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They all dig that crazy beat

Posted in: Christianity,Drumming,General,Lyrics,Practices by David Dault on December 28, 2012

Some recent posts have gotten my mind thinking.  In particular, the posts by Tom Beaudoin and Maeve Heaney have raised the question of  interpretations that are not lyric-oriented, but are instead interested in thinking about the meaning of the music.  We get so used to thinking that the only aspect of a song that matters is the worded expressiveness, and we pass over the “material substrate” of the music itself.

For me, this raises a really interesting set of possibilities.  I think of Peter Gabriel, during his musique concrete phase in the early 80s (n.b. Melting Face and Security?), telling interviewers that he was trying to process primal screams through filters so that they became part of the texture of the songs–the sonic landscape. I think of Ween, Geza X, my beloved Brainiac, and the almost unlistenable moments of NEU!–each is pushing beyond the “meaning-content” of the lyrics to the point of using the voice as an instrument in itself.

Which makes me think about the points where voice and instrument are literally melded–autotune, vocoder, and talking guitar.  Let me take this backwards in three steps: the contemporary example, of course, is T-Pain.  But isn’t he just using new technology to build on the ground laid by Roger and Zapp? And Roger was riffing with synthesizers, using technologies popularized by Peter Frampton and his guitar.  But in these examples, the “instrumentalized voice” is still capable of being examined for meaningful lyric content.

So what of the artists that used voices but refused to offer intelligible lyrics as content?  Dave Thomas of Pere Ubu once wrote that (more…)

Anyone know who this terrific drummer of a priest (or seminarian) is? (Watch all the way through for the special ending.)

No doubt he’ll be pegged for the youth ministry, but despite myself, I am wondering what it would be like if he teamed up with bass wizard Fr. Stan Fortuna on bass to compose a Mass.

And wait — they could be joined by, perhaps, guitar guru Fr. Stan Fortuna on guitar:

And while Fr. Fortuna can — it is true — also front a rock band, I suggesting sharing the wealth, and nominate Fr. Cesare Bonizzi for lead singer:

I believe this opens up a new topic at R&T: Religious leaders who rock. Do readers have other suggestions?

This topic takes us back to the origins of Rock and Theology and its patron saint, the Abbot Primate of the Benedictines, Notker Wolf.

Tommy Beaudoin, Hastings-on-Hudson, New York

Occupy Wall Street has been “homeless” ever since we were evicted from Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan a few weeks ago, and many other Occupy sites have experienced the same fate. So while many of the original 1000+ global occupations remain in their original space, #OWS and others have become momentarily virtual, relying on social networking — Facebook, Twitter, email, texts — to rally Occupiers to regular rallies, marches, demonstrations, celebrations, and other events.

In the midst of this (hopefully temporary) “homelessness,” I find myself noticing again and again how music is associated with spiritually-identified activities at Occupy. That association is often indirect. Occupy has no hymnal other than viral media songs made for the movement, the music played at Occupations, and musicians who support the movement and, by implication, whose music can become a wellspring for those to have ears to hear it as “occupied.”

Songs made for the movement include Global Block Movement’s “Occupation Freedom”…

And Miley Cyrus let her song “Liberty Walk” get remixed and re-video’d in support of #OWS:

The music played at Occupations is usually by local musicians who play songs crafted for that moment, or invented in that moment, that are not meant for going media-viral, so are heard and then dissipate.

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While this is not directly on the topic of theology and music, at R&T we also deal with larger issues of religion and culture, and this one certainly qualifies:

I have been participating in Occupy Wall Street since 30 September (my first post about it is here), and was most recently on site at Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan on Friday the 14th. (My post imagining Occupy Wall Street being applied to the Catholic Church is here, picked up by the Chronicle of Higher Education blog here.)

Among other fundamentally irreversible influences in my life, it was my Catholic upbringing, Catholic religious education, and Catholic graduate studies at Harvard Divinity School and at Boston College, that laid the spiritual and intellectual groundwork for me to be able to recognize, in Occupy Wall Street, a possible shared work of corporal and spiritual mercy, a potential place for practicing solidarity, and a plausible habitat for more deeply and experientially learning and living love’s public name: justice.

(A word about the video above: while it is intended to make a point about the connection between democratic struggle in the Occupy movement and the Arab Spring, I am uncomfortable with its selective presentation of police officers; I think it is crucial for the Occupy movement not to presume that all police are enforcers of repressive state policies or personally hostile to the movement. I hope the Occupy movement can start from an engagement with police officers that appeals to them as fellow working men and women, most of them with middle class and working class families. The Occupy movement therefore shares an interest in changing the political scene to improve their lives as well.)

Because of this Catholic background, I am drawn in particular to the practices and rituals that help those of us at Occupy Wall Street to appreciate and to try to act on reality. These actions and performances bear the movement’s theologies or spiritualities as much as any explicit statement on the part of any single person about what they do or do not believe.

There are lots of practices and rituals to notice on site: serving meals, standing with a placard, drumming, dancing, silk-screening shirts, browsing literature, listening, meandering, and many more. But I have tried to pay special attention to the Sacred Space area in Zuccotti Park that emerged soon after the occupation began. (I am not sure exactly when, or by whom, though I would like to find out.) (For some initial pictures, see here.)

Recently, the Sacred Space area has changed its shape a little bit, but it is still a place for a hodgepodge of symbols left by protesters, a place for people to think, meditate, pray, wonder, and talk, and only the most recent example of how Americans hold their religious pluralism and relate it to their political commitments. Theologically, there are many reasons to take this space seriously and with critical curiosity: the relationship between religious/spiritual imagination and political imagination is of interest not only to Christianity but to conceivably all religious and spiritual movements today. One of the basic theological questions is how a relationship to God, “God,” or some other ultimate name or reality bears on how one lives and the choices one makes. Theological questions are present moment to moment in Occupy Wall Street.

What follows are my pictures from Friday, with brief captions/commentary. Please, if you are sympathetic to this movement, consider helping Occupy Wall Street or any of the apparently now more than 1000 “Occupy” movements around the world. (If you cannot see the pictures, click the “more” tab below to see them.)

Tommy Beaudoin, Hastings-on-Hudson, New York

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I just stumbled across this wonderful BBC documentary that chronicles the rise of the post-WWII German avant-garde music scene.  The film features interviews with a host of musicians, including members of Faust, Can, Kraftwerk, and NEU!

In particular, I was interested to learn about the explicit desire on the part of many of these musicians to imagine a music that was based neither in classical motifs or in blues-rock chord structures.  I also was not aware (though, thinking back, I should have been) of the influence these German musicians had on the likes of Brian Eno and David Bowie, as well as on the development of the ambient and electronica movements.

Finally, I just really dug watching the interview with Damo Suzuki.  An old favorite of mine, still crazy after all these years.

Viel Spass!  Enjoy!

I am happy to post this guest entry from the Rev. Mark Conforti. A Rock and Theology reader, he is a United Methodist pastor and a percussionist, having studied at the University of Florida, Duke Divinity School, and Wesley Theological Seminary.

*

For several months, I have been eagerly awaiting the news about Dream Theater’s new drummer.  Like so many fans, I was shocked and confused when Mike Portnoy (who is widely regarded as one of the world’s premier rock drummers and also one of the main creative forces behind Dream Theater) decided to step away from the band.  So I was thrilled to learn about the band’s new documentary telling the story of the drummer auditions.

The documentary is being released episodically via YouTube – an intriguing approach to revealing a new bandmate!

All of the speculation around Mike Portnoy departing and a new drummer entering makes me curious about people entering and departing the Church.  Might there be an ecclesiological connection to the dynamics of a rock band?

The Dream Theater documentary gives clues to such reflection. The actual title, “The Spirit Carries On,” plays off of Dream Theater’s hit album, “Scenes From A Memory.”  The pneumatological insight is undeniable: to carry on, the Church is dependent upon the Spirit.

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I saw these videos today (thank you, rushisaband.com), and though I am not a drummer, and more than a few of the beautiful nuances were lost on me, I still came away with a deeper appreciation of the specific ways in which rock music can be a training of the senses. This makes it directly relevant for Christian theology, which on many worthy accounts is either the theory of Christian sense-making or the very training of sense itself. Another reason that rock and theology need a more sustained and intentional interrelating.

Notice the ways in which touch, hearing, sight are called to refinement in the aural and visual recognition of drum shell grains, the awareness of tonal intervals amongst drums, the “benchmark” quality (as both felt and idealized) for the percussive compass that a 13-inch tom provides in a rock kit, the sustain and spackle of birch versus maple woods. We are, as Peart says, “talking about the character of individual drums.”

Is it too much to hope that living in these rock practices will allow the renewal dispossession of theology of which we are in such need?

Tom Beaudoin

Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, United States

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Recently, I posted a brief reflection on the ways in which the practice of “air drumming” can symbolize the spiritual discipline that rock culture can foster in its adherents. The key video there was the rock drummer Neil Peart drumming in tandem with air-drummer Ari Gold (known as “Power”). Recently, the Drum Channel posted a discussion (which can be viewed here) between Peart and Gold on the practice of learning to love drums in particular and music in general.

Their discussion really takes off after the 8:30 mark, focusing on the sort of person that participation in rock culture helps people become, through specific practices. Watching the conversation with that in mind highlights many crucial ideas: learning the art of  imitation, practicing cross-cultural dialogue through music, dealing with reviews of one’s playing, appreciating music as a kind of soul-craft. Paying attention to such discussions, whether from the viewpoint of amateurs or professionals, musicians or fans, is important not only because it is crucial for theologians to find ways of naming the spiritual significance of “secular” music practices, but because it is all too common in Christian ecclesial and academic circles to think that “our” practices are the only, best, or exclusive ones for creating mature and generous human beings.

The more, however, that theology helps show that it does not own the rights to practices that make for courageous or generous people, the greater a right theology has to make itself an active conversation partner with those secular music practices — for the sake of more life, more profound freedom, a deeper experience of being alive for oneself and others.

Tom Beaudoin

Montreal, Quebec, Canada

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The new English rock band Florence and the Machine recently played the Bowery Ballroom here in New York City, and critic Jon Pareles has a review of the show in the New York Times here. The show, as reported by Pareles, exemplified a point often made in rock research and which we have occasionally emphasized on this blog: rock’s ongoing relationship to its religious origins. Pareles writes that “After a set full of intimate strife, Florence and the Machine returned with a devout, gospel-tinged remake of ‘You’ve Got the Love,’ which insists, ‘My savior’s love is real.’ ”

Here is the band performing “You’ve Got the Love.”

And speaking of the continued working-through of rock’s religious origins, here are Florence and the Machine performing “The Drumming Song”:

Can the church bells clear out the drums? Which sounds, from the church or the kit, will be more responsive to the transvaluation of an extra-religious desire “sweeter than heaven, hotter than hell”?

Tom Beaudoin

New York City

I am here concluding a small three-part exploration that began here and continued here, on the topic of spiritual exercises in theological and rock cultures. I will presume what was said there, and pick up here with the rockish example of air instrumentation as a practice from rock culture that exemplifies and symbolizes the rehearsal for a new availability, that I am using as a figuration of the “spiritual exercises” that overlap rock and theology.

I was stunned recently to see the video below, featuring “Power,” the star of the movie Adventures of Power. The video features “Power” as an “air drummer”, in which he is playing in tandem with one of the most well-regarded and famous rock drummers ever, Neil Peart of the Canadian rock trio Rush. To watch this video is to get an exaggerated snapshot of the phenomenon of air instrumentation in general and air drumming in particular — but just so, it serves in its extravagance, like comedy, as a staging of some crucial and common qualities of this practice.

What was the claim to attention that this video made on me? Simply its vivid rendering of the power of imitative practice for the confecting of relationship in general, and for a new availability in particular. (And with such delightful precariousness of self-awareness/self-unawareness that the famously stone-faced Peart is seen smirking at several points during the exercise.) Notice how “Power” submits to a riot of physical pedagogy: being spatially stationed near the master, so he can see and be seen; showing off the well-rehearsed moves that mimic those the sage Peart makes but also find their own whimsy through unrepellable desire (“Power” keeps moving closer to Peart’s kit and wanting to show him how he is doing, maybe make him laugh, maybe even teach him a thing or two about his own “Power”?) and irreducible weirdness (symbolized in the white geek-boy presentation); submitting to the trial of mental-physical exhaustion that becomes a way of calibrating his proximity and distance from the philosopher Peart; learning how to find in sound and silence the punctuations that can orient the body even outside this specific exercise; studying ways to listen to the sound and body of another as a passage into one’s own corporeal sizing up; and finally, just when you think he can live with the discipline, and with thirty seconds to go, the collapse and acknowledgement that he is not the sage. (And as in ancient exercises, a deep spiritual exercise can also be rehearsal for death: You hear a voice off-camera say, “Somebody call an ambulance.”)

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