Music and Culture

Music Matters (September 28th, 2012)

A weekly review of music news through the lens of music as gift or god.

Two 1990’s Rockers Lose it in Concert

Fiona apple, who last week was arrested for possession of marijuana and hash in Sierra Blanca, TX went on a rant about the officers from the jail. Her nonsensical tirade most likely confused the audience but you can read a portion of what she said here (warning the rant includes expletives) Billy Joel Armstrong, the guitarist and lead singer of Green Day, had his own little angry moment at the iHeartRadio Music Festival. A countdown appeared letting the band know they only had one minute left of their set to which he said, “You’re kidding me. I’m not ****** Justin Bieber, you ****. Let me show you what one minute **** means.” He continued by smashing his guitar and cursing out the festival employees. The band later confirmed that Armstrong has substance abuse problems and is seeking help.

Sufjan Steven’s Year of the Rabbit

The always eclectic Sufjan Stevens (founder of Asthmatic Kitty Records) has partnered with Justin Peck to create a ballet based on music from his album Run Rabbit Run. The ballet, Year of the Rabbit, will premiere at the Lincoln Center in New York City on October 5th. You can watch the trailer for the ballet below.

Working Hard for Something Old that Won’t Last

Thirteen violinists are competing in Toronto for the chance to rent out one of three Stradivarius violins for three years at no cost. These violins have a unique sound and have been treasured for centuries but what all of these violinists are competing for is a fleeting chance to play this old instrument for a short period of their life. One day their ability to play this prized violin for free will be taken away from them, with a slim chance to regain it again in the future. God, the ancient of days, on the other hand gives salvation as a free gift and yet he will not take this gift away from anyone who believes that his son Jesus is the messiah. Even after we mess up in life, God is still there with his gift of forgiveness through the blood of Christ. So the writer of this article is wrong when he states, “This is not the kingdom of God, after all, where the last shall be first.” The competition might not follow kingdom ethics but the one who reigns of the world does and his authority trumps any authority of man.

Music and Worship, Rock

Retuned Reviews: The City Harmonic Concert

Reviews of albums, concerts and books about music.

On Thursday, September 20th I attended the opening show for The City Harmonic’s first headlining tour at Capital Christian Center in Sacramento, CA. With them were Eric Brandon and Daniel Bashta, each performing a three song set. Prior to The City Harmonic taking the stage, Bob Lenz, a speaker associated with Compassion International, gave a fifteen minute sermon. Overall, my wife and I thoroughly enjoyed the concert.

Eric Brandon

When Eric Brandon took to the stage there was still a murmur of voices as the audience was settling into their seats. It took until the end of his first song for the audience to quiet down and listen to his music. I felt bad for Brandon since it is hard to capture an audience at the beginning of a concert when it is only you and your acoustic guitar. Though, his powerful voice and stage presence was able to break through the noise from the audience and by the end of his three song set the audience was captivated.  The only downside of the performance was a lack of a backing band, which would have made certain musical moments even more impactful.

Daniel Bashta

Daniel Bashta is most well-known for writing the Newsboys song God’s Not Dead and had a fantastic band backing him. I found the drummer to be the highlight of the performance and Bashta’s voice in the falsetto range to be the low point. There were numerous occasions when Bashta’s voice was out of tune, which made it hard to focus on the music being presented.  Prior to performing God’s Not Dead Bashta related the story of his son’s adoption and how this song was particularly important in the life of his child. The birth mother was not a Christian but a friend had invited her to church a few months before giving birth to her child. At the service she heard Bashta’s song and was so moved by the song that she sang it to her unborn son throughout the rest of the pregnancy, unaware the adoptive father wrote the song. The father’s song was sung over the life of the child even before the child knew who Bashta was. Bashta went on to say that this is like our Father in heaven who sings over our life and then proceed to sing God’s Not Dead. I was impressed with the original version of the song compared to the Newsboys version, which I find to be a little kitschy.

Bob Lenz

I have mixed feelings about having a sermon in the middle of a Christian concert and would rather hear the musicians in the band preach the gospel through their music than have a guy come up on stage and preach to the audience. With Bob I felt like I was at youth camp revival where he tried too hard to be humorous and did not try hard enough to preach the gospel. Lenz’s sermon unfortunately fell into “all you need to do is accept Jesus in your heart” and have a “personal relationship with him” without much focus on the works which Jesus completed in history. There were at least a few people after his sermon that raised their hand accepting Christ as their savior but I am not sure if any of those people truly understood from what Lenz said what the gospel is. I hope that the person they spoke with after the sermon was able to clarify the gospel to them and provide them opportunities for some sort of continued support as they wrestle with the gospel.

The City Harmonic

The City Harmonic was awesome and there were so many good moments in the concert that it is hard to narrow it down. Mountaintop already one of those powerful, rockin’ songs on the album was even more so in concert. The song opened with Elias Dummer on the piano and the bassist and guitarists beating together on a large bass drum. As the song progressed they moved back to their instruments but at one point everyone in the band played some form of percussion in a marching-band-like manner. I also found the medley of the worship song I Love You Lord, Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, and What I Want to be quite moving and as a welcome peaceful moment in the middle of the concert. But the absolute highlight of the show was their encore with Manifesto, opening with a revised introduction which had a piano line with an Asiatic flare. Everyone in the audience stood to their feet as we all sang along to words from the Apostle’s Creed and the Lord’s Prayer in what was an incredibly potent moment. The lead singer at several moments allowed the audience to take over in signing duties encouraging a state of worship amongst the audience.

World Music

Every Tribe, Tongue and Nation: The Erhu

Looking for signs of common grace through the traditional music of all nations and ethnic groups around the world.

The still, quiet beauty of the Erhu (a Chinese stringed instrument played with a bow like a violin) moves listeners to a place of relaxation and peace. While there are moments when the Erhu can express intense passion, the titles of Erhu pieces reflect the peaceful state composers evoke through the instrument. Beautifully descriptive titles such as Moon Reflected on Erquan Pond, Singing of Birds Resounds in the Valley, Listening to the Soughing Wind in the Pine Forest and Spring River and Flowers in the Moonlight display the tranquil quality of the Erhu. So here is an experiment, remove yourself from all the distractions around you and listen to these Erhu pieces below.

After listening to this music how do you feel? Do you feel relaxed? As the peaceful state we were moved to by this music, God wants us to remove the distractions of our life whether they be technology, media or anything else in life and listen to Him. This is why God tells us in Psalm 46:10, “Be still and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.” (Psalm 46:10). Or as David sings in Psalm 23:1-3:

The LORD is my shepherd, I lack nothing. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he refreshes my soul.

But the ultimate rest comes in Christ, “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:7) So put everything aside right now, pray to God, listening for his voice and read the passages below to meditate on His word.

For Further Reading and Reflection:

Joshua 1:1-9

Psalm 1:1-3

Psalm 119

Psalm 104

Philippians 4:4-9

Classical, Music and Culture, Pop Music

Music Matters (September 21st, 2012)

A weekly review of music news through the lens of music as gift or god.

Music, Pain and Sentimentality

An interesting article over at the Transpositions blog interacts with songs which discuss the deeply personal anguish of their songwriters and what affect that has on the musician as well as the listener. Most striking is the author’s comment, “By repeated exposure to this kind of music, are we in danger of collectively wallowing in the muck of human pain and suffering? Put another way, are we at risk of emotional self-indulgence and sentimentality?” Something to think about and consider as we consume music which focuses on the pain of the human condition without finding as Schumacher puts it “the ‘Easter Sunday’ redemption and restoration.”

Politics, Rap and Internet Memes

As we come close to the end of the political season creative people on the internets are taking phrases from political speeches from both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney and making them into rap songs. In all the divisiveness of a presidential election season it is good to see that many people are able to have a light attitude about the whole thing and not take every sound bite as a serious the mainstream media does. Watch U Didn’t Build That a mashup of Obama and MC Hammer and then watch Will the Real Mitt Romney Please Stand Up a mashup of Romney and Eminem below.



Wise Words from Joe Perry on Politics

In an interview with Joe Perry of Aerosmith had some interesting things to say about the political world:

“So much of this stuff is politicizing. What the media does is so much about selling a product. It makes me kind of nuts,” he said. He added of the political parties, “Now it’s all meshed together and you can barely figure out one side from the other.”

Political parties have changed over time and we seem to be in a season where the lines are blurring again. For more on politics from a Christian perspective see the recent article from the Q Conference by Lisa Sharon Harper, A Call to Transform Politics.

A Rocker Embarrassed?

Slash revealed in a casual phone conversation that he once walked in on his mom and David Bowie in bed together. There was bit of controversy over what Slash said but now he has told Rolling Stone that he is embarrassed by the whole matter and for putting Bowie in an awkward position. Seems like a relatively minor slip-up but it is great to see a man step up and admit his mistakes even though it was out of his control.

America’s Musicologist on The Rite of Spring Losing it Shock

The ever controversial, yet towering scholar of musicology, Richard Taruskin, gives a thoughtful analysis of how a piece which began a riot at its premiere (well it was the dancing not the music which created the controversy) over time turned into something much tamer and widely accepted. The only thing he missed was the mainstream acceptance of the piece in Disney’s Fantasia, which I take as a sign that the scandal of the music was completely gone. But overall, a great primer on The Rite ahead of the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the premiere in May of next year. Also look out for the Retuned series on the work in May 2013.

Classical, Pop Music, Rock

The 10 Most Depressing Songs

Covering the best and worst of the music world.

The following are songs of deep depression, songs where hope is fleeting or not offered at all. All the protagonist’s in these songs have is to live in the depression itself with no way of being lifted out of it. Such a different story from the numerous laments found throughout the bible asking, “God where are you in my suffering” but hopeful that God is there. Even Jesus in his final night with his disciples told them “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.” (Matthew 26:36-46) While the songs below offer little or no hope, we should look towards the hope found in Christ:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 1:3-7)


American Pie

This is more than a song about the plane crash that brought the deaths of Richie Valens, The Big Bopper and Buddy Holly but a lament over the loss of a bygone era.


Last Kiss

A horrific car accident takes the life of the protagonist’s love.


Untitled 1 (a.k.a. Vaka)

The music video of a post-apocalyptic world with lost children is depressing beyond belief.


I’ll Follow You into the Dark

In one of the most depressing Death Cab songs, the only sweet retreat in this life is to die with your love going into the darkness with nothing on the other side.


Tears in Heaven

Losing a child is one of the worst things a parent can experience and the painful regret of Eric Clapton’s voice is heart wrenching.


Sound of Silence

Darkness, silence and nothingness. Even more haunting and depressing when Paul Simon sang the song at the 9/11 memorial.



This Schubert song is often heard at funerals but it is a song without any future hope. Also read this great series of articles on the piece: On Schubert’s Winterreise Part I and Part II


Hurt – Johnny Cash Version

Johnny Cash is able to transform a Nine Inch Nails song into a song of his own impending death.


St James Infirmary

Opening with those mournful trombones and clarinet sets the tone for this song about the protagonist’s dead love.


When I am Laid in Earth

Dido resigns to death because she cannot be with her love. More information on the piece here.


Mad World – Gary Jules Version

Spoiler Alert: Do not watch the video if you have not seen Donnie Darko. This Tears for Fears cover becomes even more depressing when watching the ending scene of Donnie Darko.


Classical, Theology Through Music

John Cage: Silence and New Creation

First movement of 4'33"

This month the perpetual music experimenter John Cage would have celebrated his 100th birthday. A composer who was able to find beauty in the common and the mundane, creating music with toasters, cacti and garbage can lids, then transforming the sound quality of traditional instruments, as in his prepared pianos but he was also a master in his use of silence, most notably in his piece 4’33”. Alex Ross music critic for The New Yorker writes about Cage, “he accomplished something like a colossal land grab, annexing the entire landscape of sound, from pure noise to pure silence”[1] because “as he [Cage] said, there is nothing that is not music, there is nothing that is not Cage.”[2] Unlike any other composer, Cage’s music questions our very assumptions of what music is and what it can be.

Score for 4'33"

4”33’, the piece Cage is most well known for, questions those assumptions at the highest level. In the first performance on August 29, 1952, David Tudor sat at a piano with a score with no music written on it and played nothing. As Cage later recalled in the three movements of “silence”, “You could hear the wind stirring outside during the first movement. During the second, raindrops began pattering the roof, and during the third people themselves made all kinds of interesting sounds as they talked or walked out.”[3] A dramatic way to inform the audience that there is no such thing as silence and to reconceive music as the sounds which surround us (a similar readjustment occurred with Kasmir Malevich’s 1918 painting White on White). Far from a one-time parlor trick, Cage’s silence manifesto has been performed numerous times since that premiere performance to the delight or chagrin of the audience. Ever a controversial piece, the dive of music into silence is the ultimate place music would have arrived whether or not Cage created the piece.

In a 1949 lecture (Lecture on Nothing, preceding the show about nothing by forty years) given at the Artists’ Club on 8th Street in New York City, Cage stated, “I have nothing to say/ and I am saying it/ and that is poetry/ as I need it.” Influenced by Zen Buddhism, Cage saw “making my [his] responsibility that of asking questions instead of making choices”[4] in his music. Cage decided at this point to give up control over his music and leave the decisions up to chance operations such as the rolling of dice or pulling lots . This philosophy was further clarified(obscured?) by Cage:

Everybody has a song which is no song at all: it is a process of singing, and when you sing, you are where you are. All I know about method is that when I am not working I sometimes think I know something, but when I am working, it is quite clear that I know nothing.[5]

It is this philosophy of nothingness which the philosopher Albert Camus saw as the means to absolute freedom, a concept Cage understood in regards to making his music. But the cost of that freedom is nothingness, emptiness, meaningless and silence.

Alternate score for 4'33"

While the best the world can offer is music of nothingness, with nothing written on the music score and nothing for a performer to play, it is at this point where the world and various religions would state that a person has reached some sort of musical “enlightenment.” Extracting this concept further, the philosophy of silence and nothingness moves beyond music and into the very fabric of life with the solution for the human condition is for a person to empty themselves, a concept touted by various religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, etc.) as well as atheists (Nietzsche, Camus, etc.). In Christianity though, the arrival to that state of emptiness is not the end in itself but rather a beginning of something new. This is what is referred to in the New Testament as “dying with Christ” (Rom. 6:8, Col. 2:20, Col. 3:3 and 2 Tim. 2:11), which occurs not only at the moment of a person’s justification but in a continuous manner in the sanctification of a believer through Christ. In a conversation with his disciples Jesus told them, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it.” (Luke 9:23-24)

A score in the opposite vien of 4'33"

But since Jesus overcame death and rose from the dead on the third day, believers who experience his death (death of themselves) will now instead be filled with Christ. This is why Paul can write with such confidence, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Gal. 2:20) It is in the silence and death that God, the author of creation and all creativity, begins a new work in a person because “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” (2 Corinth. 5:17) On those blank pages of music, God fills in the empty staves with melodies, rhythms and harmonies so that instead of nothingness a person has fullness in their union with Christ, performing not their will but God’s will.


[1] Alex Ross. “The John Cage Century.” (The New Yorker, September 4, 2012.

[2] Alex Ross, “Searching for Silence,”(The New Yorker, April 10, 2010

[3] Richard Kostelanetz, Conversing with Cage, (New York: Taylor and Francis, 2002), 70.

[4] John Cage, “An Autobiographical Statement,” Southwest Review 76 (Winter 1990): 59-76.

[5] John Cage, “Lecture on Nothing,” given at the Artists’ Club New York City, 1949.

Classical, Hip-Hop, Music and Culture

Music Matters (September 14th, 2012)

A weekly review of music news through the lens of music as gift or god.

Music Made by Musicians and the Audience

Composer Luke Fischbeck has found an interesting way to involve the audience in music making. Connecting people by physical wires which react with certain musical ideas when the audience members move by each other or touch each other shows not only the interactive possibilities of this type of music but the potential community building aspects. A cybernetic symphony which creates new music on the fly and changes with how the audience members interact with each other is something that could a great example of how our actions affect each other in real life. This is a great physical illustration of the second greatest commandment of loving your neighbor as yourself but also in a way an image of worship when a community of believers gather together each week. When we are at church we might not see these connections but we are all interconnected by the Holy Spirit working through us as we praise and worship God.

Elvis’ Really, Really Expensive Bible

Elvis’ bible was sold at auction for $94,000 to an unknown bidder as part of a larger collection of Elvis memorabilia that has recently been put up for auction. According to the article:

The bible had been given to Elvis in 1957 by an aunt and uncle on his first Christmas at Graceland. He used it throughout the rest of his life, and wrote down his thoughts and annotations in its pages.

The bible should give interesting insight into the faith life of Elvis and how it evolved over time, if the bidder chooses to divulge the contents.

Lecrae’s New Album Gravity Debuts at #1

Christian rapper Lecrae’s newest offering debut as the #1 album on the iTunes hip hop charts and exposed his music to a mainstream secular audience. Unlike TobyMac’s #1 album last week, Lecrae’s album is theologically-rich and gospel-centered as he does not shy away from proclaiming the gospel on every single track. However, the song Mayday has created some controversy because it features the secular rapper Big K.R.I.T. Listen to the track below to see if Lecrae moved into territory not appropriate for a Christian artist.