Friday, October 17, 2008

Art lives

Once a week. That's my goal. Just once a week. If I can make that, I'll look to start upping it again. But once a week is important to me.

Why? Because I've recognized in the last week that writing is important in my life. Some of the largest breakthroughs I've had spiritually have come because God has used things I've written to turn around and smack me in the face; journaling and blogging have been a significant part of my existence since I came to college.

That doesn't mean I need to blog religiously; if blogging stops being useful, or if it's getting in the way of other, more productive things, it goes away. Frankly, though, until I'm spending the time I would otherwise spend on blogging on a book, and doing so seriously and with some committed drive, I don't think it's a good idea for me to stop blogging. It's healthy; it's a release for me; it focuses my thoughts in a more coherent manner - not only for writing but for life - and it helps me a hone a gift God has given me.

So you should all spam me quite ferociously if I don't have a blog post up every week by Sunday night at the latest.


One of the consequences of my not having blogged regularly for the last two months is that there are almost innumerable thoughts tumbling about in my brain, most of them so jumbled together that I find it difficult to separate them out sufficiently as to make this a coherent and intelligible post. I will, however, do my best.


I've been writing music for symphony orchestra for the first time since early my freshman year of college. When I was in high school, nearly everything I wrote was for orchestras of some size or another; I had never written a non-improvisatory piece of solo piano music before I came to college. Nor had I written any chamber music pieces of any scale or substance; I had written a small piece for the equivalent of a pop ensemble minus a singer and that was as close as I'd come. That's not to say that any of those things were bad; I simply composed in a very limited range.

And then, for three years, I didn't. Since I started taking private composition lessons during the spring of my freshman year, I've written
  • a flute solo,

  • a duet for flute and bassoon,

  • a brass quartet; a trio for piano, oboe, and viola,

  • a serial woodwind quintet (my least favorite piece of music, and the one from which I learned the most),

  • a string quartet,

  • a suite for piano,

  • a setting of Psalm 142 for tenor voice, flute, clarinet, french horn, cello, harp, and percussion,

  • a setting of Psalm 67 for choir, harp, two guitars, and a harpsichord,

  • an oboe solo,

  • several pieces of "popular" music for piano and vocals.

I wrote one very brief and very small-scale orchestra piece for a project for a friend - a minute long, with very restrained orchestrations. And that's it.

And I learned something quite striking this week as I pondered this new piece for orchestra that I've been working on over the last six weeks. Not writing orchestra music for the past three years has been incredibly good for me; indeed, it has improved my composition for orchestra more than I would have thought possible. Having written for the broad range of ensembles listed above has pushed me immensely as a composer, has required me to refine and sharpen my technical abilities, rather than simply relying on my ear and my instincts and the incredibly broad scale of an orchestra to accomplish my ends.

You see, an orchestra is large enough and thick enough in texture that one can hide a lot simply by having decent orchestrational ability - and if you've listened to enough John Williams growing up (I did) that's relatively easy to come by. But you don't become a masterful composer without learning how to write for each instrument. The orchestra is more than the sum of its parts, and that's one of the most profoundly satisfying aspects of writing for it. Yet no piece of music truly exceeds its weakest point, and so an understanding of all the parts of the orchestra is important if one wishes to master it.

My mastery of the orchestra is somewhere a few millennia down the line, and I'm quite content with that. I am aware, having written over 6 minutes of orchestra music in the last 6 weeks, that I can do things, can think and hear things, that I simply could not have heard even a year ago. So, I am incredibly grateful to have been given the opportunity to compose in a myriad of other style and for a wide variety of other instrumentations; had I not, my composition would have grown far less than it has as it is. And I am grateful for the professor who I've had - a man with whom I frequently disagree, yet from whom I have learned much.

I've also learned again that my soul as a composer and a creator lies in the sound of the symphony, indeed in the symphonic poem (a technical term describing the sorts of programmatic music I've always written). I tell stories. And, like a novelist who learns the craft of the novel better by writing short stories and nonfiction, I have learned to use the orchestra more effectively by composing for everything but. And now I'm telling stories on a grand scale again.

It's my soul laid out in notes on a page, in sound in the air: a sense of the grandeur of life, and of destinies and of hope, of terrible loss and ultimate victory, of the greatness of being a creature in God's world, a part of his story. It's the fire that runs in my veins blasting from the bell of the trumpet and singing from the sweet winds and calling out from the strokes of the strings.


Here, then, is a taste of worship as it ought to be: the heartcry of our soul, poured out with utter abandon to the God who creates, in whose image we have been fashioned even in this. The human heart is drawn to art because in it we see - broken, as ever in this life - a reflection of the One who made us. In the strokes of Van Gogh's brush, in the sound of a Rocket Summer concert, in the gentle curves of a vase, in the flowing motion of a dance, in sweet song and in choked-out monologue: we see a picture of the Creator-God, the Artist-King who made us. And our hearts burn, ache, expand as though to burst out of us as we glimpse the tiniest hint of his glory: as in the strains of Mahler's 2nd Symphony, or in the brush-colors of the Sistine, or in the whirl of the Nutcracker, we for a moment are caught up in transcendence and recognize the joy that our God has in creating, in making us works of art that reflect their creator just as every piece of music its composer displays.

As much as glory, our great and terrible brokenness is here revealed. Every piece of art reflects its maker. Not only is there a great deal of very broken art in this world, but every piece of Art in this world - every human being made to reflect the one true Artist - is broken, destroyed. And in the butchering of our music by musicians too busy to work hard on it, in the tear in a precious painting, in the broken shards of pottery, we begin to feel in the slightest measure the depth of pain that God has in our rebellion, our sin, our rejection of our one purpose in this life: to reflect him. For the broken pottery can no longer show its maker's hand, the painting can no longer show the painter's mastery, and the music can no longer show the loving craft of the composer. Just so, we no longer show for the goodness, the holiness, the love, of God - nor indeed do we show as we ought any part of His glorious character.

And so in art we have a picture painted broad, a poem writ large, a symphony screaming to be heard, of both the transcendent purposefulness and glory that our lives were meant to be and the broken emptiness that they are.

There is hope, though. Oh, yes, there is hope.

How? Because while the orchestra cannot be corrected midconcert; the painting never quite like it was, the pottery never put back together, we serve a God who not only can but every single day does do that with his broken creations.

What artistry this! What marvelous hands do now reshape the clay? And to a form not only as it was before, but better? Incredible, you say? Yes, I say: yet credible, too, for it is our great God and King, for whom no task of restoration and renewal is impossible.

Art lives.

Our lives.

- Chris


  1. I really enjoyed the latter part of your post. It reminds me of a few things I've read before. I think that sometimes there is a tendency to place such a great emphasis on the transcendent nature of God, that people sometimes overlook that the Creator is present and reflected (albeit imperfectly) in Creation, and especially in the fine arts.

    Have you ever read The Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkien? I think the beginning of it might interest you.

  2. Big Bill - I have, and I love it. Thanks for the comment, and sorry for the long delay in responding.


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