What a Garden Sounds Like"
By: Paul Turner
Given on October 16, at the Imago Dei Fall Arts Ministry Conference in the Holiday Inn Mission/Overland Park, KS
The Kansas City Royals are not in the baseball playoffs this month. The World Series will be fought elsewhere. Our team has not had a winning record for years, but when they opened the 2003 season this spring with 9 straight victories, fans started clearing their calendars for October.
I have a confession to make. I am a Catholic priest, a musician, a lover of the fine arts and a baseball fan.
No one would mistake Kauffman Stadium for a garden, although itís better now than when it first opened. In those days, we had artificial turf. At least now, the local game takes place on real grass. The pitcher throws horsehide, the batter swings wood, the catcher feels the impact through leather, and the umpire renders a very human judgment. The fundamental elements of baseball are as natural as the fundamental elements of Christian religious practice: water, bread, wine, oil and ash.
I am one of those purists who think that the place where the Royals play is misnamed. I have no quarrel with naming it after Ewing Kauffman, a local benefactor who kept Americaís pastime in the heart of America. Itís a lot better than merchandising the title to a corporation. In Texas people used to watch professional baseball at a place named for Enron. So calling it Kauffman is OK with me. But I wish it were not called Kauffman Stadium; I wish it was Kauffman Field. You donít play baseball in a stadium. You play it on the earth. You hear the crack, whiff, punch, boos and cheers of the game above the dirt and grass. The game doesnít happen in the stadium. It happens on the field.
At the start of every home game in Kansas City, the fans hear the national anthem. It is an experience more culturally American than it intends to be. A national anthem, you would think, is an anthem to be sung by a nation. But this rarely happens at the ballpark. Usually the anthem is sung by an individual or a choir. We know this because singers stand behind home plate, while their names appear on the scoreboard and on the lips of the announcer.
But on the lips of the singers there is no anthem. There was. They arrived at the stadium earlier in the day and recorded the anthem there. But when the time comes for the anthem to be sung, no one is actually singing Ė not even the singers. You may think itís hard to sing the national anthem of the United States because of its range of notes. But it is even harder to sing it at home plate. The distance between the microphones and the speakers in the outfield is so great that most singers cannot keep pace with the anthem. They hear their amplified voices after they have sung the next couple of notes. Itís like singing in canon with yourself. Stadium officials solve the problem by having singers record the music ahead of time and then lip-sync the anthem to start the game. So the singers are not actually singing; a few brave fans will, but most are too embarrassed to give it a whirl.
Thatís not all. To inspire more patriotic fervor among the fans listening to the recording, the scoreboard carries live video footage of the American flag that is flying in full view in right field. During the anthem, most of the fans uncover their heads, place hat or hand over their heart and face the scoreboard. I like to face the flag in right field, and Iím proud to report the players on the grass do the same.
But this very American anthem at a very American ballgame creates a very American experience. As a society, we do not distinguish well between sounds and images that are recorded and those that are real. In film and theatre, for example, we treat actors as if they really are the characters they portray. So the Oscar most frequently goes to characters with disabilities and illnesses, not so much because the actor did a great job, but because the Academy seems to want the character to feel better. In the most celebrated cases, characters are elected the governor of California.
Original art is not the same as its reproduction. But artists rely heavily on the electronic media. Some art deliberately incorporates mixed media. Some installations incorporate video and audio loops. Composers may write music for electronically produced sound. Ottorino Respighi, hardly a cutting edge postmodernist, has the orchestra play very quietly for one section of Pini di Roma so that you can hear a recording of birds over the live instruments. The effect is quite remarkable, but it isnít the same thing as hearing live birds among the pines of Rome. The songs of birds are completely enchanting, exploring ranges, microtones, and polyrhythms more akin to jazz than any other music. But Respighi knew it would be easier to cue the recording than a clutch of birds. By contrast, Olivier Messiaen imitated the sound of birds in his organ music. In this case a live player has at least some control over the imitated sound.
Reliance on electronic art forms has even reached the military funeral industry. In our country it is a custom to offer the families of deceased veterans an array of options for the funeral, ranging from the presentation of a flag, a gun salute and the playing of taps. In most communities, flags and guns are readily available. But musicians are not. Increasingly, the music that accompanies the graveside memorial of one who served our country is set into motion by a uniformed officer who pushes the play button on a tape deck instead of the keys of a cornet. Even a non-musician should be able to grasp the artistic poverty of this situation. To perform taps, you have to learn how to play four notes. Four notes. But our military cannot find people with enough musical skills for this task. When it comes to live music, our military has become a surrender monkey.
In churches, reliance on the electronic media in the arts continues to grow. Organists are playing electronic instruments more in the United States than in other countries, where the favored instruments are made from wood, leather, metal and wind. Your preacher may deliver a talk he or she obtained through a mail-order service. Reproductions of art appear on the walls of our churches and the covers of our worship aids. You can buy a life-sized very accurate reproduction of Michelangeloís PietŠ for the side chapel of your church. But you may have a hard time finding an original work of art that was not mass-produced.
When shopping for a new organ, a church committee may listen to recordings of an electronic instrument and of a pipe organ. Musicians and non-musicians alike may confess they cannot tell the difference. Of course they canít. They arenít hearing the instruments live. Theyíre hearing both samples through the electronic media. Recorded sound isnít the same as live sound.
Microphones are a blessing and a curse. They allow larger numbers to hear more distinctly and smaller numbers to hear sounds louder than life. But microphones have changed our expectations of church architecture. Formerly, churches were built to contain a natural resonance. Today they are built with little resonance and a dependence on amplified sound. In most cases, this has benefited the spoken word more than the music. Speech gets muffled in a building that is too resonant, but some music Ė like chant and the brassy motets of Gabrieli Ė was written especially for rooms that echo. Concert halls are still built in search of the perfect resonance that needs no electronic sound reinforcement. But many churches are being built for speech. In those spaces, unmiked music sounds sterile; miked, it sounds more recorded than live. And now that people can finally understand more clearly the words we preachers say, some of them long for the days of muffled sound.
Microphones have become such a fixture in our churches that they seem as important as sanctuary furnishings. In many situations musicians put microphones in front of pianos, singers and flautists even when the acoustics do not demand it, because the microphoning of music has become a tradition as dear as May-crowning. Microphones can help, but they very subtly set a distance between the naturally produced sound and the human ear. They set up an artificial mediation that celebrates the cultural value of technology ahead of the human value of unmediated artistry. When unnecessary microphones are put into use, itís like saying, ďIf we have to put up with live music, at least letís present it the way people are most accustomed to hearing music, electronically.Ē
I visited with an acoustician once about a church under construction. He offered to treat the walls in such a way that the building would always have the same reverberation whether or not it was filled with people. Choirs could practice in there alone, and they would know what sound to expect when hundreds of people attended the service for which they sing. I found myself wondering, ďWhy would I want that?Ē Isnít there something spiritually mysterious about a motionless building that adjusts its sound based on the people who come and go? Does not the building somehow come alive and respond to the prayers of the worshipers in unique ways when the presence of the people does make a difference on the overall sound?
A friend from Australia tells about the mass at which a new archbishop was installed. The cathedral was so small that it could not accommodate the number of priests who had come to vest, process and concelebrate. Many of the clergy sat in an adjoining area, where the events at the main altar were broadcast on closed-circuit TV. When the time came for the priests to join in prayer with the new archbishop, to recite common words and make common gestures, many of them turned not toward the altar, but toward the screen.
The electronic media have made art more accessible and more distant. You can see and hear what the original artists had in mind, but in our culture, people tend to blur the distinction between originals and copies, between what is recorded and what is real.
It makes me wonder where this is heading. Perhaps weíll see the day when all the music at public worship is prerecorded, to render homage to our love for technology. Then, to satisfy our love for individualism, we can equip the seating in our churches with private headsets and dials, so you can hear individually whatever song would help you get in the mood for prayer.
Our church and our country are suffering from the lack of development of artists. In the Catholic Church we talk a lot about our priest shortage. We should also be talking about our organist shortage, our original art-work shortage, and our congregational singing shortage, all of which is worse.
Artists can exercise influence when decisions can be made. We recognize the value of our work, and as individuals and as an artistic community we can recommit ourselves to our mission, which is both artistic and spiritual. As Christian artists, we serve our community best when we tend the garden God has planted within us.
On a typical Sunday, people gather at church for worship. They will be nurtured by the arts. In a typical week, they do not sing and they do not hear live music anywhere else, not even at the ballpark. In a typical week they experience the functional architecture of home and office, hospital and airport, but only at church do they experience an architecture appointed in a way that accommodates the gathering of a larger community and the lifting of that communityís thoughts to the needs of others, the meaning of life and the mysterious presence of God. Our artistry serves this purpose well, and the very presence of worshipers extends an implicit gratitude to those who make the gathering possible. Christian artists are doing their work well: They help people encounter the God in whom they believe.
We face challenges with the culture. In some ways, the American culture is pulling away from the arts. Arts funding is down. Church attendance is down. At the same time, electronics have made the arts more available than ever before. The internet offers unlimited access to musical recordings and reproductions of paintings. Anyone who can click a mouse gains access to the arts. But it is a mediated access. Browsers donít transport us to art galleries and inside concert halls. If you want to see a real Caravaggio or hear the real Beethoven, you have to be there.
Furthermore, the style of music and video images is changing. Video clips and sound bites have redefined our visual and aural experiences. Film was always made up of separate images, cel by cel, just as music is composed note by note. But today those individual components are supercharged. It takes several viewings of a commercial and several hearings of a song to begin to sort out what is happening. We have not begun to apply this technique to worship Ė the quick sequencing of clips and bites. By tradition we encounter God with less, rather than more. Perhaps the culture has something to contribute to the church arts on this point, inspiring us to unspeakable awe before the rapid and manifold ways of Godís presence and action, but so far it remains to be seen just how. We believe that God is exciting, but we also believe God is slow.
Actors, musicians and dancers have a special responsibility in bringing arts and worship alive. When Monet finished painting his Water Lilies, the artwork was done. You can go see one of them right here in Kansas City. But when Brahms finished a piano trio, not even Brahms could play it all for you. He needed other musicians. You can look at the autographed score all you want but it still wonít sound like anything. Musicians have to play it. Recordings arenít enough. The art exists in the performance and in the hearing.
Worship today needs to strike a balance with electronics. Without a doubt, electronics are part of the culture. But too often people are resorting to them needlessly. At weddings, funerals, and other events when family members assume responsibility for how the community will worship, we hear requests for recorded music. That is how people experience music in daily life, and they assume it belongs at church. Musicians who bring their artistry to worship remind people that the living interaction of humanity and the arts fits hand in glove with prayer. When you hear the scriptures aloud, they have exceptional power because they bring the voice of God alive into the community. When the assembly sings its song, they join together in one voice and create a sound that is uniquely their own in this particular time and place. The arts remind us that Godís care is that particular and that unique. God does not always respond the same way to our prayer, and we do not always pray the same way before God. That is part of the mystery of being alive. We change, we grow, we gain new insights and we experience God anew in fresh miracles every day.
Christian piety is founded on the things of nature. It starts from the incarnation. We believe that the second person of the Trinity took on flesh and became human like us. That miracle has opened the reaches of redemption far beyond what we could ask or imagine. Our public worship works best when it builds on this belief. If God can become human, isnít all of creation somehow a pathway back to God? Do we not encounter Godís fingerprints in the whole of created matter? If so, the closer we get to the elements of the earth in our worship, the less the mediation we experience between us and God.
Artists can contribute to this worship in several ways. To explore these ways, I invite you to consider what a garden sounds like. What does a garden sound like? Not much. You might think a garden makes no sound at all. But it does. You can hear the whistle of the wind, the scrape of dry leaves, and the buzz of bugs. But to hear these things, several conditions need to be present. You have to be very still. You have to focus your attention fully upon the garden. Even then, you will need the cooperation of your neighbors. You canít hear a garden over the radio in a neighborís window, street repair around the corner, or a lawnmower across the street. The community has to cooperate. Even then, even if they do, even if you have made yourself very quiet, and even if you can hear those tiny, gentle sounds that fill your soul with wonder and appreciation, remember one thing. Youíre still not hearing the garden. A garden in bloom is constantly active, stems and stalks reaching up, roots stretching down, buds slowly opening and blossoms yawning to life. All this activity makes noise, but at a level the human ear cannot register. You may think you can hear the primary subtle sounds of a garden, but you canít. Theyíre there, but they are beyond our abilities.
So I have 3 wishes for Christian artists, pertaining to themselves, the community and the mystery. First, the artists. God has given artists a special ability. We are to cultivate the seed God has sown. God has made us bearers of the divine message, like biblical angels, who remind mortals of immortality, who have experienced the presence of God and who bring good news to those in despair. If we are to fulfill our mission, we must develop our art. For a Christian artist, that means being at home in the presence of the divine. We need time to make our souls so quiet that we can hear sounds as tiny as those in a garden, and see beauty others have not paused to enjoy. Through our prayer, we enter directly into Godís presence so that through our art, others may join us. Personal, unmediated encounters with the divine are essential if our art is to serve the community with authenticity.
Second, the community. Americans in the third millennium need to reacquaint ourselves with nature and the arts, and to be more aware and more critical of the vicarious experience of the arts offered us through electronic media. This will become obvious to those who experience the faith-filled work of artists. Some people prefer recorded music to live music because local artists are not as professional as those who have recorded. OK, but what is lost in professionalism may be gained by arts alive. The same is true in other arenas of life, even sports. There is a baseball stadium around a baseball field because the game comes alive with live fans. We have the technology to play professional sports in studios with digitally manufactured fans to cheer, gasp and shout. But even the purveyors of sport know you cannot rely on totally electronic media. You need people, real live people, at the game. That brings the drama alive. Our society, therefore, needs to support the arts. But they will be more prone to do so if we the artists bring more authenticity to our execution and our worship. The cooperation of the community will help us hear the garden.
Finally, the mystery. Even after youíve created the most stunning architectural worship space, the most carefully crafted painting of the Madonna, and the most perfectly performed rendition of the Ave Maria, even when you sit back from your art, in a moment that some mistake for pride but you know better is something more akin to awe at something bigger than you Ė when that happens, donít think youíve even come close to the mystery. There are sounds in the garden you will never hear. Being an artist means applying oneís creative talents for the expression of self and the benefit of the world. Being a Christian artist means approaching this task with some humility. The talent we have is a gift, not something weíve earned. When we use it we meet the Giver of the gift. But the mystery of creation is far more than we can comprehend. Being an artist puts us in a privileged place in the scheme of Godís creation. It is a place that serves Christianity best when it draws attention away from the artist and toward the Creator.
These things you need if you want to hear a garden: a quiet spirit, a supportive community, and a humble sense of mystery. When those are in place you will hear what you could never record - what a garden sounds like.
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