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.


I Changed My Mind About Minimalists

And I mean just that—not that I was a hater and now I’m a fan, not that I was a junkie and now I’m a critic. I’ve just simply done to minimalists what one ought to do in music history: not be content with sweeping generalizations but studying particular personalities and their particular output. The results have actually startled me.

First, some background. Back when I first encountered early music, as I’ve recounted many times, I was baffled by the fact that nobody talked about Medieval music and was also passionate to see it re-invented. Shortly afterward, I ran into the music of a particular (living) composer whom I saw actually attempting to do just that. He was a composer that would have been the typical European Ligeti or Penderecki type, but in the ’60s he converted to Estonian orthodoxy and ceased to compose during the turmoil for around 10 years. After he emerged on the other side, his style was radically transformed by the Notre Dame school of Paris (13 c., mmmmm, yes). His name is, of course, Arvo Pärt. Pärt rightly or wrongly is usually considered a minimalist and has subsequently molded the American school of composition in his image, mainly through the conduit of Eric Whitacre. (Sigh.)

So much for Pärt. Then, around the same time, there was the New York Hypnotic School, emerging from Julliard in the wasteland created by America’s Schoenberg obsession. These guys emphasized aleatory, cells, phase, counterpoint, modality, and all that jazz. They were Terry Riley, Philip Glass, and Steve Reich. I presumed pretty much all of them—well, in fact all modern composers besides Pärt and a few others—were just pretty much bunk. I did that on the basis of a little Glass, a little Reich, the little of Riley I could put myself through, and some other composers whose music I found to be as profound a musical experience as eating cotton candy is a gastronomic one.

There were also a handful of modern composers who were engaged in a whole lot of “neo” schools. Neo-impressionism, neo-expressionism, neo-primitivism, neo-serial, and a whole bunch of other stuff that it’s difficult to remember the night after it’s premiered. Most of this I found bland, and I’m afraid I still do.

And you may think I’m a terrible snob, but I have this as evidence: there’s nothing in any of this music that excites the audience the way an audience of Brahms or Dvorak was electrified. On this blog, I’ve identified that as a result of compositional deadness after the demise of classical music, the inability of composers to compose in our own language and still be High music.

On this much I have changed my mind, that we don’t have to wait for the reinvention of a contemporary, high idiom. Pärt is not alone in this reinvention.

I think the first blow to my skepticism of minimalism was a piece by Jonathan Dove performed by the Stanford Chamber Chorale. Dove is a middle-aged British composer and I think not particularly well-known at least in America. I went home from the concert impressed by the piece, because it stuck out amidst a program of Eric Whitacre and Whitacre’s various worshipers and fellow pan-diatonicists. The Dove was similar but it had edges. It had its quietness and haunting dissonances, but it was wild, rugged, and, dare I use the adjective (and please don’t misunderstand me), masculine at points. This is an unusual experience indeed when it comes to choir and organ.

I didn’t want to admit (snob that I am) that I liked the piece to anyone, but I looked up a recording on YouTube and listened to it. And then I listened again. And again. I glutted myself on the piece. I got sick of it. And a week later I’d listen to it again about ten times. And get sick of it again. And then go back again. There was something about it that I found quite compelling. Quite possibly that’s subjective, but you can point to some definite musical things he’s doing that make him stand apart from some of his contemporaries.

But it turns out that I hadn’t properly understood some of his contemporaries. I should mention in passing that I also reversed my opinion on Hans Zimmer, and that is not unrelated as I found out. I got a random email from the Stanford Arts Commission asking me and a few other music students if we could turn pages at an upcoming concert. None of the rehearsal times conflicted for me and so I consented. Lucky for me—it was a Steve Reich concert and it turned out that the man himself was co-running the rehearsal with the conductor of Alarm Will Sound. I had a while to see him up-close, in person, working with one of the best sinfonietta ensembles. I was not really prepared for the experience, but I found myself doing a 180 on Reich.

I am no junkie, I am not categorical fan, and I still don’t like him sometimes. But during rehearsal and especially during the concert, I was confronted with an experience I have scarcely had before. It was a combination of three things that I have always looked for and haven’t found: (1) it was contemporary, (2) it was high, challenging, confronting me with musical possibilities I hadn’t thought of or was new to, and (3) it was also in the language, the idiom of our peculiar musical moment. Which is simply to say that, in a nearly unprecedented experience for me, this concert was normal. Normal in a way that showed just how abnormal our compositional deadness is.

I am sure that I then experienced what I’ve talked about for a while, how music must have been for the audiences of classical music but cannot entirely be for us because it is in the past. There’s no doubt Reich is (1). I know some people will object to (2) but I have recently listened to quite a lot of pop, alternative, metal, and hip-hop and I have yet to find something that musically catches me totally off-guard, which is fine. That’s what that kind of music is supposed to do. I think if you analyze it closely, you’ll find it’s true for you as well. But (3) is perhaps the point where I can’t be totally sure. What I do know is this: the audience’s reaction was not far from mine. We were all confronted with a concert experience that was not the usual binary of bored vs. interested. The binary was arrested vs. annoyed. It was impossible to be bored. Hypnotic is ironically the ultimate misnomer: the audience was forward-leaning the whole time, wide-eyed and riveted on the players, discussing in the intermissions, and unafraid to express opinion. I found it difficult to let my mind wander even if I wanted it to (and sometimes I did want to). It was all a musical language we could handle and knew, perhaps for no more mysterious reason than that it really did come from a composer composing (like Pärt) with respect to nothing but the desire for new compositional possibilities. (Reich’s style from the ’60s has also found its way subtly into our common vocabulary through Hans Zimmer, Radiohead, and Andrew Bird, all of whom, I think, have claimed to be directly influenced.)

It was for me an unusual experience and I think it was perhaps the sort of experience that few people are likely to have experienced in two and a half generations. I can hope that it will be increasingly common. This doesn’t mean Reich is, again, a great composer. I’m simply saying that he is, in the company of few others alive, a normal composer. Normal in the sense that this blog has been insisting on recovering.

The particular pieces that I really found great (and there were some in the program I thought were stupid; don’t worry, I’m still a snob) were Piano Counterpoint Arranged for Six Pianos, aspects of New York Counterpoint, Radio Rewrite, and The Cave (various movements; I can’t quite figure out either his theology or politics, but I suspect we wouldn’t agree; great settings of Genesis though).

All that to say, I think perhaps minimalism as a compositional school may be in fact a viable option for reinventing musical composition. It is in some ways quite aware of its modal, polyphonic tendencies and so in that sense I’m a huge fan. I still think Glass is watery and Riley is way too experimental to be enjoyable. Then there is the deeper issue that I still don’t know how to resolve: re-inventing Medieval music also involves the downfall of professionalism and this artificial distance between performer and audience (and composer and audience) given to us by the 18th century. Pärt and Reich and all of them still are implicitly working in a framework of music only performable by highly trained people. If we’re looking to recover specifically a Christian (a Protestant?) understanding of how music functions in society, certain aspects of the composition will have to change such that it is possible to compose both high and easily-peformable music. But that can happen and I think it will. When I look at how Medieval music emerges, it is actually far less organized than I might imagine given some of its later products. The rules in many cases come afterwards and the wild experiments that don’t always work come first. That’s something I’m interested to watch happen and, well, hopefully contribute to.