listening to new music as an encounter with the sacred...

Dianne is at work today - and I have a wreck of a house to clean.  Thankfully, I have four new audio friends to accompany me in this task:  Madeleine Peyroux's "Secular Hymns," David Bowie's "Pop Rock," Paul Simon's "Stranger to Stranger," and Radiohead's "A Moon Shaped Pool." I am old school when it comes to listening to new music:  I need to listen to the whole album straight through - no shuffling artists - because I want to get a sense of what is at the core of their composition.

I once read Rosanne Cash comment about creating a seamless recording in an age that is filled with interruptions. She noted that most music today is not heard in its context, but rather in snippets and snatches that are treated like stand alone songs. But that is not how serious artists work with an album (a term that is antiquated, I know, but still evokes a bigger picture.) No, they want the arch of songs to tell a story that awakens our senses and, at least for 25 minutes, offers another slice of reality beyond our own habits and limitations.  I think T Bone Burnett captured this challenge in his recent keynote address at the AmericanaFest when he observed that the Pope chose not to censor Michelangelo's painting in the Sistine Chapel:

When Michelangelo was painting the great fresco The Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel, he came under intense criticism from various members of the church, particularly the Pope’s Master of Ceremonies — a man named Cesena- who accused him of obscenity. Michaelangelo’s response was to paint Cesena into the fresco in the lowest circle of hell with donkey ears and a serpent coiled around him devouring, and covering, his nether regions, so to speak.

Cesena was incensed and went to the Pope demanding he censor Michelangelo for this outrage, and the Pope said, “Well, let’s go have a look at it. ”So, they went down to the chapel, and when the Pope stood in front of the fresco, he said to Cesena, “You know, that doesn’t look like you at all.”

See, the Pope didn’t want to jack around with Michelangelo. Michelangelo was making things that were going to last for hundreds of years. His stuff was going to outlive the Pope’s ability to do anything about it, so the Pope bowed to the inevitable. The Pope was afraid of a painter. The painter could create another dimension between Heaven and Earth. Flat ceilings seemed to come down into the room in three dimensions. He painted rooms where priests and the church could sit and be transported to- and engulfed in — a higher realm, learning ancient stories- thoughts kept alive over centuries. And he did it by mixing together things he found laying around on the ground- sand and clay and plants. He was a fearsome alchemist.

Burnett goes on to remind us that artists create not simply for the marketplace - or our time schedules - but as a holy pursuit. (Read the rest of this philosophical and moving speech @ Burnett also goes on to articulate that the totality of an artist's creation tells us something about how our world must change if beauty is to triiumph over commodification:

Every person worthy of the name artist, from Rembrandt to Paul Cezanne to Picasso to Jackson Pollack - From William Shakespeare to Tennessee Williams to James Baldwin and Jack Kerouac - From Bach to Stravinsky to Mahler to John Adams - Every one of those artists made art that to be understood, the world had to change.

They did not adapt to the world, the world had to adapt to them. The technocrats suggest we crowd source. I suggest we not. The very thing an artist does is figure out what he likes.

The technocrats — the digital tycoons — the iTopians — look down on artists. They have made all these tools and they think we should be grateful — subserviant even — and use their flimsy new tools happily to make them ever more powerful. But we can make art with any thing. We don’t need their tools. Music confounds the machines.

So the iTopians have controlled the medium and the message for a generation now. And they are making a complete hash of things. The clearest and most pervasive proof of this is the psychedelic political season we are in, which we can see playing out in every election around the world.

My point is simple:  to grasp beauty in art we must devote time and attention. Twenty years ago someone told me that:  "I already owned all the time that there is - it is up to me to figure out how to use it for my deepest values - or else be used by market manipulators for their goals." That is one of the reasons we struggle to honor the Sabbath. That is also why I must make time to listen to new albums from start to finish. The artist has given her/his time in creating something they sense is worthy of sharing. The only way I can respect and value their commitment is by giving them my deep listening and serious attention. I know in advance of today's music that I will sit down with a few key compositions later today and play them over and over simply because they touch me at a deep level. 

I don't know how you take in music. Or honor the artists effort of creativity. I came of age when listening to new music was a sacred trust. Music was part of our worldview and identity and we wanted to mature and go deeper into that which advanced hope, compassion, beauty and peace.Today's music scene is more technocratic - and manipulative - but I continue to believe that beyond the noise there are people aching for more than amusement and distraction. I remember the awe and mystery surrounding the first time I played the Beatles' "Revolver" or "Sgt. Pepper." Same was true for the Stones' "Beggars Banquet" and Springsteen's "Darkness" and "River" albums. My life changed listening to "Born in the USA" - and the tour that accompanied that masterpiece. And let's not forget Joni Mitchell's "Blue," Paul Simon's "Graceland," Frank Zappa's "Absolutely Free" and the Airplane's "After Bathing at Baxters."

 I'll keep you posted after today's first listening session as each of these artists continue to speak to my soul in unique ways: Que la fête de la musique commence! 


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