Last week, we began the exploration of Victor Wooten’s imaginative book called “The Music Lesson.” This week we build on the foundational metaphor of “groove,” by challenging our understanding of the importance of “notes.”
This extended quote from the book gives you a preview of where we’ll be going in the next few week, and highlights the issue of notes: “Now, we have ten different but equal parts of Music: notes, articulation, technique, feel, dynamics, rhythm, tone, phrasing, space, and listening. We could have made our list one hundred or one thousand elements long, but for now, we will stick with these ten. Is that okay with you?” “They work for me.” “Good. Think about all ten of these elements and tell me this: When most teachers talk about music theory, which element are they usually talking about?” I thought for a few seconds. “Well, ‘notes,’ I guess.” “Good, what else?” I tried, but couldn’t think of anything else. “Notes,” I repeated. “That’s right,” he laughed. “Notes, pitches, and that’s it! All the fuss about learning music theory, and now we see that most teachers only teach you how to use one tenth of the elements on our list! Their music theory only teaches you how to use notes . . .” (page 40)
Are notes really required in order to make music? What combination of notes determines whether there is music? Is it true that if you stopped playing notes, there would still be music? What, exactly is music? And, how narrowly or broadly are you willing to allow your definition of music to roam? Is ‘Grunge’ music? Country? How about ‘12-tone?’ Or ‘rap’? ‘CCM’? ‘Opera?’
What about silence?
In 1952, John Cage produced a composition that embodied the idea that ‘music’ is not just the notes. If you’ve never seen it performed, Cage’s 4’33” is one of the most important, and controversial, musical compositions of the 20th century. In this work, Cage expressed his belief that music is more than notes, and that listening requires intention. 4’33”is not a gimmick; it is a provocative way to ask the question “what is worth listening to?” Or, if you stopped playing notes, would there still be music?
Silence is not the absence of sound: the energy of sound, the vibrations of sound are all around us, all the time. Silence is the practice of focusing one’s attention to hear the music of creation, the sound of the Creator, the groove of the Triune Being.
Your personal musical tastes may be diverse, but does your definition of music include silence? We are often too busy to listen. The relentless treadmill of “notes” drowns out the music that forms the groove for our being. The cultural soundtrack blares from every corner. Are you willing to be intentional about listening for the music that doesn’t require all of those notes?
If you stopped playing notes, music would still exist. If . . . If you stopped playing notes. Notes alone are not enough to make music. There is music. Everywhere. Join the song that is already playing. Hearing that song might mean spending some time in silence.
Simon & Garfunkle, The Sounds of Silence
Miles Davis, Ascent from The Complete “In A Silent Way” Sessions
“After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.” Aldous Huxley
Dag Hammarskjöld was one of the towering figures of the 20th century. The second Secretary-General of the UN, he conceived a Meditation Room “dedicated to silence” at the Headquarters Building which would be built around a solid bloc of iron ore, with shafts of like striking the altar of iron at different angles throughout the day. With every light of day, we strike the iron into swords or ploughshares, we forge the ore into weapon systems or living centers, we hammer away at destruction or construction, we worship at the altar of war or peace. But we cannot escape either the light of day or the iron of life, since iron is the building bloc of blood, the liquid of life that brings oxygen to the tissues of the body. So how will the light of your life strike the iron today? What altar will you kneel at today? Who will you oxygenate today? What iron will your iron sharpen, so that we can flourish in faith and be strong in Christ?
When studying I thrive on the music of silence. Even good “music” is a distraction to my mental process of collecting thoughts and turning them into words on paper. I’ll never understand youngsters who can “study” with the steady hammering sound of what is called music that’s rattling the windows. Perhaps I should have been a monk.