"Music Composition:
A Fulfillment of a Biblical Mandate or an Exercise in Self–Aggrandizement?"
Presented at the Northwestern College 4th Annual "Day of Learning"
Symposium Topic: "Faith at Work"
February 16, 2011

Slides Document: PDF


The title of my talk is "Music Composition: The fulfillment of a biblical mandate or an exercise in self-aggrandizement?" Now you may know which one is going to win out in the end, but in the practical life of being a composer, the outcome is not always easily guaranteed. That composition can indeed easily slip into an exercise of self–aggrandizement at any given time is self–evident when one considers the process of composition. The composer asks a certain group of performers to devote a significant amount of time learning his or her music, then asks an even larger group (at least it is hoped that this group is larger) to sit and listen quietly to his or her music, after which they may be expected to congratulate the composer on the achievement. So when I was asked if I would give a workshop on faith and the work of music composition, I thought I would discuss this quandary. If my talk itself devolves into an exercise of self–aggrandizement at any point, I won’t be offended if you just get up and leave.


During the academic year of 2004–05, the second year of my doctoral studies at the University of Iowa, I had a kind of crisis as a composer, and I want to frame my talk around this crisis. But before proceeding, I want to play for you the first half of a piece I wrote in ’06 which will give you an idea of the kind of concert music I was composing during this time.

(LISTEN: Opening two minutes of Downward Courses, for solo piano)

The time for a young composer to experiment with new compositional techniques, new languages, and new styles is in school, and this is what I was doing in my second year of doctoral studies in 2004–05. This is the time during which I was trying to build my technical chops, trying to develop a facility with various harmonic languages, and it was my hope that through doing this I would discover "my own compositional voice." But through the process of endless experimentation, I lost my enjoyment of composing. I became tired of experimenting and tired of being dissatisfied with the results. I had forgotten why I was composing in the first place.

So when a certain German composer visited that academic year with his austere, modernistic approach to composition that stereotypically characterizes the European approach, I came away telling myself that composition is nothing but an enterprise in self–aggrandizement. I came away wanting to join my old high school friend who was working on semi trucks for his father’s business. Seriously. I seriously considered throwing away 10 years of college level music studies to go work on trucks.

Luckily, a breakthrough came. It was at this time that I was reading through
The Aesthetics of Music by Roger Scruton. I came upon a passage from his chapter entitled "Culture" that spoke volumes to me. Scruton says:

  When I work for a living, my activity is a means to an end: making money... When I play, however, my activity is an end in itself. Play is not a means to enjoyment; it is the very thing enjoyed. And it provides the archetype of those activities in which man is ’at home with himself’, sheltered from the anxieties of survival, as a child is sheltered by his protectors—activities like sport, conversation, ceremonies, festivals, and art. Schiller, noticing this fact, exalted play into his paradigm of intrinsic value. With the agreeable and the good, he remarked, man is merely in earnest; but with the beautiful he plays. (emphasis his).
     There is an element of paradoxism in Schiller’s remark. But you can extract from it a thought that is far from paradoxical. If every activity is a means to an end, then nothing has intrinsic value. The world is then deprived of its sense—it becomes a system of means without a meaning, in which we are caught up and enslaved by the accident of birth. If, however, there are activities that are engaged in for their own sakes, the world is restored to us, and we to it. Of these activities, we do not ask what they are for; they are sufficient in themselves. The sum of such activities composers a culture: by engaging in them we constitute the human world, transforming it from a system of means to one of ends, from an unchosen destiny to an elected home. Play, as Schiller suggests, is a paradigm case; and its association with childhood reminds us of the essential exhilaration and innocence that attend all ’disinterested’ interest. If work becomes play—so that the worker is fulfilled in his work, as I am in writing this book—then work ceases to be drudgery and becomes instead the ’restoration of man to himself’...
     In order to understand such activities as play, conversation, or dancing, we must distinguish purpose from function. A sociobiologist will insist that play has a function: it is the safest way to explore the world, and to prepare the mind and body for the serious trials of later life. But its function is not its purpose. The child plays because he wants to play: play is its own purpose. Indeed, if you make the function into a purpose—playing for the sake of learning, say—then you cease to play. You are now, in Schiller’s words, ’merely in earnest’. Likewise, the urgent man who converses in order to gain or impart some piece of information, to elicit sympathy, or to tell his story, has ceased to converse.
     This distinction between function and purpose is most clearly shown by the core fact of every human culture, which is friendship... Friendship has a function: it binds people together, making communities strong and durable; it brings advantages to those who are joined by it, and fortifies them in all their enterprises. But make those advantages into your purpose and friendship is gone. Friendship is a means to advantage, but only when not treated as a means. The same is true of everything worth while: love, learning, sport, and art itself. Meaning lies in intrinsic value; we possess it by finding the thing that interests us for its own sake; and such an interest must be disinterested, in the manner of every activity where we are not ’merely in earnest.’ At the same time, intrinsic value, and the pursuit of it, are means to the highest human end: namely happiness—that elusive but abundant thing which we obtain only so long as we do not pursue it.

     —Roger Scruton, The Aesthetics of Music, pp.457–58

Scruton goes on through the remainder of this fascinating chapter to describe the similarities and differences between aesthetic and religious experience.

This passage was exactly what I needed to hear. I realized that music composition for me had becomes solely a means to other ends. It became a means to developing a strong technique and compositional facility, to finding a personal voice, to building a composition portfolio so that I could get a job, it became a means even to the end of getting a performance. I had no longer treated the act of creative composition itself as an end, as a thing to be enjoyed in and of itself. It had therefore lost its intrinsic value. And once composition became a means to another end, the burden was put on that end to justify the very act of composition. The dissatisfaction with my compositional output during this time meant that composing was a complete waste of time.

In contrast to the sharp disappointment with my compositions for the concert hall, I was receiving a surprising amount of satisfaction arranging short hymn introductions on weekend for church services. Here is one such arrangement:

(PLAY AT PIANO: Hymn Arrangement of "Holy Ghost Dispel Our Sadness" (Tune: COBLENTZ))

I found solace in these simple arrangements of my favorite hymn tunes. They provided the perfect foil against the cerebral, academic exercises of my compositional activity for school, and the fact that these arrangements had a function as prelude music intended for the edification of the church body so contrasted with the self–aggrandizement that my other seemingly functionless compositions fell into. After all, I was fulfilling a biblical mandate by writing a new composition or arrangement for the church. We are commanded in the Psalms to "Sing a new song unto the Lord," and "Play skillfully." (Psalm 33)

However, while the satisfaction of composing these little arrangements kept me going as a composer and provided a needed creative outlet that was rewarding, I had concerns.

My first concern related to my devotion towards applying my art toward music of the church: Was I shirking my responsibility as a Christian artist in the area of church music by not devoting enough time and attention to it? In contrast to the amount of time and work I spent composing pieces like Downward Courses, I penned my little arrangements in one, maybe two ours on Saturday evenings. The time I spent with my arrangements did not even constitute anything close to a "tithe" of my time spent toward other artistic endeavors.

But even more concerning was the overall contrast of these two realms of my little sacred arrangements and my concert music. The two musics couldn’t be more different! After 4 years of graduate composition studies in secular institutions, I had not been encouraged to make links between music and faith and took no initiative to do so. My artistic life had become highly disintegrated, which according to writers like Wendell Berry meant that my life as a composer bore an unfortunate trait that pervasively characterizes our current day. In the forward to Brian Keeble’s book God and Work: Aspects of Art and Tradition, Berry states:

  That we are living through a time of disintegration is a fact by now merely obvious to anybody who is paying attention. T.S. Eliot famously described this disintegration as a ’dissociation of sensibility’—a radical connection between thinking and feeling, mind and heart. William Butler Yeats noted simply that "Things fall apart." William Carlos Williams thought the modern age was characterized by ’divorce.’ He meant the coming apart, not just of marriage, but of all other things that ought to hold together and that might be held together by a vital language of art, a local imagination rising from the ground underfoot."
     —Wendell Berry, forward to God and Work: Aspects of Art and Tradition by Brian Keeble

More on Berry later.

Now this is not to say that my music for church should sound like my concert music or vice versa. Far from it! One of the most important responsibilities for the artist is understanding the appropriateness of the occasion for which a art is being made. Music for the concert hall is intended primarily for aesthetic contemplation, while music in church is meant primarily to facilitate participatory, liturgical action. This distinction was made clear by John Calvin in the preface to his 1545 Psalter:

  Touching the melody, it has seemed best that it be moderated in the manner we have adopted to carry the weight and majesty appropriate to the subject, and even to be proper for singing in the Church... Care must always be taken that the song be neither light nor frivolous; but that it have weight and majesty (as St. Augustine says) and also that there be a great difference between music which one makes to entertain men at table and in their homes, and the Psalms which are sung in the Church in the presence of God and his angels.

So it was therefore natural that my church music and concert music sounded differently. But the discrepancy of these two realms, I knew, resulted from a highly dis–integrated approach to my composing. My sacred arrangements were "for God." My concert music had become 100% secular.


So how does a Christian composer integrate in practice these two realms of music for church and music for the concert stage? How does the artist integrate in practice her art and her faith? What does that, what should that, look like? These were the questions I began to ask then (and still ask today, for that matter). Thankfully, in God’s providence, we have been provided with some excellent models throughout the history of music.

One such model is the twentieth–century French composer Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992). In addition to holding a post at the Paris Conservatory, he was organist of the Church of the Holy Trinity from 1931 (age 23) to his death in 1992 (age 83)—a 61–year tenure! Messiaen became famous for teaching some of the most important 20th century composers in his class on harmony at the conservatory, including Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen. He became just as famous for his organ postlude improvisations at church. Fellow composers would often drop by Holy Trinity Church to hear Messiaen play for the parishioners. American composer Aaron Copland wrote in his diary in 1949:

  Visited Messiaen in the organ loft at the Holy Trinity. Heard him improvise at noon. Everything from the ’devil’ in the bass, to Radio City Music Hall harmonies in the treble. Why the Church allows it during service is a mystery.
     —Quoted in The Rest is Noise, by Alex Ross

(LISTEN: Livre Du Saint Sacrement X, "The Resurrection of Christ")

While many would consider this music to be a contravention of the principle of appropriateness described in Calvin’s Psalter preface, what is clear is that Messiaen drew no division between his output of church music and concert music. Vocationally, he worked in two separate worlds of the Conservatory and the Church, but his compositional output was not bifurcated into clearly–defined sacred and secular styles. The fact that he considered his non-church music to be no less informed by his faith than his church music is evident in the titles of some of his concert works: The Ascension for orchestra; Twenty Gazes of the Christ–child for piano; Visions of the Amen for two pianos. He even wrote a monumental opera on the life of St. Francis of Assisi. His 61–year tenure as organist at Holy Trinity was interrupted briefly by World War II, during which he was captured at Verdun and imprisoned. During his year–long stay at Stalag VIII–A, he composed his Quartet for the End of Time for clarinet, violin, cello and piano (those instruments available to him), the fifth movement of which is entitled "Praise to the Eternity of Christ." The "end of time" here in the title has multiple meanings. Its apocalyptic vision is expressed in Messiaen’s quotation of Revelation in the preface of the score:

  I saw a mighty angel descending from heaven, clad in mist, having around his head a rainbow. His face was like the sun, his feet like pillars of fire. He placed his right foot on the sea, his left on the earth, and standing thus on the sea and the earth he lifted his hand toward heaven and swore by Him who liveth for ever and ever, saying: ’There shall be time no longer, but at the day of the trumpet of the seventh angel the mystery of God shall be consummated.’
     —Revelation 10:1–2, 5–7

Messiaen’s contemplation of the end times is understandable given his and the world’s circumstances in 1941, the year in which the piece was written. But the "end of time" also has a musical meaning. With the two world wars bringing to a half any idea of optimistic progress, composers simultaneously began questioning the notion of musical progress. They began composing music that is bent on transcending its temporality. Let’s hear the first movement of Messiaen’s quartet in which you will hear a certain temporal suspension without any sense of "arrival" or "progress." "Time is no longer." You will also hear the violin bird calls for which Messiaen became famous.

(LISTEN: Quartet for the End of Time, 1. Liturgy of the Crystal")

I saw another example of integration in Max Reger, a German composer whose Wagner–influenced music is often seen as the link between Brahmsian late Romanticism and Schoenberg’s atonal or anti–tonal musical language. Reger was very comfortable letting the chromaticism inherited from Wagner meld with his enthusiasm for chorale settings, which he inherited from his German ancestor Bach. One such result was his collection of Twelve Spiritual Songs, Op.137. In this song, we hear a perfect blending of Bachian counterpoint with wonderfully unpredictable harmonic twists and cadences. Listen for the wonderful painting of "that dark land" in the chorale I am about to play. We hear a g–flat minor to C major cadence, two chords whose roots are a tritone apart.

(PLAY AT PIANO: Twelve Spiritual Songs, Op.137, No.2)

Perhaps the best example of true integration of composition and faith is Johann Sebastian Bach, who appended his works, both sacred and secular, with the initials S.D.G., soli Deo Gloria. Much has been written on the sacredness of Bach’s compositional output, including entire books such as Jaroslav Pelikan’s 1986 book Bach Among the Theologians. With Bach, we get perfect integration: in our experience of playing and listening to his music, we get a unique balance in the exercise of both the intellect and the emotions, the mind and heart. In his sacred works, we get a perfect balance of intense aesthetic experience and a vehicle for liturgical participation. In a discussion of the distinction between liturgical art and art intended for aesthetic contemplation, the same distinction Calvin made in his Psalter preface, Nicholas Wolterstorff comments on this exceptional balance in Bach’s cantatas:

  Liturgical art, much of it participatory in character, is the art of a community, at the service of its liturgical actions and not at the service of aesthetic contemplation. For the purposes of aesthetic contemplation, much of it–maybe most of it–is inferior to a great many other works available in our culture. When it is not, its aesthetic magnificence tends to distract us from the liturgy. BachŐs cantatas are a great exception, superb both aesthetically and liturgically. But concerning these we must be reminded that listening to them aesthetically is very different from listening to them in such a way that the choir sings to God on one’s own behalf. Our great twentieth–century composers have produced a good deal of religious music. Of liturgical music, they have produced almost nothing.
     —Nicholas Wolterstorff, Art in Action, p.88

Let us listen to the opening of a Bach cantata. This is Cantata #39, written for the First Sunday after Trinity in the liturgical year. The text is about breaking bread with the hungry.

(LISTEN: J.S. Bach, Cantata No.39, "Brich dem Hungrigen dein Brod" BWV39)

The way in which the music pleads and admonishes us to serve our neighbor is so evident. It makes me truly want to take action. Bach, of course, was thoroughly Lutheran, and thankfully so. For Luther, music had strong catechetical potential and he famously remarked that, "I place music next to theology. Satan hates music: he knows how it drives the evil spirit out of us." Music itself can provide a powerful metaphor for those how pay attention. The way in which a fugue involves multiples parts while retaining their individuality unite to create something more than the sums of its parts has Trinitarian resemblances. Bonhoeffer, another Lutheran, was one who paid attention. While serving in a World War II concentration camp, he wrote these words about polyphony and counterpoint to his friend Eberhard Bethge:

  Where the cantus firmus (the principle voice upon which counterpoint or polyphony is built) is clear and plain, the counterpoint can be developed to its limits. The two are ’undivided and yet distinct’, in the words of the Chalcedonian Definition, like Christ in his divine and human natures. May not the attraction and importance of polyphony in music consist in its being a musical reflection of this Christological fact and therefore our vita Christiana? ... Only a polyphony of this kind can give life a wholeness and at the same time assure us that nothing calamitous can happen as long as the cantus firmus is kept going.
     —Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, p.303

So we are provided with models of true integration of artistic life. This was and is a comfort to me. So when I was concerned by the obvious bifurcation of my artistic life, I began exploring ways of bridging the gap.

I began trying to incorporate into my sacred arrangements some of the compositional techniques I was employing in my concert music. Here is one such result. I took the pointillistic texture of works like Downward Courses and applied it here.

(PLAY AT THE PIANO: Arrangement of "The God of Abraham Praise" (Tune: LEONI))

Obviously the two pieces are still very different. I still wanted my hymn arrangement to be appropriate to its function. But the conscious effort to apply techniques from my concert music was something I felt I needed to do.

Now a few more words about Downward Courses. This was the first piece I composed after my dissertation in 2006, and it has been one of my most successful in terms of number of performances. The title of this piece came from a poem by Wendell Berry—who was mentioned earlier—entitled, "The Law that Marries All Things."

The cloud is free only
to go with the wind.

The rain is free
only in falling.

The water is free only
in its gathering together,

in its downward courses,
in its rising into air.

In law is rest
if you love the law,
if you enter, singing, into it
as water in its descent.

Or song is truest law,
and you must enter singing;
it has no other entrace.

it is the great chorus of parts. The only outlawry
is in division.

Whatever is singing
is found, awaiting the return
of whatever is lost.

Meet us in the air
over the water,
sing the swallows.

Meet me, meet me,
the redbird sings,
here here here here.

I love this poem! It speaks of the "outlawry of division," reminding us of the disintegration we heard him discuss in the preface to Keeble’s book. The fact that berry, like Scruton, is an agrarian is pervasively expressed in his writings. His poems are very earthy and reflect a deep contemplation of earthly things. In this poem we read of clouds, rain, water, air, and birds. It was messages from Berry and others like him who look for traces of redemption in the world around them that helped pull me through my difficult times as an artist. For Berry, law (whether natural or biblical) is not something to be loathed. Rather, it is a gift. It is something that helps identify us. It is something that binds us together. Ironically, it is something in which we find our freedom and rest. It is something that demonstrates the care of the Law Giver, something in which we can rest and play, or, to borrow language from the Apostle Paul, something in which we can "live and move and have our being" (Acts 17:28). In my composition, I was trying to show that even in the strictest of rhythmic laws, there is great freedom. Law does not stifle, but gives life.


Now you may be asking how all this relates to work since the Day of Learning topic is "faith at work." Scruton had characterized work as a means of making money. What does art have to do with work anyway? Isn’t art really the opposite of work in many ways? Isn’t it closer to play?

I will admit, when I first heart about this year’s DOL topic, I wasn’t very excited. But when told that the arts were not well represented in the workshops, I was coaxed into presenting. I began brainstorming about the idea of work and how it relates to music, and things began making sense. We study musical works in music history class. We analyze and compose musical works in music theory class. We participate in musical works through practice, rehearsal and performance. And all of these endeavors take a considerable amount of work.

We often get the idea that notes comes to composers, images to painters, words to poets through some divine inspiration. In actuality, these things come mostly through toil. I would estimate that I spent approximately 80 hours composing Downward Courses, a 7.5 minute piece for one instrument. If you factor in the cost of materials I used in composing the piece and the cost of printing scores for various performers, I worked on that piece for something like –$.15/hour. Thankfully, I didn’t treat the composing of Downward Courses as a means for making money!

Here’s another thought about art and work. Perhaps one of my problems during my difficult period was falling into the trap of thinking about art work purely as an object rather than an activity. Ever since the advent of the concert hall, the museum of musical masterpieces, at the turn of the 19th century (think Beethoven here), we began thinking of musical works as untouchable artifacts, as things, created for the purpose of undistracted contemplation. Prior to this time, music was seen more as an activity that invited participation rather than contemplation. This is not necessarily to say that contemplation isn’t participating, but there is a distinction.

Such an emphasis on the activity of art rather than objects of art is the fundamental principle behind Nicholas Wolterstorff’s book Art in Action. In the preface of the book, he quotes British Anglican philosopher J.R. Lucas:

  If we, as theists, belive that the universe is fundamentally personal in character, it follows that our ultimate understanding will not be in terms of things, which occupy space and may or may not possess certain properties, but of persons, who characteristically do things. Actions, not substance, will be our most important category of thought. It is a truth too long neglected by philosophers.
     —J.R. Lucas, Freedom and Grace, p.111

For Wolterstorff, as for Scruton and Berry, art–making is an earthy activity. Rather than serving as a vehicle for escaping and transcending the messy world around us, art–making and art–participating implicates our creatureliness, even our fallenness. Wolterstorff writes:

  [T]here are those who perceive the message of the Christian gospel as the message of escape from our creaturely, earthly existence. Naturally, in such a view of art will be seen in a radically different light from that in which I have placed it. But such a view can make no sense of those factors in the Christian confession to which I have been calling attention. The Kingdom of God is not escape from our earthly condition; it is that state in which men acknowledge God’s sovereignty and carry out their creaturely responsibilities. Such a state is not merely the restoration of some Edenic situation; for what has taken place in history will play its constructive role in the character of life in the Kingdom. Rather it is the renewal of human existence, so that man’s creaturely vocation and fulfillment may be attained, already now and in the future.
     This acknowledging God at work in human redemption does not compromise our contention that art is an indispensible instrument in the fulfillment of our responsibilities and a crucial component in the shalom for which men and women were made. Rather, since we are now called to be GodŐs agents in His cause of renewal, of whose ultimate success He has assured us, art now gains new significance. Art can serve as instrument in our struggle to overcome the fallenness of our existence, while also, in the delight which it affords, anticipating the shalom which awaits us.
     The artist is placed on the stage of existence by God, there to do his or her work of making and selecting so as to bring forth something of benefit and delight to other human beings, something in acknowledgement of God.

     —Nicholas Wolterstorff, Art in Action, p.91

As an artist, I get excited when I read statements like these. Such an attitude runs diametrically opposed to the view of composition as a futile exercise in self–aggrandizement. For Wolterstorff, not only is our art–making and art–participation not futile, they are "indispensable" and "crucial" in the participation of reconciliation and renewal in creation. For Wolterstorff, art–making is part of the fulfillment of the biblical mandate for us to master and subdue the world around us—to take it, to order it, to eliminate its unruliness. This is man’s vocational charge, and the artist plays an essential role by bringing forth order for human benefit and divine honor.

Working as an artist whose vocational charge is to bring forth order in this earthy world therefore means becoming intimate with his or her material. It means loving and respecting the material. It means coming into dialogue with the material. Again Wolterstorff:

  This fascinating, mysterious, frustrating, exhilarating experience of being led along in conversation with one’s material is an experience that turns up in all the arts... If one is genuinely willing to hold conversation with one’s material and not determined, come what may, to wrest it into shape, then to set about creating a work of art is to be willing, with apprehensive anticipation, to be let along in conversation to destinations unknown.
     —Nicholas Wolterstorff, Art in Action, p.95

So, after reading writers like Scruton, Berry and Wolterstorff, I realized that if I simply reminded myself to enjoy the activity of being creative, the act of composing, as an end in itself, as an act of practicing the creativity given be the God in whose image I have been created, then the experience can be hugely rewarding and can prevent music from becoming solely a means to other ends. Such an activity also rescues the enterprise of music composition from the entrapment of self-aggrandizement. Furthermore, as I continue to explore ways of truly integrating my approach to composition of both church music and music for the concert hall, it is my hope that I am able to participate in the renewal of the world around me, to benefit and delight others by inviting their participation, and in turn participating in the art being made around me. Art-working is indeed an "indispensible instrument in the fulfillment of our responsibilities in the shalom for which men and women were made."

Fast-forward from the 2004–05 academic year to late 2006. A friend and fellow student Michelle Crouch approached me with an idea of a collaborative project. As a soprano, she asked if I was interested in setting portions of The Confessions of Saint Augustine, a work that she had a great love for. This was just the kind of project I needed, so I jumped at the chance.

To end, I would like to play for you the final movement of my Confessions of Saint Augustine. First I will read the text that appears at the piece&38217;s end. Notice the beautiful way in which all five senses are implicated in the act of worship:

  You called and cried out loud and shattered my deafness. You were radiant and resplendent, you put to flight my blindness. You were fragrant, and I drew in my breath and now pant after you. I tasted you, and I feel but hunger and thirst for you. You touched me and I am set on fire to attain the peace which is yours.
     —St. Augustine, Confessions (trans. Henry Chadwick)

(LISTEN: Confessions of Saint Augustine, movement 3)