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May 2010
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On the heels of Mary and Mike’s recent ruminations on her rock addiction and his inquiry into defining “Christian” rock….

Today I’d like to make my own confession. I’m a gear geek. When I go to a show, I’m looking to see what gear the lead guitarist is using to boost his sound during a solo (two TS-9s in tandem always works best, right?). When I listen to an album with a prominent bassline, I try to identify the frequency where the bassist’s compression kicks in, allowing for both a grainy, unmuddled bottom and a smooth, phattened high end (a distinction that is unfortunately washed over in poorly compressed audio files).

This propensity for “geargeekity” also manages to express itself in other spheres beyond the musical. When my academic institution installed a SmartBoard last year, I was eager to use it in seminars. Similarly, when we purchased Adobe CS4, I stayed awake at night thinking of all the possibilities for using Flash animation in teaching. And like everyone else, over the past year I’ve been researching e-readers for their PDF capabilities so I can take my favorite academic journals with me everywhere. (Forget the gear…perhaps I’m just a categorical “geek”!)

Yet last week I attended (more…)

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I mentioned in an earlier post that I have recently begun work on a new album. This particular musical project — my second full length “solo” record, if I could arrogantly claim that term — is the most “theological” of the various musical projects of which I have been a part. It is also the first serious recording project that I have undertaken since I joined the Rock and Theology project. So I can’t help but be reflective in the process of making this record; perhaps more reflective than I have ever been about “what I’m doing” with these particular songs in this particular band. In this post I’d simply like to throw out some very tentative reflections and questions, to “think out loud.” (Can I get a little more of me in my monitor?)

Although my “solo” material has for a long time featured overtly “religious” language, especially Christian imagery and references, I have always emphatically rejected the notion that what I am doing is “Christian rock.” (I have never been interested in “Christian rock,” with the exception of a couple very fringey “Christian metal” bands long ago.) And though no one, to my knowledge, has ever “accused” me of making “Christian rock,” a few listeners have come pretty close. A friend of mine told me once after a show that when he saw my band play he felt like he was at church — “In a good way,” he added. I believe my response was “Thanks?”

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Today’s New York Times carries a report by Larry Rohter on a movement called Sound Strike, to encourage musicians to boycott Arizona in protest of the new law, set to take effect this summer, stipulating that when law enforcement, after “any lawful contact” made with a person, considers that a “reasonable suspicion exists that the person is an alien who is unlawfully present in the United States, a reasonable attempt shall be made, when praticable, to determine the immigration status of the person.” And there is much more. (Read the text here.)

Zack de la Rocha, who is the lead singer of Rage Against the Machine, is apparently spearheading the effort. See here for the Sound Strike website, which includes a list of artists boycotting Arizona, and a petition for repeal of the law. This is an excellent example of the ethical courage that rock culture can still confect.

Here they are tearing it up with “Killing in the Name Of,” in stripped down mode, to fight homelessness:

And here is what that tune looks like in its fuller glory:

Zack de la Rocha and Rage Against the Machine seem to have understood something that theology has at times found its own courage to confront: that power is a spiritual phenomenon seen most clearly in resistance to injustice.

Tom Beaudoin

Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, United States

Whose Beat is It?

Posted in: General,Guitarwork,Musical Performance by Tom Beaudoin on May 27, 2010

Here is a short tutorial on hard rock genres, as seen and heard through the fingers of a (very good) guitarist on YouTube.

One could also give this lesson through the hands of a drummer or bassist, but the very fact that the electric guitar can by itself (actually, with the help here of a drum machine) sketch the genres is some small indication of just how central electric guitar playing is to rock music and culture. The guitarist’s gestures tend to become the paradigmatic ones. (Oh, sorry, did I forget to mention keyboards?)

That said, I once heard Jon Anderson, the lead singer of the Yes group, aver that a rock band is only as good as its drummer, and this has been confirmed constantly in my experience and observations of the rock scene. The other instruments can be guilty of many sins, but such sins will often be covered over — or better, resituated as meaningful musical events — with a good drummer articulating the space of the song. Conversely, any band long on guitars or vocals (or even keyboards) but short on drumming is almost guaranteed to fail. There is no holding-together guarantor if the drummer cannot do it, no matter how percussive the guitarists are.

What does this have to do with theology? I wonder how much theological work on popular music makes theological sense of such musicological phenomena as this “ideological” priority of the guitar and “musical” priority of the drums. Almost none, from what I have read (including my own work). As with so much of what we write here at R&T, here is an occasion for further learning.

Tom Beaudoin
New York City, United States

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Pipes and Rock

Posted in: General by Tom Beaudoin on May 23, 2010

With respect to my post below about that grab-bag of transitional theological space called the bagpipe, check out a few videos. Here are two of a famous pipe band from Stradclythe. The first showcases the whole band. Follow that melody from your stomach!

The second gives some sense for that delicacy of pinpoint carnality known as snare drumming in the pipe band. Follow those beats from your limbic system!

And wanting to showcase an example of how bagpipes can interface with rock without necessarily causing (unintended) laughter, check out this tune/video from the U.S. band Prydein. This song seems to me to invent, draw down, and model the restless and searching desires that one finds, hears, and can come to live from, in both pipe and rock music and culture.

Tom Beaudoin

Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, United States

On Never Leaving that Space Between Pipe and Drum

Posted in: Eschatology,General by Tom Beaudoin on May 23, 2010

At Fordham University on Saturday, our venerable commencement speaker (and a recipient of an honorary doctorate) was the Irish president Mary McAleese. I was a faculty marshal, carrying the “mace” for the Graduate School of Religion, which meant, among other things, that I got to sit up on the stage and — with many other faculty, administrators, and newly-minted awardees of doctorates — process the full distance out of the ceremony to the strains of bagpipes. Pipes and Drums of Local 21, an ensemble out of Peekskill, New York, honored President McAleese and all of us with gladsome archaism for perhaps a full fifteen minutes as we all walked out from Keating Hall across Edwards Parade and into the end of the school year’s hallowed closing ritual.

Except the true “end” for me was a shocking one. Toward the terminus of the procession, Local 21 had split into two halves, flank-serenading each processant the final few steps as a “yes” to this end. Thus did happen the welcome calamatization of my spiritual nerves: walking through maybe 20 men at arms’ length, passing between drums close in on left and right, then pipes close in left and right, I had something like divine cardiac arrest: this thisness of sound and silence in time, this corporeal definition of power known as music, picking me through and up with the aural pressure created when snare drums on each side in perfect time beat so hard they are making a crack that must have been the original sonic inspiration for the very creation of gunpowder, and walking between the snares I felt an utterly new sensation, that I was walking through gunfire of the most blessed sort. Is it this pneumatokinaesthetic cocktail that makes drums and religion so central to military pageantry? But if it were the condition of the precisionistic bombast of the gunner, it would also be its undoing: the power of this sound is power but not violence. But then came the pipes, the bagpipes, to my right and left at once: such a cry, whine, bleat, visitation of the grave at dawn! Sore, sore harmony of tragic truths. Who would not fall into their greatest loss and taste the saving freefall when held between bagpipes at this volume and in this gracious skill?  “Where do you live?” I wanted to ask, and “Can I live there, too?”

Tom Beaudoin

Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, United States

Follow-on Regarding “Cars”

Posted in: Dialectic,General by Tom Beaudoin on May 22, 2010

In his response to my recent post on “cars and spiritual transport,” Mike Iafrate has made a terrific suggestion about the potential theological importance, at least lyrically speaking, of Gary Numan’s song “Cars.” That’s a subtle highlighting of some spiritually suggestive phrases.

I will say that I find almost as compelling as those lyrics this video of Numan performing the song with Nine Inch Nails. Watch it in high-definition if you can.

The videality here almost entirely upends the lyrical content, giving a whole other experience for theological comprehension. As a matter of fact, I know there is someone who reads this blog who could give a wizardish theological reading of this video, right down to Trent Reznor’s delicate but authoritative handling of the “manbourine.” I hope that person, or someone else, will step forward with some thoughts.

Tom Beaudoin

Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, United States

Cars as Vehicles of Holy Transport in Secular Music

Posted in: Dialectic,General,Grace by Tom Beaudoin on May 21, 2010

A few days ago, a Rock and Theology reader posted a playful commentary about the song “Red Barchetta” by Rush. This is a rock song celebrating what might otherwise sound like a mundane story: of the joy of being in a fast little sports car zipping around the open countryside, and of a mysterious uncle on a farm whose car it is, whose consoling company parenthesizes the story. Here are two videos of Rush playing “Red Barchetta” in the 1980s and recently. The first has a few words from drummer and lyricist Neil Peart talking about what cars can represent.

The comment from the recent post that caught my attention, however tongue-in-cheek the intention, was this subtle question: “What does the Red Barchetta make happen?” Around this question are framed various Christian interpretations, based on the “exitus-reditus” schema, the going-forth from God and the going-back to God, a going-out and going-back that can be said to “pass through” the world. This theological concept has given rise to centuries of interpretation about the “vehicles” God (and/as God’s Spirit) may take, and the travelers it may “pick up,” as God travels through the world. Hence the brief theological background for the question, “What does the Red Barchetta make happen?” (In other words, does it symbolize the divine passage through the world and signal that the very car-ness of this car says that it was built to travel from somewhere to somewhere, its mobility a symbol of divine dynamism?)

Much hinges on what we (cultural interpreters) ourselves make happen when we give such interpretations. Are we “preliminarily” playing with ideas in the Christian popcorn popper “before” they get served up for others? Are we giving the “real” (as “final”) interpretation of these cultural materials? My own position, in brief, is that in the game of making theological sense of cultural material, we are working with the materials we have from a psychological-cultural history, for this moment, in a process we neither own nor control.

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Somatica Divina 51: Metallica “Seek and Destroy”

Posted in: Somatica Divina by Mary McDonough on May 20, 2010

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