By Walter Saul
October 17-19, 2019
The dawning of Saturday, October 19, saw the Christian Fellowship of Art Music Composers National Conference move from Mississippi College in Clinton to Belhaven College in the capital city of Jackson, Mississippi. After a time of focused group prayer we moved into two presentations that, to my mind, vigorously challenged the status quo of 21st-century classical music composition from many different angles.
Joshua Rodriguez, a brilliant young composer now teaching at California Baptist University who had a couple of compositions already superbly performed at the conference, took on a particularly difficult topic on what Evangelicalism could contribute to contemporary art music. Quite frankly, I expected a very short paper, so it’s good he shared this with us! Most of us could concur with his initial assessment of many evangelical movements aiming for immediacy in the presentation of the Gospel using the latest trends and techniques while sidelining the arts, including classical music.
Then Rodriguez helped us contrast the “big-E” Evangelicalism, with its presence in the news and high visibility, to the small-e evangelicalism that emphasized the authority of the Bible, presented the Gospel story, promoted personal conversion, and multiculturalism. How timely, in our era of COVID-19 and protests about racial inequality, to remind us of evangelicalism’s goal to translate the Bible into all the world’s languages and to cross all manmade barriers in bringing the Gospel to all people. He compared 21st-century classical music to Mars Hill, where the Apostle Paul made the Gospel relevant to the powerful, pagan city of Athens, and encouraged us all to speak relevantly in a parallel way into today’s culture.
One comparison I took away was his concept of a personal relationship with God through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ as the cantus firmus of music to which we layer our polyphony, our own expression of Christ’s transformations of us for the world.
Rodriguez then challenged us with several desirable attributes of “evangelical classical music.” It’s fine for this music to educate its audience and not merely kowtow to “accessibility.” It should honestly reflect both Christ’s light and the darkness of our human hearts. Its eternal truths should be loftier and deeper than simplistic political platforms and take on the evils of abortion and racism, to name just two. Because of this, it must be more than “comfort music” to white North Americans; it must encompass the whole world and all its races.
Rodriguez further observed that much Evangelical music is “happy music” that lacks tension. Yet the Gospel’s message is shaped by tension and resolution. The drama of the Gospel is captured and reflected in the dissonance of the Renaissance’s Orlando di Lasso and 20th century’s Witold Lutosławski. I like the two closing challenges that Rodriguez left us with: 1) live by the Holy Spirit and all we create will speak God’s truth, and, 2) how can we express the comfort of the cross of Jesus Christ?
Glenn Pickett, Rodriguez’ colleague at California Baptist University and a church musician with three decades of experience, spoke about “Finding Your Voice.” Having grown up largely in the 20th century, I experienced that phrase more as a threat than a liberating challenge, because of the constant requirement to “be original.” He reminded us that Nadia Boulanger, the teacher of so many renowned and famous composers around the world over a 70-year career, frequently challenged her students to “find their voice.”
A daunting challenge indeed! Yet it happens more naturally when we remember that we are God’s “masterpiece” according to Ephesians 2:10, and that He will write His poetry through us if we permit Him. This most certainly will not lead to immediate success, as the 26 rejection letters from publishers showed Madeline L’Engle with her epic Wrinkle in Time. And there are many thoughts we struggle with, such as “I don’t have time,” “I’m not good enough,” or “I am not making money.”
Pickett’s charge to us was likewise twofold: 1) to remember who and Whose we are, surrendering anew to Jesus Christ, and 2) do the work!
As we remember who we are, we discover our real dreams. Pickett’s dream was to write orchestral music, even though he was “not as good as John Williams,” and he fulfilled this dream against many odds.
As we do the work we remember the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30), because “inspiration exists but it must find you working,” as Pablo Picasso so famously said. Pickett then reviewed how J. S. Bach and Ludwig van Beethoven “did the work” throughout their lives.
Both of these presentations complemented one another well and I find them, even nine months later, to be liberating and inspiring.