Modern music and faith

Music snippet

A couple of months ago, fellow FiScher Alicia Smith wrote a fascinating blog post on the relationship of her PhD studies with her faith. I’d like here to attempt something similar in relation to my own field. This post is going to ask more questions than it answers, for space reasons, but hopefully it will generate debate! If so, my plan is to follow this introduction up in more detail in the future, perhaps via an occasional themed series.

The image shows a (tiny) snippet of my clarinet quintet, Love Unknown (2008). It's music, Jim, but not as we know it...

My PhD was built upon the analysis of contemporary Western art music, also commonly known as avant-garde, experimental or modern music (although each of these terms carries quite distinct – and rather problematic – connotations within the field itself). I was looking at the ideas and musical processes which lie behind the music of various contemporary composers such as Thomas Adès, György Kurtág and Kaija Saariaho (a quick search on YouTube or Spotify will give you an idea of what their music sounds like – they are all quite distinct from one another). All of these composers stand to some extent within the radical lineage established by earlier (and more infamous) composers such as Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Cage.

As with its parallel strands in the visual arts and literature, music like this tends to polarise opinion, with some lauding it as an authentic expression of contemporary concerns, and others deriding it as incomprehensible, elitist or arbitrary. Modern music seems especially likely to bring accusations of inaccessibility (‘these composers don’t care about their listeners; they’re just writing for themselves’), incoherence (‘that’s not music, it’s just noise’) or discomfort (‘why would you write something that just makes me feel bad?’).

For a Christian, questions about the role of artistic endeavour within God’s kingdom can complicate the situation still further. At various points within my PhD, as part of the usual bouts of self-questioning that all postgraduate students experience from time to time, I found myself fearing that what I was doing was all a waste of time. Was this music just a distraction from my fundamental calling of telling people about Jesus? Or, perhaps even worse, was it a kind of destructive influence in itself, an emblem of the despair and darkness of the contemporary world which I should be resisting rather than embracing?

The problem for me is that I love much of this music, and feel an enthusiasm for it which surpasses even the great and well-loved works of the Western canon. Indeed, often other, more ‘accessible’ or ‘uplifting’ music can seem rather boring by comparison. I love it for its complexity, which to me seems to mirror and respond to the complexity of the created world; I love it for its moments of fleeting but hard-earned beauty, which often speak to me of a deep yearning for redemption; I love it even for its free inclusion of sounds that are uncomfortable or perhaps disturbing, since these seem an honest response to the beautiful but broken world in which it is written and heard.

For me, then, part of my journey as a PhD student (and beyond) involved coming to terms with the gap between my own experience of this music, and the reality of its wider reception within society and within the church. One of the motivations for my research is the desire to bridge this gap. Hopefully, I’ll be able to talk a bit more in future posts about what that has meant in practice. In the meantime, please do talk about your own experiences with modern music and art in the comments!

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Comments

Hello Mark,

Thanks for sharing your journey. I still find it a struggle to engage with modern art, but over time I have come to appreciate some of it. At the very least it gives a diagnosis of the state of our culture, and it’s not always a pretty picture… But as you say, even in the inaccessibility of dissonants and abstraction there are glimpses of the possibility of redemption.

Thanks for this Mark! On rereading I’m wondering about the charge of elitism which you mention as one of the problems people have with this kind of music. Have you come to a personal conclusion about why that problem isn’t insurmountable for this kind of work? I.e., what sort of value does a piece of music have if it’s only accessible to, and perhaps only intended to be accessed by, a very small group of people?

Good question – and a tricky one! I wouldn’t say I have a simple answer to it. I feel like there’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation here, actually. Key thinkers in the field (people like the philosopher Adorno) advocated early in the 20th century that contemporary music (and contemporary art in general) _should_ pose a provocation that most of society wouldn’t be able to accept; it was meant to be a challenge, and to stand in deliberate contrast with the music of mainstream culture. That obviously had an effect on composers’ approach to composition, and also on the general cultural perception of new music – even though this viewpoint was far from universal even then, and is rejected by many (most?) avant-garde composers today. So I think there is music within this collection (especially more recent stuff) which goes unheard because of assumptions about its ‘elitism’, and a general scepticism which keeps people away from it, rather than because it in itself fits that stereotype. (There are plenty of artists working within the experimental end of indie, electronica, dub etc. whose music is just as ‘difficult’ as much of what I listen to, judged purely on sonic qualities, but they are not contending with the same level of cultural and historical baggage.)

The flip side of that is a broader question about who a work of art is ‘for’. Most academics write for a rather narrow audience, whilst retaining the hope that their work will in some way make its way into the broader cultural mainstream – either directly, if they’re very lucky, or else via the filtering process of other authors, broader-brush reworkings of their ideas, effects on the general Zeitgeist/policy decisions/scientific advances/trendy slogans (delete as appropriate to your subdiscipline). I feel like perhaps there is some music or art which has an impact in a similar way. There are (I recognise) barriers to its wider impact – as Eline’s comment suggests, it can take a journey of long engagement for people to start feeling that this work is making sense to them in some way – but at the same time, there are ideas and materials from it which do end up making their way, via a chain of influences, reworkings, etc., into the cultural mainstream, and have a bigger impact there. For myself, I tend to get enthusiastic about this music and thus want to enthuse about it to other people, which sometimes (I hope) leads to them hearing it with some fresh interest or enjoyment – maybe I’m thus helping this transmission process in some way.

Ultimately, I guess many who make this music do it more from an inner imperative than from the expectation of universal comprehension – and that’s where I suppose we arrive at questions about the wider value of art, full stop. (And I will stop too, or I’ll write all night! Definitely one for me to mull over more, though.)

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