This week in music; WHAT is your message?

My last post in this category was an account of a professional situation which was less than ideal – but I made a commitment to trust God to work it out, and gave Him the praise” in advance!”

As such, although I’m not feeling at all well, I’m stopping up on here a little longer to praise God for “His marvelous works to the children of men!”

[It just occurs to me that Psalm 107 is an incredible example of doxology – go check it out if you don’t know it!]

This week my jazz orchestra took a giant step forwards in terms of my vision for what is to be achieved through music. Back in the 19th century, there was a rip-roaring debate (albeit in rarefied academic circles) concerning the various merits and de-merits of ‘programmatic music’ and ‘absolute music.’ To ensure folk don’t lose the thread of this before I’ve started, here’s Wikipedia:

Program music or programme music is a type of art music that attempts to musically render an extra-musical narrative. The narrative itself might be offered to the audience in the form of program notes, inviting imaginative correlations with the music. The paradigm example is Hector Berlioz‘s Symphonie fantastique, which relates a drug-induced series of morbid fantasies concerning the unrequited love of a sensitive poet involving murder, execution, and the torments of hell. The genre culminates in the symphonic works of Richard Strauss that include narrations of the adventures of Don Quijote, Till Eulenspiegel, the composer’s domestic life, and an interpretation of Nietzsche‘s philosophy of the Superman. Following Strauss, the genre declined and new works with explicitly narrative content are rare. Nevertheless the genre continues to exert an influence on film music, especially where this draws upon the techniques of late romantic music.

So then, we have “absolute music:”

Absolute music, in contrast, is intended to be appreciated without any particular reference to the outside world. The term is almost exclusively applied to works in the European classical music tradition, particularly those from the Romantic music period of the 19th century, during which the concept was popular, but pieces which fit the description have long been a part of music. The term is usually reserved for purely instrumental works (pieces without singers and lyrics), and not used, for example for Opera or Lieder.

These ideas are pretty crucial for people who say that they want their music to ‘be a witness.’ We talk of ‘music ministry’ and in the USA the concept of ‘singing evangelists’ has been very popular in recent history. So it could be argued that religious music is a form of programme music – because it is “seeking to render an extra-musical narrative.” But is that a good – or ideal – framework for looking at what sacred music is supposed to be doing?

I think that this is a question to which one will have to return!  But for now, let us return to the story of this week in music, where the Veritas Orchestra – which on the surface looks like a jazz orchestra – took the step forward that I mentioned.

This jazz orchestra does not have ‘jazz’ in it’s title because it does not intend to define itself by a genre. This ensemble exists because to my mind, the sound and medium of the jazz orchestra has never been adequately utilised by serious Christians to actually share a message of faith, hope and point people towards the Truth. Much of the so-called ‘Christian jazz’ is often bad jazz using sacred music themes. Occasionally it is decent. But much of the most genuinely spiritual jazz music comes from creative musicians who really do not subscribe to orthodox Christian faith. For example, the jazz composer Maria Schneider writes some of the most compelling and astoundingly beautiful music you’ll ever hear in any genre (but it happens that she chooses jazz); her compositions and the sounds she has gotten out of her own jazz orchestra are a huge part of the reason that I realised that the jazz orchestra could be so much more than a ‘rub-down-shake-down’ entertainment outfit. It is music for listening – and as a Christian jazz musician, I’m not interested in making people dance – I want to make them think!

Schneider is on record as saying that she believes that ‘God is in the interaction between two people’ and if one considers the rest of the interview, there does not appear to be any reason to assume that the single-shot quotation given above is in fact part of a genuine Christian belief that is biblical. There are many US jazz musicians with a real God-concept that has precious little to do with orthodox Christianity – indeed, the idea of the divinity within humanity has never been more popular or more enduring. So the chances are quite likely that Maria Schneider and I would not agree on the matter of religious worldviews – but her music has shown me what music itself can achieve. If I serve the God of music, can we not do something with the sound of the jazz orchestra that actually praises God – literally?

Now, the reason WHY I took time out to include those Wiki quotes is interesting: Berlioz is a famous composer of European classical music, and I grew up in conservative Adventism where the musical values of church members prioritised classical music over everything else. And jazz was unquestionably the devil’s music. Look at the narrative that Berlioz depicted in the Symphonie fantastique: “a drug-induced series of morbid fantasies concerning the unrequited love of a sensitive poet involving murder, execution, and the torments of hell.” This is not jazz we are talking about – it is classical music! So there are a series of public figures who have been pointing church members away from ‘secular musics’ towards ‘classical music’ – but without explaining how classical music works! They are advocating a phenomenon that they themselves have not understood!

As a conductor and a Bible-believing Christian, I might have found a way to conduct this work – with might being the operative word. And that thought concerns me. But as a person called to ministry – who will still conduct until God says otherwise – I conduct for God the Master (as Eugene Peterson puts it in his famous Bible paraphrase/translation) and there is no way I could lead an orchestra in the process of evoking a narrative like that.

I play jazz because it gives me the scope to express ideas in music without words. To make music is in fact one of the most joyously affirming things a human being can do. So the question is, can jazz be used to lift people spiritually as opposed to only musically?

Everyone will have their own opinion. But I want to say that this week, standing before my jazz orchestra, playing a brand of large-ensemble jazz that had been written to evoke the spiritual and the meaningful, at times they produced a sound and a depth of musical playing that made me very moved indeed. We had the privilege of being joined by a young man who is a very good friend, a fellow Christian and one of the UK’s finest jazz saxophonists and by the end, for both of us, it was nothing but pure, life-affirming praise to God.

Here’s what I know. God has called us to reach out to everyone. Music with words will reach some in ways that words alone  never could. But instrumental music has a power too – and the question is – what is your message? When secular folk tell me that they know that their is something different about my brand of jazz – and that it is to do with what I believe – that is God’s work.

I know some  folk will never get this. This used to make me sad. But these days, I realise that I am insanely blessed to have the privilege of being an improvising musician who can now lead others in an artform that conservative Christianity in general and conservative Seventh-Day Adventism has struggled with in particular. God is bigger than many people have made Him out to be, and here is my last point – an music ensemble will by definition reflect the values of its leader. So if your values are biblical – and your lifestyle matches up to that – then people will hear that in what you do. But if not – your music will give you away. This is AS TRUE of sacred music as any other kind – there will be a post on this very subject before too much longer!

I will only have integrity in my bid to re-write the concept and practice of sacred jazz as long as God remains the priority in my life. And more than being a great music leader and creative pioneer in sacred music, it is the challenge of remaining spiritually on-side that has scuppered greater musicians than myself. As D.A. Carson wrote: “this quiet reflection often helps me to number my days.”

He was talking about something completely different – but the principle applies. Absolutely.

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