Bass Clarinet and Marimba – Underneath the Spreading Tree

November 8th, 2011

This bass clarinet and marimba duet, while being very difficult, is full of wonderfully rich sounds and textures that you can not produce with any other combination of instruments. I partly regret my choice of instrumentation and may rewrite it for something more practical someday, but my reason for the choice is because of a phrase in Isaiah 55:12, “…all the trees of the field will clap their hands.” This personification stirred my creative curiosity on the brink of obsession, and I could not get the combination of bass clarinet and marimba out of my head. They are the perfect two instruments to depict the sound of living trees rejoicing over redeemed Israel and I couldn’t rest until I’d used them together for the purpose. However, a story is pointless if you only share the ending without saying how it came about. Using the perspective of the trees in the land I’ve written this work to tell the story of Israel’s fall into paganism, God’s judgement on them, and then finally their redemption. To listen to this work correctly, you must understand that you’re listening to a tree tell a story.

This video is only a sample of the work.

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Duration: 11:00

Throughout the major prophets in the Old Testament, the term “spreading tree” is used repeatedly in reference to the location in which the nation of Israel conducted their sinful pagan rituals. If one applies the personification of the trees in Isaiah 55 to these texts, it’s not hard to imagine what sorts of sounds God’s trees would make in response to detestable practices being performed underneath them. These practices included various ceremonies to honor false gods, ritualistic sexuality (mass orgies), and child sacrifice; clearly detestable practices in the eyes of God. The beginning of this tree’s story portrays these pagan ceremonies through primitive sounding harmonies and intricate rhythmic dancelike textures. At first these sounds seem innocent, but as the work progresses the harmonies are twisted to depict the darker components of pagan Israel’s worship.

The following are the texts I had in mind while writing this beginning section:

Jeremiah 2:20 (NIV), “Long ago you broke off your yoke and tore off your bonds; you said, ‘I will not serve you!’ Indeed, on every high hill and under every spreading tree you lay down as a prostitute.”

Isaiah 57:5, “You burn with lust among the oaks and under every spreading tree; you sacrifice your children in the ravines and under the overhanging crags.”

The second section is the tree’s telling of God’s response to Israel’s disobedience. This is depicted by energetic and ominous sounds followed by sounds of intense sorrow. It is the tree’s version of these texts:

Jeremiah 4:13-15, “Our enemy rushes down on us like storm clouds! His chariots are like whirlwinds. His horses are swifter than eagles. How terrible it will be, for we are doomed! O Jerusalem, cleanse your heart that you may be saved. How long will you harbor your evil thoughts? Your destruction has been announced from Dan and the hill country of Ephraim.”

Jeremiah 13:24-27, “‘I will scatter you like chaff that is blown away by the desert winds. This is your allotment, the portion I have assigned to you,’ says the Lord, ‘for you have forgotten me, putting your trust in false gods. I myself will strip you and expose you to shame. I have seen your adultery and lust, and your disgusting idol worship out in the fields and on the hills. What sorrow awaits you, Jerusalem! How long before you are pure?'”

The final section depicts the tree’s swelling joy at the thought of the future return of God’s people to the land, the original reason I set out to write this work:

Isaiah 55:12,
“You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands.”


Acceptable Sounds for Worship; Quality

January 17th, 2011

What are you capable of?  How much more time do you have to spend in practice?  Is someone available that has more time and would do a better job?  What is your motivation for being in front of your church playing an instrument or singing?  Are these fair questions?

“Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”

Hebrews 10:19-25 (NIV)

My siblings in Christ, this is what we are doing on Sunday mornings during services.  This is what we are doing anytime we come together in prayer, fellowship, study, or song.  This is worship.  When we join together in song on Sunday morning or any other time, we are entering the throne room of God through the blood of our Lord Jesus to spend time pouring our hearts out to the King of the universe.  If we are going to insist on using music at our meetings, I would expect that the people or person leading the music take it more seriously than anything else they do during their week (unless the same person is speaking).

I have an unsettling number of memories of worship services that were clearly not taken seriously.  Sometimes this has been demonstrated through an effort issue in which a better sound was possible but not attempted because it was “good enough for church” (being out of tune due to laziness during performance for example).  Sometimes it has been a preparation issue that should have been avoided through more individual study and practice. Sometimes it has been because a person incapable of the task leads music because they were “led by the spirit” to do so.  If the music during services is being taken as seriously as it should be taken, should we not see people’s most valiant efforts to sound as good as possible?  Unfortunately, the issue of taking the music seriously is a surface issue, the possible causes of which are much more diabolical.

Being a highly trained musician, I know all too well the extreme temptation of thinking too much of myself after a performance that brings people to their feet in appreciation for what I just accomplished.  While it’s fine to be pleased that I have pleased others, it is not fine to be pleased with myself for all the hard work I did to get that reaction (that is pride, the sin that made Satan who he is). I should be pleased only to the end that I brought pleasure to my audience.  Leading worship with music requires humility in performance to be taken to a whole new level. When I do a recital, it’s half about me being really good at music and half about teaching people about God through music.  Pleasing my audience for the sake of pleasing my audience is on my agenda.  However, when someone leads worship with music their agenda should not be to please others, but to lead both their self and their congregation into passionate worship of our Creator.  If someone is pleased with the leader, I hope it is because the leader played or sang so effortlessly, skillfully, and passionately that the layman saw Christ right through the leader and worshipped Christ without a second thought towards what the leader was doing.  Therefore, every musical leader in a church should search themselves deeply and honestly in order to find their motivation behind leading worship.  Regardless of what they find within themselves, humility has to be the top priority before leading music.  If this one thing were handled more honestly, many issues related to taking musical worship seriously would be solved.

Take ability for an example. As a music teacher, I can confidently say that consistent practice for a notable length of time will always yield an increase in proficiency.  If someone is not showing steady progress in their technique, then they’re clearly not taking the role of leading a congregation into the throne room of the Almighty through the blood of Christ seriously enough. If not practicing would not be acceptable in a recital hall, how much less in this context?  If people are getting on the stage in church and not giving the sacrifice of praise they are capable of, what is this saying about their motivation for leading worship? As I hope you are beginning to see, the attitude required in order to lead musical worship takes care of these other problems.

Humility causes the right motivation. The right motivation causes leading music to be taken very seriously. Taking worship seriously causes refined technique. Therefore, just as good works are the natural result of faith (James 2:14-25), good technique is the natural result of humility.

So how good should the music be in church to be acceptable?  Depending on the cultural context, the size of the church, the availability of skilled people, and the quality of the local teachers, the music should be the best in town.  However, it should also be very different because of the reason behind the sound…


Violin and Clarinet Duet – Proclamation

November 13th, 2010

I’ve learned to never force music into the box I originally intended it to be put into, but this violin and clarinet duet took that concept to a new level for me. My original plan was to write a sacred work for violin and saxophone for my friend and I to play during communion services. Typically, communion has two musical segments; one for each communion element. So, I wanted the work to be two movements with each being less than two minutes long. The first movement came together very naturally and very quickly, but then life happened and I never got around to writing the second movement. When I finally got a chance to work on it again, I realized that there was no good musical reason to add a second movement. I also realized that the only reason I was using the saxophone was because I sound my best on it. Clarinet blends with violin much more naturally (although I attribute this partly to traditional bias) and the very simple part I had written for it makes more sense with a simpler sound. I rewrote the piece for violin and clarinet thinking I would just have my wife play it instead (although I ended up recording it since we weren’t married yet and she was 650 miles away at the time). So I started with a two movement work for violin and saxophone to be used for communion and ended up with a one movement work for violin and clarinet to be used for who knows what.

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The recording process was another matter. I had most of the Purpose project squared away with only this piece left to record. I got off my night shift at 6:00am on Sunday morning and set to work on laying down the clarinet track so that Eva could come and add her part that afternoon. I armed the four microphones I was using and combined several takes to form a satisfactory performance. Before I remembered that I hadn’t saved my progress, the power went out and I was forced to try again and ended up with a significantly better sound (and I still made it to church on time). That afternoon I got all the takes I needed from Eva and finally went to bed (I’d been up since Saturday afternoon). On Monday I woke up only to discover that all of the files for the violin’s tracks had been scattered beyond repair. I was only able to salvage the files from one microphone resulting in a very thin sound. But just for kicks, I tried muting 3 of the four clarinet recordings so that they would both sound thin and be able to blend. To my surprise I liked the result very much. It certainly wasn’t the pristine audio quality I wanted for the Purpose project, but there was an irresistible authenticity in the sound that spoke with an innocence and a sincerity that I could not have possibly come up with intentionally. Instead of redoing the recording, I decided to sit on the idea of using what I had. When I tried listening to the CD in its entirety to see whether or not the transitions worked, I finally decided that this authentic and unrefined sound perfectly captured the reason I made the CD.

From the very first note, everything about this CD is polished and seemingly flawless in the aspects of performance, composition and engineering. Except for a few minor details, I could not have made this project any better even if more resources had been available to me. The first six tracks work together to communicate to the listener that life has value, meaning, and purpose and it is a wonderful gift from God that is worth your time to seek and understand. But what does all this look like? Where does it lead? It leads us to the feet of Jesus with nothing to offer but our love and authentic awe and worship. How would I depict this musically? I pick up an instrument I can’t play well enough to impress anyone with and play Amazing Grace with a sister in Christ Jesus. No virtuosic technique. No polished well-mastered recording. Not even a terribly original composition. Just two people showing authentic and sincere adoration for their creator through sound. A simple “I love you” to the creator of the universe. The very essence of the purpose of life.


Aesthetic Education; See the Art in and Around You

October 13th, 2010

We’ve previously defined aesthetic as the cumulative effect of every component within a specific framework.  Art produces aesthetic, but not just art produced by humans.  God is an artist too, and it is a sin to be indifferent to his creative work, the pinnacle of which is mankind. If only we realized the wonderful artistry found in each one of us we would not be as likely to sin by showing indifference let alone contempt towards each other and the world.  How do we recognize this Godly beauty in creation?  How do we develop it within ourselves?  How do we bring it out in each other?

Every person you’ve ever met has an aesthetic, and I’m sure you are well aware of this whether you’ve thought about it or not.  I’m referring to the cumulative effect of a person’s existence upon your senses.  Analyzing a person’s aesthetic is a completely rational way of evaluating another’s impression on your own mind.  Some components of a person are obvious:  physical appearance, personality, body language, accent, interests, intelligence, etc.  These are the things that determine whether or not a person is attractive, fun, annoying, or simply “nice”.  But there is something about a human being’s aesthetic that is unique; it’s that ability to behave in the way the person chooses.  It’s the ability to go against what is natural to human behavior or to not.  These choices are what weigh most heavily on a person’s aesthetic.

This trait of the ability to choose is what animates us and gives value to our lives.  It’s also what gives us the ability to develop virtue and vices.  It creates harmony because it makes chaos possible.  It is the center of our existence and causes within us a spectrum of possibility ranging from beauty to depravity.  It is this one thing that saturates our being and causes all of our other components to be seen by others in a way that will either please or irritate them depending upon the condition of their own aesthetic.

The evil, twisted, or unnatural aesthetic mutilates the beauty of natural human tendency.  It kills, covets, hates, gossips, and corrupts all that is good, having an inherent effect on the person and destroys them.  The aesthetic that chooses what is good goes along with unnatural human tendency and produces love, joy, peace, etc.  It is choice that creates beauty, but because of our desires that are contradictory to the way God designed us to be we all degrade our natural beauty to an extent no matter how good our choices are.  This causes our personal aesthetics to clash and grind against one another so that the whole of creation is degraded by our conduct.

So then, there is inherent aesthetic contrast between a good man and an evil one.  Obviously we’re all evil to an extent and fall somewhere on the spectrum of beauty and depravity.  But it’s important to identify extremes, decide where we fall, and how to progress on the path towards harmony.  But after we’ve done that, we quickly realize that we are not capable of reaching perfect beauty.  We strain ourselves and punish our flesh in a attempt to achieve a character produced by a righteous life.  Then many good-willed people justify their imperfections with the sorts of things the despised use to make themselves feel better; the main justification being the inappropriately ascribed subjectivity of beauty.

We are all created by the work of God, but we are still in progress: designed to make a choice as to whether or not we are going to allow God to animate us, or let our standard-less selves to animate us.  Whether we are to become beautiful works of art by the greatest artist in the universe who spilled His blood over us to complete us and perfect our beauty for the Artist’s glory, or to remain imperfect by rejecting completion.

We creatures are not left without a clue planted within ourselves.  It’s a taste of the perfect beauty we’re made to long for.  It’s the aesthetic of God longing to shine through our distinctive individuality.  This distinctive aesthetic is beyond words, music, or any other form of expression.  It can only be truly observed in the people you do life with.  And even then only in the people who have let themselves be the jars of clay God calls us to be; cracked and broken vessels overflowing with the Spirit of God.  But even with non-believers, glimpses of it can be seen longing to break forth but are suppressed by their desire to create a cheap imitation of themselves, thinking that they are fighting a tendency to be something ordinary.

We, along with the whole of creation, are simply components of one massive work of art.  Human art is a means of trying to assemble reality and make sense of its intricacies.  It is the physical form of asking questions, leaving finding answers to the perceiver.  It points us to the created world in such a way as to seek truth; God’s truth.  Since we ourselves, the physical world, and the spiritual world are all works of art, seeking the deepest truths of life through human art is perfectly logical.

Art does not teach us to know, but to seek to know.  To dwell on mystery.  To ponder various ways in which reality can be assembled and look at truth from a different angle; an intellectual exercise that brings life to your spirit (Roman 12:2, Phillipians 4:8).  Listen, look, read. Attend to various aesthetic objects so that your perception of reality can be sharpened.  Every angle available from which your are able to observe truth should be utilized.  Therefore, Aesthetic Education in the Church is not only necessary, but it is essential.


Aesthetic Education; Understanding Scripture

October 9th, 2010

Trust in the LORD with all your heart
and lean not on your own understanding;

in all your ways acknowledge him,
and he will make your paths straight.

Do not be wise in your own eyes;
fear the LORD and shun evil.

This will bring health to your body
and nourishment to your bones.

Honor the LORD with your wealth,
with the firstfruits of all your crops;

then your barns will be filled to overflowing,
and your vats will brim over with new wine.

My son, do not despise the LORD’s discipline
and do not resent his rebuke,

because the LORD disciplines those he loves,
as a father the son he delights in.

Blessed is the man who finds wisdom,
the man who gains understanding,

for she is more profitable than silver
and yields better returns than gold.

She is more precious than rubies;
nothing you desire can compare with her.

Long life is in her right hand;
in her left hand are riches and honor.

Her ways are pleasant ways,
and all her paths are peace.

She is a tree of life to those who embrace her;
those who lay hold of her will be blessed.

By wisdom the LORD laid the earth’s foundations,
by understanding he set the heavens in place;

by his knowledge the deeps were divided,
and the clouds let drop the dew.

My son, preserve sound judgment and discernment,
do not let them out of your sight;

they will be life for you,
an ornament to grace your neck.

Then you will go on your way in safety,
and your foot will not stumble;

when you lie down, you will not be afraid;
when you lie down, your sleep will be sweet.

-Proverbs 3:5-24 NIV

After I read these beautiful words I looked out over the hay field to the trees surrounding it and observed the wispy clouds that seemed to envelop the very essence of all that was in my purview.  “By wisdom the LORD laid the earth’s foundations, by understanding he set the heavens in place.”  The simple experience enthralled me so much because perceiving so many wonderful things that fit together so perfectly was the very act of experiencing the wisdom of God.  Looking at the scene, thinking about what I had just read, and comparing it to the condition of my own heart was enough to be able to put that moment into an eternal context and dwell on it for the rest of my eternal existence.

What exactly was it that spoke to me so powerfully?  Was it the text itself?  Was it its meaning? Was it the encouragement the words brought in light of my broken elbow?  Was it other passages of Scripture coming to mind as I read the text?  Was it where I was when I read it?  Was it the cool evening breeze that picked up and diverted my attention to physical pleasure at just the right moment?  Was it all of the various emotions, sensations, and realizations being enjoyed in separate parts of my mind?  It certainly was all of these things, but it was so much more than that at the same time.  It was all of these elements working together to create a cumulative effect that refreshed my spirit and renewed my focus on God.

A week before this event, I had worked my night shift that Friday morning, and went straight from work to help with my church’s version of VBS (Sports Week).  I’d been there helping with the music and mentoring 12 and 13 year olds. I was very tired the whole week, but I felt so blessed to be able to be a part of what God did that week so the fatigue didn’t bother me.  Then in a split second I was laying on the basketball court with a fracture in my elbow that required surgery the following Monday.  As I recovered I’d been completely helpless and dependent on the wonderful people at my church.  But I’m not the kind of man that likes being dependent on people.  I love to help, but not to be helped; yet I needed a lot of help this summer.  That Thursday evening I was very upset.  I couldn’t work, couldn’t pack my stuff for moving that Saturday because I was so tired, could barely cook, and I wasn’t supposed to drive.  So the Spirit of God led me outside so that I could experience Him through His Word.  He gave me a gift of strength because I had very little left.  He led me to that passage, that physical context, and that level of brokenness so that He could breath His own strength into me.  He communicated his Word to me through an aesthetic experience.  He gave me a gift of realizing a new implication of that passage which resulted in the wonderful joy that is knowing God a little better.

Compare this passage with Psalm 104 and watch a sunset the next time you’re really down.  I dare you to not feel something.  How does God do it?  He does it by connecting His Word to His creation and then back to your heart.  That’s aesthetic.  That’s seemingly unrelated things being connected in your mind to create a cumulative effect so profound that you can’t contain your joy.  Aesthetic education teaches us how to make those connections.

But that’s just part of the story.  Let’s address the Bible outside of any other context.  Are we supposed to think about the Bible as a sequence of words put together in a certain way so that we know how we’re supposed to live?  Are we supposed to read Leviticus and begin stoning people who work on the sabbath, or are we supposed to connect that to Mathew 5, Luke 6, and Romans?  Or let me raise another issue.  How can you expect a high schooler to enjoy Jeremiah when they don’t have a firm enough grasp on literature to read Edgar Allen Poe?  How can anyone understand David’s passion for God when they can’t figure out how to connect the psalms to his life?

Aesthetic Education increases our ability to perceive everything, even Scripture and how it’s integrated with all of reality.  Find an artist (painter, dancer musician, etc.) and start taking lessons; not so that you can create great art, but so that you can perceive great art.  If you can’t perceive human art well, how do you expect to stand a chance in accurately understanding the greatest literary work ever written?  The words of God created the universe.  Do you really think you can understand them when they’re written down unless you learn to see and understand the world around you?

Don’t just tell your children to read the Bible.  Teach them how.

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