2014 Lent 29


I Corinthians 14:1-19

Music practiced is far different than music performed, generally speaking anyway.

When a piano player first sits down to practice, for instance, she might give the piece in question a once-through. But she’s not performing. Rather, she’s paying close attention in the once-through to what needs particular work. At the conclusion of the once-through, then, she returns to those problematic areas, one at a time, working them through until there is noticeable improvement. Then maybe she does a final once-through to assess. The whole process has taken, say, an hour.

For the person practicing, this has been a productive hour. But if someone were to sit in the same room for that hour expecting a performance, that person would experience something of a let-down. With the exception of the beginning and the end of the time, when the practicer did her once-throughs, the listener would not have been able to follow along very well, if at all. The casual listener would leave such a session frustrated.

But to hear a performance is a different matter entirely. The performer has practiced and practiced, time and again, countless hours, mastering even the most difficult sections, tweaking repeatedly until she achieves just the subtle nuances she desires. And now she performs the piece from start to finish in all its glory. The audience hears and understands; and at the performance’s completion they rise to their feet and shout, “Brava!” (the appropriate response for a female performer, by the way).

Practicing and performing music are two very different instances.

But the twentieth century paints a different picture—or, eh hem, plays a different symphony. For the twentieth century introduces figures like Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern, and John Cage. And these guys played with music in innovative ways. The same, of course, could be said of Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart. But the innovative liberties these guys took in their compositions made performances difficult to distinguish from practice sessions—to all but the most learned listener anyway.

Schoenberg and Webern focused on order. Both men were Jews living during the Great War and WWII; they were arguably trying to make sense of a chaotic world. That’s certainly what their music sounds like; except, for the casual listener raised mostly on pop music and musicals, it’s difficult to hear the order. That’s what makes the performance hard to distinguish from the practice. To a casual listener it can sound like a toddler striking piano keys at random—or a toddler orchestra!

For an example, listen here to a Webern string quartet premiered in September, 1938: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xyHIG5rxo7s.

Yet to those who are learned regarding this musical style, to those who are “in the know,” there is indeed incredibly precise order to these twelve-tone works. Mathematically precise order in fact! I’ll save you the details, but composing them was effectively a math problem; and we all know how precise math is.

On the other hand was the American composer John Cage—deeply influenced, incidentally, by eastern thought. Unlike Schoenberg and Webern, who tried to make order out of chaos (a musical reflection of the world of the twentieth century), Cage exploited chaos’s influence on the art, and on the world. For instance, one of his pieces is called 4’33”. Here a pianist sits before an audience and merely holds the sustain pedal down for four minutes and thirty-three seconds. What happens is almost entirely relative, depending on the concert hall, size of audience, how close someone with allergies is sitting to the piano, and so on. For the engaged sustain pedal allows the piano strings to pick up all sorts of resonant frequencies. But by the end of the time, regardless of how different the piece starts out relatively speaking, there is always a sort of hum produced by all the strings. And by this Cage is demonstrating that chaos left unchecked will eventually settle into some form of apparent order.

Another Cage piece is the image at the top of this post. As you can see, it hardly looks like sheet music. It’s up to the performer, really, to interpret this piece. Thus ideas about how this piece ought to sound vary widely—just listen to a handful of recordings of it by different performers! Again, relativism seems to be the motivator here. If Schoenberg and Webern are trying to make order from chaos, Cage seems to be making chaos (i. e., relativistic performances) from order (i. e., his written notation). Beyond this, or perhaps above it, though, a sort of order emerges in the end—not as orderly as we conservative Americans would like, but similar to the order emerging out of the chaos of the twentieth-century world.

So here are two dramatically different approaches to music. The point I set out to make was that the performances of these twentieth-century compositions blur the line between performance and practice to all but the most learned listeners.

And I haven’t even begun to talk about jazz and other types of musical improvisation, where the “practice” suddenly becomes the performance! But that would be cool to explore too—maybe another day.

But what triggered this discussion for me was Paul’s take on the spiritual gifts of tongues and prophecy in today’s reading. Using the gift of tongues, Paul says, is like practicing a musical instrument, to be done in private essentially; but prophecy is for the benefit of an audience, like a musical performance.

The ramifications of Schoenberg, Webern, and Cage seem to me to be that even in our prophet-like spiritual gifts (preaching, teaching, knowledge, etc.), the church enters a danger-zone when it speaks in a way that only those “in the know” can understand.

But, on the other hand, Schoenberg, Webern, Cage, and jazz are definitely worth knowing, whether broader culture feels this way or not. So shouldn’t the church similarly raise the bar?


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