A couple of months ago, fellow FiScher Alicia Smith wrote a fascinating blog post on the relationship of her PhD studies with her faith. I’d like here to attempt something similar in relation to my own field. This post is going to ask more questions than it answers, for space reasons, but hopefully it will generate debate! If so, my plan is to follow this introduction up in more detail in the future, perhaps via an occasional themed series.
The image shows a (tiny) snippet of my clarinet quintet, Love Unknown (2008). It's music, Jim, but not as we know it...
My PhD was built upon the analysis of contemporary Western art music, also commonly known as avant-garde, experimental or modern music (although each of these terms carries quite distinct – and rather problematic – connotations within the field itself). I was looking at the ideas and musical processes which lie behind the music of various contemporary composers such as Thomas Adès, György Kurtág and Kaija Saariaho (a quick search on YouTube or Spotify will give you an idea of what their music sounds like – they are all quite distinct from one another). All of these composers stand to some extent within the radical lineage established by earlier (and more infamous) composers such as Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Cage.
As with its parallel strands in the visual arts and literature, music like this tends to polarise opinion, with some lauding it as an authentic expression of contemporary concerns, and others deriding it as incomprehensible, elitist or arbitrary. Modern music seems especially likely to bring accusations of inaccessibility (‘these composers don’t care about their listeners; they’re just writing for themselves’), incoherence (‘that’s not music, it’s just noise’) or discomfort (‘why would you write something that just makes me feel bad?’).
For a Christian, questions about the role of artistic endeavour within God’s kingdom can complicate the situation still further. At various points within my PhD, as part of the usual bouts of self-questioning that all postgraduate students experience from time to time, I found myself fearing that what I was doing was all a waste of time. Was this music just a distraction from my fundamental calling of telling people about Jesus? Or, perhaps even worse, was it a kind of destructive influence in itself, an emblem of the despair and darkness of the contemporary world which I should be resisting rather than embracing?
The problem for me is that I love much of this music, and feel an enthusiasm for it which surpasses even the great and well-loved works of the Western canon. Indeed, often other, more ‘accessible’ or ‘uplifting’ music can seem rather boring by comparison. I love it for its complexity, which to me seems to mirror and respond to the complexity of the created world; I love it for its moments of fleeting but hard-earned beauty, which often speak to me of a deep yearning for redemption; I love it even for its free inclusion of sounds that are uncomfortable or perhaps disturbing, since these seem an honest response to the beautiful but broken world in which it is written and heard.
For me, then, part of my journey as a PhD student (and beyond) involved coming to terms with the gap between my own experience of this music, and the reality of its wider reception within society and within the church. One of the motivations for my research is the desire to bridge this gap. Hopefully, I’ll be able to talk a bit more in future posts about what that has meant in practice. In the meantime, please do talk about your own experiences with modern music and art in the comments!