Thursday, December 04, 2008

How music instructs Advent

In Maggi Dawn’s Beginnings and Endings, she says, ‘Christmas can sometimes feel less like a feast to be celebrated and more like a deadline to be reached.’ I know what she means. Increasingly the celebration starts earlier, so that when eventually we arrive at Christmas, instead of marking the commencement of the festival, it’s the climax of one that’s been going on for ages. The festival that should start on Christmas Day and continue for twelve days is virtually over by Boxing Day, St Stephen’s Day. And this happens both outside the church and within. 

In my present role as a regional minister, at this time of the year I miss being the minister of a local church. This is because I find Advent deeply enriching.  Advent marks the beginning of a new church calendar. But also it’s a time of waiting, of preparation, of suspense. And I guess that I shouldn’t be surprised that we’re not great at this.

It’s at this point that I find music instructive. Music works on the principle of ETR, that is equilibrium, tension and resolution. It starts from a place of equilibrium from which tension is created, and then the tension is resolved. How composers handle the resolution of tension is what music is all about. Take a nursery rhyme like ‘Humpty Dumpty’ (you need to know the words for the next bit!).  At the end of the first line at the word ‘wall’ you’re still more or less at home. By the end of the second line and the word ‘fall’ you’re at a point of tension and definitely away from home. As you reach ‘men’ the tension is intensified.  ‘Again’ brings the resolution, and you’re back home again.  For a more sophisticated version, try Beethoven’s ‘Fur Elise’, or the slow movement of Brahms Second Symphony, or if you’ve got five hours to spare, Wagner’s Tristan. 

In these examples there are tensions within tensions, and how the tension is held, partly resolved, resolved only to open up another tension, and resolved completely, bringing closure, is the stuff of music, all music, and I could have illustrated with Coldplay, Oasis, Take That, or Girls Aloud. Great composers use tension to generate expectations which are deliberately delayed through the diversions and digressions that the music takes. The ‘not yet’ of resolution through delayed gratification is reckoned to be one of the essential skills to be learned by any composer. And regardless of the musical style, be it rock music, symphony, popular song, or jazz in particular, where music is ‘composed’ in the instant, a huge amount depends upon learning to manage the space between tensions and delayed resolutions in ways that sustain both expectation and interest.

The effect that this has is to give music a forward moving feel. Music is directional. It goes somewhere and drives towards rest and closure. And it does this by drawing the listener in, by pulling you in and pulling you forward. As you listen to music you want the next sound so you are pulled into a dynamic of desire, or put another way, a pattern of hopefulness. Music is therefore inherently hopeful.

And this is where we connect with Advent. Important question - what are we waiting for during Advent? We’re waiting for Christmas, when we look back to the beginning, and to Christ’s first coming.  But Advent is far more than this as we look forward to the ending and his Second Coming.  Advent is when we are particularly conscious of living in hope between the ‘here now’ and the ‘not yet’, between the beginning and the ending, between this present creation and the new creation, which we have begun to experience but not fully. Christ has come, but Christ will come again.  We live in the penultimate and not the ultimate. Our hope isn’t fully realised. We live with the given, but aware that all is not yet given. ‘The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us … we have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only’. But while we have seen, not all have seen, and those who have seen have not fully understood. ‘We know in part and we prophesy in part’. What we see is ‘but a poor reflection in a mirror’ but the day will come when finally ‘we shall see face to face’. 

To return to music, music can’t be rushed through, you can’t just fast forward it. Music takes place in time and music takes time. To rush it is to weaken or ruin it. And again this is played out in the Scriptures. God doesn’t seem to be in a hurry. Which means that waiting is a huge part of what it’s all about.

Jeremy Begbie, from whom much of this thinking originated, brings a Word for Advent when he says, ‘Music is especially qualified to form in us, not just the patience required when something takes time, but the patience needed in the midst of delay.  Delayed gratification is … integral to music, which leads us into a particular kind of beneficial and enriching “meantime” in a manner which can be theologically instructive.’ 

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