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Tonight I walked into Times Square through a pleasant sea of people and warm spring air to BB King’s music club, where I went to see Jon Anderson in concert. Anderson was the singer of Yes, a legendary and influential English art-rock band.
Showing up a few minutes before start time, I was surprised to find the club utterly packed, and had to settle for squeezing into a space next to the bar at the back of the club, leaning left and right around shoulders and heads to glimpse Anderson 100 feet or so away, and sometimes had to content myself with watching one of the two video screens to either side of the stage.
The crowd was what you might expect of those who are wild about music that began as 1970s progressive rock: heavily male and white, 40- and 50-somethings. (I sometimes feel like Yes and Rush concerts are reunions for guys and some women who all grew up under the same psycho-social roof in the 70s and 80s: a little nerdy, a little brainy, not at home in the prevailing social orders of youth but much more at home in the world of fantasy and nature mysticism. And when I see guys with jean jackets or still proudly sporting mullets, I think to myself, “You are my people!”)
Such associations are far from incidental to the comprehension of a Jon Anderson concert, because so much of the evening had to do with recollection of music that spoke from the times of fans’ adolescence or young adulthood, framing those years in a now-pantheistic, now-panentheistic, wash of hermetic images that fit multiple moods and frames of mind while also referring them to a mysterious beyond, sung by the elfin Anderson and his unusual pop voice (which sounded in warmly clear and generous shape tonight).
This semester I am teaching an intro to theology course and I decided to use music as a resource to demonstrate concepts and develop discussions. While I have utilized film clips and other resources for this purpose in the past, this is the first time I decided to bring music into the classroom. I have a personal passion for music and I thought it would be an interesting method to bring theological concepts to light. In addition, because the course is required and rarely taken out of interest, I thought it would be a good way to grab attention. What I found was that the use of music was a major success and created an atmosphere where students were excited to participate and gained a better grasp of the course material.
My course was structured by themes. I began each new section with a song that conveyed the theological concept we were focusing on. For instance, when discussing the topic of sin and evil I utilized the follow clip of the video of “Katrina Klap” by Mos Def:
When discussing social justice and personal responsibility I played the song “Dive In” by the Dave Matthews Band:
The discussions that spawned from this tactic were incredibly fruitful. It created a communal experience for the students increasing dialogue. Because the students were comfortable with the music being utilized, they were more confident in their own abilities and were empowered to engage critically in discussions. In addition, because the music utilized was viewed as part of their culture, the students felt ownership of the material and were committed to their learning process.
Towards the end of the course, I welcomed the students to participate in this method by presenting a theological concept through a favorite song as a final project within groups. Their enthusiasm was incredible as were the projects. The students were excited to engage in the work and the entire class, myself included, took away a very positive learning experience. After this course, I will continue to utilize music in the classroom and highly recommend it as a resource.
I am writing to recommend a collection of interviews with rock, jazz and world musicians called Innerviews: Music Without Borders by Anil Prasad. I love reading and listening to/watching interviews with musicians, especially when the interviewer has done his/her homework and knows what to ask and how to ask it in a way that encourages the musician to reflect deeply. Anil Prasad is this kind of interviewer.
Bassist Victor Wooten, who wrote the Foreword to the book, explained how Anil Prasad surprised him with his intelligent questions and the way in which he asked them– “The interview got better and better as it went along. Anil asked insightful questions that allowed me to speak about music and life as I see them. He listened intently to my answers and seemed to really care about what I was saying. That made me feel comfortable and allowed me to open up and feel free with my replies.” Mr. Prasad seems to practice his craft similar to the way a great therapist or spiritual director would—two occupations that require the kind of active listening and true openness to the other that Mr. Wooten describes.
One theme among many that I noticed in several of the interviews is the connection between spirituality and the creative process in music. Jon Anderson, Bjork, Ani DiFranco, Michael Hedges, and David Sylvian all delve into this relationship when discussing their songwriting with Prasad. Here’s an excerpt of Prasad’s interview with DiFranco:
Does spirituality play a role in your music?
(Ani DiFranco): “Sure, but being an atheist, I don’t think in terms of God or higher beings. Music is my church. It’s my way of uplifting myself and giving love to others….There are moments when I’m playing when I’m physically transported out of my body in the way other people achieve through meditation and other spiritual practices.”
Here’s an excerpt of his interview with Bjork:
(Bjork): “I don’t think music is a religious thing. I think it’s generalizing too much to say that. But I can definitely say that I feel making and listening to music are spiritual experiences for me.”
David Sylvian, from the group Japan, does not use the word “spirituality” but his description of the healing power of music is arresting:
“I think music can potentially give a listener a safe haven to open up to themselves. Music can be a healing place. It’s not a physical space, but music can sometimes envelop listeners and allow them to delve into emotions they don’t feel safe to explore elsewhere. In the embrace of music, they can open up, breathe deeply into these emotions, be they celebratory, sad or melancholy, and just ride with them. I think music has such a potent, healing capacity.”
What could rock interviews teach us about a spirituality or a theology of the creative process in music? This is a question that I believe is worth exploring. Whether or not a musician identifies as belonging to a formal religious congregation, many experience creating music as “spiritual”-or, involving something transcendent. I once read an interview with Prince where he explained that he did not know how certain of his songs were written—they seemed to have been given to him by someone or something—and he was simply playing the role of recipient and bearer of the song. I wonder if that higher power is expecting royalties?!
Posted in: General,Race,Theological Production by Tom Beaudoin on April 28, 2011
Today I visited the Apollo Theater exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York, in Manhattan. I have never been to the Apollo (though after seeing this exhibit, that will have to change), but had a vague sense of its importance in the history of African-American art and life in New York. Titled “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing: How the Apollo Theater Shaped American Entertainment,” this installation offered an introduction to a famous institution that has served New York City’s African-American community and many guests for nearly eighty years.
The Apollo Theater is perhaps most famous for its Amateur Night, dating back to the 1930s, in which audiences get to boo or cheer for the artists on stage, and often enough help elevate relatively unknown musicians to a national platform. Here is Lauryn Hill on Amateur Night in 1987…
From inside the Apollo’s walls have emerged some of the most famous U.S. musicians of the 20th century: The Jackson 5, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Ella Fitzgerald, Jimi Hendrix, James Brown, and a great many more.
As I followed the panels on the wall from the 1930s to the present, I noted the changing role of the Apollo in the history of race relations in New York. My thoughts turned continually to how it is that music can drive down prejudicial social differences. As I understood the story I read at the exhibit, the original white owners of the theater (which was then a burlesque club under a different name) had kept it a whites-only venue, but thanks to a subsequent owner named Frank Schiffman who took it over in 1935, the Apollo was opened to black and white audiences, performers, and employees. There is even a letter from Martin Luther King, Jr., to Schiffman thanking him for his support of civil rights.
Something happens when you are in the California desert at night, surrounded by tens of thousands of your closest friends, watching and listening to The Arcade Fire . Something magical. Something mystical. The warm breeze grazes your face as the volume of the music causes your whole body to vibrate with every beat. At points, the crowd is singing louder than the amplified band and when you are reveling in the sublimity of the moment, suddenly hundreds of white beach balls drop from the canopy over the top of the stage. This waterfall of translucent orbs then begins to change colors as the band changes notes. The sights and sounds are overwhelming as you embrace a loved one, and for a few minutes time slows down, nothing else matters, and no words can really ever describe the experience.
Someone has said that “talking about music is like dancing about architecture.” However much this may ring true, I still think we have to try, knowing that even an audio or video recording will often pale in comparison to the live concert experience. Like many of you, being a musician myself who has played and seen hundreds of shows, it is hard not to become critical of all aspects of the production and performance of a live concert. Perhaps even too critical – something like the proverbial jaded record store clerk. [This might fall under what The Hold Steady calls a Rock N’ Roll problem.] That night however, everything was executed with such precision that the only applicable word I could find to describe it was “perfect.” However, the perfection that night extended beyond mere technical accuracy. It encompassed the totality of the experience.
It was Arcade Fire frontman Win Butler’s 31st birthday that night, and the usually stoic and somber vocalist was visibly moved by the audience and the spectacle he beheld from the stage. A smile can be seen to grace his face for almost all of the final encore song as he watches his wife/co-lead vocalist Régine Chassagne dance as she belts out a hauntingly beautiful melody. Their love on stage and the appreciation repeatedly given to the crowd fostered an air of positive energy felt by all. Some very open and heart felt comments about the set by those who were in attendance can be read on the youtube page for this and other videos posted of the song “Wake Up.” Observers talk about chills, goosebumps, crying, life altering moment, etc.
In 2010 Rolling Stone dubbed The Arcade Fire “the new U2,” which is interesting considering U2 have more books written about them that aim at investigating their spirituality than perhaps any other single rock band. However, The Arcade Fire themselves swim even deeper in this sea of religious language and symbolism.
In 2009, I proposed a rock bestiary here at Rock and Theology. As a further entry (search ‘bestiary’ for earlier entries), I propose this description of Neil Young from a recent show in New York City, as told by critic Ben Ratliff:
Neil Young is “not a wistful old man; he’s tense and obdurate even in the presence of pleasant or affirming words. Singing the first lines of ‘Sign of Love,’ presumably written for his wife — ‘When we go for a little walk / out on the land / When we’re just walkin’ and holdin’ hands / You can take it as a sign of love’ — he bared his teeth and looked ready to bite.”
“The Les Paul’s dark, fat, mattelike sound felt doomed out and righteous, to be admired from afar, but the Gretsch’s was something you’d want to take home and live with: brighter, more expressive, more fluent with its feedback. (He shook the Gretsch, holding it by the headstock and swinging it near the amplifier, toward the end of ‘Walk With Me,’ his encore.)”
Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, USA
The reviewer faults the film for its stereotypical portrayals of punk rock(ers), a fault not present, he says, in the novel. Regardless, and probably more importantly, the film appears useful in problematizing the all too common assumptions about Islam held by many U.S. Americans. As one of the film’s characters has it, “Allah is too big and too open for my Islam to be so closed.”
Perhaps a review of the novel and film will appear here at Rock and Theology? Until then, here is the trailer:
Michael J. Iafrate
“Here’s the thing with me and the religious thing. This is the flat-out truth: I find the religiosity and philosophy in the music. I don’t find it anywhere else. Songs like ‘Let Me Rest on a Peaceful Mountain’ or ‘I Saw the Light’ – that’s my religion. I don’t adhere to rabbis, preachers, evangelists, all of that. I’ve learned more from the songs than I’ve learned from any of this kind of entity. The songs are my lexicon. I believe the songs.”
– Bob Dylan, Newsweek, 1997
Michael J. Iafrate
Posted in: Christianity,Fandom,General by Rachel Bundang on April 27, 2011
Road-tested, kid-approved… I just discussed my comment on Tom’s Gaga post with my students, and they tell me I have a sound, constructive interpretation of her as Our Lady of Freaks. Then one of them showed me the trailer for her upcoming HBO concert special:
Her moment of quiet, dark reflection I could unpack for days, especially that last minute with her in prayer. Psychologizing aside, what do you make of her language?
Posted in: Christianity,Drumming,General,Guest Entries by Tom Beaudoin on April 26, 2011
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.Next Page »