to smack you into the back of the pew with its magnitude and might. J. S. Bach reputedly loved the 32′ register on the organ. This is the register, incidentally, that is too low for the human ear to identify distinct pitch, which means that, with soft pipes, you simply hear a rumble, and with loud pipes, you hear loud whacking and growling. The sound of a full organ with a 32′ bombarde is a sound that will never stop surprising you because it goes lower, pierces deeper, literally moves you more than you thought it possibly could.

I say this not merely as a backhanded form of job security. There is no way I can Biblically bind the conscience into an appreciation of the organ. It is particularly good at what it does and I think it’s the best choice we’ve got, but there will someday no doubt be a better choice. The point of this here is that the organ developed and grew in influence and ubiquity because it possessed the ability to be louder than anything else. The instruments of Bach’s time continue to produce the loudest sound of any instrument ever made that isn’t electronically amplified. Even with its electrical competitors it holds its own.

The 16th and 17th century loved large, loud ensembles. This is primarily a Lutheran and Venetian thing. The name of the day prior to the Reformation was often a small a cappella choir to sing this or that chant or a mass setting with the ordinal. After the Reformation, contemporaneous with the explosion of the printing press, all sorts of instruments are thrown amongst the choir in a hodgepodge. It occurs to many composers to treat the congregation as a sort of choir itself and they start to add in multiple other choruses in different positions in the church.

Church composers have always been interested in the new arising out of the old and existing simultaneously. In the Middle Ages, the primary form of composition was performing an old chant very slowly and atop that a new exuberant composition full of rhythm and life. Just before and after the Reformation, the beloved style was hiding a traditional tune inside a newer composition, still using it as the basic structural device but adding in an element of mystery and suspense. It is impressive how truly ubiquitous this style has been: new composition is old composition with glory added on top, simultaneous.

But why should we adopt any of these principles for our worship music? There is a very simple reason. “For you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the first-born who are registered in heaven…. therefore, since we are receiving of kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us have grace, by which we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear. For our God is a consuming fire,” (Hebrews 11:18-28). The reason our earthly worship ought to be more like heavenly worship is because it is heavenly worship. The author of Hebrews makes this same argument: you worship in the heavenly places, so act like you do. I think that Hebrews is not just a slap on the wrist to people who casually break it down in church (although it is that), but I think it’s an entire aesthetic philosophy of worship. Just as Leviticus was a structural pattern for our covenant renewal service, so Revelation 4-5, according to the author of Hebrews, is the model for worship in the throne-room. These are principles and history provides us with applications, with methods. I do think all the people of God ought to follow these principles in worship, but I don’t expect them all to follow these principles in the same way.

I think an examination of our tastes in worship music reveal themselves to not align perfectly with God’s. He apparently likes loud music, chaotic music, lots of choirs engaged in counterpoint, and the co-existence of contemporary and traditional, the co-existence of liturgical repetition and wild improvisation.

And my last comment is the comment that should be obvious but never is, for whatever reason. You cannot simply take what I say and haphazardly apply it. The application of these principles necessitate knowing how they have been applied in the past. And so it’s still utterly necessary to familiarize yourself with old church music. Listen to lots of Perotin, Dufay, Josquin, Byrd, Praetorius, Purcell, Schutz, and Buxtehude. They will provide you with a myriad of possibilities that you could not have otherwise conceived of yourself.

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Get Yourself Out of the Way

“The first demand any work of any art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way. (There is no good asking first whether the work before you deserves such a surrender, for until you have surrendered you cannot possibly find out.)” C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism

Part 1: iPods Are Weird

It is a warm, late-winter morning. Or a cold, early-spring morning. But I’m an optimist and I am wearing shorts. The breeze and spotty sun coverage makes that slightly uncomfortable, but it’s the principle of the thing that counts: I’m walking along a street, listening to my iPod and wearing shorts. People see me and they stare. They begin to hope for spring. At least I hope they begin to hope. Maybe they just think I’m strange.

Or maybe they’re staring because I make weird faces when I listen to Messiaen on my iPod. Messiaen is so strange. At first he’s like a horror-movie soundtrack with these random bursts of happiness that are way too rare. After you’re able to strip your ear of a silly cultural connotation, his music really becomes like club soda or some palate-cleanser. There’s a minty sting and freshness about his dissonances. The feeling your sinuses get after too much horse-radish. Perfect for washing out the icky aftertaste of too much Chopin, like bits of butterfinger caught in your molars, or the muddy cigar saliva of Brahms.

All these thoughts are strange. And the music I’m listening to is strange. I mean, how many people are walking on a sidewalk now with earphones jammed in their ear, and they’re listening to Messiaen? Let me tell you: not many. You probably don’t even know who I’m talking about. There you go, you prove my point: not many. But even stranger than that is the iPod.

See, I can rub my thumb lightly along the surface of the iPod and be listening to the Beatles (British, 1960s). Then I can rub my thumb more and listen to some Solstafir (Icelandic, 2000s) if I really had them on my iPod, which I don’t. And then I could rub my thumb deftly the other direction and hit Herreweghe’s recording of St. Matthew Passion (German, 1720s) or a little less and listen to Paul Hillier’s interpretation of how hoquetus (French, 1200s) would have sounded.

And then some theologian who should know better tells us that we’re the first generation not to have great respect for the music of the past. What absolute tommy-rot you talk, O theologian! We’re the first generation who can have great respect for the music of the past.

Obviously composers don’t know the future, but most composers haven’t known the past that well either. Everyone knows Bach didn’t know about Brahms or the Beatles, but it doesn’t seem to occur to anybody that Bach didn’t know about hoquetus either. Or Leonin. He may not have even known about Obrecht or Josquin—just like you probably don’t—and he probably wouldn’t have cared if you told him. And doubtless worried Christian social critics would have come along and told him he needed a healthier respect for the music of the past, at which juncture Bach would have taken some snuff and abruptly left the room to go compose more of his impudent, contemporary, modern junk.

Right now I’m listening to Messiaen and then I’ll jump over and listen to some jazz, maybe Antonio Carlos Jobim. I’m jumping from 1960s France to 1960s Brazil. And the funny thing is that I think I’m at home in both of them. Then maybe I’ll go listen to some Middle French or a weird dialect of Hungarian in some Joel Cohen CD of Renaissance music. I don’t think any of this is weird. But I should.

Joseph Addison is famous for his social criticism. He was, incidentally, not a big fan of Handel or the other music of his day. He criticized the English opera because it was all in Italian. He thought, What’s the point of having English opera if it’s not even in English? That’s just stupid.

The funny thing is, the most likely person to say that now is a punk teenager bitter about spending his Friday night at the opera. Apparently it’s the most natural thing in the world to go to an opera in New York and hear unintelligible (but faintly reminiscent of German) syllables uttered from Wagnerian females with gratuitous vibrato. That’s considered decidedly more high-class than going and hearing Andrew Lloyd Webber’s latest musical travesty. And maybe it is, but Joseph Addison would have chosen Cats or Jesus Christ Superstar before some foreign tripe.

The principle here is this: we nowadays aren’t normal. None of this is normal, carrying our musical attention here or there, jumping over times, turning the accomplishments of many years into a series of mp3 files. No other age has felt at home in another age’s music, but nowadays we scarcely feel at home unless we’re listening to other people’s music. And the most refined of us, apparently, are those of us who listen to Classical music: the music of dead people from a different country. Americans like their Classical music, music which is 90% of the time geographically and chronologically foreign to them. We don’t just love our foreigners, we love our foreigners dead. (You know what I mean.)

All this is so normal, apparently, that worried Christian leaders just keep reminding us that we need to be using old music in Church because that’s the respectful thing to do. Actually, basically at no point in the Western tradition have Christians thought being musically regressive was a good idea. There was one, though, I can think of. It was called the Council of Trent. And where is the American Catholic church now? The exact same place Protestants are. We all sing clappy, happy little songs. All of which leads us to the great conclusion of our theologian-critics, the idea that I will refer to as the Retrospective Principle:

If you’re discontent with the music of today, use older stuff.

(…presumably older stuff that’s better, that is. There was plenty of crappy older stuff but, hey, in a fire people save the good stuff, and time is like a refining fire. We get mostly the good stuff from past ages and not the crappy stuff.)

Now, take a look at our Retrospective Principle. Seems like the fairly standard rallying cry of a traditionalist, right? Once we can inspire in you a similar discontent that we have with the music of today, then you’ll be forced to see the reasonableness of using Bach in worship! Yes?

Uh, no. See, not that I’m against Bach in worship all the time, but that’s not actually an intuitive leap there. Let’s make this clearer: you’re a general and you’re losing a war because of malfunctioning firearms. So, the key is clearly to find some really good longbows made by the English. After all, those won at Agincourt, and you’re losing, so you should use the winning weapon. That’s not really intuitive, if you think about it. If you’re discontent with today’s weapons, you don’t use the weapons of the past.

Oh, was that a bad analogy? I’m sorry! I can see icicles beginning to form on your eye-lashes: did I just compare Bach to out-of-date weapons technology? Well, yes, but I didn’t mean that he’s inferior. The longbow is definitely not inferior to the machine gun. It’s actually way cooler, in my humble opinion. Anyway, the point is that Bach was a winning strategy in his time, but that doesn’t mean he’s a winning strategy in ours. We’re fighting a different battle than he did.

And, honestly, let’s face it, past ages didn’t have the luxury to “use older stuff”. Bach didn’t have unlimited access to manuscripts from Dover or IMSLP.org. He had a total paucity in comparison to what we have. Bach did the much manlier thing to do. It’s an idea I’ll call the Pragmatic Principle:

If you’re discontent with the music of today, write better music.

And if you still have any doubt that this is the more intuitive principle, take a look at what all past ages have in common: they all have the music that we’re so jealous of. Why? Well, hm, maybe because they wrote music rather than moping around using older music. Maybe we should stop complaining about today’s Church music and try writing something better. If you think contemporary music is crappy, write better contemporary music. No, I’m serious. If you’re discontent with the music of today, write better music. If you really want to be traditional, do what the traditionalists did and write and use new music. Be traditional: don’t be a traditionalist. Care enough about these traditional composers for them to inspire in you discontent—that’s good—and then once you’ve learned their secrets, run away and do it yourself! Don’t look back! Make weapons for your own battle, not theirs.

So, once I’m done walking along the sidewalk and I arrive at the coffeeshop, it’s time to put away the iPod, that wonderful invention that fuels marvelous discontent. Now is the time to pull out manuscript paper and call my bluff. Time for an egg to hang on its side from one of those five lines. So, how do I do this?

(Which will be explained in what follows.)

Messiaen and Lazy Listening

Douglass Seaton in Ideas and Styles in the Western Musical Tradition says, “Messiaen’s interests ranged from the songs of birds, which he transcribed avidly, to mystical Catholicism. Much of his music is characterized by subjectivity and programmatic content or orientation.”

All of which is rather shocking. Messiaen was not a mystic and did not compose subjective music, according to none other than himself. I guess it’s because his comments aren’t widely known. After all, nobody can now seriously get away with saying that Lord of the Rings is allegory. It didn’t stop people at the time of Tolkien from asserting he was writing allegory, which is surprising considering how many times he stated the opposite. But now that’s widely known. How many times of quoting Messiaen will it take to convince people that he wasn’t a mystic and that he didn’t write (and didn’t think he wrote) subjective music?

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