Discover and Develop: Experimental Music, Creation, and the Cultural Mandate

Charlie Watkins 06 Jul 20

Over the past 100 years, music has become an increasingly fluid concept. Compositions like John Cage’s 4’33” (1952) or George Brecht’s Solo for Wind Instrument (1962) call for a radical reassessment of what constitutes music. In my experience, this makes Christians nervous - it seems symptomatic of a subjectivism that rejects both truth and authority. Could it even be said that experimental music is dangerous for the Christian?

I want to argue that Christians not only have the freedom to engage with experimental music, but actually have a degree of responsibility to be involved with it. I will first show that art itself is rooted in God’s creation, and how this gives freedom to make experimental music. I will second give a justification for experimental music in the 'Cultural Mandate' of Genesis 1, which I think offers a powerful incentive to be involved with the avant-garde.

I will be using Jennie Gottschalk’s definition of experimental music as:

a position - of openness, of inquiry, of uncertainty, of discovery. Facts or circumstances or materials are explored for their potential sonic outcomes through activities including composition, performance, improvisation, installation, recording, and listening.[1]

This spirit of exploration is what I think constitutes experimental music, and will be my primary concern throughout.[2]

Discovering Creation

We must first see that sound itself, the fundamental material of music, is part of God’s creation. It’s easy to think that sound is not “created” by God, because it is intangible. But see what the New Testament tells us:

All things were created through him [Jesus], and apart from him not one thing was created that has been created.
John 1:3

For everything was created by him,
in heaven and on earth,
the visible and the invisible,
whether thrones or dominions
or rulers or authorities—
all things have been created through him and for him.
Colossians 1:16

God’s creation is truly original. Our artistic creations never come from nothing, they are always formed out of the materials God has made available to us in creation. Even sonic materials are his gifts to us. Everything was created by him - the visible and the invisible. Sound is part of God’s creation.

To create anything demands an awareness of the materials available. This is where experimental music has been pioneering the way over the last century. John Cage’s 4’33”, which has so often been slandered by Christians, is an act of listening to and affirming the goodness of creation. The careful attentiveness it encourages teaches us to open our ears, so we hear that the creation is good. Cage has better ears than most Christians - he presents us with an example of humility before the wonder of God’s creation, and of gratitude to the fundamentally gifted nature of creation. Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear!

Experimental music is about discovery. Often, it isn’t even an act of making (forming something new out of the materials given), but unveiling - turning our attention to what was previously unnoticed, making heard what was previously unheard. It reveals the subtleties, the nuances, the details of God’s good creation. R. Murray Schafer, founder of the World Soundscape Project and a pioneer of acoustic ecology, talks about listening to the world 'as a musical composition and further, that we own responsibility for its composition.'[3] I think that exemplifies the human task of stewarding the world we are given - even in how it sounds. Experimental composers have an attentiveness to creation that Christians should learn from. They can teach us to discover the beauty of God’s audible creation, the resounding song of what he has made. And from this position of attentiveness, he then invites us to be involved with his great composition.

Developing Creation

On the sixth day of the creation narrative, God creates humanity in his image:

So God created man in his own image;
he created him in the image of God;
he created them male and female.
God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it. 
Rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and every creature that crawls on the earth.”
(Genesis 1:27-28)

Humanity is blessed by God in order to bless his creation - what is often called the ‘Cultural Mandate’. William Edgar describes it as:

the human response to the divine call to enjoy and develop the world that God has generously given to his image-bearers.[4]

Culture is about first appreciating the gifts of God in creation (as we saw in part 1), and then giving glory to him through our cultural development of it. It is not enough for us to just 'Let sounds be themselves.'[5] God has given us a responsibility to steward his creation by developing it - but this means contemplating what he’s given us first. Leanne Payne says 'We either contemplate, or we exploit.'[6] Contemplation shows us how far short we have fallen when it comes to looking after our sound environments, where we have exploited for the sake of utility rather than created for the good of society. To contemplate before creating, as the practice of attentive listening encourages, is what it means to be faithful stewards of God’s creation.

Our cultural activity is an act of worship, an offering that brings praise to God. Therefore, experimental music - which receives God’s gifts in creation and then transforms it - is an act of worship. It moves the creation one step closer to its intended end: its cultural transformation into liturgical space, that through our works it may all point to God and his glory.[7] As theologian Peter Leithart writes:

Through us, the world becomes what it’s created and destined to be.[8]

A frequent criticism of experimental music is that it is “difficult to listen to.” But I think this generalisation often comes from a failure to listen attentively.[9] The reason that people enjoy experimental music is not because they “Don’t know how to listen”, but precisely the opposite. In my experience, those who listen to experimental music have learned how to carefully listen to the subtle beauty of sound. The development of this new and unfamiliar music is a means for us to engage with the complexity of sound - as a material given to us by God. Our cultural development of sound reasserts our need to praise God as its giver. Experimental music is an opportunity for us to delight in God’s creation, to see his materials transformed, and to give praise to him through our cultural achievements.

New Creation

Creation teaches us to boldly create now. But the New Creation will continue to be a place of discovery and development too. Therefore, I am willing to speculate that experimental music will continue to contribute to our New Creation culture making, as we continue to rule over, develop, and reveal God’s glory in creation. J. Richard Middleton writes that 'ethics is lived eschatology [study of the end-times]'[10] - how we live now should be shaped by what God’s coming Kingdom is like. What if we treated aesthetics as imagined eschatology - allowing experimental music to help us imagine a world where sound is treasured as a gift, and developed as an act of worship? Experimental music is an appreciation of sound as God’s generous gift to us now, giving us a foretaste of the joyful noise of the New Creation. Our response to experimental music need not be fear, but an anticipatory shout of 'Come Lord Jesus!'

Bibliography

Cage, John. Silence: Lectures and Writings. London: Marion Boyars Publishers Ltd, 2009.

Crouch, Andy. ‘Contemplating or Exploiting’. Presented at the Redeeming Work Conference, 15 September 2014. https://www.christianitytoday.com/pastors/2014/september-online-only/andy-crouch-contemplating-or-exploiting.html.

Edgar, William. Created and Creating: A Biblical Theology of Culture. APOLLOS, 2017.

Gottschalk, Jennie. Experimental Music Since 1970. Bloomsbury Academic, 2016.

Leithart, Peter J. Theopolitan Liturgy. Theopolis Fundamentals 01. Louisiana: Theopolis Books, 2019.

Middleton, J. Richard. A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014.

Wrightson, Kendall. ‘An Introduction to Acoustic Ecology’ in Soundscape: The Journal of Acoustic Ecology 1, no. 1 (Spring 2000): 10–13.

 

 

[1]     Jennie Gottschalk, Experimental Music Since 1970 (Bloomsbury Academic, 2016), 1, emphasis mine.

[2]     Therefore, I will not explictly look at ‘conceptual music’ or ‘non-cochlear sonic art’, which emphasise meaning over material. There is often overlap between these categories, however, so much of what I say will apply.

[3]     Quoted in Kendall Wrightson, ‘An Introduction to Acoustic Ecology’, in Soundscape: The Journal of Acoustic Ecology 1, no. 1 (Spring 2000), 10.

[4]     William Edgar, Created and Creating: A Biblical Theology of Culture (APOLLOS, 2017), 176, emphasis mine.

[5]     John Cage, Silence: Lectures and Writings (London: Marion Boyars Publishers Ltd, 2009), 10; I’m not necessarily opposed to this as a practice, and in fact think it’s a discipline all Christians should try hard to learn. But the cultural mandate is call to responsibly develop what we have been given.

[7]     By ‘liturgical’, I am referring to the cultural transformation of creation for God’s glory. An obvious example is the Lord’s Supper. Grain and grapes are transformed into bread and wine, creation is transformed for its use in worship. So ‘liturgical space’ is space that has been humanly transformed, put to its right use of glorifying God. See Peter J. Leithart, Theopolitan Liturgy (Theopolis Fundamentals) (Louisiana: Theopolis Books, 2019).

[8]     Leithart, 7; This book presents an excellent discussion of culture as the logos of creation.

[9]     I do believe there is subjectivity in taste, but I also think that people would be surprised at how careful attention can transform a listening experience.

[10]   J. Richard Middleton, A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014), 24.

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