Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Beautiful Bones

I am a words girl.  I love language -- especially the English language with all of its twists and turns and inconsistencies and unexpected beauties.  So, when I first heard Carolyn's music, 'twas the lyrics that captivated me.  What was she saying in these songs?  Oooh, she's saying good stuff.  OK, I'll keep listening.

I'll never forget the first time I heard "What I Wouldn't Give."  I thought it was so masterly in the use of language -- breaking down what have become cliches and building them back up into a seamless whole of light-hearted regret.  "Light-hearted regret" is the best way to describe the overall sense of the song.  I mean, it is about regret, but not really about heartache; there is no real bitterness there.  And the music is so sprightly and catchy, you cannot feel bad, no matter what the lyrics say.  For years I wondered about this song.  What did it mean?  Where did it come from?  How could Carolyn write a humorous treatment of lost love when she was so obviously deliriously happy in her marriage.  And,what in the world did Mark think about this?

Of course, I found out later that the "love angle" was contrived to make the song readily accessible in the mind of the listener and that the real inspiration for the lyrics were Carolyn's college years -- her light-hearted regret that she spent so much time sneaking off into the music rooms and playing and writing songs, rather than fully absorbing the content of her courses.  Ah, now the lack of bitterness makes sense:  Can she really regret her topsy-turvy university priorities?  I cannot think that she can; but she can think that she can; and so we get this song -- the most playful, rueful song about missed opportunities ever written. 

So, I am a words girl and not a music girl.  Seven years of taking piano lessons and filling in endless books of music theory did little to inspire me toward a broad understanding of music.  I even got conned into taking a music course my freshman year of college and hated it with purple passion.  Lass mich allein!  I am an English major!  Back to "Bartleby the Scrivener" for me! 

Twelve years ago, after I had just lost my mother to cancer, my dad gave me a guitar.  I had apparently once expressed a fleeting wish that I could play guitar like Amy Grant; so, my dad seized upon that whimsy and bartered with an old hippie who ran the local music store a hearing aid (my dad was an audiologist) for a lovely acoustic instrument.  My dad is the type of dad who does things like this.  I am so blessed to have him.

My dad is also the sort of person who sees music as one of life's greatest gifts -- able to be exactly what you need at specifically the right time.  He instinctively thought, I am sure, that my great grief over losing my mom would be assuaged a bit by bringing music into my life.  And by music, I mean the active creation of music, rather than the more passive (though still valuable) experience of listening.  I thanked him for the instrument, strummed a few times, sighed, and put it away.

Over the ensuing twelve years, I would occasionally bring out my guitar, try to tune it, break some strings, scream, and shove it back into the closet.  Two years ago, while I was cleaning out the same in preparation for a garage sale, I threw the guitar into the OUT pile.  My husband, bless him, took it out and put it back into the closet.  "You're not getting rid of your guitar," he announced.

"I'm never going to learn how to play it," I countered, the holy fire of spring cleaning burning in my eyes.  "Every time I try to tune it, I break a string, and that scares me to death."

"You're not getting rid of it," he repeated in a tone that brooks no contradiction.  I meekly let it stay.

Fast forward to January 2011.  I am the pre-K-K worship leader at church.  Ask me not how I fell into this mare's nest of talent incompatibility.  I sing (occasionally on key) and dance around like a monkey with the children to music on a CD player.  Here's the trouble:  I am an alto of epic distortions.  Think Ashley Cleveland with a cigarette habit.  And most CDs of kids' songs are registered in an incredibly high, piping pitch.  And it is almost impossible for me to sing in my own register while hearing wiry sopranos all around.  So I squeak and crack like an old rusty chair, and the kids shudder in revulsion.  I dance even harder like a monkey to distract them.  All in all, it's a losing proposition.  But, nobody else will take this worship gig.  Oy.

So, think I, what if I just learned to play some of these songs on guitar?  Then, I could sing as low as I pleased, and no one could stop me.  Ha! Ha!  But, how, I wondered, was I to even learn how to play this mysterious stringed contraption?

I went on-line and found a music school (4/4 School of Music) that offered a roster of classes in a wide variety of instruments.  Deciding that it was time to introduce Sadie to the rigors of piano lessons ("I don't wanna take piano, Mom!") and longing to learn some guitar, I signed us up for concurrent lessons with two different teachers.  She got Ms. Marks.  I got Isaac.  Let me tell you:  We sat ourselves down in a warm tub of butter.

Says Sadie now:  "I love piano, Mom!  When do I get to go see Ms. Marks again?"  Say I:  "I love guitar.  Thank you, Isaac."  And this gets me to the whole reason I felt moved to sit and write this meandering post today.  I have recently finally begun to understand what more musically-inclined people have always known:  Carolyn's songs have beautiful bones.  The muscle and meat may be her astounding lyrics.  The supple skin may be her pleasant voice.  But, strip those away, and her songs are lovely right down to their strong, structured skeletons.  I know this now, because Isaac and I have been dissecting "I Can Hear You."  And it is beautiful.

Even Isaac (who is a truly remarkable, dedicated teacher and one from whom you ought to take lessons should you ever find yourself in need of drum or guitar instruction in the greater Bellevue/Renton region of Washington), whose musical tastes, from what I can gather, run more toward Pink Floyd and not so much the arena of folkie Christian pop really likes "I Can Hear You."  He said, and I quote, "This is a really good song.  Thank you for introducing me to it."  Hey, man, no prob.  Introducing people to Carolyn's music is what I do. 

Anyway, a big and unexpected boon in trying to learn this song is the backing track I was able to get from Feed the Lake.  Unlike most of the backing tracks (or, at least the one I got for "Not a Tame Lion"), the one for "I Can Hear You" is only the music, no background vocals.  So, I can really hear the chords that Isaac has me working on.  It is such a help.  Of course, I still sing along, but now my lyrics are: D-and-D-and-D-and-D-and-D-and-D-and-D-and-D-and-D-and-D-and-switch to G-and-G-and-G-and-G-and-G-D riff-D riff-D riff-and-back to D . . . etc."  Helps me remember when it's just me and my class notes and my beloved guitar alone at night in the living room.  Helps me gain some confidence.

Have you printed up the Love Was Here First Songbook from the LWHF CD?  I just did.  More beautiful bones to discover.  I can hardly wait!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Fingers, Fingers, Stubby Fingers

I am coming to terms with the fact that I have very stubby fingers.  OK, maybe not very stubby; but, a long line of peasant ancestors has imbued me with very strong, very capable, rather compact fingers.  Great for kneading bread dough and scrubbing bathrooms.  Not so great for fingering guitar chords.

I think I've finally competenced Dmaj, by the way.  "Competenced" is a word I have coined to be somewhere between "bumbled" and "mastered."  Now, according to the Feel Free songbook, I only need 584 other chords in my repertoire to play all the songs therein.

So, as I was lamenting my cruel genetic lot on the phone with my dad, he said, "Hey, how about Carolyn's fingers?  Have you ever put your hand up to hers to see how they measure up?"

OK, Dad, totally creepy.  Can you even imagine how that interaction would play out?  Neither can I; but, I'm not about to try it. 

But, it got me searching the Internet to try to find good pics of the Mighty C's hands.  Not easy, I tell ya.  Then, I realized that the best picture I've seen of her fully extended hand is on this very site, to your right. 

So, what do you think?  They seem longish to me, but not overly long.  Of course, that's her strumming and picking hand; but, I'm assuming the chord-fingering one roughly matches.

I've been on web forums, looking up advice for my stubby digits.  It seems that the only answer is practice, practice, practice.  So, I'm off to do that right now!  Peace!

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

"Ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem" -- The "Fitful Glimpses" of Arends and Newman

"Never was a mind so unceasingly in motion.  But the motion was always growth, and never revolution."
~ Owen Chadwick on John Henry Newman

I am in no sense a theological scholar.  Heck, I don't even read theological tomes unless someone is able to convince me that I'd better.  I never seek them out. 

So, it's a good thing that I read publications that publish essays and reviews by people who are theological scholars, and who write well and convincingly about theological things.  Else, I would be even more of an ignoramus than I am.  Hurrah!

Anyway, this disclaimer only goes to introduce a budding idea that came over me while I was reading Paul Dean's fascinating more-than-a-book-review/biographical essay on John Henry Newman, "Newman's Worldwide Mind," in this month's issue of The New Criterion.  I read everything they put into TNC, because I know it will be edifying -- even if rather mystifying. 

John Henry Newman, in case you do not know, as I did not before I read Mr. Dean's essay, was a 19th century British Anglican clergyman who converted to the Roman Catholic faith.  He was a famous and popular scholar and writer, publishing, among others, still-read classics (I'll take the word of the consensus on these, having read nary a one) Apologia Pro Vita Sua, A Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, and The Idea of a University.*  He was eventually made a cardinal in the Catholic church by Pope Leo XIII; and he was beatified last year by Pope Benedict XVI.

Mr. Dean's piece is, in a large part, a biography of the method of Newman's mind; in particular, the way in which he would revisit and reassess ideas in his writing, each time clarifying and refining and polishing.  The quote above that Mr. Dean pulls out from Owen Chadwick's biography of Newman early in his article really struck me, because that is how I so often see Carolyn's writing -- whether in her songs or essays.  She revisits themes time and again -- each examination offering some new aspect or facet or thought; but, she, too, always seems to grow in her understanding, rather than turning all her previous notions upside down or discarding them.  The Carolyn Arends of Love Was Here First is the same Carolyn Arends of I Can Hear You -- just wiser, deeper, more studied, more complex.  

Be forewarned, casual listener:  Carolyn Arends may wrap her ideas in pleasant and catchy melodies and sing them with a sweet and yielding voice; but, they are powerful, potent, and challenging ideas all the same.  They will seep right through your conscious, into your subconscious, and shape your worldview almost before you know it.  But, take heart: you will grow, too; and, what is better, you will grow toward the Truth.

Newman called it "dogma."  And his use of "dogma" has little to do with the idea this modern time has falsely attributed to it, namely one of "blindly inflexible insistence."  Rather, as Mr. Dean continues, "[Newman] accepted dogma, not as a substitute for independent thought, but as the formulated expression of the mind of the church down the ages."  Under this definition, Newman saw dogma as something not only to be respected and accepted by the believer, but as something also to be thought upon and refined and contributed to by the believer in his own time. 

Now, here is where Newman's theology gets a little dicey for the Protestant believer.  Mr. Dean writes: "[F]ar from Christian doctrine being presented ready-made in the Bible, the church had the task of piecing together scriptural insights, reformulating its ideas more and more clearly as heresies demanded refutation, until, over the centuries, doctrines were agreed which were implied by scripture, and not contradictory to it, even though they might not be explicitly stated by it."  And yet, is this wholly troublesome?  I think we all have some extra-Biblical beliefs that, while they do not clash in any way with the truth revealed in the Bible, are in no way stated in our sacred texts.  It is an act of Christian discernment to prayerfully seek out the complementary things and discard the heretical ones.  And that is how you get a song from Carolyn like "According to Plan" -- a song that might upset Calvinists (aside: what a cheerless doctrine to me is pre-destination), but makes a lot of sense to non-Calvinists.  Is there anything in that song that clashes with the mind of God as revealed in the Bible?  No, but it might clash with your extra-Biblical worldview.  And, that's OK.  This is how we develop a communal Christian dogma -- listening, questioning, refining, arguing, praying, and loving Christ enough to put up with each other until all is revealed.

Mr. Dean goes on to write:  "Newman's own development was, as I suggested earlier, a miniature version of this process.  When he talked about the "idea" of something, he used the word almost in a Platonic sense, to denote not the mental conception of a thing but the thing itself in its totality, which the mind can only grasp by fitful glimpses. . . . 'The idea which represents and object or supposed object,' he wrote in the Essay on Development, 'is commensurate with the sum total of its possible aspects, however they may vary in the separate consciousness of individuals.' . . . Refining his ideas in response to attacks, objections, and genuine misunderstandings, he came to see a pattern in church history, a significance in church teaching, which had been latent all along, but which only became clear over many years.  He never supposed that he had come to the end of what was to be said about a question, since further definitions, modifications, and adjustments (but not fundamental contradictions) would be called forth by changing circumstances." [emphasis mine] 

And that is how we can get from Carolyn, years apart, songs such as "Seize the Day" and "This is the Moment," "Out of My Hands" and "Be Still," "Love is Always There" and "The Last Word."  If each truth about eternity is a diamond, then each thought is a facet.  Carolyn, as well as every other worthy Christian thinker, assiduously and tirelessly polishes -- defining, modifying, and adjusting.  Were we to ask her if she thinks she will ever come to the end of what was to be said about a question, I am sure she would answer "Not a chance."  This is the glory and grouse of a time-bound mortal grappling with eternity.  We'll never get a full handle on these mysteries until we have left time behind in the presence of our King.  But, it's our charge and life's work to try.

"Ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem."  That was the phrase Cardinal Newman requested on his memorial tablet.  Mr. Dean kindly translated it for us:  Out of the shadows and conjectures into the Truth.  This is a deserving creed for all Christians at all times; but, one especially fitting for my favorite songwriter who has never been afraid to wrestle with angels or try to make sense of the mess and mystery of life.  And she lets us come along for the ride!

*All available in sixty seconds or less on Kindle -- to whose charms I increasingly think I might have to succumb.