Sunday, March 05, 2006

God's Call, Part III

The last time I posted on this topic, I described an intellectual conversion to Christ. What I left out was the affective conversion, which I will attempt to describe succinctly today.

I come from a musical family. My parents met in the music department of St. Norbert College and from an early age I sang and played the piano. I later took up trombone, guitar and flute. In junior high and high school I began to take more of an interest in rock music, though my parents had me listening to more classical and big band/jazz. In particular, I gravitated toward 'art rock' as we called it then: the Beatles, (early) Chicago, Yes, King Crimson, the Moody Blues, Jethro Tull: particularly the music from around 1967-1973.

My sophomore year, I met a like-minded drummer by the name of Jon Elfner. When he found out that I wrote my own music, we started practicing our own songs together and by senior year we had a regular band, "Melodia." Our goal was, as best as we could put it then, to develop a style of rock music with a conscience. This in itself is not very unusual. What were perhaps novel in our conception were two foci: first, that the music was primarily about personal morality (including chastity!) rather than politically motivated; second, we felt that right living required right thinking and creative thinking, and this was reflected in the often very complicated arrangements we thought up. Example: we won the senior year talent show with an eight-minute long song that featured all kinds of tempo changes and adventurous instrumention.

Jon and I were the only members of the band who continued to work together through college. Our plan was to have a liberal arts background before we began the band in earnest. We felt that this well-roundedness was important; but we also decided, interestingly, that we would start the band immediately after college and set specific goals on a specific time frame. We both assumed that we would each get married either once the band broke up or once it had been succesful enough to support family life. And we didn't want to put that off forever.

Meanwhile, in college, I met other musicians and played in other bands. My life took an unexpected turn, however, during the first week of orientation. As I was wandering about the performing arts displays, a young man in sunglasses asked me to audition for the choir. I had never thought of myself as much of a singer (I tended to sing more out of necessity, since our songs were tricky). But for some odd reason, I agreed.

The choral program at the University of Chicago was run by Mr. Bruce Tammen in those days (he now has his own independent group, the Chicago Chorale). In addition to being an excellent musician and teacher, he had a fondness for Renaissance polyphony: composers such as Palestrina, Victoria and Josquin. I had never encountered anything like this in my life. I was particularly captivated by the idea of a spirituality such as one encounters in the pre-Tridentine piety of Josquin's texts: "To love another would be sheer folly;" "You, who alone work marvels, hear now our sighing, O Kind King," etc. The sounds of this era in Catholic music probably did more to convince me of the truth of the Faith than anything.

I mentioned in my previous post on this topic that by my senior year I was convinced of the truth of Catholicism. Like many young persons, however, this didn't immediately translate into practicing the Faith, much less joining a monastery. God had one more chapter to write, and I will endeavor to share that with my faithful readers in the near future: "From Schuba's on Saturday Night to the Cloister on Sunday Morning."


Anonymous said...

Very nice. Thank you for your testimony! I admire your spirited, musical adventurousness during high school. How unusual to do music around the theme of personal morality. It reminds me of what Kerry Livgren wrote about his formative years. He searched for truth through his music. Sounds like you were doing the same.

Prior Peter, OSB said...

I hadn't mentioned it, but I was also a big fan of Kansas and Livgren in those days. I've read his autobiography and performed "Carry on Wayward Son" and "Song for America." His arrangements are really admirable and so is his earnestness in seeking God. Their approach really had a big impact on me, including the decision to recruit a violin into the post-college ensemble.

Another band that I followed closely in those days (early 80's) because of their Christian leanings was U2. I am one of those apparently rare persons who thinks that "The Joshua Tree" was the beginning of their decline. "War" (also featuring a violin) remains one of my favorite albums of all time, especially the song "40" (=Psalm 40). But their musicianship can't stand up to Livgren and co.

Anonymous said...

True. I heard that the U2 guys still study their instruments, which I take to mean lessons, etc. Could've fooled me. But they do have a unique sound, and that's almost as elusive as chops.

What was the attraction for you with Crimson? Great music, but dark & cynical lyrics abound.

Prior Peter, OSB said...

Good question about King Crimson. When I first became interested in them, I was a bit naive about the lyrical content. In some cases, they do reflect the reigning angst of postmodern man, and in that sense are perhaps redeemable (Henri Nouwen actually quotes "Epitaph" and "I Talk to the Wind" in his book "The Wounded Healer.")

But the main attraction was always the musicianship along with Robert Fripp's reflections on music as a discipline, that brought to appreciate them. I lost interest in them almost immediately after seeing them live. I felt that the performance was rather self-involved and self-conscious. I had the same reaction to Phish. Hearing their first three albums, I was impressed in many ways, but I found their live show overly reliant on endless noodly jams. On this point, I was clearly at odds with the general audience, who seemed to find these the best parts.

The disappointing thing for me in both of these bands is that their intellectual interest is not integrated well into their overall message. In that way, I would consider U2 the better overall band, at least what I knew of them before I entered monastic discernment ten years ago.

Thanks for the great comments!


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If I, who seem to be your right hand and am called Presbyter and seem to
preach the Word of God, If I do something against the discipline of the Church
and the Rule of the Gospel so that I become a scandal to you, The Church, then
may the whole Church, in unanimous resolve, cut me, its right hand, off, and
throw me away.

Origen of Alexandria
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