November 23, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Dear first year students, this is a letter of encouragement to you. We are less than two weeks away from the final day of classes, and I can tell that many of you are tired. How can I tell? I can see it in many of your faces (especially in morning classes!), I’m getting more panicked 4am emails than usual, and there are a few missing from classes. I recognize that you are all busy and stressed, so here a couple pieces of advice for the final couple of weeks and the exam period:
- Get your sleep! Sometimes it feels necessary to stay up late to work, but if it results in being sick or having to recover for the next few days, it puts you further behind. You think better rested.
- Plan. What do you have left to do? When are you going to do it? Schedule some work times and stick to them. (Hint: You can’t say ‘I’ll do that next week’ anymore). Schedule some play times, and play. Exercise.
- Go to your classes. With all of the busyness of assignments, don’t forget to go to class. I’m always amazed at how many people skip the final week of classes and exam review (especially in my classes where I usually give half or more of the exam questions so that students can properly prepare).
- Remember why you are here. In many courses 50% or more of your final grade has yet to be determined. Many of you could end up with an ‘A’ or an ‘F’. You came here to study, so make the most of it. Grades aren’t everything about university, but they sure count for a lot. Treat university like an extended job interview. Your work now (even in the next couple weeks) might make the difference for the way a prof writes a reference letter or who a prof tells about a job opportunity.
For many, a first semester at university is often a reminder about the differences between high school and university. Here’s a couple things that (if you didn’t get them already) you should remember for next semester:
- Think about the big picture of your classes. What are the big ideas that your classes and assignments are asking you to consider?
- Reading would have been easier to do the week it was due
- You don’t get the most out class without doing the reading
- Follow the advice of your profs
- It’s hard to do well if you leave it to the last minute
- “I should have looked at the syllabus before every class like the prof said”
- Despite living communally, this isn’t summer camp
- Stop asking ‘is this on the exam?’ and instead engage the material trusting that if you do that you will do well on assignments.
I wish you all the best on your work over the next few weeks. And by the way, please hand in good assignments. It’s better for you, and so much more fun for me to grade well done papers!
October 9, 2012 § 2 Comments
This post looks at Fast Fourier Transformation (FFT) and its relationship to my life and spectralism. And yes, it’s more than a bit nerdy.
Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been listening closely to lots of sounds around me while viewing their FFT data. What I’ve been trying to do is to match my experience of sound with a way of visualizing sound. Even though these charts are easy to read, they often seem abstracted from how things sound.
First off, what is Fast Fourier Transformation? Named after Joseph Fourier (1768–1830), the idea here is that any sound can be broken down into its composite parts in their simple form – sine waves. FFT shows the parts of sounds in ‘frequency bins’. So when I sing a single note – as in the image you see of me singing A3 – it is actually made up of other frequencies (overtones/partials). The ‘fast’ part means (in simple terms) that the analysis is done almost in real time.
I’ve been using two ios apps to do the FFT work. Just a few years ago, you would have needed an expensive dedicated machine (of course these apps are not as good as dedicated hardware, but are quite good). The apps are FFT ($25) and SpectrumView (free).
The images in this post from the apps listed above represent two different ways to visualize sound spectra information. One view shows one moment in time, with the amplitude (volume) on the y-axis and the frequency on the x-axis. This is very helpful for detailed analysis at one point in time. The other graph, often called a spectrogram, includes the element of time. Time in seconds is on the x-axis, frequency is on the y-axis, and amplitude is represented by colour or darkness. Here’s a link to a gallery I’ve made with comments on the relationship between sounds and their images.
Spectralist composers frequently use spectral data for the creation of music. Here is Gerard Grisey’s Partiels (I mentioned it last post) which uses the Fourier analysis of the overtones of a trombone as compositional material.
Spectralist composers are often interested in using this data to go beyond music as discreet notes and explore and manipulate how sound is experienced. Grisey’s composition uses ‘orchestral synthesis’ in that it synthesizes another sound with the sound on an orchestra. FFT data is also used for electronic synthesis of sound. Yes, that includes the sounds of the keytar.
September 24, 2012 § Leave a Comment
In this post, I take a look at some wide reaching claims about popular music and show how the insights of spectralist composers points to why these claims might be misguided.
At the end of July, a study entitled “Measuring the Evolution of Contemporary Western Popular Music” came out whose findings seem to confirm what many people over the age of thirty from any era think: namely, that popular music sounds all the same.
Below is a smattering of headlines reporting on this study. What is clear is that journalists liked the idea of this claim, but didn’t really care to check on anything themselves. Many only cite the Reuter’s article and don’t link to the publicly accessible original article:
- Pop music too loud and all sounds the same: official
- Pop music today does all sound the same
- Yup, it really does all sound the same. The evolution of modern pop music.
- The Sound of (Pop) Music: Too Loud, Too Much the Same
I think you get the point. So what is this study all about? Well, it isn’t asking whether all Nickelback songs sound the same (in this case, the answer is yes they do, at least for the most part).
The study looked at music from a giant database of popular music and created three main arguments for why popular music sounds more the same than it did 50 years ago.
- The recordings have a higher degree of loudness
- The harmonies are simpler
- The timbres are more similar
One of the conclusions essentially says that you too could make a hit so long as you make it simple and loud:
Hence, an old tune with slightly simpler chord progressions, new instrument sonorities that were in agreement with current tendencies, and recorded with modern techniques that allowed for increased loudness levels could be easily perceived as novel, fashionable, and groundbreaking.;
There are so many problems here that it would require a ridiculously long post to deal with them all. Let me briefly get a couple of these out of the way and then go on to what spectralism can show us.
First, journalists confused ‘loudness’ with ‘loud’. The ‘loudness’ of this study has to do with a recording technique. ‘Loud’ is losing your hearing at a concert, which you could have done in the 1970s and you can do today if you please.
Second, for some reason the authors of this study decided that their study can serve as a formula for the popularity of music. While the empirical can provide the basis for speculation, they seem to confuse the empirical with the speculative. There are some problems with the methods used in this study, but one thing it does not take into account is that over the past fifty years new sounds were created had not been heard previously. Additionally, the development of electronics enabled timbre to be explored in much more depth, and this changed the timbral potentials of both art music and popular music.
This leads us to spectralism, a topic I am currently doing research on. The following quotes are from composer Tristan Murail – one of the originating composers of what was later called ‘spectralism’. They are from ‘The Revolution of Complex Sounds’ in Contemporary Music Review, Volume 24, Issue 2–3, 2005, pages 121- 135. The first quote explores ideas of ‘sameness’ in experiencing music:
Fans of rock music provide a good example of this ‘other listening‘. For us (‘serious’ musicians), all rock is terribly alike and monotonous (4/4 time, electric guitars, pentatonic melodies, E minor—because it is easier for the guitarists—etc.). For rock listeners, however, there is no doubt about identity of the band or the song, after hearing only a few seconds. What they are hearing is not what we hear: they listen to the sound before anything else; they see the differences and subtleties that will go unnoticed by the musically educated—and thus compartmentalized and conditioned—ear.
The study we started with makes the assumptions of these ‘serious’ musicians. They assume all E minor chords are the same. And of course they aren’t! Hendrix, Justin Vernon, Bob Dylan, and Van Halen don’t all sound the same when they play an E minor chord. But by using categories inherited from art music analysis – which deals primarily with written music simply because we don’t have recordings of Mozart playing Mozart – this study does not do service to our everyday experience of music.
The other problem is that harmony and timbre is another false inherited categorical division that does not hold up to the science of sound nor our everyday perceptions. Murail again:
acoustic analysis and even simple observation show us that there is no precise line between pitch and noise, rhythm and frequency; harmony and sound colour are continuous phenomena.
It doesn’t take much looking into the physics of sound to find that those things we assume to be a single pitch are made up of multiple pitches. In this way, we could say that a single note’s timbre is harmonic since it is made up of more than one pitch. An example of the blurring of harmony and timbre is Gerard Grisey’s Partiels, which uses a Fourier analysis of the overtones of a trombone as the harmonic and timbral ideas of the composition (more on Fourier analysis next time).
What is very interesting about spectralism is that it provides insight into how we experience music and into the science of sound, and does this through compositional process even more than writing about music. So, does music all sound the same? It depends how you listen.
September 19, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Here’s the text of a TEDxTWU talk I gave for TWU’s 50th anniversary weekend on music, ethics, and evolution.
Music, Ethics, and Evolution
15 Sept 2012
What is music for?
Today I want to explore one small question: “What is music for?” Maybe I should have said ‘short question’ because it surely isn’t a small question. Music is something we are all drawn to. We all participate in music and collect music. We can’t explain why we are so drawn to music, but we want to. But how often do we ask what music is for? As this is a complex question, I won’t leave you in suspense. Here’s how I answer this question:
Music places us into relationships with others. It asks us to see the world with and for others. It is for loving your neighbor. In short, music is for ethical relationships.
Today I’ll explain why this is my answer by looking at how we experience music and by touching on some of the science of music, especially cultural evolution. If I’m successful, you will say ‘yes, of course, I know that’. But agreeing with my answer of what music is for means radically rethinking the ways that we think about, consume, and use music.
Before answering our main question, perhaps we should start at an even more fundamental question:
What is music?
Surely now we’ve gotten to an easier question. Well, not really.
One answer is that music is ‘universal’. It is true that there is no known culture now or in the past that doesn’t have something like music (Cross 1999,10). But now complications arise, because while musicality is a human universal, musical practice and features are not. We would be hard pressed to find common traits to tie together different musical practices (Nettl 2005, 17). Of course, the most common claim accompanying the idea that music is universal is that everyone then should appreciate Mozart or Bach. While globalization has created a shared culture in which people from all over the world appreciate music from Adele to Beethoven to Coltrane, this does not mean that music is universal.
New Zealand, 1642
Here’s a story to explain what I mean: In 1642, a ship of Dutch explorers spotted a group of indigenous people off the coast of New Zealand. The Dutch signaled with trumpets, and the New Zealander’s signaled back. The Dutch took this as a sign of greeting, and sent an unarmed boat to land. Their trumpet, however, had been heard as an invitation to fight, and they killed most of the sailors (Lodge 2009, 627). In this situation, the Dutch explorers assumed the universality of music, and paid for the mistake with their lives.
There are even more differences in ideas about music. Our particular situation of purchasing and owning music is quite recent when taking a larger historical view. Even though all cultures have music, there is no ‘universal’ music. Musical practice can best be thought of as a family resemblance. You might have a nose like your grandpa’s, eyes like your aunt, and ears like your second-cousin. Get the four of you together and you can see that you are all related, but you cannot find one feature to tie you all together.
So, what is music?
So, perhaps we can answer the ‘what is music’ question this way:
Musical is a culturally particular practice, but the biological capacity for music is universal.
In other words, we all have the ability to make music, but we make music in different ways. But is there anything more universal to music than this? We’ll need to take a closer look if we are to answer this on our quest to ask what music is for.
One of the common misconceptions about music – unfortunately often through exaggerated claims in the media – is that scientific studies result in universal claims about music. Lots of the work in the science and neuroscience of music is valuable, but instead of getting to musical universals it most often teaches us about musical responses within our culture. And then there are times when claims that are just plain wrong become overblown.
How many of you have something branded ‘Baby Mozart’ or ‘Baby Einstein’ or ‘Baby “some smart person’s name here”’ around? Well, let’s look at the what led to the idea that flashing some lights and playing Mozart through some 1980s sounding synthesizers will make your baby a genius. Oh, and by the way, the picture you are seeing is my one year old daughter with one of her favorite toys, a flashing jukebox of synthy classical hits.
The Mozart Effect
There was a study in 1993 where the researcher got a handful of grad students to listen to some Mozart and then do a spatial reasoning test (Rauscher 1993). The study found that listening to Mozart provided a temporary rise in abstract reasoning skills (and by temporary we’re talking less than an hour). What the study didn’t show was that listening to Mozart was better at doing this than listening to Dr. Dre or going for a run. And what it sure didn’t show was that listening to classical music when you are two years old or even in utero makes you smarter. But that didn’t seem to matter. The ‘Mozart Effect’ seemed to scientifically confirm what many people believed already, mainly that the ‘great’ music could make you great as well. The ‘Mozart Effect’ made its way through popular culture and contributed greatly to the whole edu-toy movement (Slaboda 2007). This idea was so quickly accepted that in 1998 the governor of Georgia sought to buy every new baby a classical music album. Turns out a major record company stepped in and provided the albums for free, hoping to cash in on the trend.
(By the way, all of this isn’t to say that music cannot enhance childhood development. There is plenty of research showing that the mental and physical coordination required to learn an instrument does aid development.)
Music and science in the news
This trend of using science to make universal claims about music continues today (seems I cannot go week without a new headline about something new science has proved about music). Here are a couple headlines from the past couple months:
‘Study proves music is getting sadder’ (the original headline)
This study makes huge assumptions, including the claim that slower music is sadder. Slower also could indicate more relaxed.
- The ‘loudness’ referenced in this study actually has to do with recording technique, not the loudness of ‘those kids and their loud music’. There are other problems too, but I won’t get into them here (check my blog).
Science can tell us lots about music, but it must be remembered that science is studying the brains and music of a particular time and place, and people in different times and places may not respond the same way.
So while the particular responses might not be universal, one thing that is universal is that we respond to music. And this leads us to the topic of entrainment.
Entrainment, roughly speaking, is the ability to coordinate rhythms with others. Let’s do a quick entrainment experiment. I’ll clap, and you follow.
Hurrah, entrainment! Now, try to get a group of dogs in a room to do the same thing! While entrainment can be found in rudimentary was in some animals (you may have seen the dancing bird on youtube), it is very sophisticated in human beings. And it goes beyond just coordinating rhythms and physical movement and includes the sharing of emotional states.
Here’s a personal example of musical entrainment in action. In the first several months of my eldest daughters life, either my wife or I rocked her to sleep while singing to her (often to the melody of Brahms’ lullaby). Singing became an import element of bedtime, a signal to calm down and get ready to sleep. Entrainment between myself and my daughter took place, resulting in a shared emotional state despite the lack of a shared spoken language. Now, when she started figuring out that bed wasn’t her favorite place, she didn’t entrain quite so easily. But then she started sining along with me, and we shared emotional and physical entrainment, and she ended up singing herself to sleep. Since the caregiver-infant relationship does not have a shared language, music provides much of the early social and emotional entrainment that establishes attachments.
I’m sure you can think of plenty of examples where music has created a shared place for relationships with others. Perhaps it was a feeling of togetherness when singing along to a song at a concert or church service, or maybe during the spontaneous singing of the national anthem we saw when the Olympics were in Vancouver a couple years ago. Music therapy is based on the idea that music can help people regulate and share emotions.
The Evolution of Culture
Now, this has larger implications about what music is for. One of the key moments in the evolution of our species was the ability to share with others through language, empathy, and cooperation. Since musical experience is bound to human relationships and seems to have predated language, it may have been the key to one of the most important periods in human history: the development of culture. Far from ‘auditory cheesecake’ (Steven Pinker), something nice to have but unimportant, music might have been the most important thing that human beings ever did (Cross 1999, 2003, 2008, 2009, 2010). Before the development of language, music could have enabled the sharing of emotional states and the coordination of complex actions that allowed for the survival of our species and the development of culture, a distinguishing feature of human beings.
But just as music can create connection and togetherness, music can also exert violence. For example, in Guantanamo Bay, music was used as torture. I’m not talking about playing ‘Achey Breaky Heart’ all day. In this case, music from the iPods of soldiers was blasted through the prison at a level that would not allow prisoners to sleep, think, or pray. National anthems can create a sense of togetherness, but they can also exclude others. In the 1990s, Croat prisoners were forced to sing the Yugoslav national anthem while being beaten (Cloonan and Johnson 2002, 34).
Music and Ethics
So what does this all mean? How do all of these explorations help us answer our opening question: ‘What is music for?’ From looking at experiences of music and evolutionary science, it seems that one universal we can find is that music is a way of relating to others. This means that music is essentially related to ethics. In other words, music is about loving our neighbors.
Musical experience is one of the ways we interact with others in profound ways that go beyond language. Musical experience is attractive in part because it leads us beyond what we can articulate and understand and leads us to the mysteries of ourselves, other people, and beyond. Music has the potential to create ethical and violent relationships. Note that my argument has not been that certain types or styles of music are ethical, but that the key is how music is used.
If music is about the ethics of loving other people, that might mean a radical change in the ways that we think about and use music in the marketplace, in our churches, in the law, and in our daily lives. So if we answer the question ‘what is music for’ with the answer ‘to love other people’, what changes will we bring about to make that happen? This is the question I want to leave you with today: after looking more into what music is for, how can you love other people in the ways you use music?
Cloonan, M. J., Bruce. (2002). Killing Me Softly with His Song: An Initial Investigation into the Use of Popular Music as a Tool of Oppression. Popular Music Vol. 21, No. 1, 27–39.
Cross, I. (1999). Is Music the Most Important Thing We Ever Did ? Music, Development and Evolution. In S. W. Yi (Ed.), Music, Mind, and Science ? (pp. 10–39). Seoul: Seoul National University Press.
Cross, I. (2003). Music and Biocultural Evolution. In T. H. M. Martin Clayton, Richard (Ed.), The Cultural Study of Music : A Critical Introduction (pp. 19–30). London: Routledge.
Cross, I. (2008). Musicality and the Human Capacity for Culture. Musicae Scientiae Special Issue: Narrative in music and interaction, 147–167.
Cross, I. (2009). The Evolutionary Nature of Musical Meaning. Musicae Scientiae Special Issue: Music and evolution, 179–200.
Cross, I. (2010). The Evolutionary Basis of Meaning in Music: Some Neurological and Neuroscientific Implications. In F. C. Rose (Ed.), The Neurology of Music. London, Imperial College Press.
Lodge, M. (2009). Music Historiography in New Zealand. In Z. Blazekovic (Ed.), Music’s Intellectual History (pp. 625–632). New York: RILM.
Nettl, B. (2005). The Study of Ethnomusicology : Thirty-One Issues and Concepts. Urbana, Ill.; Chesham: University of Illinois Press; Combined Academic distributor.
Rauscher, F. H., Gordon L. Shaw Katherine N. Ky. (1993). Music and Spatial Task Performance. Nature Vol. 365, 611.
Slaboda, J. A. (2007). Mozart in Psychology. Music Performance Research Vol 1(1), 66–75.
September 10, 2012 § Leave a Comment
In going through old blog posts, I realized that I never posted this on my blog. For those of you who missed it, last summer we published out inaugural edition of ’Verge: a journal of the arts and Christian faith’. There are some great articles in it, and if you haven’t had a chance yet, take a look at it. The table of contents and downloadable pdf files of each article can be found here. Future issues are in the works, and we take submissions on an ongoing basis. All of that information is on the journal website. Below I’ve copied the text from my introduction to the journal and this issue.
Introduction: On the Verge
JEFF R. WARREN
Throughout history, Christianity and the arts have converged in many different ways. At times, the Christian church was the catalyst for artists that we remember today as some of the greatest in history, including J.S. Bach and Michelangelo. Yet in other times, artistic practice was considered suspicious by the church and stifled artistic expression, as witnessed in the iconoclasm of medieval times and the revival of iconoclasm in the radical Reformation that influences many Protestant churches to this day. The past fifty years have not seen any decline in examples of the complex relationships between the arts and the Christian faith. The meteoric rise of Gregorian chant on the popular music charts in the 1990s, the controversy surrounding Andres Serrano’s ‘Piss Christ,’ the linkage of country music and conservative Christianity, and the development of ‘contemporary Christian music’ are just a few recent examples from popular culture that reveal the complex and sometimes fractured relationships of the arts and Christian faith.
This journal makes space for open discussion about the myriad issues at the convergence of the arts and Christian faith. This journal therefore participates in a discussion that has existed since the beginning of Christianity and continues in many forms and traditions. Within Protestantism alone, the past fifty years have seen a development of at least two major centres of theological exploration of the arts. In the mid-1950s, Francis Schaeffer began ‘L’Abri’ as a place to “develop a Christian perspective on the arts, politics and the social sciences” (http://www.labri.org/history.html). In the late 1990s, Jeremy Begbie began a ‘theology through the arts’ project under the premise that close investigation of the arts can reveal theological insights. These movements created much discussion and have rightly questioned some long held Christian assumptions and prejudices about the arts. Some artistic forms and approaches, however, have not found an easy relationship with these movements, and this journal grows from the conviction that there remains room for much discussion. In this journal, we are interested in exploring any and every connection of the arts and Christian faith, with the belief that placing divergent points of view into dialogue will illuminate more about the arts, Christian faith, and the human condition.
The inaugural edition of Verge: a journal of the arts and Christian faith sets the tone for the breadth and depth of inquiry this journal encourages. Different art forms, time periods, and views of the relationships between the arts and Christian faith are discussed. Bruce Ellis Benson’s article explores the relationship between views of artistic genesis and the genesis of the world. He finds a parallel between the Kantian idea of genius and the theological doctrine of creation ex nihilo. Benson explores the creative process by drawing on examples as diverse as Bach and contemporary animation, and makes the argument that art making is not characterized by spontaneous creation but by improvisation; that is, responding to someone else with what is at hand. A call and response structure is prominent within jazz improvisation, but Benson argues that all artists respond to something, even if it is a response to artists who have come before them. He concludes with the implications this exploration of creation might have for interpreting the biblical creation account.
Mark Sprinkle’s article explores the ecologies of meaning of visual artworks in domestic contexts. Most often, artistic meaning is discussed in terms of formal and subject matter analysis, or the ways that meanings change when a piece is removed from an original context such as an altarpiece and placed in a context such as a gallery. The role of visual art in domestic spaces has been explored far less often. Sprinkle explores many case studies of the roles images play in connecting domestic contexts to other places, people, and faith. He also discusses the different ways people experience visual art in a domestic context as com- pared to a gallery. Sprinkle writes as a visual artist whose research into domestic spaces has altered his own approach to the ways he distributes and shows his art.
Thomas Merton’s life and work intersected with many disciplines. Ron Dart traces the life of Merton from a self-indulgent Cambridge student to his life as a Roman Catholic monk and his eventual influence on Pope John XXIII. Dart explores Merton’s relation to peacemaking and how these interests placed him into relationship with the likes of the beat poets, the Pope, and Dorothy Day. Merton is known for prose writing on various topics including the thought of Gandhi, but he also published over ten volumes of poetry. Merton provides a striking example of someone whose faith was integral both to his social views and his artistic creation.
Metaphor is important to meaning making in the arts. Poetry, visual art, music and theatre are among the arts where aesthetic experience often depends on metaphor; that is, on the comparison of two dissimilar things. Poetry has the most known examples of metaphor, but even hearing a melody rise is an example of a deeply engrained metaphor. Jamin Pelkey explores the role of metaphor in the aesthetics of two thinkers who are not usually compared to one another: Jonathan Edwards and Friedrich Nietzsche. Pelkey argues that despite their differences and individual shortcomings, the central place of aesthetics and metaphor within each thinker is complementary in that it corrects errors of the other’s thought. Pelkey also argues that the aesthetics of both Edwards and Nietzsche should be seen as forerunners of the various contemporary approaches – including phenomenology, pragmatism, semiotics and cognitive science – that attempt to grasp the ways that we understand as embodied human beings.
In 2009, a posthumous collection of poems was released from one of Canada’s fore- most poets, Margaret Avison. D.S. Martin reviews the collection of poems entitled Listening: Last Poems, exploring the ways the poems relate to her career and to her faith. Martin draws upon his own encounters with Avison and other elements of her life in the discussion of this volume, providing an introduction to the life and work of Avison in addition to a review of Listening.
Discussions about launching this journal have taken place over a number of years. For the past five years, Trinity Western University has hosted interdisciplinary arts conferences on a number of topics under the moniker ‘The Verge,’ and every year there has been some discussion of getting this journal up and running (for more on the conferences, see http://www.twu.ca/academics/samc/interdisciplinary/conferences/). The excellent discussion at these annual conferences provided confirmation that there is a need and desire for a forum of this sort. Many thanks are in order to the people who helped get this journal under- way. There is not space here to thank everyone, but a special thanks to Ron Dart and Jamin Pelkey, whose continued work and encouragement have been greatly appreciated. Thanks also to Linda Schwartz and David Squires, past and current deans of the School of the Arts, Media + Culture at TWU for their continued support of interdisciplinary inquiry into the arts through hosting conferences and this journal. Thanks to Trinity Western University for setting up and hosting the Open Journal System server. Finally, a huge thanks to Shayna Leenstra for all of her excellent work on the journal layout, as well as in the administration of the journal. On the verge of this journal, I hope you enjoy the inaugural edition, and I hope it opens a space for continued dialogue on the arts and Christian faith.
August 6, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Today I wrote a blog post for ‘Transpostions’ that introduces some ideas of the acoustic guitar, authenticity, and folk in contemporary church music. You can read it here. Please click through to the Transpositions site, especially if you would like to join the conversation. I’ve copied what I wrote below as well:
Last semester I taught a popular music history course. When we got to music of the early 1990s, one of my students started singing a contemporary worship song along with what we were listening to. I think my student was bang on – it isn’t much of a jump from Hootie and the Blowfish and Dave Matthews Band to contemporary church music. So why is it that musical styles from twenty years ago remain prominent in churches today? Part of it could be their ‘Goldilocks’ approach, emulating ‘contemporary adult’ radio trying please everyone with music that is ‘not too hard, not too soft’. Another important factor, though, is the rise of the acoustic guitar as the lead instrument in church music and the ideologies that are attached to its sound. The sound of the acoustic guitar is heavy with meaning, owing to its history of being heard as a sign of ‘authentic’ expression. So just how did the acoustic guitar become the sound of ‘authentic’ expression? To excavate this reception history takes us to ideas of ‘folk’.
While the ideas of ‘folk’ and ‘folk music’ have a long and complex history, key to this discussion is rural southern black music by the likes of Blind Lemon Jefferson and others from the 1920s and 1930s. Captured by mobile recording equipment in the early days of the record industry, this music became emblematic of the struggles of the working class to a later generation of urban whites. The urban folk music revival of the 1950s and 1960s – which included Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan – drew upon this music to promote causes including civil rights and worker’s unions. Seeger’s concerts often turned into group sing-alongs that proclaimed shared values. Of course, many issues arise when urban white musicians conjure up rural black music and apply it issues of a different time and place, but there is not space to deal with them here. Rural folk was characterized by a singer with acoustic guitar or banjo, and this musical form was imitated in the folk revival of the 1950s. Since then, the acoustic guitar has returned to prominence several times in popular music, carrying with it the same values. Just think of the MTV Unplugged fad, where again the acoustic guitar signifies intimacy and authenticity.
The acoustic guitar, or course, is also prominent within today’s church music. What is interesting in the movement to ‘praise choruses’ is how many of the values and musical forms of the 1950s folk revival are transmuted into the centre of the worship life of the Evangelical church, despite the fact that folk revival music was criticized by conservative Christians for being too socialist.
When Bob Dylan went electric at Newport in 1965, it caused controversy within the folk community. The electric guitar seemed to represent individual expression rather than group expression, performance rather than community. Paired with Dylan’s lyrics that became increasingly personal, this seemed a betrayal of the folk ethos. Dylan’s concerts – while powerful – were far from the sing-alongs of Pete Seeger. It is worthwhile to think carefully about how these ideologies of the acoustic guitar are brought into contemporary church music, and what it means when church music goes electric.
If you are interested in exploring this topic in more detail, keep an eye out for my article in an upcoming issue of Verge: a journal of the arts and Christian faith. And – shameless plug here – we welcome submissions for this academic journal on an ongoing basis.
July 29, 2012 § Leave a Comment
In this series of posts I outline the way that I go about researching and writing in a manner that makes the most sense for me, keeps me organized, and preserves my work as best as possible for the future.
There are lots of great posts out there about research workflows, but since I find that I glean something from most of them that I read, I don’t mind adding another one. I have drawn liberally from lots of other sources – most of which I cannot remember – so apologies in advance to anyone who I have drawn upon without citing.
Over the past year I have become more concerned with digital preservation. A couple times within the last year I have tried to find things I wrote 10–15 years ago, only to find they were in a format that I could not open or could only open with some difficulty. If all goes well, I plan to be in the same career area for the next 30 years or so, and I want to make sure that if 20 years from now I want to review a file of research notes from today that I am able to. This led me to use plain text as my main file format for everything I do. If I need to work in another program, I make sure that I can export my work into plain text. Why plain text? Simply put, it is hard to imagine computers without it. I’ve also started to write in markdown. It is easy to learn (I’ve written this post in markdown and have written a conference paper with it), but I’ve yet to see how well it transfers to Word, which still is industry standard in humanities academia. The real test of writing in markdown will be how well it works for articles and book chapters. I think it should work fine, with the possible exception of footnotes.
At this point, I am using Byword for writing in plain text on the Mac and iOS devices (this was written on iPad). I’m syncing b
Byword to the same folder in Dropbox that nvalt also monitors (more on that workflow in a later post). However, there are many other great plain text editors out there (I also like plaintext for iOS. Just do yourself a favor and don’t use the baked in text editor. This process ensures I can write from anywhere, and means there are lots of backups around. I also use textexpander, which means that I write ‘phen’ for ‘phenomenology’, ‘levs’ for ‘Levinas’, etc. When it comes time to finish something, I just export from Byword into the appropriate format and do any layout necessary.
In the next post, I’ll take a look at finding and annotating research sources.
Apps used in my workflow
There are lots of great ways to set up a research workflow. I have a macbook, iPad, and iPod, and here are the apps that I use (I’ll talk about them in later posts):
Keeping up on the latest news/conferences/publications
- newsify for google reader (iOS)
- zite (iOS)
- goodreader (iOS)
- bookends (iOS and Mac)
- nvalt (Mac)
- fantastical (Mac)
- sparrow (Mac and iOS)
- week calendar (iOS)
- reminders (iOS)
April 2, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Here is a call for papers for a conference I am organizing on ‘Arts and Ethics’ at Trinity Western University.
Arts and Ethics
Oct 18–19, 2012
The 6th Verge Conference at the School of the Arts, Media + Culture
Trinity Western University, Langley, British Columbia
There is long history surrounding the relationship between the arts and ethics. The arts affect individual identities, communities, and relationships between people and their environments. The arts can contribute to the ethical life of a community, as exemplified by public art and theatre. Some people have been suspicious of the role of the arts on individual ethical outlooks, as reflected by censorship and ratings labels. The arts can also affect relational ethics, either positively – as in the case of a caregiver singing to a child – or negatively – as in the use of music to encourage violence. Another strand of thought argues that the arts do not mean anything outside of themselves and are therefore isolated from ethics. Each theory of the relation between arts and ethics leads to different views of the ways the arts are experienced and gives rise to different responsibilities for producers and experiencers of the arts.
This conference explores the relations between arts and ethics through questions including:
- Do artistic forms enact ethics? If so, are some artistic forms ‘more ethical’ than others?
- Are there ethical responsibilities to art?
- What ethical responsibilities do artists have?
- Do arts educators have ethical responsibilities? Can there be ‘ethical guidelines’ for arts education?
- What is the distinction (if there is one) between ‘arts and ethics’ and ‘arts and morals/morality’?
- Can the arts make communities ‘more ethical’?
- Can they encourage democracy or an ethical alternative?
- Can the arts help or harm the development of ethical reasoning?How do the arts present ethical responses to real life situations?
- Aesthetic experience is becoming increasingly discussed in neuroscientific terms. How does this alter the dialogue surrounding arts and ethics?
- How have discourses about the arts ignored issues pertaining to ethics?
- How do specific ethical theories (normative, virtue, discourse, pragmatic, utilitarian, Levinasian) contribute to this discussion?
- Prof. Terry Lindvall, Virginia Wesleyan College
- Prof. Lambert Zuidervaart, Institute for Christian Studies and University of Toronto
- Dr. Nanette Nielsen, The University of Nottingham
- Dr. Marcel Cobussen, Leiden University
This conference welcomes submissions from any discipline that explores the topic under consideration. Please submit presentation abstracts (300 words) and a short bio (100 words) to Jeff.Warren (at) Twu.ca. Direct any questions regarding the conference to the same address. We welcome non-conventional forms of presentation, including lecture-recitals and other performances. Presentation length is 25 minutes with an additional 10 minutes for discussion of each paper. Unconventional presentations may propose a different time frame for presentation. In order to facilitate discussion throughout the conference, no more than thirty presenters will be chosen to present and there will be no more than two concurrent sessions. Presentations whose topics intersect with our recently launched journal will be considered for publication in an edition themed on the conference topic. For more information on the journal visit http://www.vergearts.com. The deadline for proposals is June 15, 2012.
For more information, visit our website
January 10, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Here’s a link to something I wrote for biologos.org, the site started by Francis Collins (who directed the human genome project) to discuss science and faith. The fist couple paragraphs are below, and you can click the link above for the full piece. Part 2 comes out next week.
A few months ago a couple of Jehovah’s witnesses came to my door. Upon learning of my profession, they pulled out one of their recent magazines with the cover article “Music: How does it affect you?” This is a question that has been asked for a long time, going back at least to the disagreements between Plato and Aristotle about how different musical scales affect moral development, and forward to the current lineup of ‘Baby Mozart’ edu-toys and the ongoing “worship wars” over what kind of music is best suited to be played in our churches. As with arguments in the past, our contemporary discussions about how music affects people reveal underlying assumptions about the function and meaning of music that are ultimately tied to ideas about artistic creation; and varying perspectives on the source of artistic creation eventually take us back to a discussion of our ideas about God’s creation—the natural world and its inbuilt systems, including evolution—and God’s creativity, something we reflect in community as part of the imago dei, not least through music.
Humanity is marked by the biological capacity for musicality. Every known culture has something like music. Understanding how we experience and create music in the present gives us clues to why and how music emerged as one of the defining features of human culture (and, therefore, of humanness itself) in the past. But thinking carefully about music and evolution can also help us reassess how we use music now: in the wider culture, collectively as the church, and even within our own homes. In a nutshell, then, this essay will examine how views on evolution impact how one assesses music’s effects and meaning. In many cases, problematic views about evolution and artistic creativity result in problematic views about music, but my argument is that an appropriate evolutionary view of music—one that looks at how music becomes meaningful within social relationships—is a view that actually enriches our appreciation of this most human endeavor, rather than trivializing it. In this first part I explore common discourses about the meaning of music and their relationship to ideas of creation. In part two next week, I suggest that understanding the role that music played in our biocultural evolution helps correct some of the myths that have made their way into popular discourse, especially with the growing popularity of trying to understand music via neuroscience.
Continue reading here
November 21, 2011 § Leave a Comment
For a movement whose call to action came from the visual culture-jamming magazine/group ‘Adbusters’, until the past week there have been surprisingly few images that have captured the public attention. Yes, there are signs in all the occupy camps, and some clever slogans (“Twenty years ago we had Steve Jobs/Bob Hope/Johnny Cash, now we have No Jobs, No Hope, No Cash”). I was in San Francisco the other week, and the ‘sign making station’ seemed to be a grocery cart filled with pieces of cardboard. Some artists have designed posters and made them available for free to print, but until this weekend it seemed that there were not any images that have captured the general public’s attention. Images can very powerfully solidify ideas or a movement, becoming icons for wider ideas (just think of the use of icons in Christianity, for example).
Randy L. Rasmussen‘s (AP/Guardian) photo (above) has caught public attention. We discussed Goya’s painting “The Third of May 1808″ in a first year course I teach last week, and it struck me that these images utilize similar formulae to make their impact. Both are protest images: Goya’s against the slaughter of Spaniards by Napoleon’s men, the recent photo against power imbalance and the strained relationship of capitalism and democracy.
video of this incident here